J. Paul Brown walks across his Ignacio ranch into a small bunch of sheep on a recent Thursday, his wife, Debbie, has her hand in his. As the sun beats down over the proud mountains in the background, the words that come out of the Republican state representative’s mouth are simple. But some say his evolution has been a bit more complex.
“I think we all evolve as we’re there. He’s a little different representative than he was before,” said Rep. Don Coram, R-Montrose, who served with Brown at the Legislature both during Brown’s first term, and then again this year. “J. Paul is an extremely emotional person, and that’s his biggest strength but also his biggest weakness.”
Brown’s first two-year term, after being elected in 2010, was not without controversy. Democrats pounced on him for being too conservative, unwilling to compromise and more inclined to vote “no” than work to find a “yes,” especially on noncontroversial bills. Some around the Capitol referred to him as “64 and Brown,” referring to his sole “no” vote on a measure in 2011 that expanded services available to homeless youth. Sixty-four of his colleagues voted yes.
He was swept into office in the tea party wave of that year. But that run was quickly cut short in 2012, when Democrats took back control of the House, in which Durango Democrat Mike McLachlan unseated Brown. Democrats, however, were eager in 2013, perhaps too ambitious for the voters of House District 59. They pushed a package of gun-control measures that frustrated many in the rural district, positioning Brown for a rematch against McLachlan. When the votes were in last year, Brown edged his way back into the seat and began another two-year term in January.
McLachlan was frustrated, perhaps even a bit bitter after the election. He had fought for compromises on the gun-control measures, and he believed in his heart that he was legislating for the safety of his district.
Surprisingly, though, McLachlan came around this year while following Brown’s progress in the Legislature. He stopped short of declaring himself a Brown supporter – questioning Brown’s effectiveness this year – but said he was pleased with certain votes, including Brown’s support for funding for a program that provides intrauterine birth-control devices to low-income women. Brown, a staunch pro-life legislator, had supported personhood in the past. But in the IUD debate, he sided with supporters, suggesting that it could actually prevent abortions.
“That was a shock to me,” McLachlan said of Brown’s IUD vote. “It shows that he has learned something from his first experience in the House.”
Brown even resisted a procedural move by a fellow House Republican this year that tried to force a vote to overturn the state’s ban on high-capacity ammunition magazines. Brown was one of only five Republicans to join Democrats in blocking the rare effort. His vote drew ire from the powerful gun lobby Rocky Mountain Gun Owners, but Brown just shrugged it off.
Still, McLachlan questions Brown’s record this year. Brown served in a split Legislature, in which it was harder to pass legislation because Democrats controlled the House and Republicans controlled the Senate.
Of the five House bills Brown initiated on his own and served as prime sponsor for, every one of those measures died. The bills included efforts to allow off-highway vehicles on county roads, expand hydroelectric use, pump money into state highways and increase water storage. He co-sponsored two other failed House bills. Of the five bills he co-sponsored that were initiated in the Senate, including wildfire prevention and safety, four of them were signed into law, while another died.
“This is where he is satisfying his base but not really getting anything done,” McLachlan said.
Brown acknowledges that he has grown a bit over the years. But he believes he is still the same man he was when he first entered the Statehouse after the 2010 election.
“Maybe I’m a little more realistic about what can be accomplished,” Brown said, sitting next to his wife in the plain kitchen of his Ignacio ranch. “I’ve worked harder at getting to know the other legislators, especially on the other side of the aisle. ... Maybe I have learned to temper what I say a little better, but I really don’t think I changed my philosophy.”
A sheepherder’s life
The journey into politics for Brown, 62, never seemed deliberate. In addition to his time in the Legislature, he also served as a La Plata County commissioner and an Ignacio School District board director.
But it is his work as a rancher – primarily focused on sheep – that truly defines Brown. Raised on a farm straddling the Colorado-New Mexico state line on the La Plata River, herding is in Brown’s blood. He recently passed this passion on to one of his four sons, who appears ready to continue the tradition.
After college at New Mexico State University, where Brown graduated in 1975 with honors in animal science, he worked for his father’s sheep operation. Somewhere along the way, he dabbled in bull-riding. Brown bought property in Ignacio and married his sweetheart in 1976.
It’s clear that J. Paul and Debbie are still much in love after nearly 40 years of marriage. They met when Brown needed a truck driver to haul hay. Debbie’s father lived nearby, and so he asked him if he could borrow one of his sons to drive the truck. With the boys being unavailable, Brown was presented with Debbie.
“Here she came out, barefooted, and I thought, ‘Wow,’” Brown said. He worked up the strength to ask her to a dance.
For Debbie, the life is exactly what she wants.
“I love it. ... That’s why I married him,” she said, while walking by her husband’s side, past Brown’s red Dodge Ram 3500 pickup parked in the driveway.
Today, the couple owns 2,200 ewes, along with many more of their lambs, and they have expanded operations to 940 acres in addition to federally licensed parcels. In the summer, the sheep are in the mountains; in the winter, they are herded to lower elevations in New Mexico. It’s far from a glamorous process. Brown and his hands walk the herd about 15 miles per day, oftentimes in the cold, to where they need to go – the same as it has been done for generations in the West. They follow the same routine to get the herd into the mountains and, of course, back to the ranch for operations.
On May 5 – like clockwork, after the rams go to work Dec. 10 – Brown does the lambing, when the ewes give birth to around 5,000 lambs. Just before that, he shears his herd. Between selling the lambs and the wool – along with some other aspects of the operation, such as cattle and replacement ewes – Brown is able to make a living, but he acknowledges it’s constant work.
In fact, it almost killed him when he was in his late 20s, when a horse fell on him, knocking his hip out of place. He laid alone for 18 hours in the mountains before a fellow herder found him and rescuers were able to get a helicopter to him. Today, Brown has a titanium hip. His struggles and successes with the agricultural life are part of his motivation to legislate in Denver.
“It’s so important that we educate our city brothers on where food comes from and the reality of agriculture life,” Brown said. “No matter what, until I’m 6-foot-under, I’m going to be trying to make our country and our state a better place.”