Republican businessman Rick Enstrom’s entrance this week into the House District 23 race in Jefferson County against Democratic Rep. Max Tyler could decide which party controls the State House after the 2012 elections.
Lakewood resident Enstrom, a regional manager of Enstrom Candies — the Grand Junction-based toffee maker founded nearly a century ago by his grandfather — said the recently drawn legislative maps in Jefferson County helped him decide to run.
“This was the Democrats’ idea,” Enstrom told The Colorado Statesman. “We had a perfectly good state representative by the name of Ken Summers, who is a great guy and has been doing a great job, but they moved the district around, and Ken decided he would go to the Senate.”
The Democratic-drawn map moved Summers, a Lakewood Republican, into the same House district as Reps. Andy Kerr and Max Tyler, both Democrats from Lakewood.
The new boundaries opened up a vacancy in the Senate District 22 seat, which Summers and Kerr are both seeking.
Tyler said that he had been expecting to draw a tough opponent.
“Last session, in 2010,” Tyler said, “I ran a race in a tightly targeted district where they were coming at me with full battle cruisers — and even imported someone into the district to run against me.”
Enstrom is a vocal critic of the so-called “Dirty Dozen,” a series of bills that Tyler and fellow Democrats passed in 2010, including a bill raising taxes on candy and soda sales. Enstrom opposed the tax increase in testimony before the Legislature.
His testimony proved controversial when he later told a Denver Post reporter that he had railed against the bill, claiming it would hurt his business, despite knowing that the tax would not affect the operations of Enstrom Candies.
Enstrom said that he was not misleading the House Committee on Appropriations in his testimony, and that he was mainly carrying the fight for small businesses across Colorado and as a member of the National Confectioners Association, a candy trade group.
“[The media would] like to single it out and say it was our business, but when I said ‘we,’ I was using the king’s ‘we,’” Enstrom said.
Tyler is no stranger to controversy himself. The state Rep. drew criticism for an analogy he used when debating a bill that would reform teacher tenures.
Tyler compared the expectations placed on teachers who work with children of diverse learning levels to a baker who is expected to make a good product out of flour “full of maggots and worms.” He later said it was a poor analogy and that he regretted using it.
With no plans to self-finance his legislative race, Enstrom anticipates spending no more than $5,000 of his own money in his effort to secure a house seat. He has not yet assembled a campaign staff.
Enstrom ran for Mesa County Commissioner when he was 24 years old and became the youngest person elected to the position in the history of the state. He later served as the state wildlife commissioner under Gov. Owens’ administration.
Tyler is already challenging Enstrom on his business background, drawing a distinction between the experience of running a family-owned business and his own experiences in entrepreneurship.
“If Mr. Enstrom says he’s a small business person — he’s got a family business, more power to him,” Tyler said, “I’ve been a small business person for 35 years, and just in the last three years I’ve decided to give back to the community who supported me that whole time.”
Enstrom described the tone of Tyler’s comments about his business background as “unfortunate.”
“My job is to go out and meet with the citizens of the district and to see what they think,” Enstrom said. “I’m not going to tear down Max because that’s Max’s job and he’s obviously pretty adept at it.”
Enstrom later emailed The Statesman to say that he regretted his remark about his opponent and emphasized that he does not plan to run a negative campaign.
Tyler touted his experiences running technology consulting companies, as well as his former position as chairman of the Small Business Development Council in Denver.
Although both candidates have business backgrounds, their views on government’s role in business are fundamentally different.
“As a legislator, my job is to empower and protect, and to provide opportunity for the people of Colorado in my district,” Tyler said. “Legislation to promote these kinds of goals would focus on a sustainable environment and good productive jobs. I’m there to represent the people, I’m not there to represent business.”
Enstrom described the Democrats’ approach to engaging the business community as a “tax and spend agenda” coupled with strong support of unions.
“If you have a vibrant business community that’s humming along, the revenue deal takes care of itself,” Enstrom said, “but when you’re just hammering people with a tax here, and a tax there — people are already up to their necks — and now we’re going to have another tax?”
Don Ytterberg, chair of the Jefferson County Republican Party, shared the same criticism.
“I think that Rep. Tyler’s record will indicate that he has been very favorably disposed to increasing taxes,” Ytterberg said. “That is not something that is desired in the district at this time.”
Tyler dismissed Enstrom’s categorization of the Democratic legislative approach as a “tax and spend agenda,” labeling it as a “corny cliché from the last century.”
“We don’t do taxing and spending down here,” Tyler said. “I don’t know how you can call cutting hundreds of millions of dollars from the budget ‘taxing and spending.’”
Tyler was referring to budget cuts made to the 2009-2010 budget under former Gov. Bill Ritter, which included $260 million in cuts to education.
Jefferson County Democratic Chair Chris Kennedy defended Tyler’s record.
“Representative Max Tyler has been the one making the tough choices these last few years as we’ve faced tough budget cuts,” Kennedy said. “His work has set the stage for a vibrant economic recovery, and maintained investments in our kids, so that they will be prepared to compete for the jobs of tomorrow.”
The two candidates offer different views on drilling for natural gas, an issue that has recently come to the forefront in Colorado. Enstrom labels himself not as an environmentalist, but as a conservationist.
“A conservationist believes in the wise use of a natural resource. I’m not opposed to drilling,” Enstrom said. “I believe if we’re going to gain energy independence, we’re going to have to responsibly take care of our energy needs in this country.”
Tyler said a reliance on fossil fuels puts the country at an economic disadvantage.
“If we focus on drilling, then we’re going to fall behind the rest of the world in the economy,” Tyler said. “We’re already falling behind, because we’re paying such an insanely high price for fossil fuels. Germany uses as much solar power as we do in this entire country and they’re just a fraction of our size.”
Although rumors have recently circulated in the blogosphere that Enstrom is pro-choice, Enstrom told The Colorado Statesman in an email that he and his family follow the teachings of the Catholic Church and that he is pro-life.
House District 23 is considered a swing district, with 31 percent of voters registered as Republican, 36 percent registered as Democrat, and 32 percent unaffiliated.
Tyler was appointed to represent the district following Democrat Gwyn Green’s resignation. He was reelected to the seat in 2010.
Tyler said he has a reputation of going out into his community and listening to his voters. He recently sent out a survey through an email list and automated phone calls that reached 12,000 voters in the district.
“That’s how I gauge what I’m supposed to be doing in my job,” Tyler said. “I listen to the people, I knock on doors. I’m right there on their door step.”
Enstrom said he expects the campaign to take a lot of hard work and that he is ready to begin reaching out to voters in the district.
“I’m going to have to knock on a lot of doors and do a lot of walking,” Enstrom said, “I’m going to make my case to the good citizens of Jefferson County.”