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Vail’s biggest controversy? How Booth Heights stacks up to previous civic debates

VAIL — The proposed Booth Heights housing project is occupying much of Vail’s civic conversation. Some in town are calling it Vail’s biggest controversy.

That may not be true.

Talking with a number of longtime residents, there have been a number of passionate civic arguments over the years. As you’d expect, most involve ideas for building in the land-scarce Gore Creek Valley.

Rod Slifer moved to Vail before it was a town. He’s served on the Vail Town Council in different decades, including a couple of stints as Mayor.

“If you go back and look at most major developments, there was some opposition,” Slifer said.

Soothing those controversies in the early days sometimes required a personal touch.

“Either I or the town manager or other council people would go talk to people — we tried to go one to one.”

Rob LeVine has been involved with Vail’s civic life since the 1970s. He recalled that the biggest controversy might have been the fight over the Solaris development.

A special election

That project, which went through the town’s approval process in about 2005, was ultimately approved by the Vail Town Council. But the town had to create a “special development district” for what owner Peter Knobel proposed. That special designation meant opponents could challenge the council’s decision. Opponents gathered enough petition signatures to force a 2006 special election. Voters upheld the council’s decision, 1,110 to 467.

Current council member Kevin Foley, a 40-year resident, recalled that Solaris was the biggest town controversy before Booth Heights.

But LeVine remembered other significant civic debates. There were three attempts to build a conference center for the town. The final attempt collapsed in the mid-2000s, when cost estimates for the center outstripped projected revenue from a lodging tax voters passed specifically for the project. That tax was later repealed.

Mark Gordon was on the council during the Solaris special election. Gordon recalled some noisy debates in the 1990s over Vail’s decision to install roundabouts at the West Vail and Vail Town Center Interstate 70 interchanges.

Gordon recalled a good bit of opposition when the Middle Creek apartments were proposed and built in the early 2000s.

“There was a group of citizens … claiming that by building Middle Creek, it would ruin the town,” Gordon said. “People were saying (guests) wouldn’t come because of it.”

A mayor resigned

One proposal in the late 1990s caused then-Mayor Rob Ford to resign. That proposal called for building housing on the middle bench of Donovan Park, property that had been purchased with money from the town’s open space fund.

An Associated Press story at the time noted that Ford said he was being confronted all day by opponents of the idea.

LeVine said that a proposed cemetery on the site also drew plenty of public opposition.

Gordon said in his experience, those who complain the loudest are often a minority of residents.

Gordon noted the Solaris victory, and mentioned recent town survey questions about the number of events in town. In those surveys, about 80 percent say the number of events is just about right.

In many cases, Gordon said, “The people who show up to meetings are not indicative of the whole community.”

But Vail may have avoided what could have been its biggest controversy.

LeVine was on the council in the early 1990s and recalled there was serious behind-the-scenes discussion about the prospect of the town purchasing the ski resort.

Former Vail Associates owner George Gillett was in the midst of a bankruptcy filing. LeVine said Gillett’s holdings had just been appraised, with Vail Associates coming in at about $300 million.

“The biggest fear on council was (if) the town could withstand the controversy,” LeVine recalled. The town never acted on the idea, given the large amount of debt it would incur, and the almost-certain prospect of a legal challenge from Apollo Partners, which eventually bought Vail Associates’ assets and became Vail Resorts.

“We spent a lot of time on it, but it didn’t come through,” LeVine said.

Vail Daily Business Editor Scott Miller can be reached at smiller@vaildaily.com or 970-748-2930.

Vail Town Council campaign signs get personal with ‘Vote No on Karen Perez’

This story has been corrected to more accurately reflect Vail Town Council member Kevin Foley’s position on the Booth Heights housing proposal.

VAIL — Campaign signs stating “Vail Vote No on Karen Perez Town Council” in the town’s roundabouts were taken down over the weekend.

Contacted Monday, Perez, who is one of seven candidates running for the four available council seats in November’s election, said she was shaken by the appearance of the signs around town. Perez said she suspects who might be responsible for the professionally-printed signs, but she doesn’t want to name that person until a police report has been filed naming them.

“I think it’s really awful that when people put themselves out there (for public service) they become targets,” Perez said.

Meanwhile, town crews removed the signs, in accordance with the town’s code.

Still, it isn’t every year that roundabout signs are pulled up.

Acting Vail Town Manager Patty McKenny has been the town clerk of both Vail and Avon. In an email, McKenny wrote that signs have appeared in the past in roundabouts in both towns, something she expects will happen again. But, she added, those signs are almost always removed. It’s a practice that spans McKenny’s local government career, which has included positions in Minturn and Silverthorne as well as Avon and Vail.

The picked-up campaign signs were all taken to the town’s shops. As of  Monday at midday, only council candidates Kim Langmaid and Brian Stockmar had picked up their signs.

Vail Town Councilman Kevin Foley has lived in town roughly 40 years. Foley said he can’t remember signs urging voters to reject a specific candidate.

“I’ve never seen such a negative tactic (in Vail),” Foley said. “To attack her personally… this isn’t what I thought the citizens of Vail were all about.”

Perez is currently a member of the Vail Planning and Environmental Commission. She voted in the majority when that board, by one vote, approved the controversial Booth Heights housing proposal.

Foley on Sept. 3 voted in favor of a council review of that Aug. 26 decision — the motion failed — but said he hasn’t made up his mind about it. Perez “voted the way she felt after reviewing the criteria,” Foley said.

Vail resident Mark Gordon served on the council from 2005 through 2009. Gordon recalled that there were negative ads against him in that first run for office, and he was elected anyway, winning the most votes of any candidate in that election.

“The town has not responded well to negative ads,” Gordon said, adding that ultimately all Vail’s residents are neighbors.

“We need to coexist,” he said.

Perez said that if elected, she wants to use that position on council to try to heal some of the town’s current divisiveness.

Gordon called the anti-Perez signs “offensive.”

“I’ve seen divisiveness in town, but I’ve never seen the viciousness we’re seeing today,” he said.

