One thing seems clear about next month’s election: Western Colorado will elect a Fort Lewis College graduate to Congress.
U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Cortez, faces state Rep. Sal Pace, D-Pueblo. Both earned degrees in political science – Tipton in 1978 and Pace in 1999.
The two men come from different generations and have followed very different paths in life, but their college years spurred an interest in politics that has put them on a collision course.
They aren’t the only two in the race. Unaffiliated candidate Tisha Casida, Libertarian Gregory Gilman and write-ins Jaime McMillan and Dale Reed also are running. But in practice, third-party candidates are hardly ever elected.
So it’s a safe bet that a Skyhawk will be on Capitol Hill.
Pace: Early campaigns
Pace got his start in politics in the cutthroat battles of student government in the late 1990s, which made the Legislature seem nearly tame in comparison.
Pace served in the student Senate and, at the end of his junior year, he ran for vice president of the student body.
The student Senate disqualified him because his running mate was a credit shy of being a full-time student.
They protested and got reinstated, but then were disqualified all over again.
“Needless to say, I had the votes,” he said.
He ran for president the next spring but lost.
Pace witnessed a better example of politics when he served on the search committee for a new FLC president. (The school hired Kendall Blanchard.)
He remembers disagreement among the committee members about what kind of candidate to pick.
Pace credits the experience with showing him important skills: “Building relationships with the other committee members, earning their respect, doing the hard work and the research. We got over 100 applications, and I read every single one.”
Pace says he will bring that same spirit to a Congress mired in partisan warfare.
After graduation, Pace went to work for John Salazar when he was a state representative and stayed with him when he was elected to Congress.
He was working for Salazar when he met Marlene Valdez, who has century-long roots in Colorado. They married in 2006.
Pace also acquired an arrest record while at Fort Lewis.
In 1996, he was caught breaking into a dormitory vending machine and charged with third-degree larceny. A year earlier, he was cited for public urination – the first of two citations for the charge. The second one came after graduation, in Denver in 2003.
“I was young, and I was dumb,” Pace said. “It was before I was married, before I had kids. Certainly, Marlene would never let me be that stupid today. The hardest part was calling up my parents and telling them about it. Today, I know it’s going to be something I’ll have to explain to my kids.”
He paid for the damages to the candy machine and did community service.
Tipton: ‘A serious student’
Tipton was the first in family to attend college.
He came to political science because of his parents, who were committed Republican activists.
The campus in the late 1970s was very different than the one that looks out over Durango now. Noble Hall had just been built.
Tipton lived off-campus at the Stagecoach Motel, where he tended the front desk to pay for his rent.
“You had a bed. There was no kitchenette. We found a spot on Main Street in Durango where you could to go in and eat for $4. There would be a little steak. We were regulars,” Tipton said.
Scott Smith of Telluride met Tipton in a political science class and developed a classroom-based friendship with the future congressman.
“I can’t recall ever running into him at any of the parties around campus. Fort Lewis is known for parties, but he was a serious student,” Smith said.
Tipton was an early Ronald Reagan Republican, while Smith voted for Jimmy Carter but changed his mind about politics while studying under the same political science professors as Tipton.
Tipton never served in the FLC student government. Instead, it was a sophomore-year trip to Washington, D.C., that intensified his interest in politics.
He listened to Carter’s State of the Union address, and then-Sen. Gary Hart took the class to visit the Senate cloakroom, on the other side of the Capitol dome from where Tipton now serves in the House.
During college in 1976, Tipton got elected as a delegate for Reagan to the Republican National Convention. He was the youngest delegate in the country, and he would return to GOP conventions in 1980, 1988 and 1996.
But Tipton’s real focus was on business. It’s a contrast he frequently draws between himself and Pace.
“I wanted to get out and start a business, and I didn’t care what it was,” he said.
He and a friend started Mesa Verde Pottery. His friend died a year later, and Tipton’s brother, Joe, became his business partner.
Tipton was thinking about going to law school when the pottery business took off.
A few years later, two young women walked into his shop. One of them – the future Jean Tipton – was a substitute teacher from St. Louis, looking for full-time work in Colorado.
He sold a pot to her, and in 1982, he married her.
“It’s the most expensive pot I’ve ever sold,” he said.
Fort Lewis College in D.C.
For FLC, having a congressman is more than just a point of pride. The college is looking for serious help from the federal government in paying for out-of-state students who use the Native American Tuition Waiver – one of only two programs nationally that gives free tuition to Native Americans.
The state government picks up the tab now, but legislators are chafing under the $13 million annual cost.
Three years ago, Pace and Tipton cooperated to beat back an effort by other legislators to reduce state payments to Fort Lewis for the tuition waiver.
Salazar sponsored a bill on the topic, and Tipton picked it up in 2011.
But the bill is stuck because of the paralysis in Congress, so it’s likely that the next congressman – either Tipton or Pace – will have work to do for his alma mater next year.