Chlouber and Imrie both have a few rough edges

Article by Ed Quillen

Politics – November 1994 – Colorado Central Magazine

We’re pretty lucky in House District 61, which covers the northern part of central Colorado, as well as Pitkin County.

The typical Colorado legislative race features two blow-dried (Dan or Marilyn) Quayle clones in dress-for-success costumes; they greatly resemble finalists in the “IBM sales representative of the year” competition.

Here, we’ve got a span of high-altitude burro-racers running against each other, as the Wall Street Journal explained a few months ago. Or maybe it’s the New West vs. the Old West, an independent film-maker vs. a one-time laid-off miner; that’s the spin the Denver Post put on our house-district election.

However you portray the contest, Ken Chlouber and Curtis Imrie both display some quirks and rough edges. Which is not to say that they’re oblivious to image in this media age. Chlouber’s drawl will get more conspicuous as he says “I’m just an ol’ miner, a country boy from Oklahoma”; that’s how he wants us to see him, even if he was the 1992 state chairman for the re-election campaign of the prototype non-country-boy, George Bush.

Imrie was horrified when the Post put his name in the same paragraph with Ralph Lauren, the upscale purveyor of everything from clothes to cologne. However much Curtis knows of Hollywood, he’s eager to mention his small ranch northwest of Buena Vista where he raises burros.

So in modern America, even our part of it, you can’t expect considerations of perception and image manipulation to vanish. However, a Denver political writer called me about a month ago. “What’s your take on this election?” he asked. “From here, it looks like both your candidates are at least half a bubble off plumb.”

I responded that there are quite a few of us in the mountains who might be a tad bizarre by metropolitan standards, and why shouldn’t we have some representation?

Chlouber, who is probably the only Republican representative in Colorado who’s ever drawn an unemployment check, was first elected to the legislature in 1986. He’s been there ever since, although he ran for the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate in 1992, “a campaign that was going pretty well until Tim Wirth [the Democratic incumbent] dropped out, which made it an open seat, and the big-money Republicans jumped in.”

My favorite Chlouber episode was in 1990, at a meet-the-candidates forum in Salida. The hot local issue was Elephant Rock Dam, which would have blocked the Arkansas River a few miles north of Buena Vista.

Dave Ward, a Democrat running for county commissioner, was totally opposed. His opponent, incumbent Republican Tom Eve, did not come out against it — or for it. “It could bring benefits to the county, and we should at least consider it,” Eve said.

Then Chlouber spoke to the issue. Since a fellow Republican had just issued a tepid statement, I expected Chlouber to be decorous in the name of party unity.

BUT INSTEAD, he said “If they ever start to build that monstrosity, I’ll be up there with a case of dynamite, and I hope you’ll all be up there with me.”

So much for the mushy “work within the system” stuff. Every so often, it does one’s heart good to hear an unequivocal statement.

Chlouber expresses his legislative philosophy in food terms. “The first priority is to make the pie smaller. The less money the state takes from us, the better off we are.”

Next on the list “is to make sure my district gets as big a slice as possible of the remaining pie.”

He points to school-finance reform that kept Leadville schools running, prison construction in the district, and at a time when he blocked funding for the Colorado Convention Center in Denver because it was using marble from Wyoming when there was a marble quarry in his district.

Growth is an issue in parts of the district, but not all. “The problem in Leadville is growth along the I-70 corridor, when so many of the employees live in Leadville. Lake County gets the social costs of schools and clinics, while Eagle and Summit counties get the property-tax base. There’s got to be a better way.”

Where there is rapid growth, Chlouber starts to sound less like an “it’s my property and I can do whatever I want with it” Republican. “We need some state land-use planning, maybe a 50-year plan,” he said.

WHAT IS CHLOUBER proudest of in his eight years in the legislature? It isn’t returning the blue lights to snow plows. “The Arkansas Headwaters State Park,” he said. “It’s been a real boon to this area, and I’m proud to have helped create it with Ron Holliday, who was state parks director at the time.”

