Hamner chosen to succeed Scanlan in HD 56

By Marianne Goodland
THE COLORADO STATESMAN

Millie Hamner, superintendent of the Summit County School District, has been named the next representative for House District 56, a decision made Sunday in Frisco by the district’s Democratic vacancy committee. Hamner replaces Rep. Christine Scanlan, D-Dillon, who has been named the chief lobbyist for Gov.-elect John Hickenlooper and will resign her seat on Dec. 31.

Hamner’s selection was considered certain, since she had Scanlan’s endorsement and the support of outgoing state Sen. Dan Gibbs, D-Silverthorne. But another candidate among the eight also made a good impression that may lead her onto the ballot in 2012, albeit for a different seat.

Millie Hamner, superintendent of the Summit County School District, is elected on the fourth round.
Photo by Marianne Goodland/The Colorado Statesman
Four of the eight candidates for HD 56 representative await the voting results. From left, Pat Hammon of Edwards, Brian Sipes of Avon, Liz Spetnagel of Eagle and Millie Hamner of Frisco.
Photo by Marianne Goodland/The Colorado Statesman
Rep. Christine Scanlan, D-Dillon, and Sen. Dan Gibbs, D-Silverthorne, applaud the work of the vacancy committee's chair in putting together the Dec. 12 election. Scanlan will join the administration of Gov.-elect John Hickenlooper next month; Gibbs decided not to seek a second term in the state Senate and instead was elected in November to the Summit County Board of County Commissioners.
Photo by Marianne Goodland/The Colorado Statesman
Andy Kabza, right, of the House Majority Project counts ballots to select the next House representatives for HD 56 while Mike Weissman, left, of the Colorado Democratic Party observes.
Photo by Marianne Goodland/The Colorado Statesman

After the vote, which went four rounds, Hamner greeted supporters. “What have I done?” she joked. She declined to comment on legislation she would carry in the 2011 session that begins in a month. She did, however, identify education and tourism as her top legislative priorities, and during the interview process said she hoped to be named to the House Education Committee. On Tuesday, Hamner got her wish. House Minority Leader Sal Pace, D-Pueblo, announced Hamner would join the education and transportation committees.

Mike Weissman of the Colorado Democratic Party and Andy Kabza of the CDP’s House Majority Project observed the election and counted the votes.

The first round of voting produced three finalists: Hamner, Lake County Commissioner Ken Olsen, and Jill Hunsaker Ryan of Edwards, a former director of the Eagle County Dept. of Public Health who consults part-time for the Colorado Dept. of Public Health and Environment. The next two rounds deadlocked, with four votes each for Olsen and Ryan, and Hamner just shy of the simple majority needed to win. Vacancy Committee Chair Lucinda Burns then called for a short break while the three candidates lobbied for the last votes. In the last round, Hamner picked up two more votes and was declared the winner.

And while Ryan didn’t win the HD 56 seat, she impressed Cobb, who referred to her as a “rising star” in Eagle County. Ryan told The Colorado Statesman she would be interested in a possible challenge to Sen. Al White, R-Hayden, who will be up for re-election to his Senate District 61 seat in two years.

In addition to Hamner, Olsen and Ryan, the other candidates were: Pat Hammon of Edwards, Denise Levy of Keystone, Brian Sipes of Avon, Liz Spetnagel of Eagle, and Emily Tracy of Breckenridge.

During nearly three hours of interviews, the candidates cited many common interests, such as job creation, the state’s budget, health care, K-12 and higher education, the environment, I-70/transportation issues and the bark beetle infestation that has destroyed more than 1.5 million acres of trees in the state, much of it in the HD 56 counties.

Hamner told the committee she does not wear her “Democratic badge” when she goes to work and has not been as involved in the party as she would like. However, she cares very much about the issues facing the district, such as poverty, immigration, school reform, budget cuts and Senate Bill 10-191. She indicated she would support in-state tuition for undocumented residents, saying all high school graduates should be able to go on in their education, regardless of their immigration status. Hamner said she also was concerned about the bark beetle infestation and its impact on tourism, and on I-70 transportation problems. She said her top priority would be to work on the budget and how to find more revenue to pay for transportation and K-12 education.

Ryan said her top issues are human services, forest health and the potential impacts wildfires could have on water quality, and environmental cleanup issues in Lake County. Chief among her concerns is what she called the “punishment” that low-income families suffer as they reach self-sufficiency. Ryan explained that as low-income families begin to make more money, they lose benefits such as childcare, health care, or help with energy bills, a problem she would like to see the state address. Her first choice for committee assignment would be the health and environment (formerly health and human services) committee. Olsen said he intends to represent everyone in the district and cited his experience winning elections and working with elected officials from both parties on Lake County environmental problems. He said he was most interested in the economic and business development (formerly business and labor) committee, and was also interested in issues affecting local government, given his eight years as a county commissioner.

