This week, we have Charles Ashby, Denver Bureau Chief for the Pueblo Chieftain. Mr. Ashby has served as the Bureau Chief for the Chieftain since June and before that covered the state legislature for the Durango Herald, for seven sessions (since 1998). From 1997 to 2002 he also covered Colorado legal matters and the legislature for the Los Angeles Daily Journal.
In his career in Colorado , Mr. Ashby has written for newspapers in Boulder, Colorado Springs, Montrose, Longmont and Sterling. He has also worked for newspapers in Virginia, Nebraska and Florida.
Mr. Ashby will be answering your questions throughout the day, so read through the first 11 questions and then ask your own in the COMMENTS section. We do ask that you follow a couple of quick rules:
1. Please be courteous. You may disagree with something Mr. Ashby has written here or in the newspaper. But if you can't do so in a respectful way your comments will be removed. Mr. Ashby is gracious enough to take time out of his day (made all the busier with the impending wrap-up of legislature) to answer your questions, and the least we can all do is be respectful towards him.
2. If you want to discuss something Mr. Ashby has said but do not want to ask another question, please comment in the OPEN THREAD above. We'd like to keep the COMMENTS section in this post reserved for questions and answers to make it easier for everyone to track both.
So, on with the show:
1. Let’s start with the 2005 legislative session, since they are about to wrap things up for the year. How would you grade the Democrats and Republicans and why?
I don't like to "grade" lawmakers or their parties. It's too subjective no matter who's doing it. Sorry. I know that's a boring answer, but I wouldn't opine on such things, nor would I write a story allowing any single group doing the same. Everyone has an agenda, and that would taint the grades. Democrats would say that Republicans have been whiners and inconsistent in their objections to various measures, and are living in denial about losing the majority in the Legislature. Republicans would say that Democrats have been heavy-handed and disingenuous, and have not borne the mantle of leadership as well as they should.
As a reporter, I start with a simple premise about all lawmakers. That their first duty is to serve the people of their districts, and balance that with what's best for the entire state. Unfortunately, all too often they show that they're so worried about getting re-elected to do the jobs they've been hired to do. Not all of them are like that, mind you, but re-election is always in their minds, first for themselves, second for their parties.
2. What surprised you about the 2005 legislative session?
When the legislative session began in January, I had high hopes that things would be different this year. Not because I cared that the Democrats had taken control in the November elections, but just because I thought it would be different. As Sean Connery said in Red October, "A revolution from time to time can be a good thing."
Trouble was, I forgot that the more things change, the more they stay the same. While it was weird seeing the once minority leaders standing up there on the podium in the House and Senate at first, politics, as it always does, quickly took over, and suddenly it made no difference who was in charge.
Did that surprise me? Yeah, I suppose it did. Though, looking back, it was a dumb expectation, and I should have known better.
3. Looking ahead to 2006, what do you expect to see from Democrats and Republicans when they re-convene next January? Where do you think each party needs to make adjustments in order be positioned best in November 2006?
You keep asking me to opine, but you know I won't. Besides, if I had that good a crystal ball, I wouldn't be doing this. What they do next year depends on so many things, not the least of which is what the voters do with the referenda on this November's ballot. Next session will be an election year, and a crucial one for both sides. The Democrats will, obviously, want to retain control in the Legislature. The Republicans will want to take it back. As a result, the politics will be high, and votes for and against bills will be used for and against lawmakers in their re-election campaigns. Whether the Legislature has any extra money from Referendum C will play a big role in what is introduced, and how legislators vote.
4. What campaign or campaigns impressed you the most in 2004 and why?
Campaigns don't impress me. People do.
Ken Salazar impressed me with his knowledge of the issues; Pete Coors impressed me with his willingness to enter a fray that he clearly didn't care for. What didn't impress me was how the presidential candidates tried to pull both men into aiding their national campaigns rather than the race for the Senate. Sure, President Bush and John Kerry said they supported their parties' pick for Colorado senator, but their real interest was to win votes for themselves and clearly used that as much as they could. On election night, Bush's state campaign was understandably jubilant when the president won re-election and partied off by themselves while the GOP candidate's supporters were busy crying in their Coors beers.
Meanwhile, the rest of the Republican Party realized that it had been sidetracked and didn't focus as much as it should have on state races, resulting in the Democrats winning a majority in the Legislature. Some of that was their own fault, due to cockiness that it could never happen, particularly in the Colorado House.
What may impress me in 2006 are what both parties -- or, more precisely, their candidates -- will do. A lot will be on the line then, and the governor's seat is only one of them. Expect to see an off-presidential year race like you've never seen. I suspect at times it will seem like a presidential race, because everything will be on the line. There will be a lot of out-of-state money and a lot of in-state fighting, first in the primaries, and then with the 527s.
