Is Isgar in or is he out? Only the USDA can say

By Elizabeth Stortroen
THE COLORADO STATESMAN

For months, rumors have been flying around the Capitol that Sen. Jim Isgar, D-Hesperus, will resign from his Senate District 6 seat after the session ends.

Isgar, 58, who is known as a moderate Democrat, serves an immense rural district in Colorado’s southwestern corner that includes Montrose, Ouray, San Miguel, San Juan, Dolores, Montezuma, La Plata and Archuleta counties.

Sen. Jim Isgar, D-Hesperus

The rumors hinge on the fact that Isgar, who is term limited in 2010, has applied to serve as Colorado director of rural development with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“I have yet to hear about my fate with this position,” Isgar said in an interview with The Colorado Statesman. “I figured that since I was getting to the end of my time here in the Senate, I would apply for the job, because it might be nice to have a change, and it would give me an opportunity to work with the rural areas in Colorado — which I think is very important.”

According to the USDA’s Web site, the Rural Development Division obtains financial and technical assistance for individuals, communities and businesses in rural areas.

Isgar was appointed to his seat by a vacancy committee in 2001, replacing Jim Dyer, who left the Senate to take a job with the state Public Utilities Commission. Isgar won election in 2002 and was re-elected in 2006.

Isgar, a certified public accountant and rancher who had no previous political experience when he was selected to fill the SD 6 seat, is known under the Golden Dome as a Democrat who sometimes leans to the right rather than the left on issues.

According to at least one colleague, that’s a good thing.

“I think what makes Jim a good senator is that he is willing to work across party lines,” said GOP Rep. Ellen Roberts, in an interview with The Colorado Statesman. “He always tries to do what is best for the people in his district.

“I think Senator Isgar has done a great job representing a large and diverse district,” said Roberts, whose home in Durango is a few miles from Isgar’s home in Hesperus. “I would miss him as a colleague who I can talk over issues with because, even though we do come from different parties, we have never let that stop us from working together.”

Isgar said he’s not concerned about whether he casts a Democratic or Republican vote, but about whether he represents the views of his straight-down-the-middle constituency. SD 6 is a classic swing district, electing Republicans in 1986 and 1994, and Democrats in 1990, 1998, 2002 and 2006.

Dyer — the Durango Democrat Isgar replaced — said it took hard work to wrest SD 6 from the Republicans in 1998 with a slim 54 percent to 46 percent victory.

“When I ran for the Senate, I was lucky, because I had a reputation from my House seat,” Dyer told The Colorado Statesman. “I just went to campaign in the very Republican area of SD 6 because I knew I was going to get hit hard up there, and I didn’t want to hemorrhage and bleed out. But I did my best to connect with all the people in my county.”

He said SD 6 is “kind of goofy” in that bipartisanship works there.

“When I was in the Senate, I was able to accomplish some good legislation,” Dyer recalled. “But when it comes to water and agriculture, no one does it better than Jim Isgar. Those issues are not only important to our part of the state, but to the entire state, and he has done a marvelous job as a state senator and at working with others.”

During this session, Isgar crossed the aisle to join the mostly Republican opposition to ending the death penalty, offering in-state tuition for immigrant students and giving collective bargaining rights to police and firefighters.

Isgar also joined Republicans to vote in favor of eliminating the need for an instant background check for gun owners who already have concealed weapons permits.

“I vote for what is best for my constituents,” Isgar said. “I believe, as a rural legislator, we have to work together, across party lines, and we need to make sure we are representing our districts. Because, if we don’t, we won’t get re-elected, and we aren’t doing the job they voted us to do.”

Isgar heads the Senate Agriculture & Natural Resources Committee and is a member of the Senate Finance Committee. He also sits on the Joint Legislative Audit and Legislative Council committees.

Beverly Rich, of Silverton, who chairs the SD 6 vacancy committee, and also sat on the vacancy committee when Isgar was appointed to his seat in 2001, said the committee “hit the jackpot” when it chose Isgar to take over Dyer’s seat.

“He has been a very good senator for our district, and he has put in a lot of time and effort to serve his people,” Rich said.

Should Isgar decide to resign, the vacancy committee will be ready, said Rich, noting that statute gives the committee 30 days after a resignation to fill a Senate seat.

“We would hope to replace him as quickly as we can, if he does resign, because every minute he is not our senator, that means there is not somebody working for us,” Rich said. “Even though the session will have ended, that doesn’t mean a senator’s work ends there, too.”

The 22-member SD 6 vacancy committee is composed of Democratic officers in each of the eight counties and Isgar himself.

Jayne Bilberry, Montrose County Democratic Party Chair and a member of the SD 6 vacancy committee, said “until, if and when,” Isgar resigns, speculation about a successor is pointless.

Isgar says although he’s given some thought to people who might make good candidates, this isn’t the time to mention any names.

SD 6 includes the districts of Republican representatives Scott Tipton, of Cortez, and Roberts, who both said they will miss Isgar and his bipartisan efforts in their counties if he leaves.

“It is a difficult district (Isgar) covers because it covers eight counties and a wide area,” Roberts said. “I look at it as if it would be a real boost for Jim to get the job with the USDA, but I would personally be glad not to be losing him as one of my partners.”

Roberts said it would take time to adjust to the idea of Isgar not being in the other chamber or across the aisle because she is used to teaming up with him on bills.

This session, the two co-sponsored four bills with diverse purposes: expanding local access to a health-care pilot program in the San Luis Valley; merging Pueblo Community College and San Juan Basin Area Vocational School; dealing with the continuously appropriated water supply reserve account; and funding for agricultural energy-related projects.

All four bills passed and are expected to be signed into law by the governor.

Roberts said she might consider running for SD 6 in 2010.

“I haven’t been able to spend the time to focus on that because, right now, my focus has been on the session,” she said. “Once the session is over, I will really begin to put some time and thought into running or not.”

Tipton said he’s more interested in staying in the Legislature.

“I still think I have more to do in the House before I decide to leave,” Tipton said. “But I do think (Roberts) would be a great candidate for the Senate seat in 2010 because she has continuously proven to stand up for Southwest Colorado and fight for the issues that are important to the district.

“This will be a good and important chance for the Republican Party to pick up a seat that I think we can take in 2010,” he said.

Beth@coloradostatesman.com