National politics has given a kind of “green light for ugliness,” Gordon said. “I’d hoped Vail wouldn’t (follow suit).”

Gordon, a current member of the Vail Commission on Special Events, said there’s no way to monetize a town government position. People who serve on those boards do it “purely out of love for the town,” he said.

Gordon said he has ideas about who might have paid for, printed and distributed the signs, but he wouldn’t share those ideas on the record.

“These people are my neighbors,” he said.“But for a young attorney (Perez) who’s just trying to make a life in Vail to be called out like that is ridiculous. It’s depressing and sad.”

Vail Daily Business Editor Scott Miller can be reached at smiller@vaildaily.com and 970-748-2930.

Vail Town Council candidate forum a chance to speak to town’s residents

VAIL — This year’s group of candidates for seats on the Vail Town Council Wednesday faced the public as a group.

In a forum sponsored by the Vail Board of Realtors and the Vail Chamber & Business Association, the candidates — seven people, including three incumbents, are running for four seats — answered questions from both the organizers and the public.

Candidates were asked about their backgrounds, maintaining a middle class in town and other topics.

The candidates are a diverse bunch.

Pete Seibert Jr. is a Realtor, and the son of the Vail ski area’s founder. Seibert said he believes “It’s my time to give back,” after a lifetime in the community.

Pete Seibert

Incumbent Jen Mason is the director of the Colorado Snowsports Museum, and spent many years with the Vail Valley Foundation running the Gerald R. Ford Amphitheater.

Jenn Mason is among the three incumbents in a seven-candidate group running for four open Vail Town Council seats.

Karen Perez is an attorney and a member of the Vail Planning and Environmental Commission.

Karen Perez

Brian Stockmar is retired after a career as a consulting economist. He’s the chairman of the Vail Planning and Environmental Commission.

Brian Stockmar

Incumbent Kevin Foley is a 40-year resident, and has spent most of that time in the lodging and restaurant businesses.

Kevin Foley

Barry Davis is the co-owner of Yellowbelly Chicken and has started several businesses. He’s a member of the Vail Commission on Special Events.

Barry Davis

Incumbent Kim Langmaid is the founder of Walking Mountains Science Center.

Kim Langmaid

Different perspectives

That experience gives the candidates different perspectives on various topics.

Answering a question about the need for a multi-purpose events center in town, six of the candidates offered support in various ways for a facility that could accommodate groups of between 800 and 1,200 people.

Stockmar said he’s “a bit of a naysayer” about the need for such a facility. Stockmar noted there’s vigorous competition for group business, adding that an events facility could compete with existing facilities at Vail’s hotels.

Stockmar instead said the town’s focus should be on Dobson Ice Arena, which is aging and in need of work.

The candidates had different ideas about how, or whether, to more tightly regulate short-term rentals in town.

Langmaid said it’s time for the town to impose more regulations on that business, noting that it’s “changed the dynamics of my neighborhood” in Intermountain.

Mason said the town needs to look at “communities that have been successful” in regulating the industry.

Seibert questioned whether tighter regulations might constitute a form of governmental “taking” from property owners.

Perez, who served on Denver’s planning commission, said it’s possible to find a “balance” between property rights and neighborhood character.

Stockmark said regulations that have been “properly and carefully developed” could avoid the problem of governmental taking.

Foley said short-term rentals are “turning residential neighborhoods into commercial neighborhoods,” and favored tigher regulations.

Davis said he and his family use short-term rentals when they travel.

“People who use (short term rentals) in Vail want a local flavor,” and said the town could be a leader in putting together regulations that benefit both travelers and residents.

How are they in public?

The forum was held in front of a fairly light crowd at Donovan Pavilion. Those who came said they were eager to see how the candidates reacted to questions in front of an audience.

For former council member Dick Cleveland, attending candidate events is a longtime habit.

“I like to hear (candidates) speaking in public, and thinking on their feet,” resident Pete Thompson said.

Diana Mathias said she came for an in-person opportunity to listen to the candidates had to say.

While the Booth Heights housing proposal has drawn most of the attention in town recently — although there was little discussion of it at the forum — Mathias said there are a lot of other issues facing the town and its leaders.

“We have new buildings, parking, safety,” Mathias said. She also took an optimistic view of all the candidates

“Everybody here has good intentions,” she said.

Vail Daily Business Editor Scott Miller can be reached at smiller@vaildaily.com or 970-748-2930.

Vail Town Council candidate profile: Pete Seibert says it’s time to help lead the town

VAIL — Family’s important to Pete Seibert. In his case, though, a lot of Vail counts as family.

Seibert is the son of Vail founder Pete Seibert. He grew up in town, and is life-long friends with a number of town pioneers. Seibert isn’t name dropping when mentioning the people he’s grown up with; that’s just how his life has unfolded.

Seibert these days is a Realtor and returned to Vail a few years ago, first as a renter, then as an owner of one of the Chamonix townhomes in West Vail. He previously spent several years raising a family in Edwards.

“Edwards was great,” Seibert said. But he’s always had an attachment to Vail. It’s the economic heart of the valley, of course, as well as a social, recreational and entertainment hub.

“Being close to everything is great,” he said.

This is Seibert’s first run for public office. In fact, while many candidates for town council come from one of the town’s volunteer boards, Seibert hasn’t.

“I think it was about time,” he said. “I’ve always had thoughts about how Vail’s going. At a certain point, people need to get involved.”

Seibert said he’s optimistic about Vail’s future, as both a town and resort, but he believes he can help guide that future.

One of the things new council members will have to deal with is a split in the community over the Booth Heights housing proposal.

“That’s one of the reaons I want to run,” he said. “There’s a fractiousness that’s part of that. It’s a different tone that’s gone on than what the pioneers had when they got here.”

Seibert noted that those pioneers often had disagreements, “but they always found a way to work together, and come together for the common good,” he said. “That was the spirit that made things work.”

If elected, Seibert said he’d channel that early spirit by keeping an open mind through hearings and discussions.

