Kelly Nordini long has played a pivotal role in the movement to make Colorado more blue.
Her career has included stints as the top staffer for ruling state House Democrats and as No. 2 on the staff of then-Gov. Bill Ritter.
Now, she is playing a pivotal role in the movement to make the state greener. Earlier this year, she was named the new executive director of environmental-advocacy flagship Conservation Colorado.
It’s a big job — a post previously held by longtime, all-around Colorado activist Pete Maysmith (who moved on to the national League of Conservation Voters as senior vice president for campaigns). And she came on board just in time for the fall 2018 election, in which environmentalists were disappointed by the defeat of Proposition 112 to roll back oil and gas development but cheered by a Democratic Party sweep of state government.
We asked Nordini about that and more in today’s Q&A.
Colorado Politics: You wrote recently in Colorado Politics’ opinion section that Colorado’s growing population of unaffiliated voters — the state’s No. 1 voting bloc — leans green. You cited data indicating independents voted that way last Nov. 6 and likely would do so again. What is it about that swath of the state’s political spectrum that makes it so inclined? Is there a similar orientation among independent voters in other states?
Kelly Nordini: Coloradans love living here because of our outdoor lifestyle and they expect and value clean air, water and the environment. And they clearly are rejecting what’s coming out of Washington, D.C., because it undermines protections for that Colorado way of life.
This is reflected in voting patterns: Coloradans vote for what they care about, which is the environment, and candidates who prioritized conservation won up and down the ballot. Our Western values — love of the land, our can-do, forward-looking attitude — are reflected in the votes of our unaffiliated voters.
I think there is a similar ethos in some other states in the American West, namely Montana, Nevada, and New Mexico. In those states, we also saw candidates who ran on a pro-conservation platform win their elections.
- Executive director, Conservation Colorado, since August.
- Previously a partner with national political consulting firm Hilltop Public Solutions, where she led efforts to advance clean-energy policies in Colorado.
- Served as president of KCN Strategies, a public affairs consulting firm specializing in managing complex advocacy campaigns and advising foundations and donors.
- Chief program officer for Western Conservation Foundation from 2010 to 2011.
- Deputy chief of staff to Democratic Gov. Bill Ritter, 2007-2010.
- Chief of staff to Democratic state House Speaker Andrew Romanoff, 2004-2007.
- B.A. in international studies form Dickinson College, in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.
CP: You championed Proposition 112, the November ballot proposal that would have pushed back oil and gas drilling; it was voted down by a 10-point margin on Election Day. The measure evoked visceral responses on both sides, with many supporters saying they wanted to get drilling out of their backyards and away from their groundwater, and opponents saying Prop 112’s proposed setbacks for drilling operations were arbitrary, extreme and would effectively shut down the oil and gas industry.
It’s hard to say whether that prediction would have come true, but do you think that was the true goal of the proposal’s supporters, as its opponents charged? Should oil and gas development be brought to a halt in Colorado despite the significant role it plays in the state’s economy?
Nordini: Here’s the bottom line: There is a problem with oil and gas in Colorado that must be solved. That problem is that it is too close to homes, communities and other places where we live, work and play. And, the 1 million people who voted for Proposition 112 agreed with that premise.
The reason we keep seeing oil and gas ballot measures is that there has been no successful venue to make changes to our woefully outdated system of protections in this state. Coloradans who are simply asking for stronger health and safety protections lose over and over again at the legislature, at the oil and gas commission, and in the courts. That needs to change and we look forward to working with the legislature and Gov.-elect Polis to ensure that Colorado has the strongest oil and gas protections in the West.
CP: Colorado just elected its third Democratic governor in a row. Gov.-elect Jared Polis campaigned on a bright-green platform; outgoing Gov. John Hickenlooper, among various initiatives, imposed low-emission standards on motor vehicles earlier this year, and former Gov. Bill Ritter — whom you served as deputy chief of staff — now heads CSU’s Center for the New Energy Economy. When all is said and done, which of the three do you think will be viewed as having most aggressively tackled the environmental issues you and your organization see as most pressing?
Nordini: It’s no surprise that Colorado’s governors over the last decade prioritized conservation — this is Colorado, after all! Each one of them has made significant contributions to Colorado’s reputation as a leader on clean energy and the environment. But, after reading the recent reports on climate change that find we only have 12 years left to stop climate change before we lock in some of its worst effects, there is a new urgency to that leadership.
Given his history, I’m confident Gov-elect Polis will set an actionable vision for his environmental legacy. He has the opportunity to work on bold policies that get us to where we need to go on climate change and clean energy — which is quite a lot in a short amount of time.
CP: In a wide-ranging political career, you’ve also put in time at the Capitol as chief of staff to then-House Speaker Andrew Romanoff (who’s back in the news as a likely challenger to Republican U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner in 2020). You served when your party ran both chambers of the General Assembly, and following the most recent election, both chambers again will be under Democratic Party control when the new session convenes in January.
Do you see the pendulum continuing to swing between the two major parties in what has been a perennially purple state, or does the blue wave that swept Republicans from power last month suggest that this time a deeper transformation is underway in Colorado? If so, what’s at root?
Nordini: Colorado is not yet blue — but it is consistently green. Leadership in the years ahead will come from the states. This year we saw conservation champs across the ballot who ran on a powerful, visionary agenda that voters embraced. And that vision was in sharp contrast to what we see coming out of the Trump White House.
On the other side, Republicans ran candidates who did not articulate a path forward and did not represent Colorado values and our way of life. Voters in Colorado expect our leaders to be problems-solvers, not naysayers, and at the top of that list are protecting our land, air, water and people and continuing our national leadership. The state’s unaffiliated voters went green this year — and acting on behalf of those coveted unaffiliated voters is where smart Colorado politicians must stay.
CP: What got you started in your career in politics and policy?
Nordini: I started my career working with college students at Metro State College on environmental issues and was hooked. I’m proud to have been a part of some of Colorado’s notable successes, from light rail to clean energy to great elected officials.
CP: What first inspired you to embrace the environmental movement, in which you now are a linchpin?
Nordini: I grew up with a strong sense of right and wrong, justice, a soft spot for the “underdog.” When I was in college, environmental issues were really coming to the forefront — remember the book, “50 Things You Can Do to Save the Planet”? — and that was a natural focus at the time. Now, my husband and I have two daughters, so of course for us, like many people, it’s about them, their future, and the legacy we owe them.