Not done yet: Kerry Donovan returns home to Vail while awaiting next opportunity to serve
As she finishes out her 8-year service in the Colorado Senate, Donovan reflects on her job, accomplishments and looks to the future
For the last eight years, Kerry Donovan has been serving as the state senator for Colorado’s District 5 serving Pitkin, Eagle, Gunnison, Delta, Lake, Hinsdale and Chaffee counties. But now as her term comes to a close, she’s returning home to her family’s Edwards ranch while she contemplates her next move.
As Donovan rounds of out her eight-year term, she’s reflecting on all that she accomplished, preparing to miss “every single piece” of her job and looking for her next opportunity to serve her local community.
“When your day starts out with walking into a state Capitol, it’s hard not to feel very lucky, fortunate and honored to have that job,” Donovan said last week during an interview in Vail. “And the work you get to do is just really important and incredible if you take it seriously.”
A legacy to serve
While Donovan didn’t necessarily plan to run for the Colorado Senate initially, politics are in her blood.
“My dad was the longest-serving member of the Vail Town Council, my mom the longest serving member of the Vail Planning & Environmental Commission,” Donovan said.
This meant that her upbringing in Vail was full of memories of both of her parents paying it forward in community service and civic engagement. This includes a memory of her mom typing up the Vail signage code at their kitchen table on a typewriter.
As Donovan grew up, this legacy drew her directly into public service in Eagle County. It included working at the Vail Valley Foundation, directing the Minturn Community Fund, serving as the director of academics at the Vail Ski and Snowboard Academy and ultimately following in her father’s footsteps and serving on Vail Town Council.
It was during her service on the local Town Council that Donovan first received the call to serve a larger constituency.
“I got on a short list to run for Senate District 5 and you don’t say no,” Donovan said. “I heard my grandfather’s voice in my head and I heard my parent’s voices in my head and so I picked the phone back up and said, ‘Yeah, count me in.’”
Donovan was first elected to the Colorado State Senate in November 2014 to serve her home community. She was re-elected in 2018.
Throughout her eight years, Donovan would continue to be driven forward by her experiences in local government — with her parent’s voices continuing to offer her advice.
“Really early on, I was talking to my dad about it and complaining that I hadn’t skied. It was halfway through the season, and I was complaining to him that I hadn’t skied a day,” she said. “And he looked at me, and with the clarity that only my dad can muster with one-liners, he goes: ’There’s 160,000 people depending on you, that mountain will be there when you’re done.’”
For Donovan, serving these 160,000 was the crux of her public service in the Senate.
“You’re working for everyone else who’s too damn busy to pay attention or worry about what state government is doing because they’re trying to figure out how to get to their shift at the bar and pick up their kid. They’re trying to figure out how to take their girlfriend out for dinner next month, but they’re not sure that they can afford it. They just got a bad phone call from a friend that’s in a rocky place,” Donovan said.
“No one needs to be thinking about state government: that’s my job,” she added.
The last eight years
Donovan’s experiences growing up in Vail, serving the community and working at her family’s Copper Bar Ranch would ultimately drive her accomplishments in the state Senate.
“You carry your whole experience with you into office and try to use that experience to always make sure you’re walking in other peoples’ shoes when you’re voting,” she said. “My life set me up well to be an elected representative for Colorado. It was really fun.”
This, Donovan added, is what is amazing about America, and something often taken for granted.
“We are supposed to be a citizen-led nation,” she said. “You’re not supposed to be a descendant from a deity or ultra wealthy or a landed gentry; you’re just supposed to be a citizen who raises their hand, gains the support of their community and then take your life experience to make the best decision you can.”
Walking away from her service, one of her biggest lessons was the importance of having elected representatives that “really fight for their district and not just toe a party line, or respond to the pressure of a special interest.”
“You have to be an independent voice for the people that sent you there,” Donovan said.
Listening to the citizens in her district also led Donovan to take up issues that she never expected to tackle.
