It was 2013 and State Representative Claire Levy, a Democrat from Boulder, was looking to introduce legislation that would increase Colorado’s renewable energy sources and reduce coal mining. She expected to have an ally in the person of another environmentalist and Democrat, Representative Diane Mitsch Bush of Steamboat Springs.
“Well, she was an ally,” Levy remembers, “but she insisted a lot that for the people in her district a lot of their economic security depended on these coal mines and she was going to put their needs very high.”
“It took courage, as a Democrat, to stand firm when there was real strong pressure to get everyone to buy into renewables,” Levy said. “It just took a lot of courage for him to stand up and say, ‘Yes, I can be on board, but you have to do something for my constituents. “”
Former colleagues of Mitsch Bush, who is now running for Congress in the closely guarded 3rd District of Western and Southern Colorado, describe her as a political freak and pragmatist with little interest in making headlines. Her tenures as state legislator and Routt County commissioner were defined by an almost obsessive attention to detail and a willingness to work with all parties, these colleagues recall.
“If you look at her bills, they aren’t flashy, they don’t make the headlines, but they are significant policy changes that have really helped the lives of people in the district that she says. represented, “said Representative Daneya Esgar, a Democrat from Pueblo. .
Mitsch Bush’s political career followed a familiar trajectory – local politics followed by state policy followed by a congressional candidacy – but it began late in his life, after a full academic career. With snow-white hair, she isn’t the typical Congressional candidate, a fact her friends and supporters readily acknowledge and embrace.
“Diane is really her own person and doesn’t fit anyone’s mold. She just doesn’t do it, ”said Rep. Edie Hooton, a Democrat from Boulder who calls her a mentor. “Fortunately, over time there are fewer and fewer molds that each of us has to fit into.”
If elected, Mitsch Bush, 70, would be the oldest member of Colorado’s congressional delegation and the oldest person in Colorado history elected to his first term in Congress. She is more than twice the age of Lauren Boebert, her 33-year-old Republican opponent.
“Voters are going to watch this 70 year old man and they are going to see a rerun and they are going to watch (Boebert) and see a new face,” said Scott McInnis, a Republican commissioner from Mesa County who represented the 3rd Congressional District. from 1993 to 2005.
“It’s a huge advantage in a political race. I love the Democrat – I have met her numerous times – but I would face the same if I did show up. I am 67 years old.
From university to politics
Mitsch Bush grew up in a working-class home in St. Paul, Minnesota, raised by a single mother who took out payday loans to cover rent. Their lot improved after his mother joined a union, recalls Mitsch Bush. Union membership came with dignity, respect and a more secure financial future. For a young Mitsch Bush, that meant college and three degrees in sociology from the University of Minnesota.
His 1979 doctoral thesis, which can still be purchased for $ 41 online, is 357 pages long and is titled “The Legitimization of Violence in Early Adolescence: A Longitudinal Analysis.” It begins with six quotes about violence, including one from counterculture icon Jerry Rubin which contains both a racial insult to black people and an insulting term for the police: “When a policeman shoots a ** *** is law and order ”. But when a black man defends himself against a pig, it is “violence”.
Mitsch Bush’s campaign says she was married to a cop at the time and disagrees with Rubin’s description of violence or his language. She was simply demonstrating her understanding of the field of study and the subject she was researching, which was the legitimization of violence, according to her campaign.
The thesis aimed to determine why some people regard certain forms of violence as legitimate and other forms of violence as illegitimate. She followed 798 students in a large Midwestern city in grades six to seventh and interviewed them throughout to determine how encouraging parents and peers to violence, as well as violence in schools, shaped their point of view. Among other findings, she found that class played little role in children’s perceptions of violence.
“She was a very good student, very conscientious,” recalls Paul Reynolds, former professor of sociology at the University of Minnesota and chairman of the committee that supervised her doctoral thesis.
