The congressional battle for the Western Slope: Schwartz versus Tipton

Former state Sen. Gail Schwartz, left, and U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, right, competing for Third Congressional District seat (western slope).

With Democrats doing everything they can to link Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump to down-ballot candidates, one of the races to watch in Colorado may be that of the often overlooked Third Congressional District.

National Democrats believe this may be the year they take control of the U.S. Senate and make inroads into reclaiming the House, and that means looking at races that might not have been in play in the past. Groups like Emily’s List and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s Red-to-Blue have invested in two bids by Democratic women in Colorado – for the Sixth Congressional District seat held by Republican Rep. Mike Coffman and for the Third Congressional District seat held by Republican Rep. Scott Tipton.

Third-term Congressman Tipton faces off this fall against Democrat and former state Sen. Gail Schwartz.

He’s a somewhat baby-faced and plain-talking 59-year old from Cortez. She’s an ever-smiling, admittedly short ball of energy who has made her life in some of Colorado’s most popular and upscale ski towns, most recently Crested Butte.

Fundraising for the contest has favored Tipton, but not by much. He has so far raised $1.5 million to her $1.3 million. But Schwartz has outraised Tipton in the last two quarters. In the period ending Sept. 30, Schwartz brought in $709,000 to Tipton’s $384,000.

Related: Fundraising in Colorado’s hottest congressional races tops $8 million

Tipton has received money from the Koch Industries PAC and the Right to Rise PAC, which was formed to support former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s presidential run. He also has taken contributions from a variety of energy companies and oil, gas and coal-backed political action committees. Among his individual donors: several members of the Coors family, billionaire Philip Anschutz, American Furniture magnate Jake Jabs, Pueblo Chieftain publisher Bob Rawlings, and conservative education reformer and oilman Alex Cranberg.

Schwartz has contributions from California environmentalist Tom Steyer, businessman and philanthropist Rutt Bridges, Stryker Medical Equipment heiress Pat Stryker, and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California. Schwartz’s campaign also is funded by Emily’s List, Planned Parenthood and a variety of labor unions, including education and trades groups.

Many factors set these two candidates apart, including how they view the future of the Third District.

Tipton is focused on the economy and jobs that are tied to the district’s energy industry. He also has sponsored legislation that many believe would turn over Colorado’s federally-owned lands to the state for sale to the highest bidder.

Schwartz’s focus is on employment, too, but it’s combined with an interest in protecting Colorado’s public lands and building up the outdoor recreation industry that she believes will help replace some of the jobs lost in mining.

Schwartz has lived in Colorado since graduating from the University of Colorado in 1971. She moved to Aspen back then, working with a company that designed ski areas in the United States and Canada. She also had a hand in developing some of the Roaring Fork Valley’s first affordable housing.

She has been in public service since the 1980s, sitting on the state’s Commission on Higher Education and the University of Colorado Board of Regents before being elected to the state Senate in 2006. She was term-limited in 2014 and points out she has never lost an election. She defeated an incumbent Republican regent in 2000 and an incumbent Republican senator in 2006.

Schwartz, 67, and husband Alan moved to Snowmass Village in the 2000s, although more recently they’ve called Crested Butte home. They have three daughters and two grandchildren.

Tipton, who was born in New Mexico, has lived almost his whole life in his mostly-Western Slope congressional district. He holds a degree in political science from Fort Lewis College and is the first member of his family to graduate from college. Until recently, he owned Mesa Verde Pottery, which at its peak employed 22 workers and has been in business for more than three decades. Tipton and his brother sold the business to the Ute Mountain Utes tribe in 2014. He and wife Jean have two daughters.

Tipton first ran for Congress in 2006, losing to Democrat John Salazar. He then headed to the state Capitol, serving in the 2009 and 2010 sessions. At the end of 2010, he challenged Salazar again for the Third District seat and won by 5 percent, to date his closest margin of victory. Tipton has been in the U.S. House since that 2010 election.

