High Country Politics - Government and Elections News from the American West - May 17, 2023

The Heartland POD

May 17 2023 • 15 mins

Progressives back Mike Johnston in Denver mayor’s race | Colorado Gov. Jared Polis signs slate of clean energy bills | $11B in federal funds allocated for rural clean energy projects | Missing and Murdered Indigenous Peoples crisis commission meets in Flagstaff, AZ (WARNING: contains graphic descriptions of violence) | Colorado Gov. Jared Polis signs nation’s first Right-to-Repair law | Violent Femmes perform their self-titled debut in Denver, Austin and Houston this week.

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Intro by host

Welcome to High Country - politics in the American West. My name is Sean Diller; regular listeners might know me from Heartland Pod’s Talking Politics, every Monday.

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Alright! Let’s get into it:

COLORADO NEWSLINE: Progressives back Mike Johnston in Denver mayor’s race

BY: CHASE WOODRUFF - MAY 15, 2023 4:00 AM

As ballots begin to hit mailboxes for Denver’s June 6th runoff election, Johnston and Kelly Brough, the other top-two finisher in April’s first round of voting - have rolled out a veritable smorgasbord of endorsement announcements.

Former mayoral candidates Ean Thomas Tafoya, Terrance Roberts, Jim Walsh, Al Gardner and Leslie Herod all endorsed Mike Johnston.

Rep Herod (who was my preferred choice for mayor) said “Having shared countless debate and forum stages with Mike over the past months, I know that he has the passion, commitment, and vision to tackle Denver’s toughest problems. Mike and I share the value of public service, hard work, and doing right by our communities, and I am excited to work with him to deliver on our progressive vision for Denver.”

Meanwhile, Brough, the former Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce head who secured her spot in the runoff with just over 20% of the first-round vote, has picked up endorsements from Democratic state Sen. Chris Hansen as well as Thomas Wolf, an investment banker who campaigned on harsh anti-homelessness policies and received 1% of the vote for Mayor in April.

Sen. Hansen said “Denver needs a proven executive — Kelly Brough is the leader we can trust to deliver results. It’s going to take all of us to tackle Denver’s biggest challenges, and I’m proud to join Kelly’s team.”

Brough also picked up endorsements from Democratic state Rep. Alex Valdez and former Tattered Cover CEO Kwame Spearman, both of whom entered the mayor’s race but later withdrew.

Brough and Johnston emerged from the crowded field of mayoral candidates after becoming by far the race’s two best-funded candidates, each raising about $1MM in direct contributions and benefiting from millions more in outside super PAC expenditures from billionaires and real-estate interests.

After a first round that featured a wide range of perspectives and ideologies, the runoff campaign has featured few stark disagreements on policy between the two candidates, both of whom are veteran figures in Colorado’s centrist political establishment.

Brough served as then-Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper’s chief of staff from 2006 to 2009, then led the conservative-leaning Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce for 12 years before stepping down ahead of her mayoral run. Some of her top endorsers include former Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter and former Denver Mayor Wellington Webb, both Democrats.

On Friday, she touted the endorsement of the Greater Metro Denver Ministerial Alliance, a coalition of clergy and civil rights leaders in the city’s Black community. Pastor Paul Burleson, the Alliance’s vice president of political affairs, said that Brough’s experience is key to her appeal.

Brough has also picked up endorsements from the Denver Police Protective Association and other unions representing law enforcement officers and firefighters. She was one of the only candidates in the mayor’s race to endorse a return of “qualified immunity,” a legal doctrine that bars people from suing law enforcement officers in their individual capacity. Colorado lawmakers, led by Herod, passed a landmark police reform bill that abolished qualified immunity in the wake of George Floyd’s murder in 2020. - Just one reason I love Leslie Herod.

During his time in the state Senate, Mike Johnston became one of the state’s leading champions of education reform, a movement that has galled teachers’ unions and progressives who’ve accused him of undermining public education. From 2020 to 2022 he was the CEO of Gary Community Ventures, a Denver-based philanthropic organization founded by oil tycoon Sam Gary.