“In the midst of a public hearing, you really need to try to keep your thought processes open until you’ve heard from everybody,” he said.

But, he added, it’s also essential to “get away from personalities” and focus on processes.

Those processes will almost certainly involve decisions about the environment, housing and, perhaps, further regulations on short-term rentals in town.

Seibert said the town’s efforts to clean up Gore Creek are working well. And, he added, there’s “some irony” that the Booth Heights proposal has refocused public attention on the bighorn sheep herd in the area.

But, he said, future water issues — particularly when it comes to the prospect of Front Range interests exercising water their rights on local streams — may refocus the entire community on a critical issue.

Future housing decisions need to build on the success of the Vail InDeed program, Seibert said.

“It’s a win-win,” Seibert said of the program. “It’s the easiest way to gain residential units.”

That said, Vail InDeed isn’t the only solution to the town’s decades-long housing crunch.

Short-term rentals have also split opinions in town, with some believing the town needs to more tightly regulate short-term rentals to stop the loss of long-term rentals in town.

Current controls, including a local point of contact for complaints and problems, are a good idea, Seibert said. But, he added, he doesn’t believe the town “should be that involved” with those rentals.

Homeowner and property owner associations can regulate short-term rentals on a complex by complex basis.

Acknowledging the balance between the rise of short-term rentals, Seibert noted that short-term rentals contribute to the town in other ways, including bringing revenue to town.

Seibert said he believes using incentives, not punitive measures, is probably a better solution for many issues.

“If you can reward somebody (for staying in the long-term rental pool), that’s a carrot, not a stick.”

Vail Daily Business Editor Scott Miller can be reached at smiller@vaildaily.com or 970-748-2930.

Colorado Gov. Jared Polis tells Eagle County Democrats to ‘keep showing up’

EAGLEVAIL — Amplify the message.

That was Gov. Jared Polis’ directive to a crowd of about 130 on Friday night at the annual Eagle County Democrats dinner, held at the EagleVail Pavilion.

“Look, we need to keep showing up,” Polis said. “We need to keep getting involved. Winning Eagle County by 27 points last year, that’s a good indicator, but you can never take it for granted for the next election. It’s only as good for that moment in time. And in politics, you’ve got to fight and crawl your way, door to door.”

Among the attendees at Friday night’s dinner: Eagle County commissioners Matt Scherr, Kathy Chandler-Henry and Jeanne McQueeney, state Sen. Kerry Donovan and state Rep. Dylan Roberts, as well as U.S. Senate candidates Diane Bray, Lorena Garcia, Andrew Romanoff, and Trish Zornio, and U.S. House of Representatives candidates Diane Mitsch Bush and Donald Valdez.

Polis, sporting a tie covered with the red “C” of the Colorado state flag, and matching, custom Altra sneakers, went on the stump for about 15 minutes, touting his record on lowering health care costs, paying for kindergarten statewide and putting Colorado on a pathway to 100 percent renewable energy. He also spoke about a commitment to public lands and the recent addition of state’s 42nd state park, Fisher’s Peak, near Trinidad.

“We need to keep talking to people about making sure we maintain a majority in the state Senate and the state House because we will have real achievements to run on,” Polis said. “And you’ll be able to go to people, and we’ll be able to go to Republicans and say, ‘Look, we saved you money on health care, we saved you money on kindergarten. Maybe you don’t like our policy on guns or whatever it is, but look who’s looking out for you? It’s the Democrats.’”

Former county commissioner Jill Ryan, who Polis appointed to be his executive director of public health and environment in January, introduced the governor.

Polis praised Ryan for her work to make Colorado a cleaner, healthier place. That includes pushing auto manufacturers to bring more electric car models to the market and fighting to improve air quality, which in turn lowers medical costs.

Polis joked that he and Donovan and Roberts are much less anxious than they were at this time last year, six weeks out from election day. He then stressed just how important it is for Democrats to keep amplifying their message for the 2020 races.

“When you’re talking to your neighbors and they say, ‘Why are you going to these political events, and why are you always bugging me?’ Because it matters,” Polis said. “Do we care about saving a third on health care? Do we care that every child in our state can now go to kindergarten? Do we care that diabetics no longer have to pay more than $100 a month out of pocket? And the list goes on and on and on. Elections matter. Policies matter.”

He ended his speech by retelling an old, worn story about Benjamin Franklin leaving the Constitutional Convention and being approached by citizens asking what kind of government the delegates had created.

“His answer,” Polis said. “Was a Republic if you can keep it. I think in this day in age, even when we see some of the news today about the current administration talking to foreign governments about investigating children of other presidential candidates, day after day after day we’ve become somewhat inured, but I think it’s important for us to rise to the occasion and, in fact, recognize that this is about keeping the republic. This is about making the republic work for us and work for the people rather than the special interests.”

Vail Town Council candidate profile: Jen Mason says town needs creative solutions

About a week before the deadline to submit a nominating petition, Jen Mason still wasn’t sure she wanted to seek a second term on the Vail Town Council. Now, she’s ready for the run.

Mason said her opinion solidified after talking with several former council members. But, she added, serving on the council is hard work.

“The answers (to issues) seem so clear when you’re in the audience,” Mason said. “But when you’re sitting (at the council table), you have to listen to both sides… And at the end of the day, you have to say ‘yes’ or no.’”

Those decisions, especially the really hard ones, sometimes wake Mason in the middle of the night.

No matter the ultimate fate of the contentious Booth Heights workforce housing proposal, there are going to be hard feelings on the side that doesn’t prevail.

Mason hopes those hard feelings don’t linger, and that people can be “neighborly” to each other.

“As much as you might not see their point of view, I hope people can see people for what they are,” she said.

No matter the fate of Booth Heights, Mason said she’s proud of some of the workforce housing initiatives the council has approved.

The Chamonix townhome neighborhood in West Vail has been a big success, Mason said. Mason lives near the neighborhood, and said she knows “probably a dozen” people who live there.

