Senate President Leroy Garcia, of Pueblo, with sons Jeremiah and Xan. (leroygarcia.co)

Brief bio:

  • President of the Colorado Senate, since 2019; has represented Senate District 3 from Pueblo since 2015. Also was Senate minority leader.

  • Represented House District 46 in the Colorado House, 2013 to 2015.

  • Served in the U.S. Marine Corps, 2001-2007; deployed to Iraq.

  • Holds a degree in emergency medical services from Pueblo Community College, a bachelor's in management from the University of Phoenix and a master's degree in organizational management from Ashford University in Clinton, Iowa.

Colorado Politics: We recently asked your fellow Puebloan and veteran Democratic officeholder, Sal Pace, how Democrats from the Steel City are different from those along the Denver-Boulder axis. Pace painted a picture that contrasted starkly with Dems on the northern Front Range — economically, culturally and otherwise. And he included a big tip of the hat to you: “Senate President Leroy Garcia really does epitomize Pueblo values. He gets Pueblo and our citizens love him.” Now, it’s your turn: How do you think you might “epitomize Pueblo values,” and in what ways, and on what issues, would you say you and other Pueblo Democrats tend to stand out from Democrats elsewhere in the state?

Leroy Garcia: Pueblo is an incredibly unique place. In many ways, we are a classic industry town — full of hardworking, down-to-earth folks with traditional values. But at the same time, we refuse to fit certain molds. We may be grounded in our history and culture, but we are also bold, forward-thinking, and adaptive. That’s why so many outsiders are perplexed by Pueblo, because they can’t box us into pre-defined stereotypes.

A big reason for this is because Pueblo is a melting pot. We have a lot of vibrant diversity which exposes us to distinct perspectives and helps us see nuances others might miss. Out of this comes a lot of thoughtful collaboration and creative problem-solving. For example, as industries shift and change, Pueblo has had the foresight to invest in cutting-edge renewable energy projects and with it, bring countless good-paying jobs to the community.

In this way, we are innovators — constantly looking toward the future and moving with the times. However, with our modernization we never lose our rootedness. No matter how we grow and transform, there is a rugged frontierism baked into our blood. We are decidedly direct, always telling it like it is. We value individual integrity over idealistic loyalty. We push back against establishment group-think and challenge our leaders to think outside the box. We appreciate the singular beauty of family-owned businesses at every awning on Main Street. And we would take ripped jeans and boots over pin-striped suits any day.

This kind of hard-to-pin-down, individuality is what Pueblo expects from its electeds and that’s why I think Democrats from Pueblo are really different from others in the state. We form our own opinions — often outside party agendas — and we hold fast to the sturdiness of our people.

CP: Unlike in a lot of other communities along the rapidly growing I-25 corridor, people in Pueblo are actually from there — in itself, a good thing. The downside, however, is that plenty of people living elsewhere along I-25 are also from Pueblo originally — having left for lack of economic opportunity. How in your view do you draw people back to Pueblo? By some accounts, the now-legal marijuana market is helping buoy Pueblo’s economy. But what do you think it will take to create more career-caliber jobs and brighter overall prospects in the long run?

Garcia: Despite periodic fluxes, Pueblo's population has actually stayed pretty constant. We’ve had ups and downs as things change, but I believe our core remains intact. And the reason for this is because Pueblo is a city where people can see themselves choosing to live, work, raise kids, retire, and find community. It’s not because a niche industry pops up.

Keeping Pueblo strong and viable for residents needs to be much more holistic than that. It’s about having schools you feel good sending your kids to and a local economy that’s thriving because of its diversity. It’s also about keeping the foundation of Pueblo’s culture intact, which in some ways is the antithesis of growth.

Here in Pueblo, we value affordability, accessibility, and a close-knit community. And growth for growth’s sake can often threaten that — driving out long-standing residents, replacing mom-and-pop shops with big-box stores, and ballooning our cost-of-living.

To me, investing in Pueblo’s future means protecting the richness of our way of life — so as we continue building, we can preserve the heart of who we are.

CP: Speaking of marijuana legalization, do you think it has been a net loss or gain so far for Colorado — and particularly for Pueblo — all things considered? Not just economically, but also in terms of its social impact on youth and other age groups? What advice do you give your own children about pot?

Garcia: I think introducing a new industry can have a boosting effect on any community — cannabis and Pueblo are not excluded from that trend. That being said, I would caution anyone from putting all their eggs in one basket: a healthy economy has businesses that thrive in all sectors, whether that be recreation, restaurants, retail, or any number of creative ideas that entrepreneurs can think of. Marijuana businesses have brought in some new jobs and new revenue for Coloradans to benefit from, but Pueblo’s future is about a lot more than just marijuana.

I have raised and am still raising my boys to understand that every decision they make has consequences on themselves, their community, and their future. Like every substance, pot has its risks, and I trust my sons to make choices that are in line with the goals they have set for themselves.