“I thought I’d work on like water, ski resort issues, I-70 and I ended up working on health care and broadband — two issues that I never thought I’d end up working on,” she said.
For Donovan, the way she was able to move the needle on these two issues represent some of the proudest moments of her service. For broadband, this included helping drive legislation on the regulation and allocation of funding for rural broadband.
For health care, passing the public option health care bill was both “really meaningful,” and required her to learn how to fight for her constituents, not be intimidated by special interests and how to tell impactful stories, she said.
“Health care was an issue from the first door I knocked on, I heard about up here. And we made huge, huge strides. But boy, I did not know the battle that I was picking,” Donovan said. “The bill I ran last year on health care was the most lobbied against bill in the history of Colorado in terms of dollars spent against it.”
With this fight and many others, Donovan maintained that the stories of her constituents propelled her forward. With this, she also expressed pride for some of her progressive work on climate change as well as the passage of a state-run portable benefit plan.
The work that remains
While Donovan worked throughout her two Senate terms to really push for a number of big projects, it doesn’t change the fact that there’s still work to be done.
“I think if any elected official says, ‘Nope I did I all,’ I think they’re probably not listening to folks,” Donovan said.
Looking forward, Donovan said that climate change, behavioral health and affordable housing will be the biggest issues to face the local Senate district and Eagle County.
Climate change, she added, is right at Eagle County’s back door.
“I look up right now at International and that should not be bare of snow,” Donovan said. “Climate change, we know what it looks like.”
And, while she’s proud of her work with health care, the next step she said is to ensure that a spectrum of mental health care is not only included in traditional health care, but also supported and accessible to all.
“This stripe of the Rocky Mountains has some of the highest death by suicide rates in the country. I think a lot of us have been touched personally by death by suicide, and so I think that’s the next big hurdle for the state, and therefore for this district to lead on,” she said.
Local leadership, with state support, she said will drive change on affordable housing as a lack of places for workers to live continues to impact local mountain and resort communities.
“It’s time for a lot of mountain towns and resort communities — and I think they’re doing the work — to decide if they want another $25 million mansion that’s lived in 21 days or if they want to refocus their vision for the future and the development practices they have on locals and people that live here 365 days a year,” Donovan said. “That’s no an easy decision.”
While Donovan herself wants to continue to serve her community and tackle these challenges and more, her next move is currently up in the air.
Last November, she pulled out of her campaign against Rep. Lauren Boebert to represent Colorado’s 3rd Congressional district after she was “drawn out of the district,” she said.
“I think Congresswoman Boebert is one of the most hateful and divisive persons in Congress right now. And day after day, we’re confronted with a current event that shows how peoples’ words and behaviors have tragic and real consequences. I feel sad that she’s the Congresswoman for so many people that she doesn’t strive to represent,” Donovan said. “No race is impossible to win, but the way the district was drawn, I’m afraid that her hateful voice will be with us for a while.”
Donovan is certainly not done with public service, however.
“One of the reasons I love public service is you really do get to change your district, change your state and change your world. And there’s lots of ways to change the world, but I love being accountable to voters,” she said. “I hope an opportunity opens up like this. This was never a plan; I didn’t think I was going to be a state senator. So, I hope in 10 years from now I hope I’m saying, ‘Well, I never thought I’d be a … whatever.’ But I would love to keep serving the people of Colorado.”
For now, however, she’s excited to get back to the ranch and get it on good footing she said.
“That’s also one of the things that’s bigger than myself — keeping a good chunk of Eagle County as an operating cattle ranch is really important to me and really important to my parents,” Donovan said. “So, I’m going to focus on that for a while and then share what I’ve learned in politics and issue advocacy with anyone who asks and see what happens.”
And while she will miss getting to travel the state and meet and listen to her constituents, she’s excited to spend more time back at home and maybe even get in a few ski days next year.
No matter what, however, this is not the last time Donovan plans to serve the people of Colorado, she’s just waiting for that next chance to do it.
“I’m term-limited but not done,” Donovan said.
Reporter Ali Longwell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.