Mason also thinks the Vail InDeed program, which aims to keep locals in Vail by purchasing deed restrictions on units for sale, has been an innovative way to rebuild the town’s core of full-time residents.

Pulling existing homes out of the second-home market is essential, she said. “We’re not going to build our way out of” the town’s age-old housing problem, she said.

Mason said the town also needs to find a way to keep more rental units out of the short-term rental pool. She believes that many owners will eventually tire of putting their units into the online short-term rental pool. But she’s still like to find a way to incentivize owners to keep their units available for long-term rentals.

“We have to think outside the box,” she said.

Mason also thinks Vail needs to look outside the town limits in looking to build its workforce housing inventory.

While the Vail community stretches from Vail Pass to Dotsero, Mason said the valley to Edwards and including Minturn is the heart of that community.

“I spend a lot of time at (Freedom Park in Edwards),” she said, due to the number of friends she has in that neighborhood.

But building the town’s workforce, whether inside or outside the town limits, will require bolstering the valley’s transportation system, she said. Mason said she wants to see the impacts of a full ski season with the Red Sandstone parking structure, as well as the 2021 completion of Vail Health’s 400-space parking structure before thinking about adding more parking to the town’s inventory.

Mason said she’d ultimately like to see commuter rail service between Gypsum and Dowd Junction, with bus service to take people the rest of the way into Vail.

In the meantime, though, Mason said it’s essential that the town work in closer partnership with Eagle County’s ECO Transit system.

That’s one way the town can pay better attention to its workforce.

As the director of the Colorado Snowsports Museum, Mason has a keen appreciation for the history of the ski industry and, of course, Vail.

She’s a supporter of an initiative to be launched this fall to help town and ski area employees provide better service, in part through knowledge of the town.

We need to give (employees) the tools to be successful at their jobs,” she said. “They need to know where the coffee shops are, where the restrooms are… and being proud of where you live also helps.”

Vail Daily Business Editor Scott Miller can be reached at smiller@vaildaily.com or 970-748-2930.

Vail Town Council candidate profile: Kevin Foley is driven to serve the town

VAIL — For years now, Kevin Foley has often had a place on the Vail Town Council. He loves the work, and voters apparently agree.

Foley, who moved to the valley in 1979, is now in his third stint on the council. He was first elected in 1995 and served until 2001. He returned to the council in 2005 and served until 2013. He was re-elected to the board in 2015, and is seeking a second four-year term.

Between 2013 and 2015, Foley was elected to a four-year term on the Vail Recreation District Board of Directors.

Foley is proud of his time on the recreation district board. The district “does an awful lot for the community,” he said.

During his tenure on that board, the district oversaw the completion of the clubhouse at the Vail Golf Club and successfully asked voters for a mill levy increase in order to both maintain and upgrade its facilities.

Foley said the recreation district’s tax increase was necessary, but he isn’t a fan in general of asking voters for more money.

Foley doesn’t believe the town needs a new, or increased, tax to pay for a housing fund.

“If we allocated resources a little bit better, we could meet our housing needs,” he said. Specifically, Foley believes that the Vail Local Marketing District could use some of the district-specific lodging tax it collects. That tax is expected to raise nearly $3.6 million in 2020.

Foley said if the district would spend about $2 million per year on marketing, it could put about $1.5 million per year into the Bravo! Vail Music Festival, the Vail Dance Festival and other “iconic” town events. Those events are now supported through the town’s general fund.

Freeing up about $1.5 million per year would allow the town to put that money into a housing fund, he said.

Foley is also a less-than-full-throated supporter of the Chamonix neighborhood in West Vail and the town’s Vail InDeed program.

Chamonix, he said, is a “partial success” because it didn’t include lower-priced housing.

Vail InDeed “seems to be working,” he said. “But there’s still some question of whether it hurts our property tax valuation. But for a start, I think it’s pretty good.”

Foley said the town has the potential to “hit a home run” when it re-develops the west side of the Timber Ridge apartments with a combination of for-sale and rental housing. Foley believes that the valley’s bigger employers — Vail Resorts and Vail Health — should be up-front participants in that process. If each would buy a building, that would help with the costs.

The town also needs to be a partner in housing initiatives outside the town limits, Foley said.

More housing outside of town will require improvements to the area’s transit services. Foley is an enthusiastic user of both the town bus system and Eagle County’s ECO Transit, saying he drives only when it’s absolutely necessary.

Whether or not he’s re-elected, Foley said he’ll be a full participant in a process next year that will mirror the “Vail Tomorrow” effort of the 1990s.

Foley’s public service doesn’t end with town boards. He’s also been a volunteer basketball coach at Red Sandstone Elementary School and volunteers in the cafeteria one day a week.

Looking ahead, those are the people Foley believes the town should include in discussions today.

All that service stems from one overriding thought, Foley said.

“I’m fortunate to live here, and I love giving back to the community,” he said. “We do live in the nicest place in the world.”

Vail native Mike Johnston drops out of US Senate race

Despite massive fundraising success and polls showing him in the upper tiers of a crowded field, Vail native and former state Sen. Mike Johnston bowed out of Colorado’s 2020 U.S. Senate race on Tuesday, citing what he predicts will be a negative and expensive bid for the Democratic nod to challenge incumbent Republican Sen. Cory Gardner.

“To win this Democratic primary would now require an expensive and negative campaign,” Johnston said in a lengthy statement. “That is not who I am, and no race is worth conceding victory to a brand of broken politics that I have spent my life trying to change.”

Hick’s big reversal

Johnston raised a non-incumbent record $1.8 million in the first quarter of the year and reportedly had more than $2.6 million to spend, but then came the announcement last month by former Gov. John Hickenlooper that he was bowing out of the presidential race. A week later, Hickenlooper jumped into the Senate race and became the immediate favorite.

“Mike Johnston is a friend, a tremendous public servant and a great Coloradan,” Hickenlooper tweeted Tuesday. “He’s always put the good of the state and indeed country first. I know he will continue to help Colorado do great things going forward.”

