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Energy makes Garfield County an election battleground

Phillip Yates
Glenwood Springs correspondent
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado

GLENWOOD SPRINGS, Colorado ” Five groups from outside Garfield County have spent about $45,700 in the last two months to sway voters in this year’s two county commissioner races.

State campaign finance reports, court documents and local advertising rate cards show that three of the outside groups have connections to the several active state GOP members.

Those people include the Colorado Republican Party’s outside legal counsel, the chief of staff for former congressman Scott McInnis, and a Republican political consultant with ties to several state organizations. The groups supporting the Democratic candidates are a Montana-based environmental coalition, which includes Grand Junction-based Western Colorado Congress, and a Denver-based left-leaning organization.



The money flooding the two races comes as many state officials see Garfield County as the epicenter of energy development in Colorado. Bob Elderkin, a Silt-area resident who is a member of the Colorado Mule Deer Association and a former regulator for the Bureau of Land Management, said the future shape of the Garfield County Board of Commissioners may be especially important to oil and gas companies. He said the county has wide latitude to regulate the area oil and gas industry. “This county is their number 1 gas play in the state,” Elderkin said.

As of Friday, state records indicate two independent organizations have spent about $24,500 to pay for mailers and television ads to support Republicans John Martin, a thre-term incumbent, and Mike Samson, Rifle High School’s dean of students. Another $13,550 has gone to pay for political advertising in support of Democrats Stephen Bershenyi, a Carbondale blacksmith/artist and Steve Carter, a Rifle attorney and former county judge.



Of the final $7,650, which is an estimate based on state court records and the Glenwood Springs Post Independent advertising rate card, at least $7,000 was spent on a mailer that attacked Carter and called him a “Boulder liberal.” The remainder specifically targeted Martin.

All of the candidates said they had no knowledge of the work and expenditures done on their behalf. Samson is battling Carter in the District 3 race, while Bershenyi faces off against Martin in the District 2 race. Although commissioner candidates run in districts, every voter in the county has a voice in each race.

More money is expected to be reported from outside groups because of the large number of mailers, phone calls, and radio and television ads county residents are currently seeing.



The candidates, themselves, have raised $93,200 for their campaigns this year, according to their recent filings with the state. While the money spent and raised on this year’s commissioner race might seem paltry compared to the amount blown on federal races in this election, it is significantly higher than spending in previous years.

Garfield County Commissioner Larry McCown, a Republican who is not running for re-election, said the money coming into the race shows the area is a “battleground” over the future of oil and gas development in the state.

“The commission has previously been a Republican-dominated board with a Democrat in the minority,” McCown said. “So both sides of the issue are looking, basically, to protect their turf and their beliefs.”

That hardening of position comes at a time when the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission had issued 2,260 drilling permits for wells in Garfield County as of early October. Last year, the state issued 2,550 drilling permits in the county. Forty percent of all drilling permits issued in the state last year were for wells in Garfield County, although that does not necessarily translate into immediate drilling activity. While the county does not approve drilling permits or regulate well pads, it does have the authority to approve or deny critical infrastructure for oil gas operations in the county, such as access roads, compressor stations, pipelines and temporary housing for workers at well pads.

McCown said energy companies are generally supporting the Republican party in this year’s election because of its “values and historical philosophy,” while the environmental groups are lining up behind Bershenyi and Carter based on the two Democratic candidates’ platforms and publicly stated comments. “There has kind of been a line drawn in the sand, and it is going to be whether the industry gets to continue and Garfield County gets to prosper or we get to put in stricter regulations and choke the industry down to a level where they will not function and thrive in a profitable manner in our county and drive us back into economic doldrums,” McCown said.

But Commissioner Tresi Houpt, a Democrat, said a recent presentation by staff of Headwater Economics ” a Bozeman, Mont.-based independent research group ” indicated that higher taxes and increased regulation haven’t significantly impacted energy development in other states of the American West.

“It is commodity driven,” she said. “If the commodity’s value is high enough to be able to allow the industry to make a profit in the area, then they will be here.”

Houpt also said the infusion of cash from outside groups into this year’s commissioner races is largely because of the debate over how energy development should be regulated. “But I think it is unfortunate, because I always believed that local governments shouldn’t be partisan because we have so many varying issues … which really need to be looked at in what is in the best interest of the county,” she said.

Election spenders: Oil and gas, environmental groups

State records and interviews give a glimpse of how oil and gas interests and environmental and advocacy groups are spending their money in this year’s county commissioner race. The Western Organization of Resource Councils (WORC), a Billings, Mont.-based environmental and advocacy group, has laid out about $13,550 in independent expenditures in support of Bershenyi and Carter since Oct. 13, according to the group’s filings with the state.

That money has gone to pay for mailers, phone calls and work done by the group’s staff members, who are out knocking on doors in Garfield County to support Bershenyi and Carter, said Aaron Browning, political director of the WORC.

“We feel like that out of all of the candidates, (Carter and Bershenyi) are going to protect Garfield County’s quality of life, protect property rights,” said Browning, adding the group became involved in the race at the request of group members who live in Garfield County.

Many of the group’s expenditures, which have occurred since Oct. 13, are connected to Kevin Williams, the director of organizing of the WORC, state records show. He formerly worked for the Western Colorado Congress (WCC), a Grand Junction-based advocacy group, for 10 years.

WORC describes itself as a regional network of seven grassroots community organizations, a roster of groups that includes the WCC. That organization has often been a critic of oil and gas development on the Western Slope.

On the other side of the issue is Paul Rady, the chairman and chief executive officer of Antero Resources Corp., a company drilling in Garfield County. He identified himself as the one who contributed $20,000 to Western Heritage, a political action committee that has spent money on a media campaign in support of Samson and Martin. Those groups are organized to advocate for or criticize certain candidates, and are named after a section of the IRS code that gives them tax-exempt status.

Rady said he donated the money to the group ” which has also received $10,000 from a political action committee connected to former congressman Scott McInnis ” because of the candidates’ “vision for the communities of Garfield County.” He said he believes the candidates will lead Garfield County to “greater prosperity” amid the recent financial turmoil roiling the United States.

State records show that the contact person for Western Heritage is Michael Hesse, who was the chief of staff for McInnis, a Glenwood Springs native.

The first group to get involved in this year’s commissioner races was the Colorado League of Taxpayers, a nonprofit that paid for the mailer that attacked Carter and also called him a ” Boulder liberal.” Both Carter and Samson called that ad, which was sent to Garfield County residents in September, a “smear.”

The registered agent for that group is Scott Shires, a Republican who is connected to several dozen other groups in the state. A recent opinion by Judith F. Schulman, a Colorado administrative law judge, reported that the Colorado League of Taxpayers spent about $7,000 on a mailer sent out during a Republican county commissioner primary race in September that is almost identical to the one that attacked Carter.

Denver-based Small Town Values, another nonprofit, has also stepped into the this year’s two Garfield County commissioner races. The group, which was formed on Sept. 15 and lists the same address as Western Heritage, spent $14,500 on mailers in support of Republicans Mike Samson and John Martin on Oct. 8, state records show. John S. Zakhem, a Denver-based attorney who is the Colorado Republican Party’s outside legal counsel, is the registered agent for the group.

On the other side of the political spectrum is Progress Now Action, a Denver-based left-leaning group that paid for an ad on the Glenwood Springs Post Independent’s website that criticizes Martin. The ad would cost $650 if it ran for a month, according to the newspaper’s rate card.

Another group, the Coalition for Energy and the Environment, which listed an address out of Grand Junction, has sent a mailer in support of John Martin. It wasn’t apparent from state records or any other source how much that group spent on that effort.


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