Jerry Sonnenberg could be the kind of grass-roots citizen-legislator hailed by our nation's founders — raising crops on his family's Logan County spread during the long days of summer; making laws at the State Capitol in the dead of winter. ... And subbing in the classroom at local schools.
He once worked at a funeral home, too. And was a church choir director. Oh, he also taught farm business management at Sterling's Northeastern Junior College. The list goes on. And on. You get the idea.
"Honestly, most of those jobs were needed to help the farm meet ends," the veteran Republican state senator tells us in today's Q&A. "Since I started farming in 1979, things have always been tough."
Between the weather and the topsy-turvy commodities market, the ag economy is a roller coaster. Some years, many farmers and ranchers barely hold on.
Alongside it all, Sonnenberg has managed to fit in an extensive career in public office. After serving as a precinct chairman for the Logan County Republican Party, he ran for the state House District 65 seat in 2006 and won. He moved up to the Senate in the 2014 election and was re-elected to his current, second term four years later. He served as Senate President Pro Tem until the GOP lost control of the upper chamber in November 2018.
Colorado Politics: Some might say that as a farmer and rancher, you’re among the few members of the legislature who aren’t afraid of hard work and a little dirt under their fingernails. It does raise a serious question, though: With only a handful of lawmakers actively engaged in agriculture nowadays — and most members hailing from the state’s metropolitan areas — how can rural Colorado have much of a voice at the Capitol no matter how hard you work at it? What is the outlook for rural representation given Colorado’s demographic shift to metropolitan areas and its recent political tilt toward Democrats, arguably the more urban party?
Jerry Sonnenberg: I appreciate my kids allowing me to still come home and work the land, even if I tend to break things more often than I used to. I view that as an important aspect of representing a rural district — still doing everyday what others have to deal with so I can be that voice of experience from those less populated areas.
There indeed are fewer voices in the legislature that can speak from experience on those rural issues, and that is why it is important to me that the respect I have earned over the years and my integrity help amplify that voice because my colleagues know I am up front and honest. My one voice represents roughly 20% of the entire state and seven of the top 10 agriculture counties. All of the rural areas of the state expect the rural elected officials to band together in a unified voice, and we work hard to accomplish that to educate our urban cousins.
- Republican state senator from Sterling, representing District 1 since winning the post in 2014. Served as Senate president pro tem 2017-2019.
- Represented District 65 in the state House, 2006-2014.
- Farmer and rancher in Logan County since 1979.
- Graduated from Sterling High School, Northeast Junior College in Sterling and then the Colorado Agriculture and Rural Leadership Program at Colorado State University.
CP: Speaking of your work ethic, you not only have run your family’s 7,000-acre farm since 1979 but also have, at turns, been a news photographer, a truck driver and an assistant at a funeral home. That’s not to mention a calling that should have earned you combat pay: substitute teacher. Add your time coaching and umping high school baseball, and you’re a rural renaissance man. There are plenty of bright policy wonks serving in the legislature, but few could boast your real-world resume. At the risk of getting you in trouble with some of your peers, tell us how lawmaking might benefit if more members had boots-on-the-ground experience.
Sonnenberg: I suppose the real answer is that it appears I haven't found anything I am good at. Honestly, most of those jobs were needed to help the farm meet ends. Since I started farming in 1979, things have always been tough. It is expensive to start farming and then the '80s hit and high interest rates and low commodity prices forced many people to earn additional income off the farm so that we could continue our love to work that land. That has helped both in developing relationships so that problems can be solved as well as in giving me a wide bandwidth of experiences so that I can better meet the needs of many of the people I serve.
CP: How has the overall climate at the Capitol changed since you were first elected to the House in 2006?
Sonnenberg: When I started, integrity was everything and in my world, it still is. When I leave the Capitol and my service is over, nobody will remember what I did or did not do, they will remember if my word was good and I could be trusted. Although my commitment to maintaining that reputation won't waiver, I have seen that quality in all of government decline — especially in the last couple of years. When I started, I could count those that weren't always up front on one hand, but now that list has become long.