A few hours after I saw Ken at my house, I talked to Curtis. I told him I’d just guaranteed his victory, because every Republican candidate — Robin Heid, Phil Klingsmith — who’d ever been through my door had lost. I had even warned Ken about this jinx, and he bravely dropped by anyway.

“This election is about the soul of central Colorado,” Curtis said. “Ken was the right man at the time, in 1986, but times have changed, and he hasn’t. He’s still living in the past.”

Such as the battle with the Environmental Protection Agency in Leadville. “I’m not going to defend everything the EPA has done up there. But the EPA is there and it’s not going to go away. Wouldn’t it be better to find ways to work with them? The soil is toxic there. Toxicity is a nasty word and nobody wants to hear it, but ignoring it won’t lower the levels of lead in the blood of Leadville’s children.”

Imrie also charges that Chlouber “likes to find a parade and then get in front of it. The river park is a good example. The energy for that all came from the grass-roots, and once it’s going, then Ken claims credit for it.”

Also, “Chlouber has picked some really picayune issues, like the blue lights on snow plows. Or the hunter-harassment bill. We’re the ones out there with guns, so who in his right mind is going to pester a hunter? There are more significant things that a legislator should be looking after.”

Nonetheless, “Ken’s done some good things with school finance. I respect him. I just think he’s done about all he can do, and it’s time for some new blood.”

What’s important to the new blood? “We’ve got to return more power to the counties and cities. The state hasn’t given them enough tools to cope with the changes.”

He’s also critical of Chlouber’s efforts to help the tourist industry. When the sales tax, used for promotion, was defeated two years ago, Chlouber pushed through a bill to set up a marketing board, financed by the industry, similar to the beef check-off system which stockmen use to promote beef.

“Tourism is the largest industry in the world,” Imrie said, “and perfectly capable of promoting itself. The state shouldn’t be involved. We voters made that clear at the polls, and here’s Chlouber trying to circumvent our wishes.”

“Tourism is the biggest employer in the district,” Chlouber explained, “and I don’t think the public voted against tourism. The public voted against paying for the promotion. The marketing board doesn’t cost the public anything; my bill just established the mechanism.”

Imrie said the hottest issue appears to be guns. “We get a huge turn-out whenever the candidates are talking about firearms. I hunt and I own guns. I support our rights under the Second Amendment. I believe that all ten amendments in the Bill of Rights are just as important.”

THE TWO CANDIDATES have known each other for nearly 20 years. Chlouber sounded a bit disgusted by some of Imrie’s campaign tactics, and Imrie conceded that “early in the race, I probably was too negative. Now I hope I’m giving people reasons to vote for me, not against Ken.”

In gross political terms, it’s tricky to determine which candidate would better serve us. If the Republicans maintain control of the House, and if Chlouber is re-elected, then he swings a big stick as a committee chairman. Curtis would be in a similar position if the Democrats got control of the House (they’re just three seats shy now, and striving mightily).

On one hand, the pundits say this isn’t a good year for Democrats in the West. Then again, Roy Romer seems to be pulling well ahead of Bruce Benson in the gubernatorial race, although I find it difficult to tell the difference between Romer and a Republican.

Then there’s the possibility that GOP maintains control but Curtis wins, or the Democrats gain a House majority, but Ken wins. Then we’ve got a minority-party representative, who has approximately the same amount of clout as one of the Capitol tour guides.

I’ll vote for Curtis. It would probably shock me as much as it would him if he won, but I think he’d do his best to do right by us if he got in.

Not that I expect Curtis to win, and a Chlouber victory is no cause for sackcloth and ashes. Ken has worked hard on behalf of central Colorado, and he’s gained enough seniority so that his work is more effective.

Either way, we’ll have a representative with a few quirks and rough spots, somebody who will shoot from the hip on occasion.

That’s why I think we’re fortunate in this race this year; modern politics, like modern journalism, is generally far too concerned with mass-market ratings to be very interesting or important.

Today, most candidates are as scripted and monotonously packaged as so many TV newscasters. Chlouber and Imrie stand out.

So why couldn’t one of them have run for governor?