The Third Congressional District covers more than one-third of the state by land-mass. Its largest population centers are Grand Junction to the west and Pueblo to the east.

Some 35 percent of Colorado is managed by the federal government. Most of that is in the Third. For voters there, recreation and tourism (including hunting and fishing) compete with ranching, which uses public lands for grazing cattle.

And everyone competes for water. The district includes the headwaters for the Rio Grande, Yampa, White, North Platte and the Gunnison rivers, to name a few. The mighty Colorado River, although it starts in Rocky Mountain National Park, cuts through the district on its way to Utah, Southern Nevada and Arizona. The district also includes many of the state’s most popular ski resorts: Aspen, Crested Butte, Snowmass, Steamboat Springs, Telluride and Wolf Creek are among them.

Politically, the Third has leaned Republican for the past several election cycles. In 2012, Republican Mitt Romney won it by 6 percent, with 52 percent of the vote to President Barack Obama’s 46 percent. John McCain won the district four years earlier with a 3 percent margin – 50 percent to Obama’s 47 percent. Obama won Colorado as a whole in both those elections, with a statewide victory over Romney by 5 percent in 2012 and a 9 percent win over McCain in 2008.

According to the Secretary of State, the district has more than 519,000 registered voters. Republicans lead there with 180,121. But unaffiliated voter numbers aren’t far behind, at 178,743. Democrats trail at 153,244. The district’s boundaries were changed in 2011 to make it more competitive, which meant folding in a larger percentage of Democrats.

The U.S. Census reported an unemployment rate of 6.7 percent in 2014. But that was before the closure of several of the district’s largest coal mines, including the Elk Creek and Bowie #2 mines, both in Delta County. Shutting down both mines over the past two years has resulted in the loss of about 1,000 high-paying jobs. Job losses in oil and gas have also plagued the district.

That’s part of what drives Tipton: helping those hard-hit communities find ways to survive.

“We have a tale of two economies,” Tipton told The Colorado Independent in August. “Denver is doing reasonably well. Resort communities are doing well. But when we go into other communities, people are worried about keeping jobs and too many are looking for them. I’m driving past stores that were once occupied and now are for sale or lease. It’s about jobs and the family’s future.”

Hoping to help out those communities, Tipton has co-sponsored and carried bipartisan legislation such as a hydropower and jobs bill, signed into law in 2013 by President Obama. Tipton and Democratic Rep. Ed Perlmutter of Golden also sponsored a bill to encourage small businesses access to capital from small banks and credit unions.

Why should Tipton return to Congress?

Kraig Andrews of Grand Junction, a project manager for a construction company, likes Tipton’s accessibility and efforts on behalf of Mesa County. Andrews said Tipton has pushed to keep public lands open for the outdoor recreation industry in Mesa County, where 80 percent of the lands are federally-managed. “We thrive on outdoor recreation here,” Andrews said, citing the county’s man mountain biking, hiking, hunting and fishing businesses. Tipton advocated for keeping trails open on federal lands that had been cut off by the Bureau of Land Mangement, Andrews said.

As Andrews tells it, Tipton has gained the trust of residents in the Third District. “Congress needs more than a loud mouth. One person can make a difference, especially if that person works well with others,” he said. “He works for the people.”

Schwartz, in her eight years in the Senate, also worked on jobs creation. She sponsored legislation on rural broadband that employs workers to build and maintain internet infrastructure and on a “cottage foods act” that allows people to produce foods in the homes for local sales.

Rochelle Needham of Gunnison County has known Schwartz for years, and applauds her devotion to the environment and love of nature. “She’s worked tirelessly for the Thompson Divide” near Carbondale that the Bureau of Land Management had considered opening to drilling in 2014.  Schwartz is poised and skilled at working around people who can be difficult to work with, Needham said. Diana Glazer, also of Gunnison, said Schwartz more accurately reflects the needs and positions of people on the Western Slope, especially on water and the environment.

