Stranger in A Strange Land — Kathleen Curry Bets on A Democrat’s Chances in District 58

Democratic candidate for D58 Kathleen Curry speaks with voters during a meet-and-greet in Ridgway last November. (Courtesy of Curry for Colorado on Facebook)

Democratic candidate for D58 Kathleen Curry speaks with voters during a meet-and-greet in Ridgway last November. (Courtesy of Curry for Colorado on Facebook)

Looking ahead to November, Kathleen Curry knows the time between now and then will be a blur. The Democratic candidate for Colorado House District 58 has a busy season ahead of her — countless miles on the Western Slope campaign trail hoping to convince voters to send her to Denver.

“It still seems a long ways off, but it really isn’t,” Curry said recently.

Right now it’s the calm before the storm, the air buzzing with an eerie quietness that hints at the furious pace afoot once primary season concludes, Curry learns who her Republican opponent will be and campaign season kicks into high gear. The Democratic candidate is ready for a tough road ahead, realizing the political realities of the Republican-leaning D58.

“We’ll see, it’s not going to be an easy campaign, for sure,” Curry smiled, explaining that she entered the race hoping to connect with voters on levels that transcend political affiliations. “I certainly went into it with my eyes wide open and know I’ll have to target unaffiliated voters, and of course the Democratic voters — make sure that they’re happy with me and that they turn out — so I wouldn’t take anything for granted.”

Welcome back, stranger

Curry is no stranger to the campaign trail. And she seems comfortable beating that path, connecting with voters, talking policy and getting to know the various nooks of the district.

“This is my fifth campaign so I kind of know what I need to do,” the candidate concluded recently, discussing her campaign with the Montrose Daily Press.

Curry is also no stranger at the state capitol. She has served three terms in the Colorado Legislature, from 2004 to 2010.

Since exiting Colorado’s political stage, Curry has managed to keep herself pretty busy. She has been working with her husband to run the family’s Gunnison Valley-based cattle ranching business, and has also worked as a lobbyist for the past few years, traveling to Denver to represent the interests of such organizations as the Uncompahgre Water Users Association and the Gunnison County Stockgrowers Association.

“So, my job is to track anything that might impact them,” Curry said of her lobbying work, explaining that she primarily focuses on issues such as water rights and fire management.

But the candidate is also making a point of keeping abreast of issues she knows are important to residents of District 58. Issues like housing, or education or funding for behavioral health.

“If I can have good conversations with the voters, I better darn-well know what’s going on that they care about,” Curry said.

Curry is running to replace Rep. Marc Catlin, who will be term-limited after his current term. Catlin, a Republican, also has two other Republicans vying for his D58 seat — Mark Roeber and Larry Don Suckla — but this doesn’t seem to rattle Curry too much. She sees a path to victory that entails dispensing with party tags and the associated ideological drag.

“I’ve just met so many folks that are willing to give me a chance regardless of party affiliation,” Curry said.

With a heavy Democratic majority in Colorado’s state legislature, Curry pointed out that sending a Democrat to Denver would have some advantages: “Obviously I’d be approaching the job in the majority caucus and would just have that leg up in getting things done.”

“My hope is that if I can win the race I’ll be in a position to get my bills passed, get my voice heard, make sure people out here have an effective member in the general assembly,” Curry said, adding that she believes a Western Slope Democrat invested in the region’s priority issues like water rights and agriculture interests might have a better chance of championing the district’s concerns and aspirations. “That’s an exciting aspect for me, I can make a difference, I could be a resource, I could help construct policy that works for more than just the Front Range,”

An enigma emerges from the wilderness

Kathleen Curry is a complex candidate. She’s a Democrat running in Republican-country. But she’s not just a Democrat — before she was a Democrat, she was an ex-Democrat, an unaffiliated.

Well into her third term, Curry proudly sported a ‘D’ after her name. She played well within the party ecosystem, eventually landing a chairmanship of the House’s agricultural committee.

“Until I went independent and then I got stripped of that leadership position,” Curry explained.

That was in 2009. Curry had become frustrated with the Democratic Party for numerous reasons, but one particular item caused her to reevaluate her affiliation.

“Of all things, that decision revolved around a healthcare bill,” Curry recalled, explaining how the bill required the inclusion of budgetary impacts related to healthcare mandates. “It was just a bill to continue a practice that had been in place.”

The Democratic leadership at the time was not inclined to entertain such a bill.

“The speaker said ‘no, that bill needs to die, so I’m assigning it to the Veterans committee, the kill committee, and it’s gonna die.’ And I was irate, and said, ‘Why?’ And he said, ‘they’re one of the main contributors to campaigns, insurance companies, and they don’t like your bill, so it’s going away, Kathleen.’ So, it was money and politics,” Curry explained. “I was so taken aback that the decision was being made not based on the welfare of the people, but based on campaign funding. So, I went down to the courthouse and changed my affiliation and then the dominos all tipped over from there.”

This was the beginning of Curry’s wandering in the political wilderness, shunned by both major parties as she made another run for the House as an unaffiliated candidate.

“When I ran as a U, it was the most lonely experience,” Curry reflected, bemoaning the lack of organized party support on the campaign trail. “It was a completely challenging experience.”

Turns out, it’s pretty tough to get elected, to play the game, without the support of one of the two major political parties. Soon enough, Curry recognized the reality: she would need to forge a path out of the wilderness if she wanted to get back to Denver, a process she refers to as “my evolution.”

