Class tensions key in Colorado’s must-watch state House race

House District 3 is divided between Republicans and Democrats, the rich and the poor. The candidates trying to win the June 28 primary for a shot at a state House seat are as politically and economically divided as the district itself.

Clarkson Street splits the district. East of Clarkson, wealthy Cherry Hills Village and Greenwood Village boast the Cherry Creek School District and exclusive private schools. West of Clarkson, in blue-collar neighborhoods, public schools in Englewood and Sheridan struggle to keep up.  

Republican Rick Gillit says to win the district, you have to win Englewood. He thinks he has a good chance because he’s the pro tem mayor of the city. Gill has lived in Englewood for 30 years – seven of which serving on city council. He has championed Englewood’s schools, which he calls a “disaster.”

The fix? Charter schools. He started Englewood’s first, Tri-City Academy, on the working-class side of Clarkson, which will open in the fall.

In his years on Englewood’s City Council, he has addressed marijuana and affordable-housing policy and says the experience of working on those issues will help him defeat Katy Brown, a Republican small-business owner from Cherry Hills Village who’s also hoping to be the GOP’s candidate.

No matter how much experience he has, Gillit is lagging behind in the money race. He has raised $3,000 compared to Brown’s $22,,000.

Neither Republican contender will come close to raising anything close to their Democratic counterparts. Democratic funders are flooding that party’s primary race with money — $200,000 before it’s over.

“I don’t have rich friends,” Gillit said, a jab at both Brown and the two Democrats in the race: Jeff Bridges and Meg Froelich, both of Greenwood Village.

“Blue collar [communities] deserve a well-run state just as much as Cherry Hills Village,” Gillit continued. “I sure would like to be a voice for Englewood and Sheridan.”

On abortion, Gillit is pro-life but also believes in exceptions for rape and cases in which the life of the mother is at risk.

“I don’t see a reason for both the woman and child to die,” he said.

On equal pay, he said, “We should all be paid equal for doing the same job.” The problem with some of the equal-pay legislation in the past, he said, is that it didn’t take into account differences in experience and background.

“I support the idea, but not the way past proposals have been written,” he said.

Gillit – whose son owns a Centennial gun store – opposes the 15-round limit on ammunition magazines. Before the 2013 law went into effect, he bought 50 high-capacity magazines. Like many Republicans, he’s against background checks on private transactions or gun transfers, another gun control measure passed in the 2013 session.  

When it comes to the most contentious issue of this year’s legislative session – the hospital provider fee – Gillit says he’s not up to speed on the topic. The fee is levied to hospitals based on the number of outpatient visits and overnight patient stays, matched with federal dollars and then redistributed to cover uninsured care and Medicaid costs. Some lawmakers want to change the law so that revenues from the fee can be exempted from constraints set out by the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights (TABOR) and be used to fund a wider array of state programs and projects.

As Gillit tells it, nobody he has spoken with in the district has ever brought it up.

“I’m a major supporter of the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights” and would prefer the fee stay as it is and not be reclassified as an enterprise, he said.

“We obviously need to repair roads and bridges,” Gillit added, lamenting the end of federal earmarks that once paid for these projects. “Once we lost the federal money, we have become in desperate need for repairs, and those repairs are beyond what we can afford.”

Gillit supports bonding for road and bridge repairs since the “beauty of it is that paying for bonds isn’t forever.”

His Republican opponent Katy Brown has lived in the district more than 10 years. She has served on the city council for Cherry Hills Village since 2012, and before that served on the city’s Parks, Trails and Recreation Commission.

Brown is the owner of Visionary Consulting, a web development firm geared toward the tourism industry. Her clients have included the Colorado Tourism Office and the Colorado Lottery. She was named a Denver Business Journal “40 Under 40” business leader in 2011.

Her target issues include the broadening access to good jobs and bolstering entrepreneurship. A pro-business environment requires strong transportation infrastructure, a skilled workforce and access to affordable housing, she says. Given her background in science (she has both a bachelor’s and master’s degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in computer science and media), she also believes strongly in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) opportunities and scholarships.

On the list of issues Brown says residents care about: education funding, immigration reform, marijuana’s impact on children, and tools for law enforcement.

Transportation infrastructure is critical to the health of our economy, Brown said. Colorado’s population is expected to grow by 50 percent within the next 20 years, and “we cannot support that population growth without investing” in roads and transit.

Brown thinks the difficulty with the hospital provider fee comes from how the money would be used. If that can be resolved, she would support reclassifying the fee to lift TABOR constraints. 

“It’s not a tax on everyday citizens,” she said. “I do think we have to make sure it’s not a blank check for larger government spending on programs that are not a priority.”

When it comes to gun control, Brown said, “I support the Constitution,” noting the Second Amendment language protecting the right to and bear arms shouldn’t be infringed upon. “People do have legitimate concerns about growing gun violence and public safety, but you can’t ignore the Constitution because it’s convenient.”

