The CO-03 Diaries: Interview with former Rep. Scott McInnis

This past week I got the chance to interview Scott McInnis. He represented Colorado’s 3rd congressional district as a member of the Republican Party from 1993 to 2005 and ran unsuccessfully for governor in 2010. He currently serves as a Commissioner for Mesa County. I want to thank him for taking the time to speak with me. You can find the full transcript of the interview below, edited primarily for clarity purposes. The full audio interview located at the end of the transcript as well as on all our podcast providers, like Spotify and Apple Podcasts.

Thoughts on current Rep. Lauren Boebert?

Well look, she’s young, uh, and a lot of us are young and full of energy, and this district needs someone that’s a fighter, that’s all there is to it. I mean, I can tell you Ben Campbell got more attention probably than any other US senator and it was immensely beneficial for this district. Now, granted this is controversial, but if you take a look, for example, take a look at when they said she [Boebert] led a group of people over for this problem at the Capitol, when those people unfortunately did that to the Capitol [sic], you know, the press came right out, said there she is, they have a picture of her. It was her family, she was taking them on a tour.

Of course, they [the press] don’t correct that kind of thing. She’s getting a lot of cheap political shots taken at her. But look, if you’re going to be a leader in the 3rd district, this is a diverse district, and frankly, this district has a lot of things that a lot of other people outside the district want, for example, water and things like that. So, you have to get used to being attacked. I think she’s going to be fine. Of course she’s young, she’s been in Congress for all of what, five weeks now. One of the people called me up and said, “Oh, she led this, she did that”. I said, “You know what, I bet you she doesn’t even know where the restrooms are, I certainly didn’t when I was there for [only] four or five days”.

I tell you, I’ve been looking at letters to the editor and I look at their party affiliation. They are all Democrats, or they’re Republicans, or I can’t find any but maybe there’s one out there – so this is a very focused political attack against her because they were stunned that they lost this seat because they thought they [the Democrats] had the right candidate and they spent 3 or 4 times the amount of money that she spent. If you compare her to her previous opponent [Democratic former State Rep. Diane Mitsch Bush], 10 years from now she’ll be in her early-mid 40s and her opponent would be in her 80s. That’s what the Democrats. [sic]

And now the Democrats have four or five candidates, including, a couple I think, Donovan [State Senator Kerry Donovan] for example doesn’t even live in the district. That’s what they call a carpetbagger, I mean come on. So, I don’t have any problem standing up for her [Boebert], I think she’s doing exactly what freshmen do, getting their sea legs.

Challenges of Representing the 3rd

When I was in Congress, they would always have meetings of the delegation in Denver, which for me, was almost a two day trip, one day going and one day coming back the next day. I was kind of isolated out of here. When I represented the district, it’s now a little smaller than it was, but back then it was larger than the state of Florida, and so you have to work twice as hard to get around the district, with the mountains and the roads and so on, and you have to work twice as hard to be recognized in this district statewide because you know, we’re only 1/7 of the population but we have huge water resources, ski areas, forests, and more.

The 3rd has a lot of big diverse interests, how do you balance all of them as a Representative?

I enjoyed the diversity. First of all, keep in mind, the 3rd is one of the most recognized districts in the US. The reason is because, most of your colleagues in Congress wish they lived here and wish they represented it, and most of them vacation here. And I used to chuckle, I was the only congressman that on a routine basis, could have on my expense account, charges at Beaver Creek, Aspen, Telluride, and Crested Butte. But you know, it gets a lot of attention, the district, probably the unifying factor over here is the water resources.

As you know, we have tremendous water resources and we have tremendous public lands. The public lands, when I had the district, really I had almost all the public lands. I think they had some Prairie National Park and whatever other spots in Eastern Colorado, but primarily I had all the parks, I had half of Estes Park and the other parks, I had the forests, the BLM land, and all of those lands are multiple-use. So by design, this part of Colorado has a big part of it designed for multiple use. Without it, we wouldn’t have our ski areas, our ranching, or our tourism, or other similar resources. Fundamentally, there are a lot of things people agree with. Most people in this district are pro-education, pro-military, pro-protecting our water, pro-ranching, farming, those kinds of things. Most of that is pretty uniform around the district.

Then you get in that 5 percent, you know in Aspen, probably more in coordination with Boulder and things like that, but they have good points too. You know, I thought it was a challenge, but it was never to the extent where you had a big battle, or a civil war within your district so to speak, not to overstate a civil war. I never had that when I was in this district. Aspen folks didn’t visit Meeker very often and Meeker folks didn’t visit Aspen very often, and everybody kind of follows live and let live.