In January, when he first announced his Senate campaign, Johnston told the Vail Daily that Hickenlooper was clearly focused on a White-House-or-bust strategy and was not particularly interested in the upper chamber of Congress.

“[Hickenlooper] seems pretty busy in Iowa and New Hampshire right now, which makes me strongly believe he’s got bigger plans than running for the U.S. Senate, so unless he’s opening a Wynkoop Brewery in Des Moines, I think he’s probably on the route to do something big,” Johnston said of Hickenlooper, the former Denver brewpub owner turned mayor and governor.

A long string of statements from Hickenlooper seemed to indicate he would not run for Senate, but something clearly changed in mid-August as a growing chorus of political analysists and Democratic Party insiders urged a culling of the presidential herd in order to also recapture the Senate. Politico recently predicted the Dem field would not just clear out for Hickenlooper.

Reactions from other candidates

Former Colorado Speaker of the House Andrew Romanoff, who was dueling Johnston in the polls and plans to stay in the Senate chase, had this to say on Twitter:

“I’ve gotten to know Mike, to meet his family & to admire his extraordinary gifts — especially over the last 7 months. While we found ourselves on different sides of this race, we share not just a Democratic Party but a deep commitment to democracy. Both are stronger because of him.”

Former U.S. attorney for Colorado John Walsh, who’s also seeking the Democratic nod, emailed this statement on Johnston: “Mike Johnston ran a great race. He was a gracious candidate and presence on the campaign trail. Lisa and I wish him and his family all the best in their future endeavors.”

Current Gov. Jared Polis, who beat Johnston in the 2018 Democratic gubernatorial primary, offered this statement: “Mike Johnston is an inspirational, smart, and effective leader and I know that our state and nation will continue to benefit from his desire to create real change.”

A spokesman for Gardner declined to comment.

Johnston’s decision to drop out

Here’s Johnston’s full statement:

“The most rewarding parts of my life have come when I was part of a team: a team of teachers building a school; a team of legislators passing laws to fight the climate crisis or stop gun violence; a team of citizens helping elect a president.

“Over the last eight months, we have built an incredible team of people bound by a shared mission: to defeat Cory Gardner and take back the U.S. Senate; to deliver progressive solutions on the climate crisis, democracy reform, immigration and guns; and to restore people’s faith in politics and each other.

“Over the last few weeks we have reached a place where those goals are at odds. The campaign we would need to run to win this race would violate my basic values in politics and could risk us losing this Senate seat.

“To win this Democratic primary would now require an expensive and negative campaign. That is not who I am, and no race is worth conceding victory to a brand of broken politics that I have spent my life trying to change. 

“That divisive process would break long-standing relationships in this state and would only increase the chances that a battered Democratic nominee would help Gardner win and help McConnell keep control of the Senate. With the climate crisis, the future of the Supreme Court, and the core tenets of our democracy on the line, the stakes are too high for me to take that risk. I cannot be true to my values and lead a campaign that abandons the politics of what is possible in favor of a politics of attack, or a campaign that puts at risk the very goal my family entered this race to accomplish. That is why today I am suspending my campaign for the U.S. Senate.

“I am not walking away from the work of building our democracy, but running towards it. I believe in this work more deeply than ever, and believe we need leaders of courage and conviction in a time of crisis. I am deeply committed to advancing the work we have started and will remain dedicated to fighting the climate crisis and fixing our broken democracy.

“I know there will be other moments to serve in other ways, but when you’re part of a team, it does not matter what role you play, it matters what result you deliver. When you remember that the team is bigger than you, you find your place not according to what serves you best, but what serves us best.” 

Colorado confirms suspected Russian hacker “jiggled the lock” on state voter database — but couldn’t get in

A computer linked to Russian hackers tried to access Colorado’s voter registration database ahead of the 2016 election, but the effort proved unsuccessful, state officials confirmed for the first time Friday.

The secretary of state’s office, which oversees elections, matched a suspicious Internet protocol address flagged by the Department of Homeland Security as a potential bad actor to one used in October 2016 to scan the state’s database for potential vulnerabilities.

Colorado officials reported the behavior to homeland security officials at the time, but assured federal authorities that no breach was detected. The state’s election system is considered one of the most secure in the nation.

“It was basically, they scanned our front door to see, ‘Are there any vulnerabilities?’” said Colorado election director Judd Choate in an interview with The Colorado Sun. He said the would-be hacker “jiggled the lock and made sure the door was solid and said, ‘OK, I can’t get into this one, so I’m going to move on to another one.’”

Colorado was identified in September 2017 as one of 21 states potentially targeted by hackers linked to Russia in the fall of 2016, but many of the details about the interaction remained classified until now. “It was certain at the time, but we couldn’t tell you that,” Choate said.

Read more via The Colorado Sun.

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Andrew Romanoff Q&A: Challenger to Cory Gardner is fighting politics as usual

EAGLEVAIL — If you like the way the system works, Andrew Romanoff is not your guy. 

The former speaker of the Colorado House of Representatives and the early Democratic front-runner to challenge Republican Cory Gardner for his Senate seat in 2020 is not running on a platform of incremental change. 

“We’re running out the clock to combat the climate crisis, to take the most obvious example, but also to secure health care for everyone,” Romanoff said in a recent sitdown with the Vail Daily. “Tens of thousands of Americans are dying each year because they can’t afford to see a doctor. So what I’m bringing to this race is not just a set of legislative skills I built as one of the most effective leaders in America, but also a sense of urgency that I think is missing from these debates.”

Romanoff spent the last four years leading Mental Health Colorado after losing to Republican Mike Coffman in his 2014 bid for Colorado’s 6th Congressional District seat. Before that, he lost to Michael Bennet in the Democratic primary in the 2010 Senate race. 

