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Linda Powers enjoys her new powers

Article by Ed Quillen

March 1994 – Colorado Central Magazine

If you believe that state senators occupy big, impressive quarters under the gold dome in Denver, then you’ve never seen State Sen. Linda Powers’ office.

Walk up the long capitol steps past the mile-high altitude marker, climb two flights of switch-backing stairs, sidestep down a narrow hall, turn left to an even narrower hall, and finally, across from a restroom secured by an electronic combination lock, there’s a chamber divided by standard bland office partitions.

Her desk is in front. No window, but there is a walk-in vault serving as a janitorial closet. Only the ornate ceiling, at least 25 feet overhead, remains of the granite and gold grandeur.

Powers, a Democrat from Crested Butte, was elected in 1992, gaining a solid 53% to 47% margin over veteran Republican lawmaker Harold McCormick of Canon City.

Canon’s a conservative place where McCormick is a fixture. When district boundaries were redrawn after the 1990 census, his old Senate District 4 also included Aspen, a place seldom known for conservatism.

“Mac got hosed in the redistricting,” a Canon City political reporter observed, “and I wonder how he offended his fellow Republicans that were in charge of drawing the new maps — they set him up for a tumble if an energetic Democrat ran against him.”

District 4 comprises all of Park, Fremont, Lake, Chaffee, Gunnison, Hinsdale, and Pitkin counties, along with eastern Delta County. Powers figured McCormick would carry Fremont, though she wasn’t about to write it off. Almost any Democrat not caught eating white sugar can count on Pitkin, and Powers had her home in Gunnison County.

The rest looked open, and “energetic” is too mild to describe the campaign Powers ran; she appeared wherever half a dozen voters gathered, even in watering holes where few candidates (apart from Libertarians) ever venture — say, the Manhattan in Leadville and the Victoria in Salida.

She knew local government from her service on the Crested Butte town board. She was a mother who wanted good schools and opportunities for her children. She was a community activist, and a business owner with Pooh’s Corner, a children’s shop in Crested Butte. She cared about protecting the environment and she also cared about decent jobs. She talked on the radio, gave press interviews by the score, and seldom sat down — to see her at lunch was to see her work the room, shaking hands and asking for votes. Linda Powers even started wearing dresses on occasion.

“I didn’t even own a dress before the campaign,” she confesses. “Now I own two. Clothes are theater, in a way, and you use them to help your role.” No matter how elegant her outfit, she’s generally wearing knee-high cowboy boots, too. “Shows you what I stand on,” she jokes.

The best thing about winning? “On a personal level, the legislature doesn’t pay that well, but we do get some fringe benefits. Now I have health insurance for the first time since 1964, when I was teaching school in New York.”

That is also a concern because “the biggest problem with the General Assembly is that it’s so out of touch with everyday life in Colorado. It’s so easy to think ‘Oh, I’ve got my health insurance’ and you forget about the people who don’t — and you were one of them just a few months ago.”

She encounters many lobbyists for “the big interests, and there’s nothing wrong with that in itself,” Powers says, “but with them around, you lose touch with the majority of Coloradans — people worried about health care and housing, worried about sending their kids to college, worried about what jobs they’ll be able to find when they graduate.”

Such as her daughter, Jennifer, who was graduated from Fort Lewis State College in Durango last spring, and now works as a waitress and ski instructor, “the same jobs she had before she went to school.”

Those family ties — and the store in Crested Butte where she still keeps the books, orders stock, and works on weekends and holidays — help keep her from losing touch with “the citizens who elected me to represent their interests. I also spend a lot of time in the district. I like people, I like talking to people, and besides, I represent the most beautiful part of the world. Of course I’m going to be out and about in it every chance I get.”

Bob Ewegen of The Denver Post once observed that rural legislators are more familiar with city problems than urban legislators are with rural problems.

That might be reversed if the capitol sat in Cotopaxi or Villa Grove, but as it is, “of course we know about urban problems because we spend half the year in the city. I pay $650 a month for an apartment. Some legislators get by for less, but I have to pay more because I’m a woman living alone in the city and I need a place with some security. I have to worry about urban crime and traffic; most legislators never face rural issues directly.”

The first woman to represent this district, she is also the only woman, in all the General Assembly, to represent a a rural district.

