By Katy Schultz
THE COLORADO STATESMAN
The latest round of musical chairs in the Colorado Legislature found civil engineer Bruce Whitehead in the Senate District 6 seat formerly filled by Jim Isgar. Both Whitehead and Isgar are residents of Hesperus, the La Plata County seat.
The 21 members of the SD 6 Democratic vacancy committee met Aug. 8 in Silverton to elect Whitehead, who bested Montrose County Commissioner Bill Patterson, Cortez Mayor Orly Lucero and former Durango City Councilman Scott Graham.
“Every one of the candidates had good qualifications,” said Beverly Rich, chair of the vacancy committee. “Democrats are lucky to have that caliber of experience.”
The seat has been empty since July 20, when Isgar was appointed to serve as director of rural development for Colorado in the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
“I’ll have plenty of advice [for Whitehead] because I’ve been [at the Statehouse] for eight years,” said Isgar with a laugh. “I’ll make myself available.”
Isgar said Whitehead faces a challenge in getting decision makers to understand rural issues.
Whitehead, who spent 20 years at the Colorado Division of Water Resources before becoming executive director of Southwest Water Districts, said his expertise in water issues will help fill the void left by Isgar, who was appointed to the SD 6 seat in 2001 to replace Jim Dyer. Isgar’s term limit is 2010.
“I kept listening to people saying that Jim was leaving a very big hole, and someone with similar qualifications needed to step in,” said Whitehead. “It’s quite the opportunity, and I felt the time was right.”
Rich agreed that Whitehead’s knowledge of water and agricultural issues set him apart from the other candidates.
“When we had a candidate like Bruce Whitehead, who has a vast knowledge of water issues, we thought that was a good choice,” said Rich.
Whitehead said his positions within the Colorado Division of Water Resources and the Southwest Water Districts also taught him about state government and politics, preparing him for his new post on Capitol Hill.
Patterson, who had been a strong contender for the position, eventually deferred to what he came to see as Whitehead’s superior command of Colorado’s water and agricultural issues.
“In the end, I thought that Bruce would be a better candidate than me,” said Patterson. “I did not withdraw, because I don’t quit anything. But I did throw my support to Bruce Whitehead before the election.”
In addition to all those water and agricultural issues, the new legislator inherits a swing district with a diverse population.
“When you’re dealing with southwest Colorado and an agricultural community, folks tend to be more moderate,” said Whitehead. “I’ll probably have similar beliefs as Jim.”
Democrats’ expectations are high for the newly minted senator. House District 59 Rep. Ellen Roberts, R-Durango, has already announced her candidacy for the SD 6 seat in 2010.
Whitehead said he has begun to focus on Colorado’s budget deficit and on transportation, energy development and land use issues. He said he believes his expertise will help him become a strong incumbent.
“Some of the strengths that I bring are things that Ellen isn’t as strong in,” said Whitehead. “She obviously has more experience in the Legislature than I do, but I look forward to the competition, and I intend to try and keep the seat in 2010”
Isgar is confident that his successor will keep SD 6 in Democratic hands.
“I know Ellen, and we are friends. But I’m going to support Bruce because I think he fills the void I’m leaving with agriculture and water,” said Isgar. “I think it’s important that Democrats maintain control and have progressive legislation.”
The lack of rancor — or even competition — in the vacancy election leaves the Democratic Party in SD 6 feeling confident.
“Everyone on the vacancy committee, including the different counties in the district, are all committed to helping (Whitehead) in any way we can to get elected in a year and a half,” said Rich.
SD 6 covers all or parts of Archuleta, Dolores, La Plata, Montezuma, Montrose, Ouray, San Juan and San Miguel counties.