In each of those races, campaign finance was a key sticking point, with Romanoff refusing to take any donations from political action committees. He’s vowed to continue to do the same in his bid to take on Gardner, running what he calls a grassroots, retail, PAC-free, people-powered campaign in a race where Gardner is raking in special interest money from 10 different fundraising committees

In a wide-ranging interview at the Vail Daily offices, with his loyal dog, Zorro, by his side, Romanoff talked about his campaign pillars — combatting the climate crisis, fighting for universal health care, building an economy that works for all and reforming a broken immigration system — while sharing anecdotes from his recent swing around the Western Slope. 

This interview has been edited for clarity and condensed. 

Vail Daily: You lost your last two races. What inspired you to want to do this again? 

Andrew Romanoff: I spent the last few years running a mental health organization and I didn’t want anybody else in Colorado to suffer or struggle or die on account of problems that we could fix, and in this case, mental illness, or drug addiction, suicide. And we’ve made a lot of progress. We helped pass a measure here on the ballot just two years ago that invests in mental health funding. And now four other counties have followed suit. We helped in Summit, in Denver, in Larimer, and in San Miguel counties do the same thing. So we’ve made a lot of progress. But almost everything we’re doing is at risk of being unraveled by the federal government. It’s not just Donald Trump at fault here, it’s his enablers at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue. So when it comes to securing health care, including mental health and substance use treatment, for all, combating the climate crisis, building an economy that works for everyone, reforming the immigration system, reducing the risk of gun violence — pick an issue and you’ll find a roadblock in the U.S. Senate. And that’s not acceptable to me as an American.

VD: This is maybe the most-watched Senate race in the country. Obviously, Cory Gardner is vulnerable. There’s been some, at least in the media, thinking that whoever comes out of this bloody Democratic primary should be a slam dunk to win this thing. What are your thoughts on that?

AR: Yeah, that’s completely wrong. Colorado is a purple state, we’re not red or blue. And they’re going to spend unheard of amounts of money on the Republican side. And they have to. If you’ve got a record like Sen. Gardner, you know it’s not a winning argument to run on. Right? You’re not going to come back to Colorado if you bother to hold a town meeting at all, which he hasn’t done the last few years. I mean, he’s a shrewd guy. So he knows that the only way to win a race like this in a state like ours is to masquerade as a moderate and to hope that nobody notices the difference between what he says in Colorado and what he does in Washington. He’s not going to come back to Colorado and say, “Hey, vote for me and I will allow insurance companies to discriminate against you on the basis of pre-existing conditions. I’ll block progress to combat the climate crisis. I’ll allow this administration to cage children and tear families apart.” If you go down to each of the votes, they’re at odds with where most people in Colorado stand. So the reason that he’s going to spend all the money that you just mentioned is because he’s got to try to cover up the record. 

VD: Can you win this primary taking no money from special interests, which you said you’ve vowed to do?

AR: Yes, I will. We’ve got a lot of individuals chipping in to make up for all the special interest money that’s headed to Cory’s camp. We’ve got I think more contributions from more people, particularly people in Colorado, than any other candidate. We’ve got endorsements from more county commissioners, mayors, school board members, city council members, legislators than all the other candidates combined — 20 types of endorsements I think, almost 300 elected officials have signed on. So we’re building a grassroots, retail, PAC-free, people-powered campaign. And we’ll find out, I mean, if that’s the kind of campaign that voters actually want to reward. I tell people all the time, I mentioned this in Grand Junction this morning — if you like the way the system works, you should pick somebody else. I think people in Congress, no offense to our own delegation, but they get too comfortable. They get health benefits that are more generous than most Americans. They get a pension plan, which most people can only dream about. They even get a paycheck if the government shuts down, so I think it’s easy to be insulated from the problems your constituents face.

Andrew Romanoff arrives at a campaign stop in Denver in 2010 during his Senate run against Michael Bennet.
AP file photo

VD: You had a family member commit suicide at a family reunion, which led you to Mental Health Colorado. Colorado has one of the highest suicide rates in the country and Eagle County has a suicide rate that’s way off the grid for a county of this size. What did you learn, working for Mental Health Colorado, about how we can combat this crisis?

AR: One thing I learned is that laws are useless unless you actually enforce them. So I supported, when I was in the state house, a law to enhance mental health parity — the law that says insurance companies have to provide equal coverage for mental health and physical care. It’s not just a good idea, it’s the law. But in practice, people are going out of network more often, traveling farther, paying more, waiting longer to get mental health and substance use services than comparable physical care. And we shouldn’t have to go back to the state legislature or Congress for that matter, which also has a parity law on the books, and pass another law that says we really meant it when we passed the first one. We ought to start by enforcing the laws we’ve got. So at Mental Health Colorado, I led the charge, not just to increase funding — we helped five counties now invest about $68 million in mental health and substance use treatment — but also to hold the insurance industry accountable. To say, look, it’s not acceptable — it’s not legal for you to deny claims to folks who are entitled to equal coverage for mental health care and to narrow the networks that you maintain so that you can exclude as many folks who need coverage as possible.

One thing we’ve learned again on this trip, we’re not where we need to be in terms of high-speed broadband internet access. So even at a place where we can’t physically get a mental health provider, we should be able to beam one in if we had the telecommunications infrastructure in place. So telehealth is a really promising area in mental health care, but it only works if you actually can hook up. And then I guess the most important place that we ought to make a difference, and one thing I learned in the work I did at Mental Health Colorado for the last four years, is to invest in school-based mental health services. We know that in most cases, the first signs of mental illness occur during adolescence. But we also know there’s a gap between the onset of symptoms and the arrival of treatment, a delay that lasts on average for eight to 10 years. And so getting more school counselors, psychologists, social workers, nurses and schools, getting more school staff trained to spot the early warning signs, then most of all, just making sure there’s somebody on-site that whom kids at risk can be referred. You’ve got to engage the families and parents in this conversation. 

VD: The state’s new red flag law is obviously a very contentious thing, and it ties in with these mental health efforts. The sheriff here in Eagle County has said he’s opposed to it, while our police chief in Vail was one of the supporters who were on the capitol steps when it was signed into law. Should there be a national red flag law?  