Schwartz’s biggest brush with controversy may well have been in 2013, when she co-sponsored a bill to raise the renewable energy standard for some of the state’s rural electric co-ops. Among the bill’s notable features: it exempted a handful of rural co-ops, including Holy Cross Energy in Schwartz’s district, which supplies electricity to the Aspen and Vail ski resorts. Opponents, including the free-market Independence Institute, claimed Schwartz and co-sponsor Senate President John Morse of Colorado Springs did not know how the utilities worked and that the bill would drive up energy costs for rural Coloradans. Gov. John Hickenlooper called the bill “imperfect,” but signed it anyway.

Schwartz has been accused of siding too much with environmentalists,which led to an attack ad in the 2010 election from the dark money group Western Tradition Partnership. The ad featured Schwartz’s head superimposed over the body of Donald Trump, saying, “You’re fired!” to the voters of her Senate district.

Tipton also has had his share of missteps. In 2011, he apologized to the House Ethics Committee after his daughter used his name to attempt to gain contacts for her employer, a broadband company. A month later, it was reported that Tipton spent $7,000 with vendors who did business with his nephew’s company – the same broadband company that employed the Congressman’s daughter. In 2012, Tipton used taxpayer money to promote a campaign event, inadvertently listing it on his congressional website.

Earlier this year, Tipton was criticized for offering a bill authored by SG Interests, a Texas oil and gas company whose employees have contributed more than $37,000 to his campaigns over the past six years, according to The bill was never acted on.

Schwartz and Tipton sat down last week (separately) to talk with The Colorado Independent about what matters in the district and what they’ll do to win votes. Both made their campaign pitches to water leaders at last week’s Colorado Water Congress summer conference in Steamboat Springs.

During Schwartz’s remarks to the Water Congress, Republican Rep. J. Paul Brown of Ignacio asked her about her views on the Obama administration’s “war on coal.” Schwartz replied that she represented the three Delta County mines in her Senate district and just the day before had visited the Trapper Mine in Craig. “I’ve advocated for both coal and oil and gas,” she told him.

Schwartz told The Independent that she has worked on a number of mining issues, from dealing with mine safety issues to finding funding for infrastructure, such as roads and bridges, that mine employees travel on.

She counts among her accomplishments her work advocating for an exemption on the federal “roadless” rule that prohibits road construction on certain National Forest lands. Schwartz explained that the exemption allowed coal mines to build vents to vent methane gas. That greenhouse gas can be captured from vents, she noted, citing a program in which the Aspen Ski company uses coal mine methane as an energy source.

Schwartz also touted that she stood up to the environmental community on methane captures being included in the state’s renewable energy portfolio. The Colorado Petroleum Association recognized her efforts to help the industry with its “Legislator of the Year” award in 2011.

Schwartz said the free market, not government regulation, should determine the nation’s energy portfolio. She also advocates for opportunities to develop renewable energy – specifically biomass, geothermal and hydroelectric power.

Four of the state’s seven headwaters are in the Senate district Schwartz represented. She says it’s important to protect those waterways from wildfire damage, and to bring more water-efficient technologies to farms and ranches. A lot of agriculture relies on public lands and on keeping them in public hands, she said. “The movement to sell them off undermines our economies, our water quality and water quantity.”

Defense of public lands is among Schwartz’s strongest attacks on Tipton’s record. She points out that the GOP platform calls on Congress to pass legislation requiring the federal government to turn over federal lands to the states, which can then sell them off to the highest bidder.

Tipton co-sponsored the Federal Land Freedom Act of 2015 that would “empower states to control the development and protection of all forms of energy on all available Federal land.” Schwartz claims that bill would effectively turn over Colorado’s public lands to energy developers, jeopardizing the Third District’s outdoor recreation economy and threatening thousands of jobs. “This is simply code for privatizing and selling” public lands, Schwartz said, because no state can possibly afford to manage its public lands.