Reynolds says Mitsch Bush had a promising career in sociology ahead, but chose a life of skiing and the outdoors in Colorado over the tedious rigors of academic research at top universities. She taught at Colorado State University and then Colorado Mountain College in Steamboat Springs before retiring at the end of 2004.
When Reynolds left the University of Minnesota in 2008 and accidentally chose to retire at Steamboat, he was surprised to learn that one of his former students was now a county commissioner. Since then he has been active in Mitsch Bush’s campaigns, most notably as director of his re-election to the county commission in 2010. It was easy, as his Republican challenger turned out to be living outside the district and n could not be on the ballot, leaving Mitsch Bush unopposed.
“She focuses a lot on all the details, and sometimes you can’t do that, you have to take a bigger picture,” Reynolds said. “The biggest problem for campaign managers is keeping her focused on the bigger issues and not getting too bogged down in all the details.”
Her former campaign manager says she has a “compulsive attention to detail” that makes her a better lawmaker than a candidate. “It’s a bit of a disadvantage when she’s on the stump because when someone in the audience asks a question, they have a 10 minute chat with all the subtle nuances and that overwhelms the audience,” Reynolds said in laughing. “It kind of diverts attention away from her message.”
Routt County commissioners of those years had to tackle the issues that still plague much of Colorado – affordable housing, oil and gas development – and made more difficult by the economic downturn, according to the longtime commissioner Nancy Stahoviak, a Republican who served with Mitsch Bush for six years. years.
“We took a pretty strong stance that oil and gas development was welcome in Routt County, but it was not going to come at the expense of any community, people or resource,” she remembers.
“We were not political people,” Stahoviak said of the three commissioners. “When I was commissioner, I was a Republican and Diane was a Democrat, the other commissioner was a Democrat. But we didn’t see each other that way.
In 2012, Mitsch Bush surged from committee to legislature, winning a seat in House District 26, an Idaho-shaped plot of Routt and Eagle counties in northwest Colorado. She won the trending Democratic seat by a dozen percentage points that year, with a similar margin in 2014, and over 20 points in 2016 before leaving Capitol to run unsuccessfully for Congress in 2018. .
“It was never for the show”
Representative Millie Hamner, a Democrat from Dillon, knew there was a problem. It was 2014 and she would hear stories from voters about truckers circumventing the law by driving the winding roads of the famous Independence Pass, saving gas and time, but sometimes getting stuck and compromising the safety of others. conductors.
Hamner’s plan was to double, and in some cases even triple, the penalties imposed on offending truckers. With the help of Mitsch Bush, who chaired the House Transportation Committee, they engaged trucking industry lobbyists in the bill and passed it. Hamner was impressed with the Democrat from Steamboat Springs.
“She was known for her stakeholder meetings, where she brought all parties together in a room to work out how to come up with a solution,” Esgar recalls. “When Diane brought in a bill, you knew it had been reviewed, you knew it had been researched. “
For a Democrat, she had unusual areas of expertise. Not only transport, but also agriculture and water, also areas with which Republicans generally had more experience. Since most House Democrats then and now live along the Front Range, it often fell to Mitsch Bush to explain agriculture and water policy.
“She was the go-to person for me, as a freshman who really wanted to understand Colorado’s farming issues,” said Hooton, who still calls Mitsch Bush every now and then to discuss farming and water. . “She was the person I went to and she spoke very passionately and eloquently about farming in Colorado from her pretty solid Democratic perspective.”
In some cases, the legislation that Mitsch Bush defended did not become law until after he left, such as a tire traction law for Interstate 70. In other cases, such as the Independence Pass, she succeeded in forging a bipartisan consensus with the Senate under Republican control. In very few cases, his legislation made headlines or appearances on the evening news, and that suited him.
“She’s never performed in front of the cameras,” says Levy. “It was never for the show.”
Editor’s Note: This is the second of two candidate profiles for Colorado’s 3rd Congressional District. You can read the first story, on Lauren Boebert, here.