5. You covered the race for CD-3. What’s your nutshell analysis of what happened and why John Salazar was elected?
Actually, I didn't cover the CD-3 race. The prime reporter for my paper on that story was in Pueblo, in the district. I oversaw statewide races: the U.S. Senate, ballot questions and the presidential races when they were in town.
Having said that, however, I can say that Salazar's win was entirely about Referendum A. Salazar opposed it, Greg Walcher supported it (despite his backtracking about only campaigning for it a few times). He was one of, if not the, front man for the governor on the plan to issue up to $2 billion in bonds to pay for unspecified water projects. The measure was defeated in every county of the state, including the Front Range counties that Western Slope and Southern Colorado voters believed it was meant to benefit. Western Slope and Southern Colorado officials jaws literally dropped when they realized the ballot question had been defeated.
There were, of course, a couple of other factors in the Salazar-Walcher race, not the least of which was a lot of out-of-state money entering the race (and the recent redistricting that helped even the difference between registered Democrats and Republicans in the district). Walcher also had a string of bad PR while he was still executive director of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources, not the least of which was a controversial contract designed to help the department reduce costs (which actually did the opposite) Since then, of course, we haven't seen the so-call cost-saving measures that contract was supposed to bring about. And lastly, Salazar had name recognition from his more well-known then attorney general brother.
6. What makes campaigning different on the Western Slope and in Southern Colorado compared to Metro Denver? Can you think of any examples of Denver-area candidates who transitioned particularly well in those areas, and those who didn’t? What happened?
If it will fly in Peoria, it will fly anywhere, or so they say. Not true for the Western Slope or Southern Colorado. Both feel like they are the red-headed stepchildren to the Front Range(from Colorado Springs to Fort Collins).
The biggest issue for both regions is water. To borrow a line from Frank Herbert's "Dune," "Water is Life." Water is everything. Water is economic development. Water is agriculture. Water is Mom and apple pie. The Front Range drools when it thinks of all that water in those regions that they don't have. When Front Range water interests work a deal to take more water from them, it is seen as just one more example of how the Front Range cares only about itself and not the state as a whole. (Sorry Jerd Smith. To these people, the water wars have not ended, not by a long shot.)
Can I think of an example of a Denver candidate who played well out there. Frankly, no. It usually works the other way. Roy Romer of Lamar. Ken Salazar of the San Luis Valley. Even Jane Norton of Grand Junction.
7. What are the issues that are always at the forefront on the Western Slope, and what new issues to do you anticipate cropping up in 2006? What do you anticipate will be the dominant issue(s) for these voters in 2006?
See Question #6. And there are no new issues, just a rehashing of the old. As far as the rest, my crystal ball still isn't working.
8. What are the issues that are always at the forefront in Southern Colorado, and what new issues to do you anticipate cropping up in 2006? What do you anticipate will be the dominant issue(s) for these voters in 2006?
See Question #7.
9. We spent a lot of time last week talking about third party candidates, first with the Green Party Chair and then with the Libertarian Party Chair. What do you think it is going to take for a third-party candidate (and not an Independent) to win a state house or senate seat in Colorado?
More votes than the other guys.
10. The media has long been accused of having a liberal bias, even as more conservative news outlets (such as Fox News) have gained more readers and viewers. Do you think media coverage in Colorado leans one way or the other? Do you think that perception is different outside of Metro Denver?
The media has also been accused of bringing about the Black Plague, the Great Flood and low-fat cheese. What's your point? That we should be more like Fox News to gain more readers and viewers? And does the fact that we don't tell you anything? That maybe we aren't in the business of gaining more readers and viewers as everyone thinks we are?
Newspaper circulations for the major papers in Colorado (outside of Denver) have remained virtually the same for the past 20 years despite the increase in population. Maybe we are just interested in reporting the news as opposed to making money. I'm a newspaperman, not a newspaper salesman. Read my reports, don't read my reports. It's up to you. I report the news, I don't report people's perception of it.
Perception may be everything in politics, but it is meaningless in the news. So, no, I don't think media coverage in Colorado leans one way or the other, only people's perception of it. One day you're a hero to a source, the next day you're public enemy No. 1. (That's when I know I've done my job right.) Is the perception different outside Denver? Why would it be? People are people. Period.
11. You’ve covered politics and the legislature in Colorado for a long time. What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever seen?
A political blog like this one, and how popular it seems to be. I mean, who really cares who has the biggest hair in the Legislature? Beyond that, not much. It's often said in the Colorado Legislature that nothing ever dies (including former lawmakers and some press people). Here, they don't kill a bill per se. They PI it, or postpone it indefinitely. Bill after bill, day after day, session after session, the same issues come and go and come back again. Sounds like the definition of insanity (or maybe it's a willingness to being a witness to it year after year that's truly insane).