CP: Why did you enlist in the Marines, and what’s the biggest lesson you learned from your military service, including in Iraq? What impact did your time as a mortuary affairs specialist have on you?

Garcia: Growing up, I always wanted to join the military. There was something so meaningful to me about serving your county in that way. I planned on going to college first but after a year in, I felt like I couldn’t wait. So I enlisted in the Marines at 19 years old and had the most transformational experience of my life.

Not only did the Marines teach me a sense of duty and service that I will never forget, but it also connected me to something so much bigger than myself. I felt deeply humbled by the power of a common mission, a common goal, and our common humanity. People from all across the country came to serve, and regardless of political beliefs or family backgrounds, there was a comradery and loyalty we had towards one another. It really showed me the meaning of putting your differences aside for the greater good.

As a mortuary specialist in Iraq, these lessons were driven even deeper. I could have never been prepared for the pain and loss I faced during deployment. Safeguarding the bodies of young men and women, collecting their personal things, and dressing them for burial keeps you intimately close to death and mourning. It creates in you an unwavering appreciation for life, no matter how challenging it might be.

What I learned in the Marines has changed who I am as a person and written something on my heart about what it means to give back to my community. It follows me in everything I do, from becoming a medical provider, to teaching the next generation of paramedics, to playing piano for my church, if there is a call to serve I feel compelled to answer.

CP: You grew up in a small-business-owning family. How did that influence your outlook in general and your political views in particular? Would you describe yourself as a pro-business Democrat?

Garcia: My parents have owned and operated a local beauty salon for more than three decades — teaching me firsthand that running a small business isn’t just about following a passion, it’s about creating meaningful experiences that enrich the lives of your neighbors.

In a place like Pueblo, where family-run shops far outnumber franchises, you discover that a city’s character has a lot to do with the entrepreneurial imagination of its people. Instead of prewritten playbooks, folks are free to think creatively and move autonomously towards their dreams. In this way, endless possibilities are born from the unique minds of locals rather than canned, corporate outsiders packaging “success” into rigid boxes. Small businesses are the heart of a community, and when you go to a town where they’re thriving, there is an unmistakable vibrancy.

Unfortunately, our system has abandoned small businesses in many ways — bailing out corporate giants and protecting monopolies rather than eliminating hurdles for up-and-comers. This has sanitized communities of their originality and led to a widening wealth gap between classes.

Building a business is backbreaking work, so when governments pass policies that only benefit big box stores and put brick-and-mortar businesses at a disadvantage, it can be incredibly demoralizing. I believe we need to flip this on its head and recommit ourselves to the principles we were founded on by lessening working families’ burdens and making sure large corporations pay their fair share.

In the end, Colorado is better because we have a strong, diverse small-business economy. So when faced with a big policy decision, I return to my roots and ask myself: Would this help small shops in my hometown? Would this give hardworking families more opportunity? Would this build my community? And in my mind, if you’re not doing that as a local leader, you shouldn’t be in office.

CP: Alongside your distinctions touted on the campaign trail and in your public life in general — Marine, Senate president — you also play the piano. Well enough, in fact, to serve as a pianist at your parish. What inspired you, the Marine-turned-pol, to take up piano in the first place, and at what age did you start? What kind of music do you most like to play? To your knowledge, are there other pianists, or instrumentalists of any kind, currently serving in either party or chamber in the legislature?

Garcia: I was inspired to start playing piano in the 4th grade by my teacher, Mr. Sinovich. He had a piano in his classroom and would sometimes play us songs during study breaks. I remember watching in awe as his slender hands would move up and down the keyboard. So I asked my mom if I could learn and she lovingly obliged.

I stuck with it through high school, picking up some composition and theory along the way, but I never thought of myself as a musician. It wasn’t until I started playing for my local parish that music really took on greater meaning. The church didn’t have a regular player so I felt called to offer my time. In the beginning, I would just do one or two songs; then, as my skills grew, I started accompanying the entire service. Through this, I discovered a way I could serve my community, and soon my practice became bigger than myself, which kept me going.

I think my favorite music to play will always be liturgical, but I love Billy Joel and Elton John. They were masterful pianists and have a lot of soul to their music.

As far as other pianists in the legislature, I don’t know of anyone else off the top of my head, but the Senate Minority Leader, Chris Holbert, plays guitar, and we’ve been known to jam out from time to time

CP: How far do you think you will go in politics after your current term in the Senate? Will you run for higher office?

Garcia: To be honest, I believe that kind of thinking can really distract you from the task at hand. The people of Pueblo elected me to serve them in this capacity, and until that duty is fulfilled, I think it would be disingenuous to focus my attention on something else. I am committed to doing the best job I can for my constituents right now, and for me, planning a future political move diminishes that. Besides, charting the next move has never really been a part of my process. I didn’t plan to run for state office and I didn’t plan on becoming Senate president. I stepped up to bat when I felt that my hometown needed me to. So any higher office would have to present itself in the same way — not as a fight for greater personal power, but a calling from my community.

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