The race for this suburban state Senate seat presents challenges for how to address opioid addiction

A Democratic lawmaker and veteran Republican contender compete for this competitive state Senate seat south of Denver

Democratic Rep. Brittany Pettersen, left, and Republican Tony Sanchez. (Photos courtesy their campaigns)

State Rep. Brittany Pettersen sat before an 18-member state legislative committee to present a package of bills she helped write aimed at creating more opioid addiction treatment and recovery programs.  

“It is our job to direct dollars right now,” she told the committee at its Oct. 15 meeting. “You happen to be elected during the greatest public health crisis of our time.”

But it wasn’t long before the Republicans on the committee put the kibosh on her efforts. They said proposed programs would cost the state money and expand the size of government. In the end, GOP members on the committee voted down all but two of the five bills Pettersen presented.

“That was partisan politics,” Pettersen told The Colorado Independent after the vote. Pettersen, whose mother is recovering from an addiction to opioids, has been working on the measures since the legislature adjourned in May and long expected the committee to approve them with little pushback.

But her timing was terrible. The committee’s vote happened to take place on the day that ballots were mailed to voters.

“I’m running in one of the most competitive state senate races in Colorado and that completely changed the perspective on the bills that I was bringing this time,” she said.

Pettersen is facing off against Republican Tony Sanchez of Littleton, who lost his bid in 2014 by 2.2 percentage points to Democratic incumbent Andy Kerr. Kerr is term-limited this year, leaving the seat up for grabs.

This suburban district south of Denver stretches from Lakewood to Ken Caryl. Kerr, along with Pettersen, had campaigned to replace Democratic U.S. Rep. Ed Perlmutter in Colorado’s 7th Congressional District until Perlmutter ended his run for governor in 2017 and sought reelection to that seat.

Many of Pettersen’s policy priorities, like expanding opioid treatment, face better odds of becoming law if Democrats win control of the state Senate, where Republicans hold a one-seat majority. With the Democratic candidate for governor, Congressman Jared Polis, polling ahead of Republican State Treasurer Walker Stapleton, and the House firmly under the control of Democrats, suburban Senate districts like SD22 have become battlegrounds in an effort to tip the balance of power under Colorado’s Gold Dome.  

Money from outside groups is pouring into this race. Independent expenditure committees supporting Republican candidates for the state Senate have bankrolled about $382,000 worth in ads opposing Pettersen. These groups include the Senate Majority Fund and Colorado Citizens for Accountable Government, another Republican IEC. Meanwhile, a Democratic IEC, Coloradans for Fairness, has spent about $549,000 supporting Pettersen and opposing Sanchez. IECs have virtually no limits on how much they can accept or spend.

Separately, Pettersen’s campaign has raised $288,000 compared to the $105,000 raised by Sanchez’s campaign.

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Tony Sanchez, a candidate for SD22. (Photo by Susan Greene)

Sanchez, a 52-year-old Littleton resident, first ran for SD22 not long after moving from California. He’s trying again because he says he thinks he’s right for the district.

“Tony Sanchez is what people want,” he told The Independent.

Sanchez is a man of many words, but few direct answers to questions about his history and some of his political stances.

During an interview this summer, he would not say what he does for a living or whether he has a job. He described his vocation as “an education reformer,” citing what he said was a position running Freedom for Education, a nonprofit group based in Littleton that has fought for school choice and against the Common Core curriculum.

He said he wants to take “politics out of education.” “Education is education. That’s how I feel about education,” he added.

Sanchez serves on the board of the Colorado Union of Taxpayers, a conservative group that advocates for limited government and says the job of Colorado’s General Assembly is “to enforce our freedoms to establish contracts between one another and not to simply redistribute our earnings as they see fit.”

“I’m on the front lines of defending hard-working Coloradans from the money-grab that is state government,” he said.

Though Sanchez said five times during one interview that he is for “accountability and transparency” in state government, he wouldn’t elaborate on what that means. He also referred to himself multiple times as “a solutions-oriented person.”

Sanchez has the backing of the National Rifle Association (NRA) and the Rocky Mountain Gun Owners (RMGO), a pro-gun nonprofit with strong ties to state Sen. Tim Neville, who’s seeking reelection in Senate District 16 and has led efforts to repeal gun control legislation at the Statehouse.

“Tony’s the real deal,” Neville said about Sanchez during a joint appearance last summer.

About gun control laws he says he’d work to repeal, if elected, Sanchez said: “You have a 2nd Amendment right to have 2nd Amendment rights. We all do.”

Earlier this year, while the Trump administration’s deportation policies were making headlines, Sanchez spoke for banning so-called “sanctuary cities” that don’t cooperate with the federal government on deporting undocumented immigrants. “We don’t create a class of people who get special rights and special treatment,” he said. “I think we need to be much more focused on people here in Colorado.”

During an event in April, he told an audience that words like “sanctuary city,” “sustainability,” and “bike path” are code for what he believes is “an attack on your private property rights.”

Political correctness, he said, “threatens to ruin the country.”

During an Arapahoe Tea Party gathering earlier this year, Sanchez lauded Jack Phillips, the owner of the Masterpiece Cakeshop in Lakewood whose refusal to bake a cake for a gay wedding wound up at the United States Supreme Court. Cases like Phillips’s, Sanchez said, typify what’s wrong with what he calls “big government” and are “intimidating a lot of the small businesses in our area.”

He cited health care as an important issue to him and his wife, but wouldn’t address the issue of a Trump administration rollback of Medicaid expansion and its effect on Coloradans. “I’d have to look into it,” he answered.

