‘Good bipartisan policy’ is goal of new leg director

Tracee Bentley replaces Christine Scanlan as Hickenlooper’s liaison
The Colorado Statesman

Tracee Bentley acknowledges that she has big shoes to fill. As Gov. John Hickenlooper’s new legislative director, she is replacing former Rep. Christine Scanlan, a Democrat, who served the governor since he was elected in 2010.

“They’re so big I don’t think I can fill them,” Bentley laughed as she described the changing of the guard in the governor’s legislative office. “But I’ll do my best.”

As legislative director for Hickenlooper, Scanlan led an aggressive agenda that included a focus on energy issues, health care and education reform. Major bills landed on Scanlan’s desk, including a measure to create a health insurance marketplace and an early intervention program for child literacy.

Tracee Bentley

Scanlan recently took a position as chief executive and president of the Keystone Center, a nonprofit think tank that works on an array of public policy issues.

Scanlan believes Bentley will serve as a fine successor to carry the torch: “I think she’s great; I think she’ll be a great fit with the office,” she boasted of Bentley.

But Bentley knows that Capitol insiders will carefully scrutinize the transition. She says she has been working with Scanlan regularly to ensure a smooth shift. Still, Bentley plans on doing things in her own unique way.

“There was no guidebook trying to take it over for Christine Scanlan,” Bentley explained to The Colorado Statesman during a 20-minute interview on Monday. “But you’ll see, and everybody will see, that by default we just have very different personalities and methodologies. But I think we always get to the same goal — good bipartisan policy.”

Bentley is known as a bit of a firecracker. She is no stranger to the Capitol. She comes from her position as deputy director of the Colorado Energy Office where she had already lobbied the legislature.

During her two-year stint with the Energy Office, Bentley faced quite a few hurdles. For one, the Energy Office was heavily analyzed, facing a scathing audit this year that revealed that it was unable to explain how $252 million in spending was cost-effective. The audit covered fiscal years 2007 through 2012; Bentley didn’t join until 2011.

Even before the audit, Bentley worked last year on a bill that totally restructured the Energy Office to shift the focus to support private-sector job creation in renewable energy and natural gas industries. House Bill 1315 changed the name of the office from the Governor’s Energy Office to the Colorado Energy Office.

“I really joined to reorganize and balance the office,” Bentley said of her work there.

Prior to joining the Energy Office, Bentley ran her own private lobbying firm, Peak Resources, where she had small business, energy and agricultural clients. Oil and gas giant Noble Energy was one of her contracts.

Before that she worked as the regional director for a national initiative called 25x’25 where she led policy efforts for agricultural organizations in more than 20 states. The goal was to establish rural economic development and foster domestic energy development.

She also served as the director of national affairs for the Colorado Farm Bureau.

Before that, Bentley was an intern for former Congressman Scott McInnis, a Republican, and then went to work for former U.S. Sen. Ben Campbell when he switched from Democrat to Republican in 1995.

Her agricultural background stems from her childhood. The Bentley family farm is in the San Luis Valley and she attended high school in Buena Vista. Much of that background could serve Bentley well as she navigates a maze of energy issues affecting rural Colorado in the upcoming legislative session.

Democrats next year are expected to push regulatory bills affecting the oil and gas industry after a legislative session this year in which many of those measures failed.

Bills around increased mandatory-minimum fines for the industry, as well as reducing a conflict of interest on the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission failed. Other measures around oil and gas inspections and water quality testing also died.

Democrats have vowed to bring some of the oil and gas measures back in the next legislative session, which begins in January.

Bentley says she is ready for the challenge, suggesting that her background could help: “Growing up around water issues and continuing it in my line of work — and naturally energy you have to have for everything — and so having experience in both renewables and traditionals, as well as water and agriculture issues in general, and business, I think those are natural fits for things that we’re going to be working on this year,” she said.

But she can expect a major fight if those energy issues come up again. Hickenlooper was heavily criticized this year by those critical of the oil and gas industry — specifically hydraulic fracturing.

Hickenlooper, a former geologist, has worked to debunk many of the fears around so-called fracking. His administration played a role in killing or watering-down several oil and gas regulatory bills this year.

In line with the governor’s message, Bentley believes compromise is possible, despite the passions that surround the issue and an approaching 2014 election year, in which Hickenlooper is up for re-election.

“That is one of my goals, to bridge the divide on those issues,” she said. “Actually, I don’t think there is this huge divide; I think partisanship peaks at certain times and I think those sides are actually closer than they think they are.

“There is still huge areas on both sides to come to the middle and figure it out,” continued Bentley. “There’s no doubt about it.”

Despite her self-described “outspoken and aggressive” approach to lobbying, Bentley says true success comes from knowing which players to approach. She understands that the lawmakers who work on the second and third floors of the Capitol have large personalities, but she says she knows how to target them.

“It really comes down to knowing the right champions for the right issues from both sides of the aisle that come from a mindset of background and working together well,” explained Bentley.

“Every personality on the second floor is suited well for certain things and partnerships in both chambers, and knowing that level of detail for me has been really important,” she continued.

Bentley will also have to work with the personalities of Alan Salazar, the governor’s chief of strategic operations; David Archer, the deputy legislative director; and Cally King, legislative liaison. But Bentley is already very familiar with those legislative leaders, especially Salazar, which she believes helps to ensure a seamless transition.

“We worked together on agriculture policy way back when,” she said of her work with Salazar when she was with the Farm Bureau.

But Bentley acknowledges that there will be differences between lobbying for private firms and lobbying for the governor’s office.

“I’m very outspoken and I tend to be more on the aggressive side, and with my private clients I could get away with advising them to do some bold, fairly aggressive things,” she said. “Now I look at it differently, where as I’m a lot more protective of the governor and the governor’s office.

“With me, one of the great things about the way that I lobby is that nobody is ever going to walk away going, ‘I still don’t understand where she’s at on an issue, or what she thinks,’” Bentley continued. “I’m direct in a way that I hope is direct but professional… Nobody in this building has time for anything but.”

Scanlan knows what’s in store for her successor and is also looking toward her own future.

Her new position, she says, “is awesome; it’s great.” Scanlan said that she doesn’t miss the commute from her home in Summit County to the Capitol. Her new commute is only about seven minutes.

“This is the work that I had the opportunity to do for the governor — negotiating the policy. And now I’m going to do a real job in the real world, which is pretty unusual,” Scanlan said of her new chapter. “I’m feeling very lucky.”

Scanlan was admired for her tough, but fair approach to policy — often placing a focus on bipartisanship. One example was her work on education reform. Despite her Democratic background, she was never afraid to go up against the teachers’ unions, while also balancing their concerns.

Peter@coloradostatesman.com