Though hardly a progressive firebrand himself, Johnston spoke at Wednesday’s event of the coalition he hopes to build as mayor. Along with former mayoral rivals, he received endorsements from Democratic state Sens. Julie Gonzales (another legislator I have tremendous respect for) and James Coleman (who is my state senator but someone whom I don’t know much about), adding to a list of supporters that also includes former Mayor Federico Peña and former Colorado House Speaker Terrance Carroll.

Rep. Leslie Herod said “Make no mistake: We are the progressives in this race, and we have chosen to back Mike. We are the candidates who have consistently spoken about putting people over structures, putting people over businesses — people always first.”

So for my part I’ll be following State Sen. Julie Gonzales and Rep. Leslie Herod, voting for Mike Johnston.

Final thought: Johnston might not be seen as progressive, but if he wins this election assembling a progressive coalition to bear a developer/business-backed candidate in Kelly Brough, then progressives should absolutely have a strong voice in the Johnston administration if he wants to keep his job. But first he’s got to win.

COLORADO NEWSLINE: Gov. Jared Polis signs slate of clean energy measures, utility regulation bill

BY: CHASE WOODRUFF - MAY 11, 2023 5:36 PM

Gov. Jared Polis has signed into law a bill that commits Colorado for the first time to a net-zero greenhouse gas emissions target, along with other measures to address spiking utility rates and the state’s long-term energy future.

Flanked by Democratic lawmakers and state energy officials, Polis signed Senate Bill 23-16 at an event at the Denver Botanic Gardens. The bill, a wide-ranging package of reforms aimed at boosting clean energy efforts in a variety of industries, was approved on party-line votes by Democratic majorities in the General Assembly just before its adjournment on May 8.

SB-16 sets a statutory goal of a 100% reduction in Colorado’s greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, revising that target upwards from a 90% goal set by the Legislature in 2019. It’s the first time the state has formally established the net-zero goal that scientists with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have said is necessary to avert the most catastrophic impacts of global warming.

To get there, the bill contains what sponsors called a “potpourri” of measures to accelerate the transition to clean energy, including sections that streamline the process for the installation of electric transmission lines and rooftop solar panels; stricter requirements on large insurance companies to assess climate risk; tax credits for the purchase of electric-powered lawn equipment; and more authority for the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission to regulate carbon capture projects.

COGCC chair Jeff Robbins applauded the bill’s efforts to encourage carbon capture, which he called “critical as a tool in addressing climate change.”

“The COGCC is well poised with its resources and regulatory understanding to now help carbon storage be deployed safely and responsibly in Colorado,” Robbins said in a press release.

Gov. Polis also signed House Bill 23-1252, which establishes a new state grant program for geothermal energy projects and requires large natural-gas utilities to develop emissions-reducing “clean heat plans.”

Senate Bill 23-291, a package of reforms to state utility regulations, and House Bill 23-1234, a bipartisan measure aimed at streamlining permitting and inspection processes for solar projects were also both signed into law.

SB-291 emerged from hearings held earlier this year by the Joint Select Committee on Rising Utility Rates, a special panel of lawmakers convened by Democratic leaders following sharp increases in many Coloradans’ utility bills in 2022.

It directs the state’s Public Utilities Commission to more closely scrutinize how privately-owned utilities manage volatility in natural-gas prices, the main culprit in rate increases that caused the average monthly payment for customers of Xcel Energy, Colorado’s largest utility, to rise by more than 50% last year. Other provisions in the bill are aimed at assessing the long-term future of natural gas infrastructure as more homes and businesses transition to all-electric heating and cooking appliances.

In a press release, Advanced Energy United, an industry group representing clean energy companies, said the legislation creates a “national model” for dealing with volatility in the natural gas market.

“This bill will help make Colorado’s energy system more affordable long-term, and should be seen as a model for states across the country on how to manage high gas prices and a transition to cost-saving alternatives to gas, like high-efficiency heat pumps, rooftop solar and battery storage,” said Emilie Olson, a senior principal at Advanced Energy United.

House Bill 23-1272, creates or extends a variety of clean energy tax credits, including incentives for the purchase of electric vehicles, e-bikes, electric heat pumps, industrial decarbonization technologies and more.