Still, Schwartz is critical of what she see as government overreach on certain public lands, which she notes has led to tensions like the Bundy standoffs in Utah and Oregon.

In CD3, many blast the Endangered Species Act, which recently listed theGunnison sage grouse as a threatened species. Many West Slopers believe the species can be protected without federal intervention. Schwartz backs delisting the bird and says it should be treated the same as the greater sage grouse, which the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service removed from its list of potential endangered species last year. The money the state has put into mitigation efforts for the birds has been tremendous, she said. “The state has made its best effort, and the federal government needs to respect those efforts.”

Although she has the backing of some environmental groups, Schwartz had strong criticism for some in the environmental community, saying that certain groups’ instinct to “stop everything” isn’t helpful. “We have to protect habitat and species, but in a way that respects the state’s approach,” she said.

As for her presidential pick, Schwartz demurred. There’s strong support for both Clinton and Trump in the district, but her “race is where we can come together on issues like water and climate change,” she said. “People want leadership, especially on protecting public lands.”

Schwartz differentiated herself from Tipton by noting that he votes 95 percent of the time with his party. “I’m willing to reach across the aisle and not be locked down with ideologues on either side of the aisle,” she said. “I have a record of getting things done and gaining support.”

In his remarks to the Water Congress last week, Tipton touted his support for states’ rights, especially water rights, and chastised Washington for federal overreach, especially with environmental regulations. He’s currently sponsoring a bill that would mirror one passed this year in Colorado to tell the federal government “hands-off” on Colorado water rights.

Control over water is a hot issue in the district. In 2011, the U.S. Forest Service demanded that ski resorts turn over their water rights in exchange for renewing their leases on public lands. The ski companies sued and the Forest Service rules were tossed because the agency hadn’t properly followed federal procedural guidelines. Late last year, after a five-year fight, the Forest Service backed down. The water rights issue also affected farmers and ranchers who graze herds on Bureau of Land Management public lands. The BLM had demanded they also cede water rights, but later also backed down.

Tipton blasted the Forest Service rule, calling it “theft” of water rights and complaining that it’s a symptom of a broken process in Washington – one where rules are put into place and never again reviewed. Congress needs to get involved with the rulemaking process, he said.

About the Endangered Species Act, he said the law doesn’t provide a clear idea of the target numbers each state needs to match on protecting species. “We appreciate the Act for what it did” for eagles, Tipton said. But it needs to be more specific on the issue of the sage grouse, for example.

Tipton noted that unemployment in the district is now about 10 percent, well above the state or even national rates. He believes cutting back on federal regulations would stimulate the economy and bolster job growth, and he intends to continue that fight into the next Congress.

Like Schwartz, Tipton touted ability to reach across the aisle, saying that every bill that he has been able to pass out of the House did so with bipartisan support. He has sponsored five bills that have been signed into law, most recently a measure requiring the executive director of each federal agency to develop a software licensing policy. Tipton serves on the House Financial Services Committee and on two related subcommittees. He previously sat on the House agriculture, natural resources and small business committees.

But Tipton’s voting record as a whole is hardly bipartisan. The web site Ballotpedia said that for 2013, Tipton voted 98.2 percent of the time with his fellow Republicans. In 2014, it was 94.2 percent. InsideGov rates him as “very conservative” on individual rights, domestic issues and defense, and “moderately conservative” on economic issues. GovTrack rates him among the more conservative members of Congress, saying he “usually” votes with his caucus.

Does that play well in the district? The Denver Post, in its 2012 endorsement, advised Tipton to take a more moderate path. The newspaper didn’t endorse any Third District candidate in 2014, but endorsed Tipton for re-election earlier this month.

As for his views on the presidential candidates, Tipton was clear. Clinton has made a “commitment to a third [Obama] administration,” he said. “We aren’t seeing the jobs or the recovery.”

Regarding GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump, he said, “Do I agree with the Republican nominee every time? No.” But, he added, the role of Congress is not to be a rubber stamp for any administration.

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.