Former state Sen. Gail Schwartz, D-Snowmass Village, came out swinging against U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton on Thursday, accusing the Cortez Republican of selling out to a Texas oil and gas company by crafting favorable legislation in exchange for campaign contributions.
Schwartz, who represented a big chunk of the Western Slope in Senate District 5 for eight years, is challenging Tipton for his 3rd Congressional District seat in November. CD3 encompasses most of the state’s energy-rich Western Slope as well as Pueblo on the Front Range.
The three-term congressman also faces 28-year-old Carbondale law school graduate Alex Beinstein in the June GOP primary, while no candidate earned enough delegates last month to challenge Schwartz in a Democratic primary.
That’s freed up Schwartz, who left the state Senate in 2015 due to term limits, to focus solely on Tipton, who last week was the subject of a Denver Post story detailing draft legislation he’s proposing to deal with the long-running dispute over oil and gas leases in the Thompson Divide area near Carbondale.
The Post story quoted sources raising questions of impropriety based on language in the draft bill that came directly from a Washington lobbying firm working for Houston-based SG Interests, which holds the majority of the U.S. Forest Service drilling leases in the Thompson Divide area.
The Center for Responsive Politics reports Tipton has received $39,000 in campaign contributions from employees and individuals associated with SG Interests — more than any other donor — and that the company backed a Super PAC called Colorado Future Fund that spent $11,000 against Democrat Sal Pace when he ran an unsuccessful challenge against Tipton in 2012.
Schwartz on Thursday, in a conference call with reporters, alleged that Tipton has largely ignored a five-and-a-half-year process in which environmental groups and local governments in a five-county Western Slope region have tried to craft a solution with oil and gas companies in the battle over long-standing drilling leases in the wildlife-rich area.
Tipton’s draft legislation seeks to trade the SG Interests’ leases, which date back to the Bush administration, for like-valued leases in other areas of Colorado, but critics say it offers no long-term solution to keeping drilling operations out of the 220,000-acre area of public lands.
“So what we’re seeing here is, No. 1, a blatant case of special interests being trumped over community interests, and ironically this oil and gas company is his largest donor,” Schwartz said. “They have a super PAC. The super PAC is called Colorado Future Fund. Well, that’s not a future I’m interested in for the state of Colorado or for the 3rd Congressional District.”
However, Tipton told the Post last week his bill “was a starting point” based on a plan from SG Interests because it’s the “primary stakeholder” and “no one else offered language to be able to get to the starting point.”
Schwartz’s campaign referred The Colorado Statesman to efforts by the Thompson Divide Coalition, an advocacy group working for many years to keeping drilling out of the area. But a spokesman for Tipton’s campaign says that’s not really a solution.
“So she offered no policy prescriptions, ideas or productive opinions? She just criticized. Sounds like Aspenite Gail Schwartz is ready for Washington,” Tipton spokesman Michael Fortney told The Statesman.
Schwartz has moved from Snowmass, near Aspen, where she lived during her stint in the Legislature, to Crested Butte, on the other side of the Elk Mountains in Gunnison County.
Schwartz cited five counties involved in efforts to reach a deal that would protect the Thompson Divide area from drilling while simultaneously compensating the two oil and gas companies that own drilling leases in the area. She pointed to conservative Mesa County as an example of the broad support for a negotiated solution.
But a Mesa County commissioner rejected Schwartz’s claim in a story Thursday in the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel, saying, “Gail Schwartz has definitely not talked to Mesa County.”
However, there has been bipartisan support in the past for a negotiated solution that would keep drilling out of the area. In 2014, the entire board of Pitkin County commissioners, chaired by Republican Rob Ittner, supported a 2013 bill floated by Democratic U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet that would have removed the vast majority of the Thompson Divide from drilling while compensating current lease-holders.
Former Democratic Sen. Mark Udall backed that 2013 bill — dubbed Thompson Divide Withdrawal and Protection Act — sparking an election-year dustup with Republican Sen. Cory Gardner, who went on to defeat Udall. Tipton never officially backed Bennet’s bill, instead urging a negotiated solution with environmental groups to work out a deal with energy companies.
But Schwartz this week said Tipton really only cares about the interests of SG Interests.
“I feel, among many others, that he basically has abandoned the interests of the 3rd Congressional District for representing his Houston donors, and what we’re seeing is that the community interests have basically been thrown under the bus for special interests,” she said.
Asked if she would reject special interest or PAC money in her campaign, Schwartz said she wouldn’t.
“There certainly is support that comes from many interest groups — interest groups that, yeah, philosophically I’m aligned with — but they don’t buy my vote with their donations,” Schwartz said.
Photo of the Thompson Divide via the Thompson Divide Coalition