Sanchez also declined to comment about his views on President Trump and Congress, saying, “To tell you the truth, I’m just focused on what’s going on locally.”  As for the leadership of Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, Sanchez said: “I don’t know, I haven’t focused on him, truthfully.” About Kerr’s representation of Senate District 22, he said, “I’m my own man and don’t look to measure myself against others.” And about Pettersen’s record in the state House, he said simply, “Don’t get me started.”

A mailer paid for by Tony Sanchez’s campaign attacking Brittany Pettersen.

Over the past week, Sanchez took an ugly swipe at Pettersen. In an attempt to turn her family’s story and her work against the opioid crisis against her, his campaign sent a mailer showing an image of a dirty hypodermic needle and spoon.

“Heroin on your street. Heroin injection in your neighborhood,” it reads. “Vote against Brittany Pettersen…or she will let addicts shoot up on your street.”

The mailer has prompted criticism both in and outside the district. Sanchez has not responded to inquiries about it.

***

State Rep. Brittany Pettersen, right, and her mother, Stacy. (Photo courtesy Brittany Pettersen for Colorado)

Pettersen, a Lakewood Democrat, was first elected to the House in 2012 when she was 30 years old. The ambitious three-term state representative attempted a run for Congress, and now, has her sights set on a high-stakes state Senate seat instead.

Pettersen champions many Democratic policies that stand little chance of passing in a Republican-controlled chamber. She supports creating a paid family leave insurance program, which would essentially use an income tax to pay for up to 12 weeks of paid time off per year.

She wants to raise the state’s sales tax to pay for transportation projects, throwing her weight behind Prop 110, a ballot measure to do just that. She said the Fix Our Damn Roads ballot measure, Prop 109, would “decimate” education funding because it would require general fund money to pay off bonds.

She also wants the state to come up with a new, additional revenue source to pay for K-12 public schools, though she stops just short of backing Amendment 73, which would use a progressive income tax to fund education. 

“Voters will decide whether or not [Amendment 73] is the right answer. But if it does fail, it is essential that we come together in a bipartisan way to tackle these issues,” she said.

Pettersen, who chairs the House Education Committee, has repeatedly voted against bills to give tax breaks to parents who enroll their children in private schools, commonly referred to as a voucher program. If she wins a spot in the upper chamber, she said, “I look forward to being a part of killing [voucher bills] in the Senate.”

With Polis polling ahead of Stapleton, she said there is a chance to pass a bill offering free, full-day kindergarten, which she said is the “best investment that we can make with our taxpayer dollars.” She added, “I was really lucky. I had preschool and full-day kindergarten. But far too many kids across Colorado do not. And we know that from day one they show up with a significant disadvantage.”

During her testimony before the Legislative Council earlier this month, she mentioned her mother, Stacy, who Pettersen said has been addicted to prescription painkillers, and later, heroin, for 30 years. The issue is personal for Pettersen: the waiting outside the methadone clinic, her mother’s near-death overdoses and frequent emergency room visits.

“These are people who are really left to die,” she told The Colorado Independent. “I have a unique compassion and empathy for people who are struggling with a substance use disorder — a life experience that really highlights the gaps and the needs in our systems.”

Last session, Pettersen backed a law that set a seven-day limit on some opioid prescriptions and a federal waiver so that Medicaid could cover a wider range of treatment. Another bill she sponsored would have set up safe injection sites in Denver, but it failed in a Republican-controlled Senate committee.

Of the five proposals she presented to the legislative committee this month, one would require treatment facilities to report their current number of available beds to the state. Another would help pay for stocking naloxone, a drug used to reverse an opioid overdose, in schools and cities. Another would require prescription medications to be labeled with an addiction warning. All those measures were voted down by Republicans on the committee.

Other policy proposals had better success. One would use money from opioid-related litigation to pay for transitional housing assistance for people with substance use disorders after leaving prison. Another would help jails pay for medically assisted treatment, such as offering people going through withdrawals buprenorphine or methadone. These proposals passed and stand a good chance passing the Legislature in the 2019 legislative session.

The bills that were voted down could still make it through the Legislature, if sponsored by individual lawmakers. Still, for Pettersen, the partisanship was simply frustrating.

“This shouldn’t be a blue or red issue,” she said. “And it wasn’t, until today.”

Despite the partisan votes earlier this month, Pettersen said she believes that even if the Senate stays red, she would be able to work across the aisle on these issues, just “once we get through the election.”

John is covering the 2018 legislative session. Follow him on Twitter @herrickjohnny and email him at John@coloradoindependent.com.
A recovering newspaper journalist, Susan reported for papers in California and Nevada before her 13 years as a political reporter, national reporter and metro columnist at The Denver Post. “Trashing the Truth,” a series she reported with Miles Moffeit, helped exonerate five men, prompted reforms on evidence preservation and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in investigative journalism. Her 2012 project, “The Gray Box,” exposed the effects of long-term solitary confinement. The ACLU honored her in 2017 for her years of civil rights coverage, and the Society of Professional Journalists honored her in April with its First Amendment Award. Susan and her two boys live with a puppy named Hymie whom they’re pretty sure is the messiah.

3 COMMENTS

  1. Proposals to “require treatment facilities to report their current number of available beds to the state…. help pay for stocking naloxone, a drug used to reverse an opioid overdose, in schools and cities….require prescription medications to be labeled with an addiction warning.”
    Why those are controversial or considered like much of an impact on state revenue or expenditure at all is a mystery. Particularly the last: if Republicans are a party of “personal responsibility,” aren’t individuals entitled to accurate information about the drugs they will consume? Wasn’t the Republican caucus at the forefront of requiring “information” be given to those seeking reproductive health services?

  2. Sanchez fits the description of a carpetbagger…recently moved to the state, no visible means of support, minimal affiliation with political groups, fringy, appealing to populist dog whistle issues, all to get on the legislative payroll then get his payoffs from the conservative corporate interests after he sacrifices his constituents to their agenda.

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