One to watch: University of Colorado regents elections

[dropcap]F[/dropcap]ew races better encapsulate the core themes of the 2014 Colorado election cycle, including Tea Party politics in education and the state’s rapidly shifting demographics, than the race to represent the Sixth Congressional District on the University of Colorado Board of Regents.

Courting the same electorate as Republican Congressman Mike Coffman and Democratic challenger Andrew Romanoff, regent candidates Naquetta Ricks (D) and John Carson (R) couldn’t come from further ends of the diverse spectrum of voters in Aurora. The winning candidate will join a nine-person board that manages a $3 billion budget — three times larger than the city of Denver’s. They’ll also have a say in who should be the next president of CU and decide how the cash-strapped system can sustain itself when just 5 percent of its funding comes from the state, putting Colorado at 48th in the nation in higher-education funding.

With all that on the table, the race is flying well below the radar — Ricks and Carson are running campaigns raising tens of thousands of dollars while their congressional counterparts have raised $4 million each. Its primary issue, however, is on just about everyone’s lips: In-state tuition in Colorado has become unaffordable.

[pullquote]The contest tracks with the tight congressional race in the 6th District… It’s more about how Colorado is changing and the corresponding need for change in representation.[/pullquote]

Carson and Ricks agree that the cost of tuition is too high, but their approaches to tackling the issue are about as distinct as their experience.

“I would bring a unique voice to the board,” said Ricks. “The voice of an immigrant, a single mom, a small-business owner. I’d bring all these voices for working and middle-class people who are looking for opportunity.”

Ricks attended public high school in Aurora and went on to Metropolitan State for an undergraduate degree in accounting followed by an MBA from the University of Colorado Denver Business School. She said her primary motivation in running for the board is to make sure the opportunities that shaped her life are still accessible to students today.

Noting her business experience, Ricks said some tuition money could probably be pulled from other areas of the budget. But ultimately, Ricks said cuts alone won’t cut it for students who are spending as much as $200,000 for a CU degree.

“We need to do better,” she said, noting that Colorado’s economy ranks high for growth and saying it’s time to publicly reinvest in higher education.

“There are some opportunities to be gained by earmarking a portion of a tax increase on our oil and gas industry for higher education,” said Ricks.

“When I went to CU, more like 60 percent of tuition was covered by the state, so of course tuition was lower in those days,” agreed Linda Shoemaker (D), who became interested in the board through her work reviving and modernizing CU-Boulder’s journalism program and is now running to be a regent out of the staunchly Democratic Second Congressional District in Boulder.

“I’ve met parents who’ve sent their kids to Wyoming or New Mexico,” Shoemaker added, noting that those states have an in-state-tuition exchange with Colorado. “In-state in Wyoming is only $4,000 plus cost of living.”

Ricks said lower in-state tuition rates in states such as Wyoming and New Mexico, which have higher severance taxes than Colorado, is creating problems for the state.

“We’re seeing some of Colorado’s best and brightest go to other states because we can’t offer a decent financial-aid package,” said Ricks.

Carson, Ricks’ opponent in CD 6, is the conservative former president of the Douglas County School Board. During his eight years on that education board, he advocated for expanded school choice through voucher programs and teacher pay-for-performance schemes. He attended CU-Boulder for his undergraduate and law degrees.

Carson also said the cost of tuition was his primary issue and promised he’d bring a strong backbone and the willingness to ask tough questions to a position on the board.

“Tuition has gone up 40 percent in the last five years,” said Carson. “The university has to do a much better job of controlling costs, reducing bureaucracy and asking faculty to increase teaching load. We’ve got to look at students as customers.”

Both candidates expect the race to track closely to the contest between Coffman and Romanoff — widely considered one of the closest congressional races in the nation. Once reliably red, the Sixth has rapidly evolved into a microcosm of Colorado politics with a skyrocketing Latino population and an electorate evenly divided among Democrats, Republicans and independent voters.

But Ricks says her candidacy is about more than whether Democrats can win in the Sixth; it’s about how Colorado is changing and the corresponding need for a change in representation.

“I would be the first person of African birth to be elected to office in Colorado,” said Ricks. “There’s a huge immigrant population in Aurora — 40,000 people from Ethiopia, and that’s not counting all the other African population living here. …People are looking at this race.”

Shoemaker said Ricks would bring a critical perspective to the board at a time when the student population its members are elected to serve is rapidly changing. This year, Shoemaker noted, more than half of the freshmen class at CU Denver is made up of minorities.

“What we used to consider the minority is now the majority,” said Shoemaker. “We need to make sure those students can come to the Boulder campus as well and feel welcome.”

Ricks’ election could also lead to other firsts for the board. Irene Griego, a Latina, is running for re-election out of Denver’s Seventh Congressional District. The nomination of Ricks, Griego and Shoemaker already marks the first all-female nomination from either party in the state, and if all three are all elected there will be a total of four women on the board, the most in state history. That election outcome would also produce the first Democratic majority on the board in some three decades.

Michael Carrigan, the most recent chairman of the board, said that by and large the regents aren’t very partisan — he points to his selection as Democratic chair by a Republican-controlled board as an example. Even so, Carrigan said the balance of power on the board does shape priorities, and he emphasized that because the board oversees the state’s third-largest employer, those priorities can have resounding impacts.

“It was a little more than 10 years ago when the Board of Regents made a very controversial decision to give same-sex-partner benefits,” Carrigan pointed out, noting that same-sex marriage just became legal in Colorado this fall on the wave of a rising tide of support for LGBTQ Coloradans.

Carrigan doesn’t foresee a massive partisan overhaul of the university system if Democrats take control of the board. But he did point to issues such as the recently passed ASSET bill granting in-state tuition to undocumented students, which the board did not weigh in on and could have.

The new board will also likely select CU President Bruce Benson’s successor.

“It will be important to find a visionary leader, that leader that can take CU to the next level,” said Ricks, adding that she thinks the university system could make some big changes and sees the board taking an active role in that evolution.

“CU could be more involved in the community,” said Ricks. “I’d like to see something like medical students staffing a community health clinic on the Colfax corridor. … How can we reach out, not be an island in the community but engage and add more value?”

[Photo excerpt of CU Boulder by Andrew Magill]


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