How feasible is it for Democrats to win the 3rd?

In that question, it’s really up in the air because of redistricting. They redistricted after I left because Mark Udall wanted to run for the US Senate. They redistricted my district so that he could claim in his race that he was also a representative for western Colorado so they carved out Vail and part of Eagle County, so that a Boulder-area representative could say he was a congressman for the Western Slope. That’s exactly why that was carved out by that judge in the redistricting.

You know, 10 years ago, Gail Schwartz out of Aspen, Colorado, I believe was the sponsor that bifurcated the Western Slope, kind of going down the I-70 corridor. The northern part went to Boulder and the southern part went to Pueblo, so would assure that the next congressman from the 3rd. [sic] You’d have two districts over here but both districts would always be assured that it would be a Democrat representing both districts because of the population of Pueblo would dominate the lower half and the population of Boulder would dominate the upper half. But you never know what they’re going to be up to, but it’s going to be very partisan, even with this new commission as you can see from the makeup of the commission. So I have no guess what the odds are of a Democrat or a Republican winning that district until we see the map. Once I see the final map I can answer your question but until then, it’s pure speculation.

What can the Colorado GOP do to keep themselves competitive?

You know, there’s going to be overreach. For the state to have a holiday named “No Meat Day” is a slap in the face to the agriculture communities in the state. It’s a slap in the face to these communities that have energy development that fall under the Oil and Gas Commission, while no one on the commission comes from a district that’s producing this, as I understand it. It’s a slap in the face of the Board of Agriculture, [unintelligible], I don’t have a problem with vegetarians, but anyway, what happens is, as Republicans do [sic], they tend to overreach. And right now, I think there’s a lot of overreach.

And so the key for the Republicans as it would be for the Democrats would be good candidates. And I tell you, Ben Campbell was an excellent candidate. John Salazar was an excellent candidate. And that’s why both of them prevailed in the 3rd district, they’re good solid people. And so I think the key to any party success is good solid candidates. Solid meaning, principled people and people that can go to Aspen and speak to the folks in Aspen and understand their issues and then a few hours later be in Meeker speaking to the ranching community. Meeker is as Republican as Aspen is Democratic, and I didn’t have any problem at all speaking to the
Rotary in Aspen and then running up to speak to the Cattlemen’s Annual Dinner in Meeker.

What would you have done differently in your 2010 run for governor?

Well, you always look back. We were cheapshotted with allegations that we were not aware of. We were ahead, we anticipated Hickenlooper was going to be our opponent, we were ahead of Hickenlooper in the polling, we were in good shape, and then they accused us of plagiarizing. Every congressperson has press people or ghostwriters that write for you, and we did. So they accused me of plagiarism and the Supreme Court did an investigation and completely exonerated me, but the fact is, we couldn’t recover from it. So what would he have done differently? We would have hopefully known about that more in advance, as a surprise attack, but look, hindsight is always perfect. Political campaigns are tough.

What is the single most important policy issue in the 3rd?

Clearly, two things, it’s tied. Water and multiple use. Most of the public land remains in the 3rd district. Some of it is in the Udall district when they carved out Vail and so forth, but down here, when I was in Congress, I think we had 70-some communities, anchored by the mothership of Grand Junction and the mothership of Pueblo. But Pueblo and Grand Junction are almost identical. Very close in economy, size (I think there’s a difference of 3,000 in population).

But the one thing is, almost every community I had in my district when I represented it was completely surrounded, with one exception being the east side of Pueblo, by public lands. And that means highways, cell towers, ski areas, ranching, wilderness areas, all of these multiple use areas. And that’s really, kind of where the border of the 3rd district is. When I had the 3rd, it was Wyoming and New Mexico, basically the I-25 corridor. I picked up part of Evergreen, part of Jefferson, part of El Paso County, I didn’t have any of the big cities, but basically, it started at the rough border of the I-25. And so the public lands are a critical issue, we are so dependent on them. Our water in this district either comes across, or is stored upon, or originates on federal lands, public lands. To give you an idea, in Grand Junction, in Mesa County, 74-76% of the county is public land and about 22% of the private land is locked up in perpetuity in conservation, that don’t have a lending provision.

In other words, there is no flexibility in perpetuity, so that’s a huge issue for anybody running. And of course, you always have your fundamental issues, like strong education, great hospitals, medical care, a strong military. I’ll tell you, Pueblo, at the time I represented it, had more recipients of the Medal of Honor in proportional to the population, than any other city in the country. Pueblo is a big pro-military community. I love Pueblo, Pueblo is great, I wish I had a second home there. There’s no shortage of issues in any congressional district, but when you look here, these public lands – that’s why this district is different than any other district, although it’s very similar as far as agriculture is concerned, with the other rural part of the state and that would be the eastern side of the district.