Gov. Polis said “These exciting money-saving changes for Coloradans mean reliable, lower energy costs and good-paying jobs, as we continue to fuel the innovation that makes Colorado a national leader in clean energy. We are cutting red tape, creating good paying jobs and improving air quality as we continue to make bold progress towards achieving 100% renewable energy by 2040.”

ARIZONA MIRROR: Rural electric co-ops to get $10.7B in USDA funds for clean energy grants, loans

BY: JACOB FISCHLER - MAY 16, 2023 7:11 AM

The U.S. Department of Agriculture will begin to administer two loan and grant programs worth nearly $11 billion to boost clean energy systems in rural areas, administration officials said Tuesday. The programs are the New ERA program for rural electric cooperatives, and the PACE program for other energy providers.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said the funding “continues an ongoing effort to ensure that rural America is a full participant in this clean energy economy.”

White House National Climate Advisor Ali Zaidi said, “Rural areas can have more difficulty than more urban ones in attracting private sector investment. The programs are intended to allow those rural areas to take advantage of an industry-wide trend to invest in clean energy production.

He said, “There’s a favorable wind blowing here. This allows rural communities to put up a sail.”

The programs are meant to put rural electric cooperatives on equal footing with larger privately owned companies that have already put major funding into clean energy deployment.

The programs represent the largest single funding effort for rural electrification since President Franklin Roosevelt signed the Rural Electrification Act in 1936.

The money is meant not only to address the climate impacts of fossil fuel energy and reduce home energy costs, but to act as an economic engine for rural areas.

Rural electric cooperatives are eligible for the New ERA program, and up to 25% of the funding in that program can be in the form of direct grants. Utilities can use the money to build renewable energy systems, zero-emission systems and carbon capture facilities.

The USDA will begin to accept initial applications for funding on July 31. Applicants are expected to write more detailed proposals for funding after the USDA accepts their initial applications.

The PACE program provides loans to renewable energy developers and electric service providers “to help finance large-scale solar, wind, geothermal, biomass, hydropower projects and energy storage in support of renewable energy systems,” the release said.

The program is targeted to “vulnerable, disadvantaged, Tribal and energy communities,” the release said. It’s in line with a Biden administration goal to allocate at least 40% of the overall benefits of certain federal spending to disadvantaged communities.

The USDA can forgive up to 40% of most of the loans in the program. Up to 60% of loans to applicants in some U.S. territories and tribal communities can be forgiven.

Initial applications for that program will open June 30.


National commission on the MMIP crisis meets in Arizona to hear testimony, recommendations


Five empty chairs sat at the front of the Not Invisible Act Commission hearing, each wrapped in a shawl, blanket or quilt representing a different group of individuals impacted by human trafficking or with a loved one who is missing or murdered.

“We want to allow space for representing our relatives,” commission member Grace Bulltail said, noting the traditions in many Indigenous families to always preserve a space for absent loved ones.

“We’re doing that to honor our loved ones,” Bulltail said, explaining that, by putting the chairs there, the commission hearing was holding space for them.

The chair wrapped in a red shawl with white and yellow handprints honored the missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. The chair wrapped in a red, orange, bridge, and white Native design shawl with a black blazer draped over it was to honor the missing and murdered Indigenous men and boys.

Another chair was wrapped in a light blue, white and purple quilt. Pinned to the quilt was a picture of 11-year-old Ashlynne Mike, a Navajo girl who was abducted and killed on the Navajo Nation in 2016. This chair honored Indigenous children.

The chair wrapped in a maroon shawl with floral designs honored the LGBTQI and two-spirit Indigenous community. The chair wrapped in a brown Pendleton honored Indigenous veterans.

The Not Invisible Act Commission, organized by the U.S. Department of the Interior,  held a public hearing at the Twin Arrows Casino near Flagstaff to hear testimony and recommendations from victims and families impacted by human trafficking and the missing and murdered Indigenous peoples crisis. The commission also heard from local tribal leaders and advocates.

The Not Invisible Act was passed into law in October 2020, establishing the commission as a cross-jurisdictional advisory committee of federal and non-federal members, including law enforcement, tribal leaders, federal partners, service providers, family members of missing and murdered individuals, and survivors.

