(I think Pols has become the go-to place for in-depth interviews – promoted by DavidThi808)
Its 2:45 pm on a Sunday afternoon. I am standing at the front of Front Range Antiques on College Ave in South Fort Collins looking at a 1945 issue of the Denver Post, which was published in the wake of President Roosevelt’s death. On the front page is a series of headlines enumerating the numerous challenges facing Harry S. Truman, the new President of the United States.
The headlines struck a chord with me because like then, the country now appears bogged down by challenges of immense proportions, ranging from a deep and protracted recession, chronic fiscal issues at the state and federal levels, and a deeply polarized and distrustful electorate. My thoughts were then suddenly derailed because, even though I was 15 minutes early for my appointment, a young girl approached and told me that Karen was on her way up to meet me.
My appointment was with Karen Stockley, who is a Democrat running for the state house of representatives for district 49. I sat down with Stockley and talked to her about her campaign, her politics, and the direction she wants to take Colorado if elected.
For several years now, Stockley has been watching this house seat and positioning herself to run for it. Now, in 2010, she believes she has an opportunity to fulfill that goal. The only problem is that district 49 is unfriendly territory for Democrats. It is a heavily Republican district that hasn’t voted for a Democrat to fill that seat in over thirty years, and it encompasses nearly all of rural Larimer county-including Berthoud, Estes Park, and Wellington-as well as a small portion of conservative Weld County that includes Windsor.
In addition to the sprawling geography and tough demographics, the political climate is not looking good for Democrats across the country this year. Even in Colorado, which has been trending Democratic over the last three election cycles, Democrats are on the defensive and facing strong headwinds because of voter despondence and pervasive unemployment. Senator Michael Bennet and Congresswoman Betsy Markey, both of whom are fighting for their political lives, will appear on the same ballot as Stockley.
Yet, Stockley remains optimistic. Her optimism stems from the changing demographics of the district, the unprecedented organization of her campaign compared to past Democratic challengers, and strong fundraising figures.
She is also hopeful because the district voted Democratic in 2008, by an almost six-point margin, when it voted for Betsy Markey over Marilyn Musgrave, the staunch conservative firebrand and cultural warrior whose most notable achievement while in office was her failed attempt to amend the U.S. Constitution to prohibit same-sex marriage.
For Stockley, this creates an opportunity because her opponent is Republican incumbent, B.J. Nikkel, a woman who worked as a senior aide and district director to Musgrave for four of her six years in the House of Representatives. What’s more, Nikkel is a relatively unknown political operative who was not even elected to her current position in the state legislature. She was appointed by a Republican committee, in an 8 to 15 vote, after Kevin Lundberg vacated the seat in 2008 .
With her low name recognition and close connections with Musgrave, Stockley hopes to define Nikkel to the voters and tie her to the unpopularity of her former boss. “By mentioning that our opponent was a Musgrave staffer who was appointed with the help of Kevin Lundberg,” Tim Kubik, Stockley’s campaign manager, wrote in an email message to me, “we get an instant reaction that tells us whether they’re likely to be open to Karen. Most are open, and many blurt out ‘Oh, in that case, I’m for Karen.'”
“BJ’s political career has been marked by her willingness to ‘carry water’ for the agenda-setters in her party,” he continued. “We’ve talked to a lot of voters since Karen got into this race in October of 2009,” Kubik concluded, “and we’ve heard far more about more practical concerns like jobs, defending education, and coming up with the resources to keep our small towns thriving….A partisan purity test is not enough to represent HD 49 any more. Voters need someone who listens to them” and “Karen has a demonstrated track-record of doing precisely that.”
And Stockley herself used every opportunity to expound upon that campaign theme in my conversation with her. “B.J. doesn’t know the issues in Colorado…[She] is a Party person and she is to the right within the Republican Party, obviously [since she] worked for Marilyn Musgrave for so long, something she has done a good job of covering up.”
Stockley has most of her life in Colorado and has spent the last several years in the Berthoud area. She describes herself as a type-A personality, but she conveys a humble, albeit fiercely intelligent, persona. She is even-tempered, yet driven by an innate passion-a passion for public service and community involvement.
After fourteen years of staying home and raising her five children, Stockley started getting active in the community, first involving herself in the schools, then as a volunteer at the museum.
“I did Victorian fashion shows for the museum with my daughters,” she told me with a soft smile.
But soon, her volunteering took on a more political bend. She served on Berthoud’s Zoning and Planning committee and, more recently, has spent the last three years on the Thompson R2-J school board, where she served on its legislative coalition, which goes to Denver and confers with the legislature on any bills pertaining to education.
And because of her years of community involvement, she has steeped herself in many of the issues central to Colorado, namely job creation, the economy, and education.
“Jobs,” Stockley blurted emphatically, when I asked her what the major legislative challenge was going into the next legislative session. ” I see [joblessness] all the time in my business, she added. “I have heard so many sad stories buying antiques from people on the streets; I have seen so many people facing incredible hardships.”
She continued that, “there is so much desperation out there that most people don’t see. You sure don’t see it if you are just working in an office in Denver every day.”
Indeed, the economy in Colorado has been hit particularly hard by the recession. Although Colorado has a lower unemployment rate than the country at large, the percentage drop has been greater in Colorado than the rest of the country because the state has historically outpaced everyone else.
