Pueblo had strong voices in Capitol leadership. Now it must adjust to their absence.
Leroy Garcia and Daneya Esgar raised Pueblo’s profile in Denver and brought Southern Colorado flavor to legislating
The Arkansas River runs through Pueblo, Colorado, pictured to the left of the once-bustling Union Depot on April 15, 2022. (Sara Wilson/Colorado Newsline)
The Home of Heroes is about to undergo a political transition.
As House Majority Leader Daneya Esgar prepares to wrap up her final legislative session, Pueblo is positioned to lose two decades of legislative experience between her and former Senate President Leroy Garcia, who left his post early to take a Pentagon job.
In addition to that experience, the Democratic duo’s departure means the end of two major agenda-setting leadership positions being held by proud Puebloans. Garcia left in late February but was term-limited anyway this year. Esgar announced in November that she would not seek a Senate seat following her final term in the House.
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The formal role of the Senate President is to preside over the day-to-day business of the chamber and the House Majority Leader is second-in-command to the Speaker and controls when the chamber votes on certain legislation. Besides those formal roles, they are part of a powerful leadership team, especially as both chambers and the governor’s office are Democrat-controlled.
Garcia, elected to the House of Representatives in 2012 and first elected to the Senate in 2014, was selected to serve as Senate President in November 2018 and was reelected to that position in 2020. Esgar, first elected in 2014, was selected as House majority leader in November 2020.
That dynamic created a unique situation with two legislators from Pueblo guiding conservation and policy priorities for the 2021 session and a little less than half of the 2022 session.
“The synergy the two of us had, because we were aligned for the right reasons on priorities for Southern Colorado, will be missed,” Garcia said.
“A lot of times, people say ‘The Legislature’s priorities are X, Y and Z.’ But when you look at the track record of what Majority Leader Esgar and I worked in collaboration to accomplish … Those were things specific to our districts. We got a lot of pushback sometimes, like ‘What are you trying to do? Ease in,’” he said.
Garcia’s office could not find another instance where the Senate presidency and House majority leader positions were simultaneously held by Puebloans.
For a region sometimes mischaracterized by Denver politicos and which has interests that are distinct from those of its neighbors to the north, that representation — and resistance to easing in — has been critical. Pueblo, the state’s ninth-biggest city, has higher than average unemployment, crime and poverty rates, but it also has booming investments in renewables like solar energy, a vibrant and well-maintained downtown core, and a deep heritage in industry and agriculture.
“That matters a lot — having Daneya and Leroy in leadership up there has been so helpful for Pueblo’s image in Colorado overall,” said Hilary Glasgow, a Pueblo resident and the executive director of Colorado WINS, a union for state employees. “There is a lot of mockery of Pueblo that has happened in the past, but I feel like we’ve raised our profile and people have more respect for us than they did in the past.”
Glasgow said that built-up credibility came from having strong leaders who could not only legislate effectively but also represent growing demographics. Pueblo County is approximately 43% Hispanic or Latino, according to recent census statistics, and that share is growing. Garcia was the first Hispanic Senate President. Esgar was the first openly LGBTQ representative from Pueblo.
“People are starting to realize and see what we have there,” Esgar said. “The more I’ve been able to share my perspective of Pueblo, whether it’s with members or the lobby corp, the more that they’ve seen it through my lens, the more they’ve seen how amazing Pueblo is.”
That perspective matters for big legislative wins, Esgar and Garcia said, but also in victories like establishing a Pueblo chile license plate and designating Fishers Peak State Park.
Garcia reflected that so many of the highlights from his tenure were legislative accomplishments specific to Southern Colorado — things like bolstering the Colorado State Fair, establishing a Pueblo branch of the Colorado Bureau of Investigations, investments in rail and a prioritization of just transition following the closure of Comanche 3.
The Comanche 3 power plant in Pueblo County, which provides approximately 70 jobs and millions of dollars in tax revenue for the county, will close earlier than expected after a settlement was reached in late April. After a lengthy negotiation, that settlement includes a just transition plan for workers and mandates that Xcel Energy pay taxes to the county government until 2040.
A bill sponsored by Esgar funded the Office of Just Transition last year.
“The reason I fought so hard to move up the ranks to get into leadership wasn’t personal. It was more about the decisions being made at that table,” Esgar said. “I needed to make sure there was a voice from outside of Denver to make sure those decisions made were good for all of Colorado. It was always Pueblo’s voice, but it was also Southern Colorado’s voice.”