The meeting at Twin Arrows was the commission’s third public hearing. This summer, it has four more planned in Minnesota, northern California, New Mexico and Montana. The hearings are being held in communities impacted most by the MMIP crisis.

Commissioners heard emotional testimony from Seraphine Warren and Pamela Foster as they shared their experiences of losing a loved one and advocated for change.

Ms. Warren is the niece of Ella Mae Begay, a Navajo woman who went missing from her home in Sweetwater, Arizona, on the Navajo Nation on June 15, 2021. Warren continued to advocate for not only her aunt but all Indigenous people.

Speaking through tears, she told her aunt’s story. “I know it wasn’t her legacy to be stolen or to be murdered,” Warren said. “Just because she isn’t here doesn’t mean she can’t be part of change.”

Begay is still missing, but there have been developments in her case. In March, Preston Henry Tolth, 23, of New Mexico, was indicted by a federal grand jury in Phoenix for assault and carjacking.

The indictment alleges that, on June 15, 2021, Tolth assaulted Begay, resulting in serious bodily injury, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

Tolth then took her Ford F-150 pickup truck and drove it from Arizona to New Mexico with the intent to cause death or serious bodily injury to Begay.

Warren said during Tolth’s arraignment hearing on April 7 in Flagstaff that she heard details about the night her aunt went missing that she was not ready for.

Warren, in tears, told the commission that Tolth told federal agents that he “snapped” and struck her in the face multiple times, causing her to bleed from the nose and mouth.

Tolth told authorities that he wasn’t sure if she was dead, Warren said, and when he drove away, he said he regretted hitting her, since all he wanted was the truck.

Tolth is being held in custody and is expected to go to trial later in May.

Pamela Foster is the mother of Ashlynne Mike, the 11-year-old Navajo girl abducted and killed on the Navajo Nation in 2016. Foster has been at the forefront of advocacy efforts for Indigenous children and people since she lost her daughter.

On the afternoon of May 2, 2016, Ashlynne Mike and her 9-year-old brother, Ian Mike, didn’t make it home from school. When they got off the school bus in Shiprock, New Mexico, on the Navajo Nation, a predator tricked them into getting into his van by promising them a ride home.

Hours later, passersby found Ian Mike wandering alone in the area. Police located Ashlynne Mike’s body on May 3, 2016, and discovered she had been sexually assaulted, strangled, and bludgeoned repeatedly with a tire iron.

She said, “I miss my daughter every single day. I became a voice for my daughter the moment I received word that her life was taken from her.”

She talked about how the system failed when her children were missing in 2016. She said that May 1 to May 6 is a nightmare for her every year, because she relives what happened to her children.

Foster talked about the hours from when her children disappeared to when they found her daughter’s body; she ran into countless obstacles that left her without support.

“It was very hard to sit there and know that there were no resources available for my children,” Foster said. “I absolutely had nothing.”

She said local law enforcement was not adequately trained to handle child abductions. There was no clear communication between local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies.

Instead of searching for her children, Foster said they were trying to figure out exactly what protocols were needed to start looking.

“Time was lost,” Foster said, and they did not send out an AMBER Alert until the following day. Foster recalled the alert went out at 2 a.m., and she said that helped no one because not many people were awake then.

She remembers hearing officers from the neighboring jurisdictions tell her they couldn’t go out to look for her daughter until they were given the clearance to do so by the Navajo Nation Police Department. Foster said it frustrated her how long it took for that to happen.

She said the anger and hurt about what happened to Ashlynne led her to be a voice for her daughter.

“I promised her I would do something for all of our other Indigenous children. To give them the protection that they need so they don’t go through the same thing.”

Foster has led many grassroots efforts to support Indigenous children, including advocating and petitioning for the AMBER Alert system to include Indian Country.

Foster said she wanted to change, and she knew the justice system in Indian Country needed to be updated, so she focused her efforts on the AMBER Alert system. Her advocacy resulted in the Ashlynne Mike AMBER Alert in Indian Country Act of 2018, which makes tribes eligible for AMBER Alert grants to integrate into state and regional AMBER Alert communication plans.

