SOUTHWESTERN COLORADO – If the Colorado Reappointment Commission’s new House district plan receives final approval from Colorado Supreme Court later this year, San Miguel County will be split in half, with the east end and Ouray County joining Durango in House District 59. At the same time, the west end of San Miguel County and Cortez will join the city of Montrose in District 58.
Ouray and Telluride with Durango and Cortez and Mancos with Montrose: the new alignment could be said to combine relatively like-minded mountain communities in one district and relatively like-minded rural farming towns in the other. While the addition of Cortez and Mancos may not bring about a significant political shift in District 58, the combination of losing Cortez and adding Telluride and Ouray County will likely a more competitive political environment in District 59.
District 58 Rep. Don Coram (R-Montrose) and District 59 Rep. J. Paul Brown (R-Ignacio) both said in interviews this week that the plan had taken them by surprise and both suggested that the citizens affected by the changes didn’t have time enough to voice their concerns on the plan.
“It really did surprise me,” Brown said. “Early on in the process the commission voted against that plan and at the very last moment, they turned that decision around. The people of Telluride and Ouray County did not have a chance to respond. Neither did the folks in Cortez for that matter.”
Coram echoed Brown in stating that he thought the plan had already been thrown out by the commission.
“I had no idea this was ever in the works because the Democrats [sitting on the commission] proposed it early and Chairman [Mario] Carrera said no,” Coram said. “It was very surprising that this plan came out only a couple of days before final approval. They didn’t give people in Ouray County a chance to make their feelings heard.”
As directed by the Colorado Constitution, the Senate Majority Leader, House Speaker, Senate Minority Leader, and House Minority Leader all designate one person each to serve on the commission. The Governor appoints three members to the commission while the Chief Justice of the Colorado Supreme Court appoints the final four members of the commission.
This commission was equally divided with five Democrats, five Republicans and one unaffiliated member being appointed. Since Carrera was unaffiliated with a political party, he was appointed to chair the commission. Carrera said on Tuesday that the since the commission began meeting last May, it has reviewed both written and oral testimony at its hearings and looked for the best ways for drawing the “best possible” districts for each region.
As for those who are surprised by the approved plan, he said the commission’s decision was based on the testimony it heard throughout the process.
“They may have expressed surprise because it affects their area but we have had a lot of testimony,” Carrera said, “and that’s what’s being represented in this plan. There were a lot of residents, in this case from Telluride, Durango and the counties involved, who said they have an interest in being included in a particular district because that’s what they believe represents their communities. Those oral and written testimonies were taken into account.”
While Brown agrees that the plan, if finally adopted, will make District 59 more competitive, he argued that a representative should represent all of the people who live in a district. With Red Mountain, Molas and Coal Bank passes dividing Durango from Ouray County and Telluride, representing the entire District 59 is going to be “tough to do,” he said, especially during the winter months when the legislature is in session.
Coram took that notion a step further. Besides a geographical divide, the new District 59 will have an economic divide as well.
“I don’t think it’s the best deal for Ouray or San Miguel counties when you consider Durango is the big dog in the race,” Coram said. “In talking with people in Durango, they are not all that thrilled to talk about the Telluride Ski Area doing well, they want the Durango ski area to do well. It’s very difficult to travel from Durango to either Ouray or Telluride. Most of the shopping is done in the Montrose area. Montrose has the airport and the Seventh Judicial District. Most of the trade in the area is back and forth between Telluride and Montrose, not Telluride and Durango.
“It will be difficult for whoever represents District 59,” Coram said adding that if the plan is ultimately ratified by the Supreme Court, he will miss his constituents in Ouray County and in Telluride.
“I like our constituents in Ouray County and in Telluride,” he said. “We don’t always agree on everything but when people agree with everything you say, it means only one person is doing the thinking. You have to have dialogue to represent everybody’s views and I will miss that.”
As for Brown, he said he understands the political reality that he now faces in a more competitive District 59 and plans to meet his new constituents as soon as possible.
“In reality, you have to understand this is the case,” Brown said. “I am going to be me and I am not going to change anything to run. I feel like more government hasn’t been the answer for anybody and I think we need to help the free enterprise system to produce more jobs. We need to back off on the government side of it. That’s going to be my story. As it is right now, I will run for reelection no matter where the district boundary is. I will get up there and get to know the folks in Ridgway, Ouray and all the folks in between. I know there are great people up there and I will have to do the best I can to let them know who I am.”
Carrera said he expects the Supreme Court to make a decision on the plan by mid-December.