Seven contend for SD 31

By Janet Simons
THE COLORADO STATESMAN

Since April 2, when Jennifer Veiga, Colorado’s first openly gay senator, announced her decision to resign and move to Australia to help care for the ailing mother of her partner, seven candidates have emerged as contenders to replace her in Senate District 31.

The sprawling, solidly Democratic district encompasses southwestern Adams County and a long, north-to-south swath of central Denver that includes downtown. It was hobbled together by Republicans, who controlled both chambers of the Legislature and governor’s office during the 2002 redistricting that resulted from the 2000 census.

Doug Linkhart, Denver city councilman-at-large, served as the district’s senator during the redistricting. Linkhart won his seat on the City Council shortly thereafter, necessitating the district’s first vacancy committee election in 2003.

The 2003 vacancy committee selected Denver House District 3 Rep. Veiga over Adams County House District 35 Rep. Ann Ragsdale.

It wasn’t pretty.

Pat Steadman, who, like Ragsdale, is a contender for the current vacancy, was a member of the vacancy committee in 2003. He recalls “a certain Denver versus Adams County rivalry” in the first vacancy committee race that probably helped Veiga.

This time around, Democrats in both Denver and Adams County are determined to leave the cross-county rivalry behind.

Five of the contenders — Steadman, Patrick Byrne, Jill Conrad, John Maslanik and Alex Sanchez — live in the Denver part of the district, and two — Elmer “Butch” Hicks and Ragsdale — live in the Adams County part.

On May 20, the Dem chair of SD 31 will conduct an election to replace Veiga among the approximately 185 members of the district’s vacancy committee. The SD 31 chairmanship alternates between Denver and Adams counties every two years.

This year, it’s Denver’s turn, and Denver SB 31 chair Ed Hall, who also serves as treasurer for the Denver Democratic Party, is in charge.

“The chairs of the Denver and Adams County parties and the SD 31 chairs in both counties are all working very closely together to insure a fair and open election process,” said Hall. “Any rivalry between the two county parties is in the past.

“This race has seven very good candidates. It’s going to be an exciting contest, and SD 31 is sure to elect a qualified senator, no matter who wins.”

Here’s the current roster of contenders.

• Patrick Byrne, 28, a budget and policy analyst for the Colorado Department of Transportation. Byrne is unmarried.

The race in SB 31 marks Bryne’s debut as an office-seeker, which comes only shortly after his debut as a Democrat. Until April 21, the self-described “budget geek and policy wonk” was unaffiliated, and, as a teen, was a registered Libertarian. Byrne grew up in Rhode Island, earned a bachelor’s degree at the University of Colorado and a master’s degree in economics from Boston University, then returned to Colorado because he missed it. Before C-DoT, Byrne worked on Gov. Bill Ritter’s staff, and says his proudest achievement was helping draft two pieces of legislation that, in 2008, authorized funds for capital improvements at the Colorado History Museum and the Judicial Building and simplified the distribution of federal mineral lease revenues.

“I’m pretty nonpartisan minded,” he said. “I’m more interested in finding solutions to problems and making budget processes more rational. I certainly understand when you’re filling a vacancy for a Democrat you’d want the ideal candidate to have a solid Democratic track record. But I think my skill set will make up for the fact that I’m kind of late to the party, as it were.”

• Jill Conrad, 39, education consultant, Ph.D. candidate and at-large member of the Denver School Board. Conrad is unmarried.

Conrad has been involved in SD 31 Democratic politics since moving into the district in 2003, when she served as a precinct committee person and co-captain for House District 5B, laying the groundwork for her successful citywide race for the Denver School Board in 2005. She has worked on the campaigns of House District 2 Rep. Mark Ferrandino, Gov. Bill Ritter and President Barack Obama and for the passage of Referendum C and the DPS bond issue. She counts serving the people of Denver on the School Board for the past four years as her most significant achievement.

“I am running because I believe I have what it takes to both represent the diverse interests within Senate District 31 and to balance the progressive values of the district with pragmatic solutions needed to address the challenges we face as a state,” Conrad said.

Conrad’s long list of supporters includes DPS board president Theresa Peña, Denver City Councilwoman Marcia Johnson and former Denver Dem Chair Sharron Klein

• Elmer “Butch” Hicks, 53, a bus driver and instructor for the Regional Transportation District, treasurer for the Democratic parties of Adams County and Colorado and former Westminster city councilman. Hicks is married, has two married daughters two “fabulous” grandchildren, ages 2 and 4, who live down the street in Westminster.

