Joe Hanel/Durango Herald
Joe Hanel/Durango Herald
DENVER – It was the end of his freshman term in the House of Representatives, and J. Paul Brown looked cut up.
A week before the end of the session, the Ignacio Republican showed up for work with a nasty cut near his left eye. Brown, a sheep rancher, was chasing a runaway ram when he fell into a pile of cedar branches.
He joked that he got the wounds from Rep. Jerry Sonnenberg, R-Sterling, the powerful chairman of the House Agriculture Committee. To Sonnenberg’s chagrin, Brown bucked him that day, voting against Sonnenberg’s bill to punish cities and counties that delay gas drilling.
At times over the past term, Brown has gotten tangled in thickets at the state Capitol, too.
He’s the most conservative representative from District 59 in many years – his predecessors were Republicans Ellen Roberts and Mark Larson and Democrat Jim Dyer – and at times, Democrats and others have pushed back hard against his bills.
“I’ve tried to be me. I haven’t tried to hide who I am or what my principles are,” Brown said.
Brown wears his heart on his sleeve – or at least on his jacket. Every day, he wears a Christian cross lapel pin decorated with an American flag pattern.
But he rarely speaks of religion or social issues in the Capitol.
In the House chamber, he usually remains in his seat and listens during debates while many other lawmakers are working on unrelated bills in side conversations. When he does get up to speak, it’s often about natural resources or the state’s aging buildings.
The new legislative districts dealt Brown a tough hand. His 59th District swapped easy-to-reach and conservative Cortez for Gunnison, a faraway town with a college and many more Democrats.
Brown adapted, sponsoring a bill with Gunnison’s senator, Democrat Gail Schwartz, to rename Western State College as a university.
His opponent this fall, Durango Democrat Mike McLachlan, said he likes Brown as a person.
“My major criticism of Representative Brown is his ideological perspective is so narrow that he doesn’t listen to and act on all the diverse interests in the 59th,” McLachlan said.
McLachlan, a former attorney for La Plata County and a state solicitor, said he has proved he can work easily with Republicans on practical problem-solving.
“You couldn’t have two more different people than the two of us,” McLachlan said.
Brown, though, can point to his record this year. As one of six lawmakers on the committee tasked with overseeing state property, Brown became one of the loudest voices for spending money now to finish long-delayed maintenance projects.
It’s more important to fix existing buildings than to build new ones, he said.
“If we’re not going to take care of things, should we even be doing it in the first place?” Brown said.
Although he rarely speaks of religion inside the Capitol, he doesn’t shy away from it outside.
On May 3, he prayed at the National Day of Prayer that a House panel later in the day would defeat a bill for civil unions for gay and lesbian couples.
“We pray, Father, especially today, that you would be with those that make decisions in this place, the General Assembly of Colorado ... as they make a decision on civil unions, that they would use your word, that they would do as you want them to do, not as the world wants us to do. In Jesus’ name we pray,” Brown said.
McLachlan supports civil unions.
More wins than losses
Brown also tangled with Democrats last year when he and Roberts, now a senator, sponsored a Republican bill on congressional redistricting. And he butted heads with county commissioners this year when he wanted to let small counties elect their commissioners by district, instead of countywide. Both bills died.
But his legislative record is 10-4, and he has sponsored bills that attracted wide support.
He and Roberts ran the bill to bring a new judge to the La Plata and Archuleta county district. He also sponsored popular Senate bills to make it easier for schools to hire speakers of Native American languages and to ban bath salts, a synthetic drug.
In 2011, Brown’s first session, he gained fame as the bear guy with his bill to overturn a 1992 ballot initiative that banned spring and summer bear hunting. The bill expired in the House after it became apparent some Republicans and most Democrats were going to vote against it.
As a sheep rancher, Brown said he has had problems with predatory bears. He’s satisfied that he called attention to the bear population, which he thinks is increasing.
“I think I did force the hand of Parks and Wildlife to start doing some studies and find out how many bears there are,” Brown said.
However, Colorado Parks and Wildlife spokesman Randy Hampton said the state’s study of the bear population began in 2009 near Aspen, and a larger study in Durango had been planned before Brown ran his bill.
“Obviously, Representative Brown is passionate about the bear issue, and we’re pleased that we’ve been able to provide him with information about black bear management and research efforts in the state,” Hampton wrote in an email.
It will take several more years to get results from the bear study. But Brown will have to wait only until November to see how well voters in his new district like him.