The other thing I have seen change over the years is the partisanship. We have seen D.C.-style politics invade the state government, and now it seems that politics is the driving force rather than solving the problems that the people of Colorado expect us to fix.
CP: What do you feel Front Range lawmakers just don’t get about Colorado’s endless water debate? And what in your opinion does the environmental movement — with which you share support for conservation — not understand about the need for water storage?
Sonnenberg: Water is such a complicated subject that very few actually understand. Yes, I support conservation and wise use of water, but that also comes with a price to other water users. Our water system is set up so that a downstream user depends on water that leaves the farm above them, and if that farm implements different practices to conserve water, the next farmer downstream may not get the water they were counting on or had received in the past. With that said, agriculture has been the ultimate conservationists. We used to use flood irrigation that may have been 30%-40% efficient and then we installed sprinklers, which increased our efficiency. Agriculture continued to change delivery systems such as drop nozzles and then drip systems to make the use of water specific to the crops and land it was needed for.
Water storage is the ultimate answer for the environmental community as well as our urban cousins and agriculture. If we can control the water and keep what water is allocated to Colorado in Colorado, we can have enough water for recreation, wildlife, urban growth and agriculture. The idea that we allow water in the South Platte to leave the state over and above our compact requirements — when we could store that water and prevent agriculture land from being dried up so that the I-25 corridor can continue to meet its growth needs — makes no sense.
CP: You drew flak from some quarters in your own party a couple of years ago for supporting bipartisan legislation that, among its many moving parts, reclassified a fee on hospitals and freed up more funding for capital projects in the state’s rural reaches. Some GOP critics — who previously regarded you as among the most fiscally conservative members — questioned your conservatism, while some veteran Democrats chuckled over the dust-up, seeing you as relentlessly Republican. How would you describe your own political philosophy? In your experience, can any lawmaker afford ideological purity?
Sonnenberg: I continue to be a conservative — both fiscal and socially. I was again recognized by a conservative taxpayer group for protecting the taxpayer last session. My philosophy is to represent my district. With one quarter of all the school districts in the state in my senate district, sometimes my education votes don't always align with my party or other conservatives. Your referenced my bipartisan effort to protect my rural hospitals, which indeed drew the wrath of my conservative friends. What was lost in that discussion — and I didn't do a very good job of sharing the facts — was the JBC grew government by $308 million over the TABOR limit and to pay for that growth. So they wouldn't have to issue refunds, they took the matching funds allocated to hospitals for their federal funds. That meant that the limited number of rural hospitals that already struggle providing services in less populated areas would have taken a huge hit and potentially closed. That meant zero services in parts of rural Colorado and that just wasn't acceptable. So I worked to negotiate as much as I could for conservative issues such as Medicaid reform, help business personal property taxes and highway funding, which coincidentally is providing the funding for the expansion of I-25 in Douglas County, which wouldn't happen without my bipartisan bill.
My responsibility is to my constituents and even though I serve a very conservative district, I serve a district that wants an emergency room when they need it and wants their rural schools to have the same opportunities as their much larger counterparts in urban centers.
CP: What — realistically, as a member of a minority caucus — do you hope the 2020 legislative session will accomplish, and what would you like to see it avoid?
Sonnenberg: My highest priorities have remained the same, and I will continue to try and work across the aisle to help fund rural highways and rural broadband as well as consistent education funding so that rural schools are not the training ground for higher-paying teaching jobs in urban school districts. I hope that the nastiness and partisanship takes a back seat to finding common ground on so many of these issues.
CP: What inspired you to enter politics in the first place?
Sonnenberg: This is what happens when you lose a bet. My father always said don't gamble, but here I am in agriculture. With that said, I have always had a desire to work on policy and to be a spokesperson for agriculture and rural issues. I have had a number of friends and people I had worked with suggest that I take my leadership skills and experience to the next level. I enjoy what I do and being that voice, but I never want to lose the ability to go back to the ranch to remember why and who I serve.