Hicks says so far his supporters include about 22 members of the vacancy committee from both Denver and Adams counties.

“They’re just everyday people who do the work of the Democratic party,” he said. “This is one district, and I want to represent the district as a whole. I don’t care whether an issue originates in Denver or Adams County. If it affects the district as a whole, you’ll see me there addressing the problem.”

• John Maslanik, 54, president of Frontier Capital, Inc., an investment management firm. He is active in the Downtown Denver Residents’ Association, ran for the RTD board in District A, and plans to “carry on the fight for mass transit in the Legislature.”

The former Peace Corps volunteer’s service to the Democratic Party of Colorado includes his current chairmanship of the Denver County Century Club, a run for House District 5, and service as spokesman for the Clinton presidential campaign in 1992.

As chairman of Precinct 521, he has a vote on the vacancy committee, and he believes his work on behalf of the party is his biggest asset.

“I haven’t asked for any endorsements, and I’m not sure they make a difference when you’re dealing with only 185 people. I think they know everybody and they’ll make their own decisions, and I’m focusing on talking to each one of them.”

As far as county differences go, Maslanik notes that “It will be important to be sensitive to the differences in local control issues between Adams County and Denver.”

• Former Westminster Democratic Rep. Ann Ragsdale, 73, has lived in the district since 1958. She’s married with three grown daughters and five grandchildren and wants to return to the Statehouse to continue the work in the Senate that she feels she left undone when she was forced to leave the House.

“I did very, very important work on issues affecting children, especially to keep siblings together in foster and adoptive homes,” she said. “These little darlings need to be kept together because that’s the only family they have.”

Ragsdale believes her most important asset is her experience.

“Not only did I spend eight years in the Legislature, but I’ve lived in the district for several decades. I know and understand every single issue.

“I only want to represent the people of the Senate district,” she said. “I have no personal agenda.”

• Alex Sanchez, 28, director of communications for the Denver Public Schools, says he’s running because he is “intimately aware of the real world impacts that policy has on the day-to-day lives of hardworking Coloradans. I am running for this position to provide progressive solutions that strengthen our families and our communities.”

Sanchez, a first-generation American who learned English as a second language, says he is proud to be the first person in his family to graduate from college and “enter corporate America.”

If elected, Sanchez would be the state’s youngest senator, but he doesn’t see his youth as a barrier.

“I think the residents of Senate District 31 want someone that is going to work hard every day and be an effective advocate on their behalf. The notion that our government can only function when this “cookie-cutter” profile — over 40, attorney and independently wealthy — is in power is a faulty one.”

Sanchez has collected a long list of supporters that includes Democratic state senators Paula Sandoval, Chris Romer and Abel Tapia, Rep. Edward Casso, of Commerce City; Denver Councilman Michael Hancock and Councilwoman Judy Montero, as well as former state senators Paul Sandoval and Polly Baca and former Speaker of the Colorado House Ruben Valdez. He also has the support of National DNC Hispanic Caucus Chair and Executive Committee Member Ramona Martinez.

“If given the opportunity, I will be a strong voice of reason speaking to real people issues and a fierce advocate for the families in Adams and Denver counties,” he said.

• Pat Steadman, 48, attorney, lobbyist and gay activist, is a veteran member of the SD 31 vacancy committee, and he says there’s an extremely good reason he’s not on the current list.

“On the night of the precinct caucus, I was the site coordinator at Dora Moore, and more than 1,200 Democrats descended on the school. I spent the night running like a crazy person. I didn’t get to participate in my caucus at all, so I couldn’t run for precinct committee person, but made sure that the votes from 10 or 12 precincts were turned in that night.” Steadman said.

Steadman says he believes the vacancy election “isn’t about big name endorsements.”

“At the end of the day, it’s about knowing the people on the committee, listening to them and letting them know that you share their values and will represent them well,” he said.

Nevertheless, Steadman says he can count on support from the incumbent, Veiga, and from former Denver Dem secretary Dan Willis, former House Majority Leader Alice Madden, retired Colorado Supreme Court Justice Jean Dubofsky and several members of the vacancy committee.

Janet@coloradostatesman.com