All eyes are on Markey’s congressional debut

By Jason Kosena

Betsy Markey has no time to waste.

Within hours of her unexpected win in the 4th Congressional District, Colorado politicos were speculating about possible Republican challengers to unseat her in 2010. The Democrat — who had never been elected to any office before she beat three-term Republican incumbent Rep. Marilyn Musgrave by a resounding margin in November — looks vulnerable to a list of possible challengers that has grown steadily since Election Day.

File photo by Jody Hope Strogoff/The Colorado Statesman

Sen. Ken Salazar, right, introduced CD 4 candidate Betsy Markey, left, when she announced for Congress back in 2007. Democrat Markey, who defeated incumbent Rep. Marilyn Musgrave, was sworn into office this week.

Indeed, even Democrats quietly have been saying the former U.S. Senate staffer is anything but a shoo-in for re-election.

So what can a newly elected Democrat from a traditionally conservative district do to boost her chances for a long Congressional career?

“I have to work hard and do a really good job representing the people of the 4th,” Markey told The Colorado Statesman in a phone interview from Washington, D.C., last week. “I expected challengers would come forward quickly because this seat has been in Republican hands for 36 years, and my victory took people by surprise.

“But I think they will also be surprised by my work ethic and by the kind of work I will be doing. At this point, though, I am just focused on the legislative side of things. I mean, I haven’t even been sworn in yet.”

Markey had just finished moving into a tiny one-bedroom apartment she had rented a few blocks from the Capitol. She said her new digs are a far cry from her old-fashioned, two-story home on Mountain Avenue in Fort Collins.

“It’s small in here,” Markey said, as the sound of her voice echoed off the walls of the empty room. “In fact, my apartment is actually smaller than my new office at the Capitol.

“It’s kind of funny how that worked out.”

Markey has been involved in congressional politics for many years, most recently as Sen. Ken Salazar’s regional director in northern Colorado.

But she realizes the challenges she’ll face as a member of Congress will be considerably tougher.

There will be little time for pomp and circumstance as she settles into her new role as one of three freshman congressional members from Colorado. But that hasn’t stopped Markey from enjoying the moment. More than 30 family members and a small cadre of close friends have flown to Washington for her official swearing-in ceremony this week — creating what she calls a family reunion of sorts.

“Although it’s been a busy couple of weeks out here as I’ve worked to get ready, I have still found time to take a step back and soak it all in,” Markey said. “It’s really beautiful here in Washington. I’m really looking forward to the swearing-in ceremony and to helping our country move forward.”

A tall order, indeed.

With President-elect Barack Obama at the helm, members of Congress will have to navigate through a tumbling global economy, high unemployment rates and rising tension in the Middle East. Democratic members, especially those in competitive districts, will face an uphill battle to please voters who expect to see a change in the nation’s direction and new initiatives in health care, education and environmental reform.

Markey, who ran as a centrist Democrat, hopes for assignment to the powerful Agricultural Committee and has been assigned to a seat on the Transportation Committee. Membership on those plum panels should allow her to work on legislation important to voters in CD 4, which encompasses most of the state’s Eastern Plains and the northern Front Range areas.

Musgrave, her predecessor, served on the Agricultural Committee and helped pass the 2008 Farm Bill by voting to override the veto of a fellow Republican, President George W. Bush.

“Particularly with the highway reauthorization coming up this year and with agriculture being so important to Eastern Colorado, those are the two places where I can be most useful to the people in the 4th and in Colorado as a whole,” Markey said.

“Transportation is important along the Front Range and across all of Colorado. And by that appointment, I can help to ensure the state gets its fair share of support.”

Markey declined to take a stance on a recent suggestion by a federal commission to increase the federal gasoline tax by 50 percent in order to fund maintenance on the nation’s aging road and bridge infrastructure. The current tax rate is 18.4 cents per gallon in addition to the state’s 40.4 cents
per gallon.

“There is no getting around the fact that we need more revenue for transportation, because the gas tax is not bringing in as much revenue as before,” Markey said.

“I haven’t seen any specific legislation to increase the federal tax, and I would want to see something before commenting on it. But that is an option we should look at.”

Much like Republican Congressman-elect Mike Coffman, who said he wants to work on water issues, Markey said current river pacts that affect farming and ranching operations in eastern Colorado will be a major focus in coming months. So will the implementation of the Farm Bill and programs surrounding crop insurance and other agricultural protections.

“I held many town hall meetings across the 18 counties of the 4th during the campaign, and what I heard time and time again from people was the importance of water and farming,” Markey said. “We need to fight to protect that in Colorado.”

Always a family person, Markey said she has been taking the Friday afternoon flight out of Washington to Denver almost weekly. Her husband, Jim, will remain in Fort Collins to run their business.