Man of the (State) House
Shortly after the new boundaries were drawn, Miller, a Lake County native, launched a re-election campaign in the new, three-county district that included two counties – Eagle and Summit – that he’d never represented before. In that 2002 election, Miller, a Democrat, didn’t carry Eagle County, which was the home base for his Republican opponent, Heather Lemon.
However, he did carry the district, and headed back to the State Capitol for one last term before Colorado’s term-limit law bumps him out of office.
The people who work with Miller at the State Capitol say his election to the Legislature is Eagle County’s gain. Miller, 65, whose family roots in the Rockies stretch all the way back to 1881, has a reputation for understanding and taking care of the needs of his district.
In the five years he’s served in the legislature, 46 of the 53 bills and resolutions Miller has sponsored in the house were enacted or adopted. That’s an 87 percent success rate.
“I consider him to be one of the most honest and highly effective members of the General Assembly,” says Republican state Sen. Jack Taylor, who also represents Eagle County.
Taylor and Miller have carried a lot of legislation together over the years and Taylor credits the Leadville Democrat with an ability to cross the political aisle at the Capitol to get his projects realized.
“With Carl, there’s no pretenses, no beating around the bush. He always tells it like he sees it,” says Taylor. “If we see something we’d like to have, we go fight the battle, regardless of partisan politics.”
Knowing the territory
Miller’s understanding of the needs of his district is probably ingrained in him. One of his grandfathers arrived in Aspen in 1881; and the other grandfather landed in Leadville in about 1893. Miller’s family has been in Leadville since that time. His grandfather served several terms on the Leadville City Council and his mother was the city clerk.
He grew up in Leadville, then worked underground as an electrician at the Climax Mine for 27 years. Miller inherited his family’s interest in local politics. In 1976, he was elected to the Lake County Board of Commissioners, and served for 12 years.
Those weren’t the easiest years for a political leader in Lake County. In the 1970s, the mine was the largest employer in the county, offering good wages and benefits for its 3,000 employees and a healthy tax base for the county. However, when the mine closed down in the early 1980s, eventually trimming down to a skeleton crew of 15 people, the county’s economy was devastated. Lake County’s assessed valuation dropped from $242 million to $42 million. People who had once enjoyed good-paying union jobs had to commute to neighboring resort counties and work for service industry wages. The tax burden shifted from one major industry to individual property owners.
“I was exposed to some good years, then to some very difficult years,” Miller says.
State Sen. Ken Chlouber, a Republican who served on the Lake County Board of Commissioners with Miller, cites those difficult times as an example of Miller’s political and personal integrity.
With the closing of Climax, the county leaders knew they had to make some drastic budget cuts. They agreed to eliminate any non-vital jobs. The theory was that when an employee quit or retired, they wouldn’t be replaced.
At the time, Miller’s mother earned $50 per month working on reports for the Lake County Road and Bridge Department. That was one of the jobs the commissioners felt could be eliminated.
“Carl fired his mother. When I say this is a guy with an ultimate level of integrity, I mean it,” says Chlouber.
Chlouber has yet another example of his co-worker’s integrity, this one dating from the days they worked together underground at Climax. It’s a story Miller himself is not inclined to talk about.
One day, in the early 1980s, one of the huge motors that ran the rock-carrying conveyor belt shut down, subsequently shutting down the entire mine operation. It was Miller who drew the task of opening the switch gear to see what was wrong. When he did, 14,600 volts of electricity shot through him.
“Nobody should live after getting that kind of electrical shock. They didn’t give convicted murderers that kind of electricity,” Chlouber says. Miller was seriously injured, and suffered some serious damage to his hands. While he was recovering, friends who visited him in the hospital suggested a lawsuit.
Miller declined, saying that the decision to open the switch had been his.
“That’s the kind of guy we have representing us in the State Legislature. He has incredible integrity. He’s one of a kind,” says Chlouber.
Miller left the mine in 1986; and left the county commission in 1989, after completing three terms. He then took on a job as president and director of the just-developing National Mining Hall of Fame in Leadville. At the time, it was not much more than an old empty school building. Miller was the driving force for 10 years in what has become a respected state museum.
“It was a wonderful job,” says Miller.
Representing the district
In 1996, when the state legislative seat came open, Miller ran. At the time, the district incorporated nine counties, whose area geographically comprised about an eighth of the state. He won the primary, then won the election.
He describes the Hall of Fame and State Legislature positions as the “best two jobs in the world,” but after his first term at the state capitol, found he didn’t have enough time for both. He resigned from the Hall of Fame, but remains a strong supporter of the museum.
Politically, Miller describes himself as a conservative Democrat; and his voting record reflects those values. He supports the Taxpayers Bill of Rights amendment, seeing a need to keep government spending restrained. He’s pro-choice, but supports parental notification on abortions, and opposes partial birth abortions.
He says he did not like the statewide growth initiative that was proposed – and failed– two years ago, advocating instead that land-use decisions be made on the local level.
He voted against last spring’s congressional redistricting, explaining that he agrees with the new lines that put the West Slope and mountain counties together. He says he objects to the last-minute process that cut out public participation.
Miller says his election successes are an indicator that his political philosophy is in step with the people of his district.
“I’m in the middle and probably to the right on some particular issues,” he says. He’s picked up some extra political duties as a legislator. He serves on the Great Outdoors Colorado Board, and holds positions on the Capital Development, Natural Resources, and Business Affairs committees at the State House.
Chlouber says Miller is not a flamboyant, publicity-seeking sort of politician.
“He’s a lousy politician. In fact, he stinks as a politician. But I know he’s one of the state’s best public servants,” says Chlouber. “You don’t get anything from Carl but the truth. He doesn’t color things to favor his position.”
While partisan politics often rule at the Capitol, Miller says that West Slope and mountain legislators tend to stick together 90 percent of the time, regardless of party affiliation. Leadville is actually east of the Continental Divide, but is tied to the Western Slope on many regional issues.
“For rural, West Slope legislators, it’s not about partisan politics. It is about who we represent,” Chlouber says. “That’s part of the West Slope tradition. The only way we can get things accomplished is by sticking together.”
Last year, Miller sponsored a bill that called for development of the Denver basin aquifer as a water source in times of drought. He says that water source is 15 times larger than Lake Powell, and could serve the Front Range’s water needs in times of drought. The bill would have protected West Slope water, but it never made it out of committee.
“You know you don’t have the votes to accomplish what you want. That’s all part of politics,” Miller says.
Chlouber says there’s been times when Miller’s been in trouble with his own political party.
“He won’t do anything for political gain at all. His total focus is what he knows to be best for rural and western Colorado,” says Chlouber.
The coming legislative session will be Miller’s last. He says he’s not sure what his next adventure will be, but he does have some advice for whoever follows him.
“Be aware of time commitments. Listen to yourself and listen to your district,” Miller says. “As much as possible, put partisan politics behind you.”
This story first appeared in the Eagle Valley Enterprise.