“I always say that I’ve never received justice for what happened to my daughter because nothing can bring her back,” Foster said. “There will never be justice, but we can learn how to move forward in changing laws to make things better for our people.”

The goal of the hearing was for the federal commissioners to listen and hear recommendations on the best course of action for the MMIP crisis. Commissioners will use the suggestions to develop their final report for the Department of Interior.

Foster’s big recommendation was not only geared at the commissioners, but other attendees of the hearing. She encouraged them to tell their tribal leaders to receive the AMBER Alert in Indian Country Act training.

“It is free,” she said, adding that it is a vital program for Indigenous communities because it will train police officers and social workers from the tribe.

Because tribes are sovereign nations, the Department of Justice has to receive a request in order to run the training on tribal land: “Have your tribal leaders request this training for your community because the children are our next generation,” Foster said. “There’s still a lot of tribes that need to be trained.”

When Seraphine Warren was finished sharing her aunt’s story, she laid out her recommendations. “Transparency and swift action is key,” she said, “which means that when a person is missing, law enforcement should immediately inform all jurisdictions and issue press releases to media channels to inform the public.”

“Family members need to be regularly and constantly updated with the progress of the investigation, and families should be prioritized if any remains are found in any jurisdiction.”

Some of the other recommendations included allowing families to hire private investigators, providing them access to case files, supporting families in organizing their task force, providing families with constant and reliable access to grief counseling services, medical attention, financial and legal assistance, and safe housing for families of missing or murdered loved ones.

ASSOCIATED PRESS: If you’re not first, you’re last.

DENVER (AP) — Sitting in front of a hulking red tractor, Democratic Gov. Jared Polis signed a bill Tuesday making Colorado the first state to ensure farmers can fix their own tractors and combines with a “right to repair” law — which compels manufacturers to provide the necessary manuals, tools, parts and software farmers would need.

Colorado, home to high desert ranches and sweeping farms on the plains, took the lead on the issue following a nationwide outcry from farmers that manufacturers blocked them from making fixes and forced them to wait precious days or even weeks for an official servicer to arrive — delays that hurt profits.

While farmers wait and their increasingly high-tech tractors or combines sit idle, a hailstorm could decimate an entire crop. Or, a farmer could miss the ideal planting window for their crops to grow.

Lawmakers in at least 10 other states have introduced similar legislation, including in Florida, Maryland, Missouri, New Jersey, Texas and Vermont. But Colorado has taken the lead.

At the signing ceremony Tuesday afternoon, under a light drizzle of rain, Gov. Polis said: “This bill will save farmers and ranchers time and money and support the free market in repair” before exclaiming, “first in the nation!”

Behind the governor and arrayed farmers and lawmakers sat a red Steiger 370 tractor owned by a farmer named Danny Wood. Wood’s tractor has flown an American flag reading “Farmers First,” and it has been one of two of his machines to break down, requiring long waits before servicers arrived to enter a few lines of computer code, or make a fix that Wood could have made himself.

As the signing ceremony ended, Gov. Polis and Rep. Brianna Titone, who ran the bill in the state House, climbed inside the tractor for a photo as the ceremony ended.

Great job, Rep. Titone! Huge win for this up-and-coming legislator. When I first saw her speak announcing her initial candidacy in 2017, I didn't know what to expect. Honestly, I didn’t expect a lot, and I didn’t particularly expect her to even win. And then, winning that seat was just the first of many instances where I’ve seen her demonstrate a level of depth, grit, and smarts that rival any of her peers. Great job Rep. Titone, you rock.

CONCERT PICK OF THE WEEK: Violent Femmes - performing their self-titled album - Levitt Pavilion in Denver on Sunday May 21. The cult favorite folk punk band from Milwaukee is celebrating 40 years since the release of their first album in 1983. More info at vfemmes.com

Welp, that’s it for me! From Denver I’m Sean Diller. Original reporting for the stories in today’s show comes from Colorado Newsline, Arizona Mirror, Denver Post, Associated Press and Denver’s Westword.

Thank you for listening! See you next time.

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