Some of the most contentious issues in this year’s legislative session, like transportation and fracking, have a happy home in House District 33, which encompasses Broomfield and surrounding communities Lafayette, Superior and Erie.
Gray, 35, is a former assistant district attorney in Adams and Broomfield counties. He’s now in private practice helping local governments with public financing issues.
Although this is Nelson’s first run for elected office, she’s the veteran politico, with 11 years as a legislative aide at the state House where she has worked for Republican lawmakers from all over the state. That experience has exposed her to both urban and rural issues, she told The Colorado Independent this week.
It’s also why she waited until April, and just before the district GOP assembly, to formally enter the race: She wanted to continue working for Rep. Kit Roupe of Colorado Springs as long as possible. House rules required her to resign once she formally declared her candidacy.
The seat is currently held by term-limited Democratic state Rep. Dianne Primavera of Broomfield.
Primavera first won the seat in 2006 and again in 2008. She lost her re-election bid in 2010 to Republican Donald Beezley in a race that flipped the House from Democratic control to Republican. Then, in 2014, Primavera won back the seat and has held it for the past four years.
In 2010, the district favored Republicans, but just barely. Today, unaffiliated voters make up 39.4 percent of the electorate there. Republicans make up 29.3 percent and Democrats make up 31 percent, according to May voter numbers from the Secretary of State.
The question of whether the district would send a Democrat or Republican to the state Capitol has been mostly decided by Libertarians in the past two election cycles. In both 2012 and 2014, a Libertarian candidate took about 5 percent of the vote – the margin of victory for Primavera over her Republican opponents in both elections.
There will a Libertarian in the race this year, too: Kim Tavendale, an ordained minister from Broomfield.
Two of the biggest issues in the district are among the most controversial at the statehouse: transportation and fracking. Broomfield is one of the communities where voters approved a ban on oil and gas fracking within the city limits, only to see that decision overturned recently by the Colorado Supreme Court.
Nelson, 65, is a widow who has lived in Broomfield for more than 30 years. She is a firm supporter of fracking, citing her experience for the past three years on the Broomfield City Planning and Development Commission. Fracking is among the issues that have come before the commission, and she said she learned a lot from presentations and videos from oil and gas companies that convinced her fracking was safe.
Fracking gives the nation energy independence, she said. “We have the resources in this nation” to provide that independence. Concerns over fracking’s impacts on land and water, she said, have largely been dealt with by advances in technology. And, she added, fracking brings in much-needed tax revenue that support schools and parks.
Nelson’s job under the Gold Dome gave her a close look at the debate over Colorado’s hospital provider fee for the past two years.
The fee is levied on hospital overnight patient stays as well as outpatient visits. That money is then matched with federal dollars and redistributed to hospitals to cover uninsured patients and to expand Medicaid. Democrats and a small handful of Republicans want to see the fee removed from the state’s revenue limits, as established under the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights. The fee would then be reclassified to be exempt from TABOR restrictions and revenues would be spent on uninsured patients and Medicaid expansion.
Nelson isn’t comfortable with reclassifying the fee. The plan would be “skirting TABOR,” she says.
She is strongly anti-abortion, but said she would not impose her beliefs on others. “It comes down to personal choice,” she explained.
Still, she favors more alternatives to abortion for women who become pregnant as a result of rape or incest, pointing to the need for more babies for adoption. “I’d like to see those options considered,” she said.
Nelson had a front-row seat to the debate over gun control in the 2013 session, when she worked for Republican Reps. J. Paul Brown of Ignacio and Jim Wilson of Salida.
It was the most tumultuous session in the entire 11 years she served, she said. The gun bills – requiring background checks for private gun transfers and capping the limit on ammunition magazines at 15 rounds – were rushed through the legislative process, Nelson said, adding that many people were denied an opportunity to testify because Democrats limited the amount of time available for public input.
(This is a common practice used by both parties, particularly when dealing with bills that are controversial and draw sizable audiences.)
Nelson considered a couple of other presidential candidates early on and says Donald Trump was not her first choice. “But I will support the nominee, whomever comes out of the convention…if Trump is the official nominee, I will back him,” she said.
As Nelson sees it, there should be equal pay for equal work, regardless of who’s holding the job.
“It’s only fair; a woman should be paid the same as a man if they’re in the same kind of position.” But she doesn’t agree with raising the minimum wage, because “it’s supposed to be a starting salary, not a living wage…And if you need education to move up the ladder, you should pursue that.”
To counter that, “we need to provide the opportunity for better jobs with higher wages and which need more training.” Companies that have to raise their minimum wage, like the fast-food industry, will end up raising prices. “It’s a Catch-22.”
