Vail native Kerry Donovan says there’s more work to do in the Colorado Senate
Editor’s note: Paonia Republican Olen Lund is challenging incumbent Democrat Kerry Donovan to represent Colorado Senate District 5. Lund has not responded to several emails and phone messages asking to schedule an interview. The invitation still stands.
EAGLE COUNTY — Public service has been part of Kerry Donovan’s life since she can remember. Now she’s seeking a second term as a Colorado State Senator.
Donovan grew up in Vail, the daughter of John and Diana Donovan. Both of her parents have had a sizable influence on the town, from writing the town’s first sign code to organizing the town’s first spring cleanup day.
With that in her history, “it was natural” to seek opportunities for public service, she said.
Donovan’s first elected job was on the Vail Town Council, where she served from 2009 to 2013. She served one term and then ran for the then-open seat in Colorado Senate District 5, a sprawling, seven-county district that covers a good portion of the state’s Western Slope.
The district includes several ski areas — Vail, Beaver Creek, Aspen, Snowmass and Crested Butte. But it also includes a number of communities that have yet to benefit from the state’s current economic boom.
Donovan said she was familiar with much of the district thanks to family road trips in her younger days. The surprise, she said, was the range of issues district voters have wanted to talk about.
When it comes to access to broadband internet, “I assumed we were all in the same boat,” she said. “That wasn’t true.”
There are places in Delta and Gunnison counties and elsewhere with internet access that’s limited, at best. There are school districts in the senate district that don’t have websites because they don’t have access to the technology.
In the 2018 legislative session, Donovan was able to carry a bill that freed up $9.4 million to help fund rural broadband service.
“It took three years to get my colleagues on the same page,” she said.
Many kinds of persuasion
It took different kinds of persuasion to round up the votes needed to transfer money from a phone service fund.
Representatives on the Front Range — particularly the Interstate 25 corridor between Pueblo and Fort Collins — often didn’t understand the need for state help providing broadband service.
Representatives from the Western Slope, many of whom are conservatives, were leery of the prospect of providing state funding to private companies.
“But the free market hasn’t gotten (to isolated areas),” Donovan said. “It’s time for the state to assist.”
Donovan said the diversity of the district — Lake City and Vail are very different places — matches her own experience.
“It’s important that I grew up in a resort town,” she said. “I know what it means to live in a resort town.”
But Donovan also runs her family’s Copper Bar Ranch up Lake Creek. She knows which end of a shovel is the sweaty end. She can also talk about water rights, for making snow and growing alfalfa, as well as streamflows for rafting and fishing.
“It’s been pretty serendipitous” to have that background, she said.
While Donovan believes she’s a good fit for the district, she found some surprises when she went to Denver.
Perhaps the biggest is the number of legislators who don’t write their own bills.
“Most pick the pathway of working with stakeholder groups to work on an idea,” she said. “I didn’t find that as a very effective way to represent Senate District 5.”
Another surprise, though, is that people of both parties tend to get along better than is often portrayed.
“That’s where you go to work,” she said. “You have to figure out how to get along.”
Given that much of the Western Slope is represented by Republicans, Donovan said it’s essential for her to work across party lines.
“There are two parties for a reason,” she said. “We stand for different things, and there are times we have strong disagreements. But that doesn’t mean we don’t work together the next time.”
But there are issues unique to this district.
Donovan noted that a bill regarding the way special districts are governed sailed through the 2018 legislature. But that bill could have been disastrous for a number of districts in this region.
After the bill passed — despite Donovan’s strenuous objections — the bill headed to Gov. John Hickenlooper for his signature. Donovan scheduled a meeting and explained her position. Hickenlooper vetoed the measure.
If elected to a second term, Donovan said she wants to continue to work on lowering health insurance costs for district residents.
“It’s a completely unacceptable situation,” she said. Given the costs on the individual market, Donovan said she’s talked to couples who have to decide which one will buy health insurance.
“We’re going to have to look at every solution possible and see what will stick,” she said.
Lowering health care costs isn’t a burning issue for Eastern Slope representatives, and that’s where most of the state’s legislators live. But, Donovan said, the high costs on the state’s eastern plains are starting to seep into suburban areas. That should get some much-needed attention, she said.
The Front Range dominates transportation discussions, too, particularly since no one has anything good to say these days about I-25 between Fort Collins and Colorado Springs.
In the coming session, legislators will have to react to the fate of a pair of ballot issues regarding transportation. One would raise the state’s sales tax. Another would require the state to borrow money without raising taxes. The legislature will have to find different plans for transportation funding depending on which of those measures succeeds or fails.
Donovan said another district-specific issue she wants to tackle is economic development. Parts of the district are seeing a much slower recovery than the rest of the state, she said. That means looking into issues from broadband service to affordable housing.
“And I’m starting to hear a lot more about climate change, public lands and education,” she said.
Those issues don’t come from town halls, but from knocking on doors. Donovan said she isn’t sure how many miles she’s put on her pickup in the past few months, but noted she’s had a couple of dashboard-light-mandated oil changes since June’s primary elections.
“That’s just the job,” she said.
Vail Daily Business Editor Scott Miller can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 970-748-2930.