The two candidates in this fall's race for State Senate District 8 are both from Routt County, something that hasn't happened before.
But you can bet that incumbent Sen. Jack Taylor, R-Steamboat Springs, and Democratic challenger Jay Fetcher will be spending much of the next six weeks shuttling along the Interstate 70 corridor between Rifle and Vail. That's where the district's votes are concentrated.
Both candidates say it's important to spend time in all five of the district's counties. But the political reality is that more than 90,000 people live in Eagle and Garfield counties, which straddle I-70.
Population densities in Rio Blanco (5,938 residents), Moffat (13,184) and Jackson (1,577) counties are light. Routt County, with the resort town of Steamboat Springs spilling over into nearby Hayden and Oak Creek, is in between and has 19,700 residents in fewer square miles than neighboring Moffat County. But the population centers of Vail, Avon, Eagle, Glenwood Springs, Carbondale and growing Rifle are where the votes are.
"I'm spending four days a week down there and have been since August," Fetcher said this week.
Taylor said he put 1,500 miles on his pickup in one week this month. On Friday, Taylor was beginning a swing through the district with a trip to Meeker while Fetcher was on his way to Carbondale.
Taylor is running on his legislative record, built during the course of eight years in the Colorado House of Representatives and the last four years in the Senate.
Fetcher, a rancher in the Clark area and a former president of the Steamboat Springs School Board, said he was motivated to run by his desire to create a better future for his three adult daughters. He is determined to be free from the influence of special interest groups. He said that is an obvious difference between himself and his opponent.
"I'm absolutely determined to be an independent voice," Fetcher said. "I'm not even going to be connected to parties. Part of the criticism (people levy against state legislators) is you get to Denver and vote along party lines. I'll use my experience and vision to vote what's best for Senate District 8."
Taylor says his legislative experience and knowledge of how to accomplish things at the capitol separate him from his opponent.
Taylor said it is precisely his proven ability to work with colleagues on both sides of the political aisle, and his demonstrated willingness to stand up to Republican leadership when he thinks it's in the best interest of Northwest Colorado, that makes him the choice for another term in the Senate.
"Experience counts," Taylor said. "I think my ability to accomplish things has been proven. Ever since I first ran for the Legislature, I've run on common sense and my business experience. I've proven that it works, because I've passed 80 percent of the bills that I've carried."
Taylor attributes, in part, his ability to work with Democrats to his longstanding leadership role on the Legislative Audit Committee, which by law is balanced between Democrats and Republicans from the General Assembly and Senate.
"I've developed the ability to cross the aisle. That only comes with experience," Taylor said.
Fetcher said Colorado's Legislature lacks voices from the farming and ranching community.
"There are only four left in the state Legislature who make their living on production agriculture," Fetcher said. "I think my voice is unique because of my long history here, and my long history of working in local government."
Taylor emphasizes that his broad business experience in agriculture, energy industries, aerospace and real estate position him to understand the economy of Northwest Colorado and the state.
Both candidates are passionate about water issues and the debate including the funding of Colorado's public schools.
In education, both Taylor and Fetcher can lay claim to supporting the city of Steamboat Springs' half-cent sales tax that is dedicated to public education. Fetcher played a role in establishing the tax as a member of the Steamboat schools' Education Fund Board. Taylor defended it during the last legislative session, when it was under attack by legislators from distant districts.
Taylor's work in that area is probably responsible, in part, for his winning the endorsement the last week of the Colorado Education Association.
Fetcher said he takes pride in having helped to create a funding mechanism that has raised about $1.5 million annually and allowed the local school district to hold down student/teacher ratios and become the envy of the state.
Fetcher's vision for education extends to the state's universities and the role they play in the future of the nation. He is worried about Colorado's dwindling ability to fund its public universities. Looking at shifting employment trends in the world, Fetcher thinks the role of higher education is critical to the nation's future in the decades to come.
"Education, innovation and research -- we do that damn well," Fetcher said. "We've got to educate our population. The education piece is critical for Colorado in the future. It will drive the economic engine that will keep us competitive."
Fetcher worries that without better support for Colorado universities, the best young minds in the state will go elsewhere.
"It will be harder to get them back here to drive our economic future," he said.
When it comes to Colorado's complex water future, Taylor has championed the concept of "basin of origin protection." Such protection is needed, he said, to ensure that water from the Yampa and White rivers doesn't become vulnerable to competing demands from the Front Range and distant downstream states, should Colorado someday be unable to satisfy its obligation under the Colorado River Water Compact of 1922.
"Basin of origin is critical to us," Taylor said. "We need to protect the basin."
If outside interests come after water in the Yampa Basin, there's a possibility that the irrigated hay meadows that are key not only to the agricultural industry but to tourism and quality of life, will be threatened, he said.
Fetcher has similar views and said that, as a rancher who uses water to irrigate, he is better positioned to understand the future of water in the region. And the region's water resources are woven into tourism and recreation for residents, as well as environmental quality.
"I use water to make a living," Fetcher said. "But water touches the quality of life of everyone."
Fetcher cited a local study that concluded the attraction of the valley's green hay meadows translate into visitors staying an extra two days on vacation. A study in Eagle County, Fetcher said, shows every trout in rivers and streams there translates into $350 of economic impact.
Like Taylor, Fetcher is wary of any effort to shift additional water from Northwest Colorado to meet Front Range needs.
"We can't sacrifice our economic well-being here for more houses and economic well-being in Denver," Fetcher said. "We get people to come here because of our lakes and rivers."
Colorado's water future, the survival of agriculture, promoting tourism while diversifying the Western Slope's economy and improving public education with limited budgets are the issues that promise to define the race for Colorado Senate District 8 during the next six weeks.
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