AR: With this law, there is a burden of proof.  And the removal of the weapon is temporary. You get your gun back unless the judge concludes by a standard of clear and convincing evidence that the danger persists. That’s the highest standard in civil law. So when the gun lobby says, “Hey, we’re holding out for a higher standard,” we asked them like, “What standards you have in mind because there isn’t one?” By the way, it’s not going to stop every tragedy or prevent every shooting, that’s the other piece I’ve heard from the opposition that this law won’t save everyone. And they’re right, no law can do that. It’s a ridiculous demand to put to any piece of legislation and the question instead ought to be, does this have the effect of reducing the rate of gun violence? Does it square with the Constitution? Has it been tried in other states? And the answer to all those questions is yes.

VD: A lot of people who want sensible reform on our gun laws want to know, why does it have to be this way? Why have we decided that this is where we’re at in the national gun conversation? 

AR: We have laid out a fairly aggressive agenda on this issue on the website. So you’re right, by the way, this can’t be the new normal. It doesn’t have to be this way. And it wasn’t this way, and it’s not this way, actually, in other countries. We have the highest rate of gun deaths among children among any nation on Earth that keeps track of these statistics. So I had a similar conversation with a hunter in Ridgway on Monday night. He said, “Look, I hunt, I have guns. But I got no problem with a background check. I don’t need a military-style assault weapon, I’m not a bad shot.” So there are a set of common-sense proposals that command support from a majority of gun owners themselves, and from Republicans. I think background checks alone, by one poll, are supported by 97% of the American people. The problem, of course, is that the NRA whose views are in the minority, commands disproportionate power in Congress because of the money it spends to protect its extreme agenda and to bankroll members of Congress, like Cory Gardner, who follow its lead. I mean, Cory has benefitted from more NRA money than all but four other members of the U.S. House or Senate. And it was a really good investment the NRA made in him because he has blocked action on every single common-sense proposal that we might pass. The good news is, I think there are more of us in the majority on this position than there are in the extreme wing of the gun lobby. But that’s not going to change unless we also break the death grip that these kinds of interest groups hold over members of Congress. It means reforming the way we finance campaigns. I’m trying to lead by example, as communicated by turning down money from special interest groups. In fairness, the NRA’s not actually offered me a lot of money, and I’m not taking it. I think I earned an F during my time in the legislature.

VD: Immigration policy is a huge issue here in Eagle County. Not just illegal immigration, but also we’ve got an issue with worker visas that used to be a reliable source of workforce labor for anything from construction to skilled laborers doing landscaping work as well as people that run the ski lift chairs. How do we come up with an immigration policy that narrows the great divide on this issue from “build a wall” over here to people who say we need to create a path to citizenship. It’s an economics issue and a values issue.

AR: I think that, yeah, the divide actually is narrower among the American people than on Capitol Hill. If you ask most folks across the country, “Do you want to provide clear rules for employers and employees? Do you want to provide a path to citizenship for people who are willing to play by the rules?” Most people say yes. “Do you want to do something different to protect kids who were brought here at a young age and have, what is now, just temporary protection of the program called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals?” Most people say yes. If you ask folks, “Hey, do you recognize that immigrants are contributing more to the economy than they’re consuming? And by the way,  committing crimes at lower rates than native-born Americans? Do you recognize that we’re a nation of immigrants and that we’re stronger because of our differences?” I think most folks, if you actually get past the toxic politics in Washington, say yes. The trouble is, we’ve got not only a president of the United States who has demonized immigrants and refugees and caged children and torn families apart and dishonored our heritage and undermined our standing around the world and our values here at home, we’ve also got a group of folks at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, particularly in the U.S. Senate, who are willing to turn a blind eye at best to the abuse that he’s committed on the Constitution and on our immigration system. And at worst, enabling those abuses to continue.

VD: Enabling his worst impulses.

AR: Yeah. So I was really disappointed because I’m a Coloradan before I’m a candidate. And I’d be happier if Cory Gardner actually did what he said he was going to do in 2014 when he pledged to stand up to his own party to speak out for Colorado, to be an independent voice for the state. So I would have been happier if he had signed on to comprehensive immigration reform, if he had stood up to the president when Donald Trump issued this fake declaration of a national emergency to authorize a law that Congress had refused to fund. I’d be happy if Cory Gardner, in other words, had joined the group of 12 Republican senators who defended the Constitution and the separation of powers and said no to Donald Trump. But Cory didn’t do any of those things.

VD: He has said he’s committed to bipartisan immigration reform. Is that all hat and no cattle?

AR: Yes, yes, I know that he talks a good game, I’ve served with him in the House for four years. But, at the end of the day, I have not found a single, major issue of public policy including immigration reform, where Senator Gardner has broken with Mitch McConnell and Donald Trump. Maybe there’s an example that he’ll share at some point, but I haven’t seen it. And I’ll tell you, just this week, traveling around the Western Slope, it’s pretty clear that both the president’s words and deeds have carried consequences for real people. I met a woman in Montrose this week who was brought here as a child from Guatemala at about 3 months old. She’s now about 19, so she’s known no other country. This is her home. And she said kids at school told her to go back where she came from. And they said, “Don’t bother getting an education because you’re not going to be more than a maid.” And that bigotry didn’t begin with Donald Trump and it won’t end when he leaves office. But this president has emboldened extremists, has echoed the language of white nationalism, has issued racist threats to members of Congress themselves, as you heard on Sunday, in a way that’s profoundly scaring and dangerous and sickening to most Americans of goodwill. So it’s not just a dog whistle that he’s using, it’s a bullhorn. And it makes me angry as an American and as the son and grandson of immigrants. I wouldn’t be here — I just knew I wouldn’t be in America if this country had not opened its doors to my mom and all four of my grandparents. And I’m glad we’re here. I think we are better off, both as a family and as a country. We are richer economically, culturally, intellectually because we have welcomed people to contribute their talents to a nation that needs them.