Brown says her district’s residents don’t bring up abortion. She is a Catholic and said she respects life in all of its forms.

“But the Supreme Court has ruled abortion is a constitutionally-protected right, and you can’t ignore it. I respect those who feel abortion is wrong, but passing laws at the state level cannot accomplish a solution to that issue,” she said.

Brown doesn’t support recent attempts by lawmakers to legislate pay equity. Those bills, she says, set up a new kind of glass ceiling and would keep women from achieving more.

“As a woman, I don’t want government negotiating on my behalf or capping what I can earn as a hard working dedicated employee. I can achieve more than a male counterpart,” she says.

“As a small business owner, I pay my employees commensurate with their contribution to the company, and business owners should have to do that,” she added. “People are not identical or interchangeable. Everyone has special skills and talents they bring to the table,” and business owners should be able to compensate people based on the value they bring to the business.

Brown speaks often about the economic diversity of the district.

“Everyone has their own paths in life,” she said. Hers started in Louisiana, in public schools, and she says she has bootstrapped her way to the Cherry Hills Village, one of Colorado’s most affluent communities. “Those are opportunities that I want everyone to have.”

Both Democrats in the primary live in Greenwood Village. Both have funding from some of the state’s biggest Democratic donors. Other than that, they have little in common.

Jeff Bridges is the son of Rutt Bridges and Barbara Bridges. Rutt Bridges, who developed software for the petroleum industry, is a multi-millionaire who was one of four Democrats who pumped millions into state House and Senate races in 2004, helping Democrats take control of the General Assembly for the first time in three decades.

Jeff Bridges, for his part, studied divinity for a master’s program at Harvard. His experience finding common values, he said, would influence his work as a lawmaker.

“It’s great training for the state House.”

Bridges had raised $89,000 through mid-May. About two-thirds of the top 100 donors to his campaign don’t live in the district. Contributors include current U.S. Rep. Jared Polis of Boulder, former U.S. Rep. John Salazar of Manassas and his brother, former Secretary of the Interior and U.S. Senator Ken Salazar. Bridges worked for both of the Salazars during their time in Congress.

He praises Ken Salazar’s work in the U.S. Senate –statesmanship he would like to emulate if elected.

“That guy made government work. He found common ground and brought people together,” he said. “We need people to work together to make government work. That’s not happening and that’s why I’m running.”

Bridges has had to fend off criticism from opponents that he hasn’t lived in the district for years. He filed for the House race a week after buying a condo in Greenwood Village.

“Values come from where you grow up, and I grew up in the district,” the Arapahoe High School graduate told The Colorado Independent. “This is my home. I grew up here. No one else in the race can say that,” he added. “Every kid dreams of growing up, spreading their wings and then coming back home.”

As he tells it, the important issues in the district include the economy and education.

“Colorado’s economy is doing very well, but it’s not being felt by everyone I talk to.” People are struggling all across the district, he said.

As for education, Bridges noted that the state funds public education on a per-pupil basis at about the same rate as Alabama – a record he called “shameful.”

“If we want the economy to keep going and growing, we need great public schools,” he said, adding that failing to fund public education threatens the state’s future economic prosperity.

Bridges said his Democratic neighbors complain about “how nasty and partisan and obstructionist governing has become.” “The nasty tone from Washington has seeped into Colorado,” he said, hampering the state’s tradition of people working together to make Colorado better. “We need to bring that back.”

He is a strong champion of abortion rights. “We have to continue to resist legislative efforts to roll back a woman’s right to choose” and to block government intrusion between a woman and her doctor, he said.

On gun control, Bridges opposes any efforts to roll back the 2013 legislation that capped ammunition magazines at 15 rounds and required background checks for gun transfers. He pointed out that his high school, Arapahoe High, had a shooting several years ago, and added that he had friends at Columbine during the 1999 massacre.

“My life has been personally touched by gun violence,” he said.

He notes that mass shootings aren’t the only aspect of the gun issue Coloradans need to worry about. Suicides and domestic violence are as, if not more, concerning. He agrees with Republicans when they talk about how ending gun violence requires addressing mental health issues. “That’s an opening to do more about improving mental health services,” Bridges said.

When it comes to the hospital provider fee, he said, “This is a simple accounting fix.” Every other fee that came into the budget since TABOR was passed hasn’t been included in the TABOR spending cap. The hospital provider fee shouldn’t be subject to TABOR restrictions, either, he said.

Another challenge presented by with TABOR is that it has made it impossible to fund transportation, and Bridges looks forward to seeing how that might be addressed on the November ballot. Crumbling roads and bridges hurt the state’s economy, especially when enjoying the mountains and open space is a major reason for why people live in Colorado, he said.

Bridges is a strong supporter of pay equity, including the measure proposed in the state House this session requiring state contractors meet equal pay standards. Every person should earn what he or she deserves, regardless of gender, race or sexual orientation, he said.

