Is there a growing divide between rural and urban Colorado? The question arises often enough on our pages — and we put it to Eaton Mayor Kevin Ross in this week's Q&A. Raised in agriculture and now serving as the top elected official in his rapidly growing Weld County farm community, Ross is steeped in a lot of the prevailing values and sentiments of Colorado's rural reaches. And he's troubled by the disconnect he perceives between those values and the priorities that seem to drive the political culture of the state's metropolitan areas along the Front Range.
Ross details those concerns as well as his sense of what it will take for his fellow Republicans to regain momentum with voters after 2018's Democratic sweep. He also shares what it's like being a small-town mayor and, as a longtime high school football coach, what lessons players can pick up on the gridiron that can serve them all their lives.
Colorado Politics: You grew up on a wheat farm — you even shared a recent photo of you helping a friend harvest alfalfa on his farm near Greeley — so you have ag roots. How did your rural and agricultural background shape your overall politics? How does it influence your view of our state government’s increasingly urban-suburban skew and, for now, at least, its leftward tilt?
Kevin Ross: Growing up on the farm during the summer with my grandparents was a huge influence on my life. My grandpa taught me how to be resourceful and not waste anything. The margins in farming are very slim, and he showed me the value of fixing items and getting full use out of them rather than today's mindset of throw away and buy new. He also taught me the importance of adhering to a budget and only buying items that a person or business could afford and to not purchase things unless you could pay cash; he didn’t believe in carrying debt, and I would say I try to adhere to those same philosophies today personally and as mayor of Eaton when being responsible for the town’s finances. I also learned to work for what I received and not be dependent on others; hard work and perseverance were needed to farm and be successful at it.
I think this is where I feel the state’s leftward tilt is concerning to me. In Eaton, we are an agricultural community and we understand where our food comes from, along with what it takes to be self-reliant. I believe many individuals in the urban areas have never stepped foot on a working farm, and they don’t understand the struggle it takes to raise the food that shows up at the local market.
- Mayor of Eaton since 2016; served as an Eaton town trustee, 2012-2016
- Owner, agent at an American Family Insurance agency in Fort Morgan since 2004
- Member of the North Front Range Metropolitan Planning Organization
- Government relations chair and former state president of the National Association of Insurance and Financial Advisors
- Football coach, defensive coordinator at Eaton High School, 2001-2012
- Holds a bachelor's degree in finance from the University of Wyoming in Laramie
CP: In a recent commentary you penned for Colorado Politics, you called out the Polis administration over its proposed “state option” for health care, which you say the governor and legislative Democrats “will try to ram through.” Underlying the specifics of your argument seems to be a broader resentment toward the way the Capitol wields power; after all, Weld County was the epicenter of a secession movement not long ago. Is there a widening gap between what are in fact two very different Colorados — places like Weld County vs. places like Denver?
Ross: I do believe the overall gap is widening when it comes to two different Colorados. I think there is an all-out political assault to try and make it be so far apart. I still truly believe that when you sit down and have a conversation with everyday people that we have more in common than we do different. With that being said, there is a polarization that has occurred that is sad in many ways because people have forgotten how to communicate in a civil manner and have thoughtful discussions without attacking others for their beliefs. I believe technology, while great in many regards, has stripped us of our face-to-face communication abilities and really created an era where we are not held to a personal level of pleasantry when speaking with others. This lack of pleasantry is very prevalent when you had a vocal minority speaking over the voters of Colorado. Look at what happened with Proposition 112 and Ref CC — the people of Colorado aren’t quite as divided as the Capitol would like us to believe.
CP: What’s it like presiding over town hall in a place like Eaton? What are some of the biggest challenges facing municipal government there?
Ross: Being mayor of Eaton has been an absolute pleasure. We are a small community that is experiencing rapid growth, but I believe we have a great team tackling the complex issues facing our town. Governing in a small community is great because I believe you are held accountable for all of your decisions because they directly affect the community you live in. For instance, when I go to an event at the school or even just to grab food from the market, I am always stopped by residents who share their concerns or comments on what we have been working on. I really applaud the citizens of Eaton as I feel that they stay very educated on our local issues and when we have had controversial issues arise, they have always brought them up in respectful and productive manners.
The biggest issues facing us as a community are transportation and water. The rapid growth means that many of our streets and roads are congested, and we need to find solutions to solve this issue. The main problem, like everyone experiences, is the lack of funding. We feel the same pains but have taken on a regional approach, meaning we collaborate with the surrounding communities and the county to find solutions and make sure that we don’t duplicate efforts or waste precious resources. By collaborating, we are able to spread many transportation costs among multiple entities and better the region as a whole.
In regards to water, it really is the growth constraint in our area. Again, we have taken a regional approach by becoming participants in the Northern Integrated Supply Project to invest in water storage for our future development.
CP: Your party was pretty much routed at the state level in last year’s general election. Will Colorado’s Republicans make a comeback anytime soon? What would it take to make that happen?
Ross: I believe the Republican Party can make a comeback in this great state. This will only happen if we figure out how to more effectively communicate our positions, and we need to bring candidates forth that will excite the voters. Too often we follow a platform that portrays an entitled position, and the next entitled person gets to run for that seat. In doing so, we alienate a large portion of the base along with the unaffiliated voters. We don’t listen to what the citizens are asking for. When we are able to address these issues, I think our platform will strike resoundingly in people's hearts and minds. Who doesn’t believe that they know best how to manage their own household versus being told how to do it from the government? The Colorado Republican Party needs to remember its foundational beliefs; the power in this country should lie with the people, not power-hungry politicians.
CP: If you were governor, what would be your first executive order or other action after taking office?
Ross: If I were governor, the first executive order I would issue is a rollback or repeal of state regulations or rules regarding our oil and gas industry. I feel that many of the recent rules and regulations that are currently being promulgated are based not on proven scientific fact but rather an emotional response. The oil and gas industry is vital to Colorado and its economy. Many of our residents work directly in it or have businesses that support it. Efforts that have come forth to slow or ban exploration are having ripple effects in our communities across Colorado, and we are already seeing people lose jobs or business revenues start creeping downward.
CP: You spent nearly a dozen years coaching football at a small-town high school. Are there lessons learned on the gridiron that apply just as well to politics? To life?
Ross: When I coached football, I always took the approach that I was teaching young men about more than just the game of football. I was teaching them how to become contributing members to society. It was important to instill in the student athletes that they were owed nothing on the field, that they in fact would have to earn everything they got. Only through hard work and perseverance would we as team come together and be greater because of it. I believe these same lessons are applicable to not only football but to politics and life as well. If we stop believing we are owed a certain outcome and instead change our mindset to how one can work to achieve set goals, I strongly feel that mentality creates a positive culture that reverberates far beyond the individual.
CP: What’s your advice to anyone who seeks public office for the first time — regardless of their party affiliation or what part of the state they live in?
Ross: My advice for people seeking political office for the first time is do it for the right reasons. Recognize you are there to serve the community and not there to benefit yourself. Those who get in to only benefit themselves are in it for the wrong reasons. I have seen too many people enter into the political arena with only one issue that they are concerned about or they have an ax to grind with a particular subject; these people make lousy public servants because they are not taking into account the public's needs or welfare.
Be a servant first and it will work out for the best. It takes strong leadership and perseverance because many of the issues we face on a daily basis have emotional ties to our community members. Someone considering the political arena has to stay true to his or her principles and people will respect that because they will know what to expect from that individual.