USDA lures Isgar, leaves SD 6 seat empty

By Katy Schultz

Wanted: A moderate Democrat, anxious to serve on both sides of the aisle, eager to represent a rural community and knowledgeable in water and agricultural issues. Must be a determined, yet enthusiastic, campaigner.

These are the qualifications listed by Montrose County Democratic Chair Jayne Bilberry as she described the ideal replacement for Sen. James Isgar, D-Hesperus, who is leaving Senate District 6 to become Colorado director of rural development for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Isgar is the second Colorado senator tapped to serve the Obama administration. Senate President Peter Groff, D-Denver, left in May to fill a post in the U.S. Department of Education.

Isgar’s departure makes it necessary for the Colorado Democrats to fill a fifth vacancy in the Colorado Legislature this year.

Both House Districts within SD 6 are represented by Republicans, so it won’t be possible for the vacancy committee to move someone up from the lower chamber.

According to Bilberry, because Isgar has been considering the move for several months, conversations with potential replacements have been taking place all spring, but no firm candidates have emerged.

There’s still plenty of time. Bilberry predicts Isgar won’t resign his position until mid-July, and candidates can declare right up until the vacancy committee election six weeks later.

In 2010, Isgar would have reached his term limit and been unable to seek re-election, so he saw the federal nod as an opportunity he couldn’t pass up.

“It’s a completely different thing now. I will help administer programs that affect all the state,” said Isgar. “I’m going from 130,000 bosses to 4.5 million.”

Republicans see this as a great opportunity to take back the swing district, which went to Republicans in 1986 and 1994 and to Democrats in 1990, 1998, 2002 and 2006.

“It’s going to have to be another moderate Democrat,” said Bilberry. “Being rural, our numbers are in the Republican column. We want someone to show leadership and represent us in Denver.”

Ellen Roberts, R-Durango, who represents House District 59, already has announced that she’ll challenge Isgar’s replacement in the 2010 election.

“Ellen’s a great candidate,” said Tom Crabb, co-chair of the LaPlata County Republicans. “She’s popular on both sides of the aisle.”

“I have a very strong voting record,” said Roberts. “I feel very comfortable going into the race that I’ll be able to do a good job. It doesn’t worry me that someone might be able to call themselves the incumbent.”

For nearly eight years, Isgar served constituents in the southwest corner of Colorado. SD 6 encompasses all or parts of Montrose, Ouray, San Miguel, San Juan, Montezuma, Dolores, La Plata and Archuleta counties.

“It’s been a real honor to serve southwestern Colorado,” said Isgar. “I appreciate the opportunity voters gave me.”

Under the golden dome, Isgar is known for his knowledge on water issues and agriculture, and his willingness to work across the aisle. During the last legislative session, he voted with the Republicans in opposing an end to the death penalty, in-state tuition for immigrant students and giving collective bargaining rights to police and firefighters.

Crabb admitted that Isgar will be missed by citizens and political leaders in SD 6.

“Jim was better than most,” said Crabb. “But it’s better for Republicans to have a Republican in office.”

This will be the fifth vacancy election held by Colorado Democrats this year, and the seventh in both chambers.

There are only 25 or so members of the Democratic vacancy committee that will replace Isgar.

Roberts sees such a high number of vacancy committee elections as a problem.

“I think that Colorado ought to consider holding special elections,” said Roberts. “I think that Colorado would want to take a look at how many people leave office early and how many people end up in there not truly elected by the people.”