His primary opponent, Meg Froelich, is trailing Bridges in fundraising, with about $64,000 in contributions to date. Her donors include the Blueflower Fund, a state-based small donor committee that gives money to pro-choice Democratic women running for state office.

Froelich points with pride to the fact that her donors and many of those who endorse her are also district residents and voters.

“I don’t have the access to the high-level and big money folks” that Bridges has, she noted.

If she wins the primary, Froelich hopes the big donors currently committed to Bridges will support leading up to November’s general election.

In contrast to Bridges, she points out that she has not only lived in the district since 1999, but also has been involved in district issues for years – including having served two terms on the Greenwood Village City Council and working for state House and Senate lawmakers in the district.

But, as Bridges points out, Froelich left the district to live in California for several years. She moved to California in early 2007 while still on the city council, stepping down five months before the end of her second term. She stayed in California until at least 2011, according to her LinkedIn profile.

Froelich said she is committed to addressing the issues of working people in her district: equal pay and strong public education.

“All of my communities support public education. In that sense, we’re rolling in the same direction, and I can talk to a broad array of people under that umbrella,” she said.

Froelich is proud of her long history with abortion rights activism. She has served on the board of NARAL Pro-Choice, even standing as a silent supporter of a pro-choice doctor in Arapahoe County when anti-abortion activists protested at his home. She also worked against the personhood ballot measures that have been rejected by state voters three times in the past 15 years.

Froelich champions sensible birth control and contraception, praising state funding for the Long-Acting Reversible Contraception (LARC) program.

On gun control, she noted that both she and Bridges are endorsed by Colorado CeaseFire, a group working toward gun control laws. One of her first political involvements when she moved to Colorado was to work to defeat an NRA-supported legislative candidate.

“It’s a thorny issue,” she said. “I appreciate its complexities.”

She also noted she stands with Moms Demand Action, another gun control group.

On the hospital provider fee, Froelich told The Independent, “I wish we had been able to create that enterprise.” She supports the reclassification as a way to help properly fund public education and transportation, especially with a looming increase in the state population. As for the hospital provider fee’s relationship with TABOR, Froelich said she doesn’t disagree with TABOR’s provision to allow people to vote on tax increases, but “it’s the rest of it that is unintended consequences. The proof is in our [low national ranking] on funding for public education and transportation.”

Because transportation money comes from fossil fuels and the gas tax, she argues that’s a “dying method of funding.”

“We need to look at other ways to fund transportation. … These are real bread and butter economic issues for my district.”

She’s watching to see if the ballot measure on transportation funding, proposed by Build a Better Colorado, makes it onto the ballot and wins voter approval, calling the proposal “a great first step.”

Froelich champions mass transit, pointing to the RTD Light Rail stations that intersect the district in two places: along I-25 and along South Broadway.

“It’s an incredible economic engine,” she said. “We see the benefits” in House District 3.

Given the diverse political make-up and history of elections the district, it’s anyone’s guess who will win the race this fall. Republicans hope HD3 – which has been represented by term-limited Rep. Daniel Kagan, a Democrat from Cherry Hills Village – is one of the seats they pick up to help them retake the majority in the state House. For Democrats, hanging onto HD3 is critical to maintaining their edge, currently at 34 Democrats to 31 Republicans.

Based on state reapportionment maps, Republicans hold a one-point advantage over Democrats in voter registration (35 to 34 percent), with independents not far behind at around 30 percent of voters.

And although the district regularly swings between Democrats and Republicans for senators, voters have kept the House seat in Democratic hands for the past 20 years. Still, Kagan won his 2014 election by a mere 450 votes.

The other big factor in HD3 is money. The race for the House seat in the past two election cycles has been among the most expensive in the state. In 2014, the two candidates – neither of whom had a primary – brought in more than $230,000, second only to the rematch-race in southwestern Colorado between now-Rep. J. Paul Brown of Ignacio and then-Rep. Mike McLachlan of Durango, which snagged a total of $284,000 in contributions.

In 2012, HD 3 was Colorado’s most expensive House race, and likely set a state record – with more than $473,000 raised between the two candidates, Kagan and Republican businessman Brian Watson of Greenwood Village.

Correction: to correct that Froelich stepped down from Greenwood Village City Council five months before end of second term.

Photo credit: Bruce Guenter, Creative Commons, Flickr

has been a political journalist since 1998. She covered the state capitol for the Silver & Gold Record from 1998 to 2009 and for The Colorado Statesman in 2010-11 and 2013-14. Since 2010 she also has covered the General Assembly for newspapers in northeastern Colorado. She was recognized with awards from the Colorado Press Association for feature writing and informational graphics for her work with the Statesman in 2012.

1 COMMENT

  1. Of all the candidates in the race(?)Jeff Bridges is the real deal—most of the others are just in it for the fame and glory of being a “politician”–which is crap.

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