According to Focus Colorado, an economic and revenue forecast prepared by the Colorado Legislative Council in June, state per capita personal income fell 3.9 percent between 2008 and 2009, more than the 2.6 percent drop nationwide. Moreover, mortgage debt is contributing to the financial strain that is dampening consumer spending. In the first quarter of 2010, twenty-eight percent of mortgage holders in Colorado were at or near negative equity, meaning that they owe more on their mortgage than the value of the home. That puts Colorado among the worst in the nation. Only eight states have a higher negative equity share, including California, Florida, and Nevada. And Colorado banks are constrained more than most because of the heavy concentration of loans moving into foreclosure, thus making new lending difficult.
As a business owner herself, Stockley feels she is uniquely qualified to help get the Colorado economy back on track. “If I wanted to expand my business right now and I needed to get a loan to do it,” she explained to me, “I couldn’t do it because the banks aren’t loaning money, even with a good credit rating…. So we have to find a way to fix the banks in Colorado before we can move forward with jobs.”
“We also need to look at tax incentives,” she continued, so people can work on new and innovative projects, especially in the newly emerging green economy. When asked about the feasibility of creating new tax incentives at the state level given the projected budgetary shortfalls projected for fiscal year 2011, which are looming around 175 million dollars, Stockley suggested that it was “important to look at priorities.”
“It seems,” she began, “that large corporations are always getting the tax breaks. The small businesses don’t get the same sort of tax breaks that large corporations get. We need small businesses to get those tax breaks and incentives because they are the ones employing most of the people.” She concluded that all “large corporations do is outsource jobs out of the United States. They shouldn’t get the tax breaks. Tax breaks need to go to small businesses and the businesses creating jobs.”
Even though Stockley’s campaign focus is on the economy, it is clear that her passion is with education reform. Last spring, the state legislature passed SB191, a series of education amendments that changed the way teachers achieve and maintain tenure. Nikkel voted in favor of the legislation, but Stockley opposed it. “I don’t think it had enough protections in the bill for teachers.” Berthoud elementary, she told me, is one of the highest performing schools in the state and it has a great learning environment.
But compare that school to a school in intercity Denver or elsewhere, where students tend to be poorer and more transient and lower performers, she said. Teachers in both schools are equally responsible for 50% growth even though teachers in Denver schools face greater challenges. “It’s like comparing apples to oranges,” she argued. “I say you are held accountable for your eight hours in the class room every day, and you’re accountable for keeping them safe and for educating them as best as you can.”
“Outside forces,” she asserted, make up 50% of a child’s learning environment, however. “You can’t force a child to do that homework at home if they don’t have a good parent.” According to Stockley, moreover, SB191 was rushed through the state legislature and did not reflect the careful thought required for a major overhaul of Colorado’s education system. “We all agree,” she concluded, “that we need to do a better job graduating kids but we can’t just blame teachers.”
Colorado is unique in terms of K-12 education because of what scholars call the ‘Colorado Paradox’-this is, Colorado boasts one of the most educated populations in the country, but in terms of student achievement in the state, its students achieve below-average rates of college attendance and completion. The implication is that Colorado imports a large percentage of its educated labor force, while not properly preparing its own children to fill the state’s most highly paid jobs.
The implication is that, according to Colorado Fiscal Policy Institute’s report on “Working Colorado,” there is a growing disparity between the highly educated, economically prosperous, and largely non-indigenous workforce that has fared well during the recession and Colorado natives who are less educated, have higher unemployment, less economic stability, and more wage stagnation.
For Stockley, this paradox is a function of the way K-12 education in the state is grossly underfunded. “I know they say you can’t throw money at education,” she exclaimed, “and before I joined the school board I kind of bought into the idea that there is so much fluff in education and so much waste, but now I know there is not. I’ve looked at our budget. We’ve gutted programs. We have made cuts over the last few years; we are looking at cuts again next year; and we are looking at the cliff the following year. We do amazing things and get amazing results with very little money, but we are still underfunding education in Colorado.”
And the statistics seem to confirm Stockley’s bleak view. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, between 1992 and 2001, Colorado declined from 35th to 49th in the nation in K-12 spending as a percentage of personal income. And using statistics from 2006, Kids Count Colorado notes in its 2008 annual report that per capita state expenditures in Colorado were nearly $1,000 less than the national average, $2,600 less than in New Mexico, and $3,500 less than in Wyoming.
In my conversation with Stockley, we covered a broad range of issues from health care to Colorado’s state pension crisis. On health care in particular, she was appalled by Nikkel’s vote against a bill in the state legislature (SB244) that would have required insurance plans to cover treatments for autism.
Although largely supportive of the massive health care overhaul passed by Congress earlier this year, Stockley nevertheless remains willing to look at an option for Colorado to legally opt out of the new federal health care reform law by activating a little known provision in the law called the ‘Empowering the States to be Innovative Amendment.’ It would allow Colorado to create its own health care system-with or without a public option, and with or without an individual mandate-provided that the state still meets the coverage requirements of the federal bill.
“The national bill was so onerous and I don’t think a lot of people could get their heads around the bill, especially with all of the backroom deals and political games, Stockley suggested. She then added that if “we can do the same thing at the state level in a cost effective way, I think we can sidestep that fear people have of an ever more intrusive federal government….I think that would be a way to get people to really buy into this new system.”
Karen Stockley’s path to the state legislature in Denver remains uncertain. Although no doubt more liberal than the average voter in her district, Stockley’s main strengths are her capacity for compassion towards others, love of her community, and an ability to connect with those around her. They are strengths that play well with her message to listen to the voters in rural Larimer county and Windsor and her promise to reflect their interests in Denver.
Its a message that voters are desperately looking for in their elected representatives but live in perpetual disappointment because it has been turned into a cheap talking-point. In an era when trust in government is in short supply, the question remains whether Stockley can convince her fellow voters to believe again.