Our take on the District 1 commissioner race

Boulder Weekly Staff | Boulder Weekly

The good news is this: Boulder County residents have two good candidates for filling the open District 1 county commissioner seat.

Both Elise Jones and Gary Sanfaçon bring strong commitments to protecting our environment. Both have expressed great concern over the growing threats posed to county residents by this election cycle’s hot-button issues of hydraulic fracturing of oil and gas wells (fracking) and the planting of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) on the county’s open space lands.

But while these two issues are important, and will no doubt be the deciding factor for many primary-voting Democrats this month, they should not be the only considerations.

When the election is over, one of these candidates will be faced with having to run a good-sized bureaucracy with a $300 million budget. Issues as diverse as land use and child poverty, employee morale and infrastructure must be handled as deftly as fracking and GMOs.

That said, the following are some of the strengths, weaknesses and personal qualities that we noted in the District 1 candidates during recent interviews.

Elise Jones can govern. You can’t sit down and have a conversation with her without recognizing that all of the requisite qualities for a political career are present in ample supply. She’s smart, decisive and communicates well. You could almost say she has been built for elected office. It is clear that her past experiences in the political arena as both the head of a significant statewide environmental organization and as a staffer for Rep. Elizabeth Furse (D-Ore.) for about four years in Washington, D.C., have left their mark.

Whether this is viewed as a positive or negative quality by county voters likely depends on their sense of what is right or wrong with our current political system.

Jones is a consensus-builder, and she is proud of that fact. She says she gets things done, and her record is full of accomplishments in the political world as well as on the environmental front. She enters the room looking to get the best deal she can and then move on to the next fight. It’s practical. It’s how governing works in the grown-up world, and it is a quality that would, no doubt, allow Boulder County to keep right on functioning without missing a beat should she get elected.

Jones is safe, which is both her strength and, potentially, her weakness if she isn’t extremely careful. The ability to be pragmatic and always look for a way to bring folks together and compromise can also be an Achilles’ heel.

Oil and gas industry attorneys and giant ag busineses like Monsanto and the like love to work with consensus-builders and “get the best deal you can” elected leaders. The outcome of such match-ups usually finds industry giving in on two or three small points that don’t prevent them from conducting business as usual, and this allows those negotiating against them to declare victory with the tired old “it’s not enough, but it was the best we could do right now” refrain.

As an example, we hear how Colorado has the toughest oil and gas drilling regulations in the country, a model for other states. But in reality the industry is nearly free to drill where it wants, how it wants and when it wants, and if some county or city tries to do anything to change that in a significant fashion, the state will sue them to protect industry interests. The oil and gas drilling regulations that Colorado has in place today are the type of inadequate laws that get passed to protect public health and property when consensus-building environmental groups sit down with their friends and acquaintances in state government to get the best deal they can with industry. When the compromising is over, the drillers go back to doing pretty much the same thing they were doing before and the environmentalists and politicians say “at least the laws are better than they were.”

It’s past time to acknowledge that this type of approach to certain problem industries isn’t creating change fast enough to keep up with the destruction they are heaping on the population and environment. It’s time for our political leaders at the county level to get creative in a hurry without becoming reckless.

We’re not saying that Jones will compromise the county into oblivion if elected; she may prove a very effective adversary to those corporations that wish to exploit our county. She has the skills, and the knowledge. The question is, has she spent so much time in the organized political/environmental world that she now sees avoiding fights you can’t win and compromising as the starting point instead of the last resort? A good compromise is a necessary and effective tool of governing, unless, that is, everyone knows its coming before negotiations start.

Jones is well liked, really well liked.

We have never seen a candidate running for county office who received so many endorsements from politicians at every level of government, from city to state to federal. The pro-business/development faction on Boulder City Council seems as happy to endorse her as the not-so-pro-business/development sect on council. Again, how these endorsements are viewed likely depends on your impression of the current state of the way governments do business.

For some, these endorsements will be seen as a stamp that says the county will be in good hands if Jones is elected. For others, they will be interpreted as Jones being another handpicked insider who isn’t likely to rock the boat for her many powerful friends and acquaintances.

When it’s all said and done, we believe that Elise Jones would make a fine county commissioner. She is extremely capable and we feel that she can provide solid leadership and oversight of county affairs.

Unlike his opponent, Garry Sanfaçon seems to be outspoken in calling for immediate actions to ban fracking and GMOs in Boulder County. He doesn’t seem as willing as Jones to play by the rules, to work within the system to get what you can get.

Again, that could prove to be costly or immensely beneficial.

He’s not the Democratic Party’s anointed one, he’s a bit of a maverick, and judging from the number of letters we’ve received from the activist community, he’s won over a lot of hearts.

Sanfaçon’s also got a strong background. While he doesn’t have the professional environmentalist street cred that Jones possesses, he points out that he has not wavered from his anti-GMO stance since he last ran for county commissioner in 2004. He has experience serving on the county planning commission and working as a county employee, most recently as an effective Fourmile Fire recovery manager. He is already familiar with the dynamics and politics of county government, and he comes across as a personable, soft-spoken, intelligent guy who, fittingly, has a background in facilitation.

One question being raised is whether his hard-line stance on fracking and, to a lesser extent, GMOs, will have negative consequences for the county. If, somehow, he were able to convince a second commissioner (recall that there are only three total) to ban fracking, the county would undoubtedly be sued by the state and would likely lose, possibly costing taxpayers big money. Is his stance naïve and foolhardy? Political rhetoric to get elected?

On the other hand, someone who is willing to take a strong stand against powerful oil and gas interests is refreshing. It certainly hasn’t happened at the state level.

On the topic of GMOs, Jones talks about needing several years to make the transition to county lands that don’t have genetically modified crops. The reality of the situation is that the county has twoyear contracts with farmers, so it may be more pragmatic to acknowledge that this shift won’t happen overnight, and there is general agreement that the county should support conventional farmers in making the transition. Would Sanfaçon’s absolutist approach alienate farmers, would it force them out, leaving empty county lands that would require millions in taxpayer money for weed control?

That’s not to say that Sanfaçon does not acknowledge changes like these take time. But unlike Jones, he has stood up and declared the decisive things he would like to do during his first day in office, and even if they end up being symbolic statements, at least he’s not conceding to the powers of the system at the outset.

The question is, how realistic is he being, and at what potential cost to taxpayers?

We really like both of these candidates; their strengths outweigh their flaws. The question for the voters will likely come down to who they trust, whose management style they identify with, who strikes them as being a better leader, or who is the safest bet.

Check out their websites at www.G4BC.org and www.EliseJones.org. Do your homework. Make an educated decision. The winner of this primary will likely win the general election, given that no Republican is running.

We should acknowledge that Libertarian Shane Hampton will also be on the November ballot, and that there is always the chance of a powerful write-in campaign, but for all intents and purposes, it appears that this is the election.

The commissioner position is a powerful one in Boulder County, and with pressing, high-profile issues like GMOs and fracking at the forefront of the public’s mind, we need to choose a leader who will best represent our interests.

It is Boulder Weekly’s policy not to make endorsements in a primary, but we considered it in this case, given the gravity of the issues of the day and the lack of a Republican contender in the fall.

However, in the end, we decided that with two strong and capable candidates from which to choose, we should refrain from endorsing and allow the party to conduct its business as it sees fit.

Respond: letters@boulderweekly.com