Of the 35 state senators, only seven — a bipartisan mix — represent rural districts. “There’s a suburban bloc which can act pretty much on its own without consulting anyone else,” Powers says, “and an urban bloc. But we rural senators have to build a new coalition on every issue, whether it’s subdivision regulation or school finance. That’s very time-consuming, although it gets easier as I get to know other senators and build some trust and respect.”

Another challenge is that “Colorado Springs and metro Denver have lots of senators. If one falls down on an issue, another one can pick it up. For our part of the world, I’m the only one. I’d betray my constituents if I let something go by or didn’t speak up, because there isn’t anyone else.”

This requires constant attention “because this district is really varied. Canon City may not care much about tramway regulation, but it cares a lot about prisons, whereas Aspen is just the reverse. To do the job right, I’ve got to follow a lot of issues — water, subdivisions, agriculture, corrections, school finance, tourism, state parks, higher education — to name a few. I can’t specialize, and there’s no staff for individual legislators.”

Powers hasn’t been a doctrinaire Democrat. “I surprised myself during the special session when I voted against the governor’s juvenile crime legislation. Nobody is for juvenile crime, but this was not well-considered legislation; it was done in a hurry and I don’t think it will solve anything. We wasted $40 million.”

Some Democrats were promoting Linda Powers as a 1994 opponent to Congressman Scott McInnis, the freshman Republican who represents the Third District — southern and western Colorado — in Washington.

“I’m not running against Scott in 1994,” Powers says. “It was a tempting thought, but I still have plenty to do here. With term limits in effect, I may have to consider running for some other office if I want to stay in politics, but at the moment, I’m doing what I should be doing.”

It might seem ironic that a rural district, conservative in many ways, sends a woman to the state senate, and not only a woman, but a brash, eccentric, and fast-talking woman with an unmistakable New York accent, almost a Bella Abzug in cowboy boots.

“When you put it that way, it does sound odd,” Powers concedes, “but in the mountains, we all swim some distance away from the mainstream. That’s why we live where and how we do, and as long as you’re honest about who and what you are, as long as you don’t pretend to be something you’re not, then we respect each other.”

So in a part of the world where it’s acceptable to be a few bubbles off plumb on occasion, “you can do fine just being who you are. We have a long tradition of electing mavericks and unconventional people in this state — look at Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell with his pony-tail and motorcycles — and I hope it continues.”

One big triumph in her first session was not a bill she introduced and passed, but one she helped defeat.

Some headwater counties had used H.B. 1041, a land-use bill passed 20 years ago, to complicate matters for metropolitan water grabbers, and this irked some suburban senators — they introduced a law to remove this power from counties.

“These are the same people who always give lip service to ‘local control,’ Powers says, “but when locals start exercising some control, suddenly they want to change the law. We stopped it by only one vote this time, but it will probably return.”

She sponsored a bill which didn’t pass but made it to the Senate floor; her proposed law would revise the 1972 law which allowed counties to review subdivisions of up to 35 acres.

Subdivisions with larger parcels, say 40 acres, currently don’t get reviewed, and the result is “increased county services and pressure on ranching and agricultural interests.” Such subdivisions also reduce “the usable land for wildlife habitat.”

In Gunnison County alone, she points out, “in the past 10 years, the county has reviewed 200 acres that came before the planning commission, while 10,000 acres were divided without community input. This is a loophole for the rich, significantly pushing up costs of land and development pressures. If we are to preserve our rural lifestyle which is the envy of so much of the nation, we need this local control and review.”

This suggests that as a Democrat, she’s a Jeffersonian, trying to move the decisions from the statehouse down to towns and counties.

That philosophy explains “why I am so supportive of the Gunnison Coalition’s work on grazing reform. It is the local stockgrowers and the local environmental group. They are suggesting a bottom-up approach to range management and a cut in federal bureaucracy. These are the coalitions that we need to keep building and supporting — locals who can work together to protect ranching, open space, and our way of life.”

But every community in the district is different. “Canon City doesn’t want to be the same kind of place as Aspen. Leadville doesn’t necessarily want to go the same route as Salida. Fairplay isn’t Gunnison. They’re all different communities with different people and different goals. My district probably leads the state in both millionaires and welfare recipients.

“I’m not here to ban hard-rock mining in Lake County because they don’t want a quarry in Pitkin County or a mine above Crested Butte. My job here is to make sure that our counties and towns have the ability to chart their own courses. If the state government can help, that’s great, but it can be an obstacle, too, and I want to find the help and remove the obstacles. It’s exhausting and frustrating sometimes, but I love it.”