Summit County Commissioner race: The relentless Dan Gibbs runs for re-election
Aren’t you taking a step back running for county commissioner? It’s a question people still ask Dan Gibbs, the political prodigy who ran for the state Legislature in 2006, and won by a 2-1 margin, when he was just 30 years old.
The Summit County resident, a relentless door-to-door campaigner, quickly went on to an appointment to a vacant state Senate seat in 2007, was elected to the same office in 2008 and was heading the Senate Transportation Committee by 2009. It was meteoric rise. He was becoming a player at the state house in Denver, passing bills on everything from forest restoration to banning soft drinks in schools.
But in 2010, instead of running for another term as state senator, Gibbs decided to run for the county commissioner seat vacated by Bob French.
Gibbs, who now lives in the Wellington neighborhood of Breckenridge with his wife and infant daughter, said he was tired of spending his time in politically polarized Denver and not in the mountains that he loved. In addition to a heftier paycheck, being a commissioner gave him the opportunity to make a difference where he worked, lived and played.
That theme is what still drives Gibbs, making life better for working-class residents — the firefighters and teachers — who want to live in the mountains.
“My goal as a policymaker has always been people should be able to live where they work and work where they live,” he said.
POLITICS AND PICKLES
Gibbs did not come from a politically active family. His parents, both teachers who later became school principals, divorced when he was young. As a result, he split his time growing up between East Lansing, Michigan, and Gunnison, Colorado, where his mother was an elementary school principal.
Near Gunnison was Crested Butte, where President Jimmy Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, would come every year to vacation. The Carters formed a friendship with Gibbs’ mother, which led to a fateful encounter at a small diner in Plains, Georgia, when Gibbs was in fifth grade.
Gibbs didn’t know much about Carter’s political career, or whether he was a Republican or Democrat. He just knew, as his mother had told him, that Carter “builds houses,” that he was a great man who helped people.
Gibbs ordered a burger and fries. When Carter noticed that Gibbs hadn’t finished all the food on his plate, he asked a question that no one would expect from an ex-president: “Dan, are you going to eat that pickle?”
“No Mr. President,” Gibbs replied. “You can not only have my pickle, but my fries as well.”
Carter impressed the young Gibbs, who saw the former command-in-chief as a politician who was less interested in politics than in helping people.
“Community is what drives me — it’s not Republican, Democrat or Green Party,” he said. “What are the needs and I how do I problem solve?”
FROM PICKLES TO PROBLEM SOLVING
Gibbs, 38, a Democrat, graduated from Western State Colorado University in Gunnison before entering the political arena. His first job out of college was with Mark Udall, who was then a Colorado U.S. congressman.
Gibbs spent six years working in Udall’s camp, splitting his time between Washington, D.C., and managing one of Udall’s regional offices in Minturn, before launching in 2006 his own campaign for political office. Gibbs ran for the Colorado House of Representatives and won, serving for a year as vice chairperson of the Colorado House Transportation Committee and as a member of the House Agriculture Committee. In 2007, he was appointed to the Colorado Senate to fill a vacancy left by Joan Fitz-Gerald, who decided to run for Congress.
Gibbs remained in the Colorado Senate until 2010, winning his bid for re-election in 2008, and serving during that time as chairperson of the Senate Transportation Committee and as a member of the Senate Agriculture Committee.
He also carried and passed legislation focused on transportation and education issues. Among his notable victories were the Slow Poke and Chain Law bills aimed at improving safety and efficient travel on Interstate 70, as well as legislation allowing Colorado Mountain College to offer bachelor’s degree-level courses.
But forest health issues have always been near and dear to Gibbs’ heart. While serving in the state Legislature in Denver, Gibbs enrolled in wildland firefighter certification training and continues to be an on-call wildland firefighter. Borrowing from his experiences in the field, Gibbs carried and passed the Colorado Forest Restoration Act.
All of the legislation he either carried or supported were locally driven, Gibbs said, and after two terms in Denver Gibbs decided to turn his attention to local government. In 2010 he decided to run for Summit County commissioner, where he said politics are not as partisan as they are at the state and federal levels.
“At the state level, it’s much more about whether you are a Republican or a Democrat and winning and losing, rather than making decisions that are good for Colorado,” Gibbs said. “The more dysfunctional things get at the federal and state levels, the more people seem to come together at the local level to accomplish goals that are important to communities.”
Gibbs believes his career at the state level, however, has enabled him to excel as a local leader, giving him an understanding of how the system works and a large Rolodex of contacts with political clout.
“I think my past experience has made me a more effective county commissioner,” he said.
For Gibbs, one issue ties everything together.
“What are the top issues? Number one is the environment,” he said. “The environment drives and fuels our economy. It’s why people buy second homes here. It’s why people ski here. What rules our economy? It’s tourism. But take a step back from tourism and it’s the environment that drives us. Any steps I can take that can protect opens spaces and preserve the environment, that’s what I’m going to do.”
It’s a fundamental difference between Gibbs and his Republican challenger Allen Bacher, who favors limited, small government that makes way for industry and entrepreneurs. Bacher is critical of recent county efforts to purchase open space and he plans to vote no on ballot item 1A.
Gibbs, however, believes government should play a robust role in preserving and protecting the natural world and its inhabitants. That’s why he won’t shy away from voting to purchase swaths of open land or from asking voters to approve item 1A, a $30 million tax increase over eight years to help improve water quality, as well as to upgrade the county’s 911 system and fund a cash-strapped ambulance service.
Gibbs believes item 1A is a natural and responsible reaction to the ripple effects of the Great Recession of 2007. Property tax revenue, the county’s biggest source of funding, is still down significantly. To maintain basic services, Gibbs said voters must lend their support to the initiative.
Gibbs said that he makes decisions based on what’s best for “three generations away.”
“I looked seriously at the amount of money we’re asking for from the voters to address these critical topics,” Gibbs said in August, “but I also thought about my daughter and I feel it’s important to support this to make sure we have a financially stable ambulance service, an updated 911 system and that we address water quality for future generations.”
Joe Moylan contributed to this report.
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