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A Governor from Rural Colorado?

Article by Ed Quillen

Politics – May 1994 – Colorado Central Magazine

Can a 44-year-old guy from Gunnison move into the governor’s mansion next January?

Phil Klingsmith thinks so, and he’s been on the road for better than a year — perhaps 40,000 miles and nearly 100 Lincoln Day dinners in every corner of the state — in pursuit of the Republican nomination.

Although two-term incumbent Roy Romer rides high in the polls, Klingsmith figures the governor can be beaten for the same reasons George Bush lost in 1992.

“He’s been in the capitol so long that he’s lost touch with the real world. There are other similarities. Bush was elected to continue Ronald Reagan’s mission of defeating communism. Then the Cold War ended, and Bush didn’t know what to do next. Romer ran to get Colorado’s economy moving with some big public-works infrastructure projects like Denver International Airport; that’s done, and Romer doesn’t know where to turn now.”

KLINGSMITH FITS in rural Colorado. He drives a pickup. His blue jeans and cowboy boots are faded and scuffed, so they’re not just campaign costumes. He discretely chews tobacco. He works several jobs, ranging from a law practice to chairing the business department at Western State College.

His political résum is brief. He unsuccessfully sought the Republican nomination for congress in 1984, running up $100,000 in campaign bills that took him seven years to pay off. Klingsmith also recently served two years on the Gunnison school board.

His Gunnison résum runs longer. His father, Pete, moved the family to Gunnison in 1953, when Phil was four years old. His boyhood ambition was to be a ski racer, and he competed nationally until he blew out a knee. He went to Fort Lewis College, then the University of Colorado for a B.A. in English literature.

He got a master’s from Western, coached the University of Utah ski team, then earned a law degree from California Western School of Law before returning to join his father’s Gunnison law practice in 1979. He got married in 1984; he and JoAnn have two children.

THOUGH HIS FATHER was an active Democrat, Klingsmith changed parties in the late 1970s. “I voted for George McGovern in 1972, and Ronald Reagan in 1980,” he says. “I got so damn mad at Jimmy Carter over the Iran-hostage situation, and at the Democratic party for its refusal to face our economic problems then, that I became a Republican.”

The campaign hasn’t issued a catchy slogan, but the theme sounds like “Back to Basics.”

“We have these prominent hot-button issues like abortion [he’s pro-choice] and gay rights [he supported Amendment Two because he supports less government] that distract us from the real business of state government,” Klingsmith explained.

“We should be paying attention to the fundamental jobs of state government, making sure that they’re done well. We Coloradans have made it very clear that we’re not going to support tax increases. Our state government has to do a better job with the resources in hand.”

So where should the state focus?

“Education, both K-12 and post-secondary, transportation, crime, stewardship of our natural resources. Those are the areas where state government can make a difference.”

Alone among Republican candidates, Klingsmith does not support vouchers or charter schools. “I work with educators; I am a teacher. I don’t think they’re bad people. I want to give educators the power to straighten things out. But if we don’t see some substantial progress in two years, then I’ll be the biggest supporter of vouchers you ever saw.”

The state and federal governments inflict considerable paperwork and administrative overhead on school districts, and it costs.

Take a district spending $4,000 a year per student. There’s an elementary classroom with 30 students, thus $120,000. The teacher might get $30,000 of that. Physical facilities, textbooks, transport, etc., might at most take another $30,000.

“That other $60,000 doesn’t go to the classroom where we need it to go,” Klingsmith said. “Administrative overhead should be 5 percent, not 50 percent. From my time on the school board, I know the state contributes substantially to those overhead costs, and they can be cut so that we pay classroom teachers more and make sure our children learn real skills, rather than how to feel good about themselves.”

ANOTHER REFORM would be to eliminate teacher certification. “A certified public accountant cannot teach accounting in a Colorado high school, unless she gets teaching certification. I can teach business to college students, but not in a high school. You can teach English in college, but not high school.

“Not only is this a waste of talent, but state certification means that school boards are not responsible for the quality of the people they hire. The boards can always blame the state. Let school boards decide who can teach, and let the boards be responsible to voters, parents, students and taxpayers for the outcome.”

As a college teacher, Klingsmith is appalled by the lack of fundamental skills in the students he gets from Colorado’s high schools. “A lot of them can’t spell or add, can’t construct a clear sentence,” he says, “and these are supposedly the better students who go to college.”

However, “I grade hard and I expect good work that reflects clear thinking. After a semester or two, the students meet that challenge. There’s nothing wrong with those kids; nobody expected them to work before, and that means something is wrong with the system.”

Klingsmith also differs from most Republican candidates in his views on crime. “Building more prisons to hold more people for longer terms is not the answer. It will not make our streets safer. We’ve been doing that for 10 or 15 years, and crime keeps getting worse.”

Nor will more police necessarily help. “When I was a kid, Gunnison had more people than it does now. We had only three policemen — the county sheriff, the town cop, and a state patrolman. Now we’ve got dozens of people in uniform, and yet crime seems to have gone up, not down.”

Klingsmith is a defense attorney, so he knows criminals. “About 10 percent are psychopaths or sociopaths, people with no conscience, people who cannot be allowed to run free in any community. We’ve got to put them in jail and keep them there.”

