Claire Levy: Defying the stereotype of the ‘Boulder liberal’

The Colorado Statesman

Rep. Claire Levy, D-Boulder, is a Boulder liberal. “Boulder is liberal, and I represent Boulder,” she told The Colorado Statesman recently.

But if you look at her track record, she really doesn’t fit the stereotype of the “Boulder liberal,” and her track record of bringing up bills that are getting through a majority Republican House is proof. So far this session, three of her bills have made it out of the House; another, co-sponsored with Rep. Jon Becker, R-Fort Morgan, passed its first Senate committee hearing Wednesday. Last year, a dozen bills that she sponsored (including bills from the Senate) were signed into law, including two bills sponsored with Senate Republicans. It’s a track record that goes back to her second session in 2008.

Being a Democrat from Boulder doesn’t have to be an impediment to passing bills. “You pass bills that make sense and that are good policy,” she said. That means distinguishing between the policies that her most active supporters would want her to implement, and those that will succeed. “I’m practical, but there are also things I believe in passionately,” such as changes to juvenile life sentences and “direct file” laws.

Levy attributes her success in her ability to “step back and understand and appreciate other arguments,” and knowing when to be dogmatic, and when to see the overall goal and compromise.

Rep. Claire Levy, D-Boulder

The Minority Whip is now in her third term at the Capitol, representing House District 13, which includes Boulder west of Highway 36; north to Lyons and Allenspark, west of Nederland, as well as large portions of Clear Creek and Gilpin counties. She succeeded Democrat Tom Plant of Nederland.

Levy, just like the other 31 House Democrats, is learning the ropes of being in the minority. It wasn’t something she anticipated when she ran for re-election last fall. “I ran to be in the majority,” she said, but “I want to represent the people in my district, whether in the majority or in the minority. There’s a lot of work to be done. And the results I’ve had so far this session show you can get things done,” even in the minority.

Part of her approach, when working with her colleagues across the aisle, is to show how her legislation makes sense, and to disabuse her Republican colleagues of misimpressions about bills coming from the “Boulder liberal.”

“When you do bills to solve practical problems in your district, there’s no reason to make it partisan,” she said. For example, her first bill this session, House Bill 11-1042, would help the residents in her district who lost homes in the Four Mile Canyon fires last summer. It’s a bill that Levy said was supported by Speaker of the House Frank McNulty, R-Highlands Ranch, and passed the House 63-1 last month. The bill is now awaiting action in the Senate.

Levy’s career path has been defined by not being defined. She said virtually everything she’s done in life, beginning with her move to Colorado in the 1980s following law school, was a series of opportunities that took her in different directions.

State Rep. Claire Levy, D-Boulder, visits with former state Sen. Dan Gibbs before the State of the State in January.
File photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

“I’ve never planned my life…things have happened pretty well doing that,” Levy said. “I think when people have too much of an idea about what they want to do, they can get blinders, and not see other opportunities, and set themselves up for disappointment. [Not planning has] worked well for me.”

Levy said running for office was not a natural progression, although people looked at what she’d done in the past and assumed that’s what she was planning. But when approached about the Legislature she spent two months mulling it over. “I didn’t immediately seize the opportunity because I was doing other things that were fulfilling,” she said. That included her part-time law practice, and serving on the City of Boulder Planning Board. Eventually, people like former House Majority Leader Alice Madden and several others persuaded her to go for it.

Levy came out to Colorado in 1986 to clerk at the Colorado Court of Appeals, and from there she went to the Denver public defender’s office. The only goal she had for that job was to have a case go to the United States Supreme Court, and to get to argue that case. But that never happened, she said. And Levy eventually decided that her first job should not be her last job, and after three years in the public defender’s office, she seized on an opportunity to work for a Boulder civil litigation firm, a move that turned out not to be the best fit.

At that time, Levy decided she wanted to work on land use issues, despite having no experience at it. Perhaps a testament to her passion, and salesmanship, Levy applied for and got a job on land use with the Jefferson County Attorney’s office, which she described as a very enjoyable experience.

When she got to the Capitol in 2007, Levy started off carrying legislation on transportation and land use planning, but found that “the various interests were pretty strong,” and she wasn’t getting anywhere. “I realized there were other areas where I could put my energies and be more productive.” So after a difficult first session, she shifted gears and began doing bills on juvenile justice and other issues that are rooted in her legal past.

Once the session is over, Levy is footloose. She shut down her solo part-time law practice after her second session, finding she could not serve the needs of her clients and her legislative work at the same time. “I just decided to let that go for the time being,” and now she spends her time meeting with constituents and developing policy ideas for the next session.

What keeps Levy hopping, as well as her biggest challenge, is the amount of work. “I’ve never gotten on top of the work — there’s always more to be done” and she cites the need to balance the legislating side with constituent work and politics. “When we’re legislating, I can’t always keep up with the constituents’ political side.”

Levy stays grounded by going home at night and being with her 16-year old daughter, Ellie, the youngest of two daughters. (The other daughter, Mara, is in college in New York.) “I get to be a real person,” she said, smiling. If she had to live in an apartment away from home during the session, “it would get to me. Life is not balanced when we’re in session, but because I go home, I feel more balanced” than perhaps others do.

And Levy proudly talks of Ellie, whom she called a mature, capable and responsible person. “We have very good conversations about what I do; I share with her the debates, and she immediately gets to the nub of the issue,” she said. Ellie even suggests arguments Levy can make, and “nine times out of ten, she’s right. She’s uncanny,” although whether she follows in her mom’s footsteps remains to be seen.

What keeps her going? Levy says it’s getting back into the majority. “But I want to be here for a reason; I’m not here to sit on my hands and say ‘no.’”