O'Brien's address to change, but not goals

By Cindy Brovsky
THE COLORADO STATESMAN

Despite Gov. Bill Ritter’s bombshell announcement that he won’t seek re-election, Lt. Gov. Barbara O’Brien will spend the 2010 legislative session much as she has spent the past three years: fighting for improvement in K-12 education and children’s health care.

Barbara O’Brien outside campaign headquarters she shared with Bill Ritter in 2006.

“The only real change will be that, this time next year, I’ll be working out of an office with a different address,” she wrote on her official state Web site. “My commitment to the people of this great state and helping build a bright future for Colorado is part of my work now as lieutenant governor and will continue to be my work as a private citizen.”

For the next five months, O’Brien vows to pursue the administration’s agenda enthusiastically.

“Working with Gov. Ritter, the Cabinet and the outstanding team in my office has been a privilege,” O’Brien said. “While (Ritter’s) announcement means major changes, it does not change my commitment to our agenda in 2010. I am going to work hard on health, education, economic development and other issues that need our attention.”

O’Brien was one of the first people Ritter thanked when he announced that he would pass on a second term.

“It has been my privilege and my honor to serve with a great lieutenant governor who has passion for this state and really has passion for the children of this state that has no peer,” Ritter said during a press conference. “Her efforts at health care reform, her efforts at education reform, the things that she has helped me do to focus on the next generation and generations after that for this state are really remarkable.”

O’Brien is the second-highest-ranking member of the executive department of state government, below only Ritter. Her constitutional duties include assuming full powers and responsibilities when Ritter is absent or unable to perform the duties of the office. Her statutory duties include serving as chair of the Colorado Commission on Indian Affairs, a position the General Assembly created in 1976.

Prior to Ritter’s announcement, O’Brien reflected on her work as lieutenant governor.

“People are very anxious,” she said about her recent visits to communities statewide. “It is a different mood than the last three years. They are hearing that the economy is starting to get better, but they aren’t seeing it. And they hear the state now faces more budget cuts. It will be interesting how it all plays out this session.”

She earns $68,500 annually, compared to $90,000 for Ritter, who chose her for the 2006 ticket.

“The reason the governor picked me as his running mate in the first place, and he still says it all the time, is that I am someone who will be thinking about children’s health care and education 24 hours a day, and these issues will not fall through the cracks,” said O’Brien, who served as president of the Colorado Children’s Campaign before the 2006 election.

For the last several months, O’Brien has taken the lead with the Colorado Department of Education in an effort to snag $60 million to $175 million in federal grants to bolster public school reform. The program, called “Race to the Top,” will measure the state’s commitment to education reform and requires the support of Colorado’s 178 school districts. State officials have been working non-stop to complete a 250-page report, which is due at the U.S. Department of Labor on Jan. 19. By this spring, Colorado will know if it made the cut or what areas must be improved. Only eight to 10 states will receive a portion of the $4.3 billion in grants, and Texas already has opted out, O’Brien said.

Ritter spokesman George Merritt calls O’Brien’s work on the P-20 Education Coordinating Council “stellar.”

“The knowledge and experience she has brought in the efforts to secure Race to the Top grants put Colorado in a leadership role,” Merritt said.

The Legislature’s work the last three years to implement reforms, including new standardized testing, should help Colorado’s chances for the grant, O’Brien said.

However, rural districts, some teachers and some administrators are leery of federal programs because previous mandates, namely “No Child Left Behind,” failed to back up new standards with funding to implement them.

Lt. Gov. O’Brien reads The Story of Ferdinand to third grade students visiting the state Capitol from Park Hill as part of the national “Read for the Record” campaign in 2007.

Apparently that wasn’t an issue in Pueblo, where O’Brien’s staff expected fewer than 20 teachers to attend a recent information session, and more than 60 educators packed the house.

“This has been a kind of crazy month to get the districts on board,” O’Brien said. “Some districts, especially those on the Eastern Plains that have trouble even recruiting teachers, had a bad experience with No Child Left Behind. Some districts are skeptical, but the larger districts, including Jefferson County and the Denver Public Schools are on board.”

The proposal has strong support from DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg.

“This is a great opportunity for the state and individual school districts to make critical reforms to improve student achievement and offers an unprecedented opportunity for federal funding to support and implement those changes,” Boasberg said.

At the same time O’Brien is pushing for education reforms, she’s fighting to maintain health care funding for children. Budget cuts already forced the closure of a state adolescent psychiatric facility, but federal stimulus money, which eventually will dry up, has allowed the state to bolster Medicaid funding for children.

“At least we have been able to maintain basic programs,” O’Brien said. “It is our policy to do everything we can to protect those basic services and rebuild programs once the economy allows.”

Her predecessor, Republican Lt. Gov. Jane Norton, also focused on health care and education issues, and both women were charged with promoting the state’s aerospace industry. But O’Brien also took on helping the Colorado Council on the Arts and Humanities, a state agency “running on fumes” because of budget cuts.

“Shortly after coming into office, O’Brien saw herself as an ambassador,” said Elaine Mariner, executive director of the arts council.

When the stresses of the Legislature hit O’Brien, she just needs to walk into her office and look at the walls. She worked with the arts council to create a new rotating art gallery in her office and in the Rotunda of the state Capitol. Through May, visitors can view vibrant paintings, photographs and quilts from artists based in Southwest Colorado. Works by Eastern Plains artists will grace the walls through the summer, and art featuring metropolitan Denver will be displayed in the fall. The exhibits also will be displayed at Denver International Airport.

“Many state capitols have art galleries, and she saw her office as a place to get started,” Mariner said. “It’s a great opportunity for the artists to display their work.”

A recent study by the arts council showed art-related professions rank as the fifth largest employer statewide, with 186,000 jobs in the creative fields, which include architecture, landscape design, performing arts, new media and traditional arts.

In addition to promoting established artists, O’Brien has supported state grants to maintain arts programs in public schools statewide.

Between crunching budget numbers and visiting public school districts statewide, O’Brien also fits in the “fun” part of her job: supporting historic Main Street businesses and giving more visibility to a family pastime, rugby.

“One thing about my job as lieutenant governor is that at times I can be sprinkling fairy dust. People want to feel they are appreciated, and I can’t do enough to encourage them,” she said.

Cindy@coloradostatesman.com