As for the others, Klingsmith advocates what might be called a “supply-side” approach — that is, reduce the supply of criminals.

The people who get arrested and convicted, he says, “almost always have one or more of these traits. They suffer from drug or alcohol abuse. They were physically or sexually abused as children. Or they’re illegitimate, coming from a single-parent household.”

Drug and alcohol dependency can be treated, Klingsmith points out. “It’s not cheap or easy, but $5,000 for treatment is a better deal than $25,000 for a year in prison.”

Victims of childhood abuse “can also be treated. It’s not as straightforward as the drug problem, but it’s doable. And it’s cheaper than jail.”

As for illegitimacy, “finally it’s appeared on the national agenda, and both parties realize that we can’t continue a system that encourages it. We can do our part in Colorado. The crime problem didn’t appear overnight, and it won’t go away quickly either. But there are solutions that work and cost less than what we’re doing now. We can’t keep putting 18-year-old pot dealers in with the general prison population — we just manufacture more hardened criminals that way.”

COLORADANS PAY some of the highest gasoline taxes in the nation, “and yet our roads are deteriorating. I’ve driven on almost every state highway in the past year, and you see buckling pavement and chuckholes everywhere. The only highway work that seems to matter is within a few miles of the Mousetrap [where I-70 and I-25 meet in Denver]. They need good roads in Denver, but we need them too. We’ve got to quit looting the highway-users tax fund and use it for roads. If we’ve got good roads and good schools, if we’re reducing crime, then economic development will take care of itself.”

As it is, “on my way to Salida, I stopped in Sargents and talked to a highway maintenance guy there. It was snowing but he wasn’t out sanding. They’ve got to hoard sand because their budget is low. Coming down the pass, we turned a full 360 because the road was slick. When we pay 22 cents a gallon in gas taxes, we can do better than that.”

Klingsmith opposes national health insurance, but “not on philosophical grounds. If the federal government can do it better and cheaper than the current system, then let’s do it. But the federal government is $4.5 trillion in debt, and every hour, it goes another $1 million deeper. Let them get things in order before they tackle anything as big and complex as health insurance.”

Not that the current system is even close to perfect. “We’re losing rural hospitals, and we’ve got a shortage of primary care providers. Not just in rural areas — for about 400 square blocks east of Stapleton, there’s not a single clinic for thousands of people. Big chunks of this state, both rural and urban, lack medical facilities.”

SO THE STATE CAN ACT. “We could set up another medical school and provide scholarships for general physicians, especially those who will work in areas that don’t have doctors now. We could relax regulations, because a great deal of what we require to be done by doctors could be done by paramedics or registered nurses, and we’d be served just as well. The medical establishment wouldn’t like that, but the job of state government is the well-being of the public, not the protection of doctors’ incomes.”

Another Gunnison County politician, state Sen. Linda Powers, pushes hard to give counties more power to regulate subdivisions.

“For the short term, I’d favor that approach,” Klingsmith says, “but we’ve got to take a long-term view of land and water on a statewide basis. For instance, a pipeback system from the Utah line to the Continental Divide would allow the Western Slope to use water, while still making the water that Colorado owns available to the rest of the state. There are other possibilities if we’re willing to cast aside old assumptions and work together. But I don’t see this as the most pressing issue at the moment. There are other things we need to work on first.”

Klingsmith is under no illusions that statehouse quarrels between executive and legislative branches would end if Colorado elected a Republican governor with a GOP-controlled legislature.

“Legislators run to represent their districts,” he points out, “and the governor must look at the state in its entirety. Those two viewpoints are bound to produce differences, and it’s not a partisan thing. Republican governors like John Love and John Vanderhoof often fought the General Assembly.

“The governor has to articulate a vision for the entire state and sell it to the legislature, and they’re all looking out for their districts. That’s the way our system is designed to operate, and while it may not always run smoothly, it also protects people from getting stepped on. It can work better, but there will always be conflicts, and rightly so.”

How goes the campaign? “On the ground, pretty well,” Klingsmith says. “I think we’ll get enough support at precinct caucuses and county assemblies to reach the 30% of the state convention delegates required to be on the primary ballot.”

However, it’s hard to get attention from Colorado’s Denver-dominated media. At the time of our interview, Bruce Benson hadn’t even declared yet, “and he gets more ink in a day than I’ve received in a year. They don’t take you seriously when you’re coming from rural Colorado.”

SO KLINGSMITH’S CAMPAIGN has relied on extensive travel and a campaign newspaper, The Klingsmith Clarion, which sets forth his views in detail.

“Our first consultant dumped me over that,” he recalls. “He said people wouldn’t sit down and read a candidate’s positions, that we needed to be short and snappy and to buy TV time. Well, people have been reading it; I know, because they argue with me over what’s in there.

“Voters are interested in the issues, though you wouldn’t know that from the way we get treated by consultants and the media.”

But without some big-time media exposure, does Klingsmith have a chance? “What gives me hope is the tourism tax last year — which I voted against. The people for the tax spent hundreds of thousands of dollars. They were well-organized. They got lots of media play.

“And that tax went down 55-45. Coloradans can and will think things through, and take control starting at the grassroots. That’s where I’m coming from, and that’s what gives me faith down these long roads.”