Thoughts on the divide between Denver and rural Colorado?

Compare just in Colorado, it used to be 35 miles, I don’t know what it is today. You put a dot, or a pin, on the State Capitol, attach a little tiny string to it, and draw a circle around the state capitol, that used to be a circumference of 35 miles or so. And in that circle you’d find the Governor, Lieutenant Governor, President of the Senate, Speaker of the House, it’s pretty much insane. Almost all the chairmen of the committees, almost all the Supreme Court, almost all the heads of the Cabinet positions and executive department, both of the US Senators, and most of the congressmen were all from within that circle. That represents less than 1% of the state of Colorado, it’s kind of like California. Los Angeles and San Francisco rule the rest of the state. And that’s what happens here.

You have the real powers in Denver, but they don’t have the consequences – they have the benefits of the public lands because they can come over here, but they don’t understand at all what public lands are about. Maybe when you talk about public lands, to someone from Nebraska or Virginia, they think you’re talking about the courthouse. It’s a huge huge issue over here and it takes somebody to have the ability to stand up and be noticed and be strong. And you had that with Salazar and Campbell – and Tipton too. We all have our different approaches. Scott was fantastic, all three of those people were. It’s going to be the same with Lauren. That issue will become the issue that drives her years of service in whatever district western Colorado ends up in.

Thoughts on renewable energy in western Colorado?

Well, I mean, renewable energy has a major role in all the energy. The more we can get out of wind and sun, the better off we are, but we have to be realistic about it. You can’t shut down the oil and gas, like they’re attempting to do in Texas – now there were multiple factors that caused the Texas energy problem. There’s nothing wrong with renewable energy, it just has to be able to supply. Everybody is for new energy sources, and they fully expect it to be turn-key, that you could turn the key and the next day their house is 70 degrees in the winter the way they like it. It’s not going to go off – it’s going to be a combination for a long time of different areas of energy and new inventions in energy. It’s kind of a motherhood and apple pie, who’s against renewable energy? It’s kind of like asking who’s against education. And I haven’t found anybody who’s against renewable energy. It’s a great idea, so I don’t think it’s an issue.

Who do you think are Republicans’ best hopes for 2022?

I don’t know. I got to see who emerges. Usually, we always have an early field and I don’t know what the names are, because I’m busy with my commissioner duties. I’d never say never to running statewide again for anything, I’ve got fight in me till the day they haul me out of here – I like a good fight. I wouldn’t speculate now as to who the best candidate will be, but somebody will emerge and it’s usually a surprise. I can think way back when, when all of a sudden you get Campbell and Dick Lamm and John Love, ancient history that you weren’t even born for. Candidates just popped up a few weeks before the election and won.

Finally, on bipartisanship and political comity

I tell you, the day Lauren was sworn in, the attacks began. The day I was sworn in, this is the difference of how partisan and nasty it’s become in Washington. The day I was sworn in, staffers from Ben Campbell’s office, who were not working for me, they went with Campbell, came to our office and said, “How could we help you, we’re happy to go over some of the constituent cases we’re working on.” The election was over, and Ben was a Democrat at the time. They asked, “How can we help you to serve the 3rd District”. I made darn sure when I left office, to Salazar, that our people went over to Salazar’s office and said, “We know we won’t be working for you but let us brief you on anything you need us to cooperate on”. That did not happen with Lauren Boebert. Even Pat Schroder’s and Diana DeGette’s office called mine up – and I didn’t vote with them all that often but I still liked them as people. The whole delegation office called mine offering their help, but that’s not what happened now.

Thoughts on recent events and how Congress is now?

Way more partisan than when I was there. It’s partisan by design, but I never imagined the day that I would see what happened at the US Capitol, nor what happened at our State Capitol, nor across our nation this past years. It really saddens me, and there are a lot of folks to blame. For somebody that dedicated a big part of their life to service, and I’m sure John or Ben would say the same, we all would say it’s a really sad turn of events. And people forget what happened at our State Capitol, I’m not sure if they charged anyone. China, Russia and Iran are greatly enjoying the disharmony in our country. Your generation, has some big challenges ahead of you. Your generation should not take the eye off the ball.

Armin Thomas is a recent graduate of Yale University specializing in statistics. His interests include politics, elections, music, and the work of J. R. R. Tolkien. His Twitter is @thomas_armin and he can be reached at [email protected]

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