Candidates also were questioned on their ability to build relationships with Republicans as well as the areas in which they would not compromise. “Republicans like to talk about [people] pulling themselves up by their bootstraps,” said Spetnagel. “But I think everyone needs to have bootstraps,” which she said included certain levels of health care, education and taking care of children. “These are non-negotiable.” Several candidates cited women’s rights and taking care of the poor, the sick and the elderly. But the candidates all said they could work across the aisle, too. Several, including Olsen, Sipes, and Tracy, cited their experience as elected officials and working with Republican colleagues. “Some of my best friends are Republicans,” joked Hammon, a nurse who served in Vietnam. Hamner indicated that working in a partisan environment would be “a learning curve” but cited her experience in teacher contract negotiations, both as a teacher and as an administrator.

Vacancy committee members often praised the high caliber of the candidates who competed for the seat Sunday. Katha Hartley of Eagle said the strong candidates made her “proud to be a Democrat and sit with you today.” Committee members also told the candidates that the winner will have to immediately begin campaigning to keep the seat in 2012, a seat that they said will be targeted by Republicans. Scanlan reminded the candidates that winning the seat would require more than Democratic votes, since the majority of voters in the district are unaffiliated. She also asked the candidates to remember the words of former Speaker of the House Andrew Romanoff, who said “first you vote your values, second your district and third your party.”

Proceedings marked by controversy as the rules are questioned
Sunday’s election marked the end of a controversial effort to replace Scanlan, a process marked by accusations of secrecy, late rules changes and questions about the committee itself. Two of the candidates were also members of the committee and were allowed to vote Sunday.

Summit County Democratic Party activists raised concerns during the week that the candidate presentation portion of the meeting would be closed to the public, in violation of state party rules and state statutes governing open meetings, since Gibbs and Scanlan are both members of the committee. Burns told The Statesman Thursday the entire meeting would be open to the public, although only the committee members would be allowed to question the candidates.

A second issue was raised about the rules, which were sent to candidates Friday afternoon. One rule stated that a committee member must second the nomination for each candidate, raising concerns that if the committee had an “heir apparent” in mind, other candidates might not get seconded. However, Spetnagel said the members were committed to seeing that all candidates got a fair review, and she would second the nomination of any candidate who failed to get a second from another committee member. That turned out to be a non-issue: at least four committee members seconded nominations for the candidates.

Committee member Don Parsons of Dillon questioned whether having candidates who were also voting members of the committee created a conflict of interest, a concern also raised by several party activists. Burns said the issue had provoked a lot of discussion in the days leading up to the election, and that those candidates (Spetnagel and Hammon) would be allowed to vote but would not be allowed to question other candidates during the question-and-answer session.

Then there were concerns about the make-up of the 15-member committee. Spetnagel, who chaired the committee until she became a candidate, told The Statesman that the committee was selected in 2009 following the biennial statewide reorganization meeting in Denver.

The committee has seven members from Summit County, three from Lake County and five from Eagle County, although party registration favors Eagle County, which has about 100 more active Democratic voters than Summit County. Automatic membership goes to the chair, vice-chair and secretary of each county’s Democratic Party, plus the elected state officials in the district. That meant Summit County residents Gibbs and Scanlan became part of that county’s committee representation. Spetnagel said the other two members each from Eagle and Summit counties volunteered, and that typically, Summit County Democrats are “more active.”

The only changes in the committee’s membership since then has been as a result of new leadership in a county party, and both Spetnagel and Burns said more changes in the membership were not possible. However, Spetnagel said the issue of committee membership should be taken up in the next reorganization meeting, which will take place next year.

Republican Party officials in the district are fuming over Sunday’s election, pointing out that the Democratic vacancy committee has now chosen the district’s representation three times in the last three years.

Debra Irvine, chair of the Summit County Republican Party, also attended the Sunday election. Irvine ran against Scanlan last month, and lost, and said the replacement should have been chosen in a special election instead of by committee. She pointed out that in the last three years, three district representatives have been chosen by a vacancy committee: Hamner, on Sunday; Gibbs, to the state Senate in 2007 when Sen. Joan Fitz-Gerald, D-Evergreen, stepped down to run for Congress; and Scanlan, who replaced Gibbs in the House. Irvine said she realizes special elections are difficult and expensive to do, but this is the third time a committee has picked the representation, she said. “What’s the point of having [a general] election” when a committee ends up choosing the representation? she asked.

The representation situation in HD 56 appeared to be on the minds of at least some committee members; one asked if candidates had the financial and family support to do the job for the long haul. All candidates said they would be able to handle the commitment and in her response Levy said she did not view the seat as “a stepping stone to something else.”

Irvine said it wasn’t fair that Scanlan quit the seat 21 days after the election, and added that the general election results might have been different if voters knew Scanlan might join the Hickenlooper administration. And it was apparently no secret in the district among political insiders that Scanlan might have other options come Nov. 3. Sources told The Statesman that Scanlan was being considered for a position with Hickenlooper, either as lieutenant governor or in some other capacity, as early as last July.

“There’s something wrong with the process,” said Kaye Ferry, vice-chair of the Eagle County Republican Party. Barely one month after the election, and “already they’re handpicking someone to represent us” without any input from voters, she told The Statesman. “This is the kind of stuff that goes on that makes people distrustful of government,” Ferry said, and added that she plans to look into state law for ways to change the process.

Marianne@coloradostatesman.com