Would Nelson support a repeal of the gun control laws? Yes, she said, because the bills are unenforceable. “We need to take another look at these laws, and the only hope to do that is that Republicans take control of the House” and maintain control of the Senate.
She hopes to be part of a new Republican House majority come January.
Gray is determined to hang onto the seat for Democrats. A Broomfield resident for the past decade, he cites his family’s influence as one of the reasons for running for office.
Both of his parents were involved in public education, teaching at the public education and college level. His wife’s parents also have had careers in public education.
“Public service is just something you do,” Gray said this week. “I like the law, public policy and finding solutions.”
With his background in public finance, Gray has gained a wealth of knowledge about TABOR and how to work around its complications. He pointed out that he has created dozens of municipal enterprises for his clients, and supports the idea of converting the hospital provider fee into a TABOR-exempt enterprise.
The revenue limit set out by the voter-approved TABOR, he said, was not formulated to maintain a balance between state spending and state revenues. TABOR’s inflationary adjustment – which, under the law, is based on the annual Denver-Boulder rate of inflation – was not designed to cover the expenses of state government, Gray said.
The costs of education and health care have exceeded the rate of inflation, and it has forced the state to cut funding for public education.
“I don’t think anyone who voted for TABOR voted for the slow draining out of education or transportation funding,” Gray said.
Why not ask voters about reclassifying the fee? Gray said such a question could be sent to voters, although he believes those who serve in elected office shouldn’t always punt to the voters. If voters elect him, he said, “I’m going to go down there and reach consensus so we have a functioning government and not have voters give us permission four times a year to do our jobs. The hospital provider fee is a great example of that.”
On gun control, Gray supports the 2013 background check law on private weapons transfers, which was passed by majority Democrats. Background checks are a “no-brainer,” he said, harkening back to his experience as an assistant district attorney. “I’ve seen what happens when you put weapons in the hands of people who will be dangerous with them and aren’t legally allowed to have them.”
Gray is less adamant about the magazine limit on the books.
“I believe in the Second Amendment as a right, and that people have a right to own weapons for hunting and self-defense.” Although he said he trusts the judgment of lawmakers who passed the 2013 magazine limit law, he would be willing to sit down and listen to anyone who can provide him with data on just where that limit should be drawn.
But “the answer isn’t unlimited weapons of war in the streets all the time,” he added.
Gray is firmly pro-choice and fully opposed to any law that interferes with a woman’s access to abortion, particularly for political reasons. He points out that those laws don’t come from the medical community and do little more than insert politics into a medical process. “That’s always a horrible idea,” he said.
“Political activists and politicians should not be the ones to determine how a doctor does their job.”
Gray backs former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for president, and that’s always been his choice, citing the “gulf” between the professionalism she would bring to the office and that of Trump.
“I believe in equal pay for equal work wholeheartedly – the tricky part is how to accomplish it,” Gray said. “We already have laws on the books mandating that, but what can the public and private sector do to make it a reality? He doesn’t believe people decide pay necessarily based on gender, but I’m interested in working with others on building a new economy that values women’s accomplishments as much as men’s. “We’ve got work to do on that.”
He also supports raising the minimum wage, noting that economic growth in the past few years has benefitted the top earners, but not the middle class, and that too many people rely on minimum wage jobs for a living, but that it doesn’t provide a “living wage.”
“A lot of working-class families have fallen behind,” he said, and “we need a solution for them – compensation that will allow them to succeed.”
“But it’s not a silver bullet that fixes everything.”
Gray said he would support consensus on the issue of fracking. He notes that one of the first things he did after declaring his candidacy was to invite every trustee, mayor and city council member in the district’s three cities to a meeting. Fracking and transportation were the issues they all wanted to discuss.
“I don’t think there’s any reason there can’t be consensus on how this is done. Most municipal officials say they don’t want to ban fracking,” and those who want to ban fracking are resigned to the fact that they can’t, he said. “But almost nobody says it’s okay to see a fracking rig outside their child’s window,” he said.
Local officials want more restrictions, oil and gas want less, “but there’s a common-sense middle…It’s not to say I can single-handedly make people who have been fighting for years like each other,” but he adds he will go neighborhood to neighborhood to build that consensus.
Gray and wife Katie – who grew up in the Louisville/Lafayette area – have two children, including a new baby. As a family, their public policy priorities are better funding for schools and improved transportation, including mass transit.
“I want what most people want,” he said.
Photos via Karen Nelson and Matt Gray.