Democratic state legislators rare in Northwest Colorado

Election 2012

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Diane Mitsch Bush

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Chuck McConnell

— The election of Diane Mitsch Bush to represent Routt and Eagle counties in the Colorado House of Representatives on Tuesday night broke a Democratic drought of 52 years.

Routt County voters who cannot recall the last time a Democrat was chosen to represent them in the state assembly are to be forgiven. Former state Sen. Dick Soash and local historian Jim Stanko said Wednesday that it was Craig beer distributor Ed Harding. A database maintained by the Colorado Legislative Council confirms that Harding served in the Legislature in 1951-52 and again from 1955 to 1960.

Before Harding, it was Steamboat Springs sporting goods store owner Pat Magill who was speaker of the House when he died in his late 30s in 1949, Soash said.

“His name is on a piece of marble at the state Capitol,” Soash said.

Mitsch Bush, a Routt County commissioner, defeated fellow Steamboat Springs resident Chuck McConnell, a Republican, on Tuesday night in the newly created House District 26. She defeated McConnell by 11 percentage points, or 18,215 votes to 14,480 votes.

The 2011 marriage of Routt and Eagle counties during legislative redistricting was a match made in political heaven for the Democrats. It meant that their candidates no longer had to struggle to find votes in heavily Republican counties like Moffat, Rio Blanco, Garfield and Jackson.

Routt County Democratic Chairwoman Catherine Carson said Wednesday that it made sense to her that Eagle and Routt counties, with their dependence on the ski industry and need for transportation improvements, were put together.

Rural Routt County has a historic component of Democratic voters, former county Chairwoman Jo Stanko said Wednesday, but that tradition has produced few state legislators.

“Historically, if you look at it, even if we’re all ranchers now, in the old, old days, farmers were Democrats and ranchers were Republicans. You think of them coming in — ranchers had open range, then you had people starting to cut it up into smaller pieces.”

Those homesteaders who staked claims to 160 acres on bottomland first were subsistence farmers and later became ranchers as they acquired neighboring pieces of property.

Many of them were miners before they were farmers. The grandfather of Stanko’s husband, Jim, was a coal miner from Czechoslovakia who immigrated to the U.S., working first in Pennsylvania and later in Walsenburg before homesteading here.

As scarce as Democrats representing Routt County at the state Capitol have been since the early 20th century, state senators have been even rarer.

“On the Democratic side, I’m the last one since 1928,” Soash said Wednesday.

He represented 10 counties, including Routt and Moffat, in the 1970s.

When Soash was elected in 1976, it was the first time a Democrat had held the seat since Republican rancher Charlie Murphy, of rural Walden, wrestled it away from Steamboat’s Preachin’ Bob Norvell in 1928.

Murphy remained the area’s state senator until he died in office in the early 1950s.

Soash tried to take the job away from Faye DeBerard, of Kremmling, in 1972 and lost the election. However, he didn’t give up.

“He didn’t run again in 1976 because he knew I was going to beat him,” Soash recalled. “Chuck Stoddard, of Craig, ran instead and I beat him soundly.”

The district at that time comprised Rio Blanco, Pitkin, Lake, Eagle, Summit, Grand and Jackson counties in addition to Routt and Moffat counties.

Soash’s campaign style was to drive himself from town to town and knock on doors handing out notepads proclaiming his candidacy.

“They were pretty effective,” he recalled. He said the majority of the vote in Eagle County in those days included people of Hispanic descent who worked in the Gilman and Climax mines.

Soash won again in 1980, but his career as an elected politician ended when he vacated the seat to run in the 3rd Congressional District and lost.

Soash and Stanko said that traditionally, Republicans and Democrats in Northwest Colorado have been able to overlook their political differences.

“The (late) Jerry Boggs served as my campaign manager even though he was a real conservative Republican,” Soash recalled.

Stanko said rural people in Northwest Colorado are closer than partisan politics.

“You know what they say, ‘A liberal Democrat from Colorado is much more conservative than a liberal Republican from California,'” Stanko said with a laugh. “We’re neighbors, and we’re still a community.”

To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205 or email tross@SteamboatToday.com

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