Rookie senator from Hayden making strides in 1st year at state legislature
February 26, 2011
The broccoli bill.
That was perhaps Jean White's hardest sell Thursday.
The Republican senator from Hayden didn't have to pitch it in front of Colorado's senate, but she had an audience just as tough — about 20 inquisitive students representing Hayden Middle School's student council.
The students attended a meeting with White, their hometown senator, in Denver to learn about her work at the capitol building and find out how bills become law.
"Suppose you wanted to make sure that all seventh and eighth graders eat broccoli at least four times a week," the 61-year-old White said to the students. "You can come to me and say, 'I think this is an important issue — we need to make our children more healthy and I think we need to pass a bill.'
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"I don't know for sure, but I think the people on the other side of the issue then say, 'Are you kidding me? I don't want to eat broccoli at all.'"
Although White handles issues a bit more serious and complex than vegetables in her work as a senator, the legislative process isn't at all unfamiliar to the freshman lawmaker, she said.
"And, of course you know bills are a lot more complicated than that," she said to the students.
White's husband, Al, served for about 10 years in the Colorado legislature, first as a representative and most recently as a senator from the Eighth Senatorial District, which represents six counties — Moffat, Routt, Jackson, Rio Blanco, Garfield and Eagle.
However, recently elected Gov. John Hickenlooper asked Al to try a different role —director of the Colorado Tourism Office — leaving his legislative seat up for grabs.
White served as her husband's staff aid during his political career and learned much in his shadow, she said. She stepped into the spotlight in December when she announced her interest in taking Al's position.
A vacancy committee ultimately gave White the nod in early January. She was one of six candidates up for the position.
Now, about a month-and-a-half into her first legislative session, White contends things are about what she imagined they would be at the capitol.
However, it's "not as easy as Al made it look," she said.
White said she felt "really embraced" by other legislators when she was sworn in because of her years of experience helping her husband.
"If anything, I think there was a higher expectation of me," she said. "I am willing to rise to that challenge."
Without a working knowledge of the capitol's moving parts, White said she wouldn't be able to meet the challenges of her new, demanding job.
It's a career that often has her running from the senate floor to the phone to meetings and finally to committees, as well as staying on top of new legislation introduced, she said.
But, don't consider her overwhelmed.
"Not a chance," she said. "Many freshman say it is like drinking from a fire hose. And, I haven't had that experience at all."
What she does feel is a weight on her shoulders to accurately represent the largely diverse interests of thousands of residents in her Northwest Colorado district.
"I think because I was behind the scenes so long and have been a part of that mechanism, it has helped me to know my heart," she said. "Now, I am finding my voice."
Despite becoming comfortable in her new position, there is a bit of freshman hazing she has encountered during her first few weeks.
The senator's first bill, a softball of sorts, she said, passed through committee and was up for a third reading on the Senate floor when something unexpected happened — the other senators played a trick on her.
"More than half of the senate voted no and killed my bill," she said with a laugh. "The president was in on it and the majority of everyone was in on it but me. And, it was my birthday."
Eventually, the bill passed after she reintroduced it, she said.
White said she is well versed in the two main industries that drive Northwest Colorado's economy — energy and tourism.
The senator said she doesn't plan to carry any bills concerning the energy industry right now, but is concerned about mitigating the effects of prior legislation against the coal industry, namely Colorado House Bill 10-1365, also known as the Clean Air, Clean Jobs Act.
"I am very concerned about the ramifications of 1365 from last year, and will do everything I can to protect the coal industry and be supportive of the oil and gas industry," she said.
Maintaining a regulatory and legislative balance among Colorado's energy industries is often a difficult pursuit, she said, and it seems there "is always a turf battle between one entity and another."
White said she is in favor of utilizing clean coal technology.
"If we can encourage clean coal technology — if it ultimately doesn't damage the industry in any way, you know as far as losing jobs or anything — (we should)," she said. "My main concern is maintaining those coal jobs."
White said she is also a strong supporter of the tourism industry as one of the state's main economic drivers.
"I think all of that is really very important to bringing people into our state and getting them into our communities so that they spend money and help improve the economy, which will help with job creation and encourage business development," she said.
Much is the same with small businesses, White said.
"I think that our economy is based on small business," she said. "It is the economic driver and so (we should do) anything that we can do to get government out of small business and reduce regulation, make it easier for small business people to function and create jobs for people."
Growing up on a ranch in South Dakota, White said she never thought she would have a career in politics, as evidenced by her college degree in education with a minor in fashion design and merchandising.
"But, I am glad to be here," she said. "I realize that my entire life experience has helped prepare me for where I am now."
White said she feels like she lives in two worlds — a divide she crosses when she goes home to Hayden for the weekend.
"It is interesting that we go from the most densely populated area, Capitol Hill, to Hayden, which is one of the least populated areas," she said. "I love to go home."
But, for other legislators to believe she knows less about public policy because she lives in a small, rural town "would be a bad assumption," she said.
Even worse is confusing her with Al.
"I tell people, 'Don't confuse me with my husband,'" she said, noting their ideas about politics sometimes differ despite their shared party affiliation.
White said she is also deeply committed to making Front Range legislators aware of Wes-
tern Slope and Northwest Colorado issues. The state's geographical divide often is just as obvious of a political divide, she said.
"We are outnumbered and that is why I think Western Slope legislators need to be 10 times as good as anybody else because you have to be strong and you have to stand up for your district," she said. "That's what I'm here for.
"It is not always the easiest thing to do, but I didn't come here to do easy."