Adding ‘Pueblo flavor’ to the Capitol
Now, people are preparing for a potential political void.
“Obviously, we’re losing two in the same year, so that will be tough. They’re leaving big shoes to fill,” Pueblo Mayor Nick Gradisar said, adding that he is not in favor of term limits that create situations like this.
“They were able to assume leadership roles and represent Southern Colorado and Pueblo very, very well,” he said, likening their ascent to leadership to Pueblo politicians like former state representatives Tom Farley and Dorothy Butcher.
Local leaders like Gradisar say it was Esgar and Garcia’s accessibility, charisma and synergy, combined with their leadership positions, that benefited Pueblo the most. People speak about how the two could perform the delicate dance of representing the Steel City while also taking into account statewide issues. They wore their Pueblo pride like a badge of honor.
“One thing they were great at was no matter what was happening at the Capitol, they always added their Pueblo flavor into it and always did a good job of highlighting the issues and needs down here,” said Brian McCain, the chief operating officer for Action 22 and former district director for Republican Rep. Scott Tipton.
That Pueblo flavor is important, he said. Pueblo and Southern Colorado experience the same issues as the rest of the state as far as a short housing supply, concerns over the switch to clean energy and aging infrastructure in need of repair. But housing solutions in Littleton might not transfer to Pueblo or the San Luis Valley. And whereas Boulder residents may see the rush to close down coal plants like Comanche 3 as a way to reduce fossil fuel dependence, Puebloans consider how it will affect the jobs in their backyard and funding for capital improvement projects in their community.
With Esgar and Garcia holding prominent seats at the table, Pueblo’s political voice was powerful and the area’s distinct interests were respected. Following their exit and the entrance of political newcomers to succeed them, it could take time for those legislators to figure out how to navigate the Capitol process.
“They won’t have a lot of experience, but there’s a willingness they’ll have to show to listen more, to be available more,” said Dennis Obduskey, the communications director for the Pueblo County Democrats. “One of the things that’s going to be huge for the candidates, and eventually the elected officials, is to make more visible time where they talk to a variety of people.”
New representatives will take over
There is little worry from local leaders that crucial Pueblo interests will be ignored in the coming legislative sessions as the area is represented by newcomers. They say that Garcia and Esgar set a solid foundation, and that the Pueblo political bench is full of the gritty hard workers typical of the city. Esgar and Garcia say they have talked to their colleagues at the Capitol to welcome the new voices.
“I don’t have a lot of anxiety. I think the work Senator Garcia and I have done the last few years has solidified the absolute need to look for politics that impact Colorado as a whole. They will remember that, to not just brush Pueblo aside and look to Pueblo legislators for their ideas and opinions,” Esgar said.
The Pueblo County Democrats chose Sen. Nick Hinrichsen to replace Garcia in February, and Hinrichsen is running to retain his seat in November. Tisha Mauro and Jason Munoz are on the Democratic primary for House District 46 and Jonathan Ambler is running on the Republican side.
“Pueblo turns out people that are forged in steel. Whoever we put up there, they’re going to carry the torch,” Glasgow said. Still, it will take time for any new representatives to grow into leadership if that is what they want.
The transition could also be a chance to redefine what Pueblo representation needs to look like in a state that has undergone dramatic shifts over the past few years.
“I don’t know if we see it as a loss of leadership, but as an opportunity to sort of rethink what we want that leadership to look like and how we want that representation to really reflect what’s going on in Pueblo and how this region is key to the success of Colorado as a whole,” Action 22 CEO Sara Blackhurst said.
One anxiety she and McCain hold is a sustained voice for rural Colorado. Action 22 is involved with the 22 counties of Southern Colorado, which are mostly rural. The two want someone loud, courageous and charismatic to represent the region in Denver.
“Rural Colorado are the underdogs. You have representatives and senators that cover such large areas and are only one voice. We need someone in leadership to look out for rural areas and communities such as Pueblo because we don’t have as many voices at the Capitol. That’s where the anxiety is,” McCain said.
While Garcia is settling into his new job as a special assistant at the Pentagon, Esgar said she is not really going anywhere and plans to stay connected to the Legislature in some way, though she hasn’t figured out what that will look like just yet.
“I made a lot of promises in 2014 when I first decided to run for office,” she said. “I stepped back and realized I had kept every single one of them. I feel good moving on. It’s been an amazing eight years and now it’s time to help Southern Colorado in a different way.”
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