Andrew Romanoff calls Cory Gardner a shrewd guy. “He knows that the only way to win a race like this in a state like ours is to masquerade as a moderate and to hope that nobody notices the difference between what he says in Colorado and what he does in Washington.”
Daily file photo

I guess the last thing I’ll say is that just on this subject if you want, there is some good news here, if you put a proposal for comprehensive immigration reform on the floor of the United State Senate tomorrow, it would pass. But that’s the whole point, is that they don’t want to put it on the floor. It won’t be on the floor because Mr. McConnell doesn’t want it there and he’s announced that he alone gets to decide what gets a hearing once it gets a vote. I was the speaker of the House, I led the legislature for four years. So I’m the only candidate in the race, actually, who has led the state legislature. But I didn’t get the power to decide which bills get a vote or hearing. The Constitution says every bill does, and I think the U.S. Senate would do better to follow the rules of the Colorado General Assembly [laughter] than to allow one member of the U.S. Senate to block action on every bill. Mitch McConnell, by the way, wouldn’t have the ability to do that if enough members of his own caucus stood up and demanded something different. And Cory Gardner hasn’t done that, won’t do that. And that’s profoundly frustrating to me and to most of his constituents.

VD: You say you’re a Coloradan before you’re a candidate. Up here in Eagle County, the lifeblood of this place is our outdoor recreational industry, our open spaces, our public lands. We’ve seen the effects of global climate change, whether it’s an avalanche season like we just had that was a 150-year event, or the fires last summer. And we’re running out of time. How do you make the argument for a green new economy that can be green as well as grow the economy, and make that argument to people that think this is just liberals talking crazy?

AR: So it’s got to be green in both senses, right? It’s got to be better for the environment and better for the economy so people can continue to earn a living. And we had this conversation. You’re right. We’ve been having this conversation not just this week in the Western Slope, but across the states. So I want to make sure I say the same thing to you that I’m saying to somebody in Denver, Boulder, Greeley or Grand Junction. I’ll share with you one conversation. So I met with a group of pipefitters in Adams County going through to Denver a month or two ago, and they asked me a question about the climate crisis. They didn’t ask whether it was a hoax because they know it’s not. I mean, unlike the president, they actually understand the science. And they can see the market already shifting in this direction because sun, and wind, and geothermal, and other renewable sources are increasingly cost-competitive at worst with oil, and gas, and coal. So that wasn’t their question. There wasn’t a question about whether this transition’s coming, because it is. I think we need to accelerate it. Their question was instead, “Will you help us get jobs in this clean energy economy? Will you invest in us?” And the answer I gave them, the answer we have to give, I think, as a country is, “Yes. We’re willing to support your education, your training, help you get the skills you need.” There are more good jobs to be had in clean energy. That’s the good news.

But it’s hard. If you have been doing the same thing for much of your life, if you’re my age, if you’re middle-aged, just to have somebody say, “Hey. We’re going to have to shift this job to clean energy because of the catastrophic damage that we’re doing to the planet by the carbon emissions that we’re producing,” that’s a tough sell unless we’re willing to help you protect your paycheck. I think if you ask somebody to pick between protecting their paycheck and protecting the environment, they’ll pick their paycheck because they got a family to feed, and a mortgage to pay, or rent they owe, bills to pay. And it’s an understandable priority, so I want to make sure that nobody loses their income because of this transition. But I don’t want to sugarcoat this. I mean, we are, to your point, running out of time to reduce the carbon emissions that are choking all of us. This is not some distant threat, right? It’s here now. We’ve admitted more pollution by some counts in the last 40 years, than all of human history, and we’re seeing the devastation every day. We’re going to pay more in the long run because of the devastation that we are inflicting on our own economy, recreation, and agriculture, tourism. To me, the evidence is clear and overwhelming. And the only questions are one, how quickly we can make this transition and two, whether we’re willing to ensure that folks, whose jobs are being disrupted by the transition, are not treated like collateral damage.

VD: You spoke about the gun lobby having outside sway with Congress. It seems like that’s the case too with these old energy companies, as well as campaigns and misinformation on their part in terms of the scientific consensus on global climate change that is overwhelming.

AR: Yeah, I mean, ExxonMobil and these other fossil fuel companies have had this information for years, and they covered it up. It reminds me that —I mean, the tobacco industry knew that smoking was bad for you. And they all raised their hand at a famous hearing on Capitol Hill to say, “No, no evidence here, nothing to see here. Don’t disturb our profits.” Yeah, look, I’m not a conspiracy theorist, but you can follow the money. The reason that we’re not getting the climate action we need is because the fossil fuel industry has figured out pretty quickly that it’s easier to bankroll Congress, including the Energy and Natural Resources Committee on which Cory Gardner sits, and then just block reform. You can follow the same argument to your point on gun violence prevention, on health care reform, the pharmaceutical industry. I mean, this is a profoundly corrupt system. And we’re not going to get the changes we need unless we fix it. I’m trying to lead by example, by turning down these contributions by special interest groups.

But the best idea I’ve heard came from somebody, who pointed out, if you’re not willing to reform our campaign finance system, if you’re not willing to reduce the role of money and increase the power of people and break the stranglehold that these interest groups have exerted on Congress, why don’t we at least require candidates to wear the decals of their corporate sponsors on their clothing, like NASCAR drivers? Have at least a little more truth in advertising, right?

VD: For a lot of people that are living up here, the cost of health insurance is too much. It’s a question of: “Can I pay my rent or my mortgage or I can I have health insurance?

AR: Yeah. That’s not acceptable when so many people need actually both. I talked to a woman in Ouray who said, “We got to just roll the dice. I can’t afford health insurance. My husband and I are relatively young and healthy. Even if I pay these payments, which I can’t afford, I’ll still have a high deductible. So I’m not sure what I’m paying for and I’m just going to hope I don’t get sick and go without insurance.” I mean it’s an understandable decision. It’s not the best decision.

VD: It’s not a reckless decision in her mind.

AR: No. But it’s not the best decision for the country.

Vail Daily Editor Nate Peterson can be reached at npeterson@vaildaily.com.