Veteran Pueblo Democratic pol Sal Pace, left, at Rocky Mountain National Park with children (left to right) Alana, Carlo and Wyatt. (Photo courtesy Sal Pace)

Brief bio:

  • Democratic state representative for Pueblo's District 46 in the Colorado House, 2008-2012. Elected minority leader.

  • Pueblo County Commissioner, 2013-2018.

  • Appointed to Gov.-elect Jared Polis' transition team in 2018.

  • Served as a congressional staffer, district director and 2006 campaign manager for then-3rd Congressional District Democratic U.S. Rep. John Salazar.

  • Holds a bachelor's degree in political science from Fort Lewis College in Durango and a master's in American political theory from Louisiana State University. Has taught American government at Pueblo Community College and Colorado State University–Pueblo.

Colorado Politics: Catch us up on Pueblo’s touted evolution into the “Napa Valley” of cannabis commerce, and your role these days in helping make that happen. Can cannabis really offer Pueblo’s economy a new, long-term lease on life?

Sal Pace: The cannabis boom in Pueblo is real and sustainable, and we’re well positioned to be a national cultivation hub after federal legalization. There are roughly 2,000 people in Pueblo working today in the cannabis industry who otherwise would be unemployed, and that’s not counting people employed in ancillary industries. Over 10% of the county’s locally generated tax revenue comes from cannabis. Roughly 50% of commercial construction in Pueblo County has been attributed to cannabis since legalization. The county commissioners recently announced that $2 million in college scholarships will be awarded this year from the marijuana tax-funded scholarship program.

Personally, most of my focus is national in scope in the cannabis space. I enjoy serving on the national boards of the Marijuana Policy Project and Cannabis Voter Project. Locally, I am on the governing board of the Institute of Cannabis Research at CSU-Pueblo. We’re looking at efficacies of marijuana to treat medical conditions. This research can bring new medicines as well as sustainable economic opportunities to the community.

CP: Even as you continue to be one of the Colorado political world’s most vocal champions of legalization, do you share any of the concerns of cannabis critics when it comes to the effects of legalization on kids — in terms of availability; the potency of the product; the different kinds of cannabis products on the market and so forth? Or, do you believe the peril has been overstated? As a longtime pol and policy maker as well as a parent, how do you handle the subject with your own kids?

Pace: In a study published in the Journal of American Medical Association, researchers analyzed data from more than 1.4 million high school students between 1993 and 2017. The results show teen pot use both before and after medical and recreational marijuana laws were adopted. In states that legalized recreational use, teen marijuana use dropped. Dispensaries ID customers, and the local dealer does not.

With my kids, I talk to them about cannabis roughly the same way that I talk about alcohol. It’s an adult substance, and when you’re an adult you can choose to consume or not. I have discussed with them that there are studies that have shown a correlation (not a causation) between heavy consumption as a teen and lower IQ scores as an adult. I also tell them that if they choose to consume anything as an adult, that alcohol is more likely to kill you, land you in a violent situation or get you arrested.

CP: Pueblo long has been a Democratic Party stronghold and a linchpin in the state party. Current state Senate President Leroy Garcia is a Puebloan. Yet, the city is Democratic in a way that’s distinctly different from the party’s epicenter along the Denver-Boulder axis. What distinguishes Pueblo Democrats from Denver or Boulder Democrats, and how does that affect the state’s overall political dynamic?

Pace: I wouldn’t call Pueblo a Democratic stronghold anymore. Trump won it in 2016 and Cory Gardner essentially tied Pueblo in 2014. Conversely, most of the local Pueblo elected officials are Democrats. Democrats still have a huge registration advantage in Pueblo. But, when you look at vote totals, it’s clear that a large number of the registered Democrats are voting Republican and more so every election cycle.

Pueblo politically is like some of the Rust Belt states of the Midwest, like Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin (which all have been trending more Republican). As manufacturing died in the United States, middle-class folks lost out. Pueblo has been in a sustained economic downturn for decades. Colorado leans Democratic because of the influx of highly educated urban and suburban voters moving to the Denver metro area. These folks don’t live the same experience of Pueblo’s blue-collar union Democrats. Pueblo Democrats often drive pickup trucks, own guns and go to church. Senate President Leroy Garcia really does epitomize Pueblo values. He gets Pueblo, and our citizens love him.

CP: What are some of the lessons you learned from your successful runs for political office as well as your unsuccessful bid in 2012 to unseat Republican U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton (recently toppled by an upstart in his own party)? Is there anything you’d do differently if you were given a do-over?

Pace: I don’t believe in regrets. I absolutely love life; and I wouldn’t be right here, right now if not for every decision I made previously, even if some may have appeared to be poor decisions at the time. I have run several campaigns and worked on many more and have picked up a few tidbits (however, I am starting to feel that the older I get, the less I know). One thing I am sure about is you must work hard. I continually worked 70 hours a week on campaigns whether I was running for state House or U.S. House. As a candidate you can only control how hard you work. If you are not willing to put in the maximum effort, you are at a disadvantage. I also would advise candidates to be authentic. Don’t let polls define you. Be yourself and speak your mind. Fight for what you believe in. Voters will appreciate it even if they don’t agree with your positions.

CP: What if anything — besides the booming marijuana industry — is going to keep young job seekers from leaving Pueblo and maybe even start drawing people back to the Steel City? Will we ever see Pueblo’s long-stagnant population and overall growth explode the way they have in other parts of the state?

Pace: I believe Pueblo can attract those young job seekers if we focus on growing Colorado State University-Pueblo and activating our beautiful downtown. Humans seek a sense of place. That’s what a vibrant downtown can do for a community. Between the Riverwalk and the Union Avenue Historic District, Pueblo has a strong foundation of a downtown to build on.

CP: Name a rising Colorado Democrat you think represents at least one face of the future for your party.

Pace: Denver state Rep. Leslie Herod is smart and tenacious. We talked about a Fiddler’s Green boycott after Greenwood Village decided to declare all future police actions justified. I went off into the woods for a camping trip, and when I came back into cell reception, I learned that she had organized a socially distanced concert with Nathaniel Rateliff and the Lumineers, among others to kick off the boycott. Her work ethic is awesome. She’s principled with a spine. She has stepped up and into a leadership role during protests in support of social justice and racial equality and has really earned my respect.

CP: Would you ever run for elected office again? If so, what post?

Pace: I don’t see it. I loved the policy work. But I really got burned out on the politics. I feel like it has gotten a lot meaner. I don’t want to be a leader of some warring faction. I want to make the world a better place.

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