“So, it’s just a whole process,” the candidate said. “I don’t regret taking a stand, but I did sideline my political career when I did it. That much is true.”

While Curry understands that she doesn’t fit neatly into the mold of a standard-issue Democratic candidate — it gets messy, she still sympathizes with independent, unaffiliated viewpoints — she’s comfortable enough embracing the party affiliation. Of course, there will still be points of tension — take, for example, flashpoint issues like guns or wolves, where Curry diverges from the mainstream of the party.

“I’m going to have to walk that line, because I’m pro-gun, and there’s always half a dozen gun bills that come from various legislators, so I can foresee some challenging days if I were to be elected,” the candidate said.

But, alas, remaining unaffiliated was not a politically viable option.

“I wish that unaffiliated people could play a role in our government that was meaningful. I wish that they were in a position to have meaningful engagement in regards to policy, but it is a two party system, and it will continue to be that,” Curry said. “And I fit better in the Democratic caucus, my value system is a better fit there — mostly because of women’s reproductive rights, that’s the main thing for me — so, to make a long story short, I decide to reregister purely because I thought it was realistic, I need a team, I can’t do it by myself. I thought, before, that I could by sheer force of will accomplish good work for the district and found out that being a single player down there doesn’t — it really is a game of compromise and give and take to actually accomplish anything. So, I have faced that and thought, ok, I don’t know when unaffiliated candidates will start running — I don’t know when they’ll start winning, if ever — but right now those aren’t the rules of the game. Right now.”

Not that any of this changes the candidate’s positions on any of a number of issues — or her potential votes, were she to be elected.

“None of my philosophies or votes will change, really,” Curry said. “It’s just facing the fact that to get things done you have to work with other people. That’s just the way it is.”

Wolves, water & politics

More than Curry’s party affiliation has evolved since she last held office. The makeup of the state legislature in Denver has also changed, now titled heavily toward the Democratic side, with Republicans in effect having ineffective minorities in both the House and Senate.

Curry looks back on the old days with some wistfulness. There were benefits to the diversity.

“When I started out, it was a 33-32 House,” she recalled. “And boy, was that challenging at times, but it led to really good compromises and relationships.”

Curry recalls a time when legislators got to know one another, knew each other’s families, went to holiday parties together — and these familiarities all filtered into the day-to-day interactions at the capitol.

“All of that has evaporated,” Curry said. “But it use to be not as important what your affiliation was, it was the quality of the bill that mattered. And now — now there’s a real different calculus.”

In addition to Curry’s party affiliation and the make-up of the state legislature, even the district which the candidate hopes to represent has experienced a state of evolution. Curry previously represented District 61, a Gunnison-area district. Since then, redistricting has shifted Gunnison County into the 58th district, along with Montrose, San Miguel, Ouray and Hinsdale counties, plus some of Delta County. Dolores County and portions of Montezuma County are also within District 58.

The interests and concerns of her potential constituents remain the same though, Curry believes. Issues she holds close to her heart, like agriculture, water and wolves.

Securing protections for the Western Slope when it comes to the Colorado River tops the candidate’s priority list.

“I think we’re going to need more protections than we have now in regards to the Colorado River situation,” Curry said. “I think there in an equity issue on the horizon that is an east slope-west-slope issue, because the east slope and the west slope both utilize Colorado River water and if there’s a shortage both regions contribute to addressing that shortage, depending on priority.”

Curry said she’s concerned that Front Range’s thirst for landscape irrigation could trump the Western Slope’s need for water for agricultural uses, and that’s something she’s determined to prevent.

“I think there’s room to move on their outdoor water use. I don’t think they should get a pass in the event of a shortage,” Curry said of the Front Range. “A good portion of that is being used for landscape irrigation, and that ought not to be a higher and better use than our outdoor irrigation of crops.”

The candidate can envision putting legislation in place formalizing this position.

“I think it’s worth raising that equity issue and trying to put a structure into place to protect our interests from an unfair, potentially unfair scenario, where any kind of shortage is going to be borne by our part of the state and not by them,” Curry said.

The issue of wolves — or more specifically the reintroduction of wolves last year and the impacts that has on sectors like ranching — is another issue Curry considers to be of import to Western Slope voters. On a personal level — with her family working in the cattle business — the candidate has a particular passion for this issue, and also a perspective that parts ways with many of her Democratic cohorts.

“I’d like to tackle the wolf issue,” Curry said. “I think there’s work to be done on compensation on the use of preventative measures.”

On issues like wolves and guns, Curry knows that its her Democratic peers that will be a tough sell. And she’s alright with that.

“I’m not gonna try to hide from the really important things and it may not be what somebody wants to hear,” Curry said.

And Western Slope conservatives will, of course, be an even tougher audience. While they may embrace Curry’s positions when it comes to things like guns and wolves, they’ll likely balk on a number of other fronts. For starters, there’s the candidate’s pro-choice position when it comes to abortion — a topic she’s yet to be asked about much on the campaign trail, though she expects that to change after primary season.

Curry’s plan is to honestly lay out her positions on the various issues of concern to voters and see it works out. She’s hoping they have an appetite for a candidate that they may not always agree with but that they know they can trust to be straight with them.

“If someone asks me a direct question, I’m a terrible poker player, I can’t not answer and I can’t say things just to please people and if it cost me the damn race, fine,” Curry said. “But I think the voters are just ready for someone to not give them a line of stuff all the time.”

Jeremy Morrison is managing editor of the Montrose Daily Press.
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Montrose Daily Press | March 19, 2024
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