The candidates running to represent a newly formed house district, made up of Eagle and Routt counties, say their focus is on growing the economies of Western Slope mountain towns.
However, both candidates vary widely in their economic plans. Democrat Diane Mitsch Bush wants to see growth in the renewable energy sector. Republican Chuck McConnell is pushing for an influx of oil and gas drill rigs.
“In Routt County we have an opportunity to do a lot of work in oil and gas development, mostly crude oil,” says Republican candidate Chuck McConnell. He’s a former chemical engineer and oil company executive, now living in Steamboat Springs.
McConnell says the district’s untapped oil potential lays in the western part of Routt County, far away from the tourism based businesses in Steamboat and Vail. He says drilling can be done without causing damage to surrounding communities.
“I was in the industry for a long time and I’m convinced that the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, under the auspices of the governor, have done an excellent job in putting rules and regulations together so that the dangers to health, safety, the environment are darn near zero,” McConnell says.
Much of McConnell’s plan for economic development centers on what he calls “responsible resource development.” That includes the large swathes of forested areas in the district. McConnell says he’d like to incentivize new timber mills to manage beetle kill trees and thin forests ripe for a wild fire.
“Once a forest burns there are water contamination problems, there is the unsightliness of it. We are a tourist area, both counties and those are unacceptable things if we have a way to mitigate them and I think we do,” McConnell says.
His opponent, Routt County Commissioner and Democrat Diane Mitsch Bush says McConnell is too narrowly focused in his economic planning, pointing to his background as an oil and gas executive.
“The Western Slope is where the three most important economic sectors in Colorado are: tourism, energy and agriculture,” Mitsch Bush says.
The self-described “public policy wonk” has been a county commissioner for six years, before that a professor of sociology at Colorado State University. As a commissioner, Mitsch Bush was instrumental in crafting more stringent guidelines for oil and gas drilling in the county. Water testing is required by each company, and they must pay to maintain public roads. Mitsch Bush says growth in oil and gas won’t be a panacea for economic troubles.
“Without sounding like I’m dissing oil and gas, because I do believe that oil and gas are part of this balanced energy package,” Mitsch Bush says. “We do need to be careful about claims that oil and gas is going to bring all these jobs here.”
She favors the national Democratic platform of an “all of the above” energy strategy, and says her efforts would focus on energy efficiencies and renewables.
The two differ on their stance on social issues as well. A civil unions measure that stalled in the legislature last session is likely to come up again. McConnell says he’d vote against it, Mitsch Bush says she’s in favor.
The combination of these two counties, Routt and Eagle, in the latest bout of redistricting created a brand new house district, cobbled together from a few other old districts. The new district lacked an incumbent. It’s an open seat.
When asked how they differ from one another, the two immediately go after each other’s backgrounds. McConnell says Mitsch Bush is a big government supporter with an environmental streak, at the expense of growing business. He says his faith is in free enterprise.
“Her view would be a little more oriented toward the government side of things,” McConnell says.
Mitsch Bush paints McConnell as an oil-hungry former executive who sidesteps environmental concerns.
“He is a retired oil and gas executive, and so he brings that perspective, at least I’ve seen it in the debates,” Mitsch Bush says.
The district is almost an even split between registered Democrats and Republicans, meaning this brand new district will be a toss-up come Nov. 6.