WHEN State Sen. Cleave Simpson reports for duty at the Colorado Capitol this week, he does so representing a newdistrict that was carved out as part of the 2021 Colorado redistricting process.
What isn’t changing is his legislative focus and the issues he plans to continue working on. He also has some serious thinking to do, specifically on what his political future may look like entering 2024.
Colorado redistricting shifted Simpson into Senate District 6 which consists of the San Luis Valley’s six counties and then lower southwest Archuleta, Dolores, La Plata, Montezuma and counties north to Montrose County. In 2020, when he was first elected, he represented state Senate District 35 which included the San Luis Valley and counties of southeastern Colorado.
“It’s really about people, and honestly it will still be about water,” Simpson told Alamosa Citizen ahead of the 2023 legislative session. “Folks on the Rio Grande and the Arkansas (River) worry about water. The folks on the Western Slope, given the condition of the Colorado River and how much water gets moved out of that transbasin to support front range interests, that similarity will continue and that sense of urgency may even escalate more going west.”
“There’s just such a compelling and growing concern on my part and others about where water is going to push this state, and I think legislators need to be better engaged and better informed.”
– State Sen. Cleave Simpson
AS a Republican in a Colorado Senate controlled by Democrats, Simpson finds himself in an oddly comfortable spot. In his two years as state senator, he’s managed to carve out a reputation as a leading bipartisan legislator who Republicans and Democrats alike can work with.
He has major pieces of bipartisan legislation to his name, including Colorado’s 988 Crisis Hotline in 2021 and the Groundwater Compact Compliance Fund which remarkably sailed through both the state senate and state house with no opposition in the 2022 session. He’s also focused his early legislative work on behavioral health legislation and sits on the legislature’s influential Capitol Development Committee and his favorite, Agriculture & Natural Resources Committee.
“I like to think I spent two years building some credibility where folks will listen to what’s important to me, which is hopefully what’s important to rural Colorado,” he said.
“It’s been very intentional,” he said of his bipartisan approach, “but it’s also who I am. I didn’t change who I was when I got elected to the legislature. It feels like I’ve built that reputation in two years and folks on the other side of the aisle are always willing to engage with me.”
Not always the case with the Colorado Republican Party. He still smarts about the time the party chair wouldn’t help when he was rallying state leaders to oppose the proposed transbasin diversion of water from the Rio Grande to Douglas County that former Colorado Gov. Bill Owens, a fellow Republican, is behind through Renewable Water Resources. Owens himself has called out Simpson. “When the attorney general and state Sen. Cleave Simpson claim they will do all they can to stop the voluntary selling of water rights, they are saying to Coloradans that they know better than you do what to do with your private property,” Owens penned in an op/ed published just a year ago.
Will he run again?
Simpson finds himself uncomfortable with the politics of the time and wonders if he will run again when his state senate term expires in two years. His job as general manager of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District and farming with his dad and son provide him with more than enough to do. When he travels north for legislative work he thinks about the work he’s leaving behind and wonders if being a gentleman legislator it’s what he truly wants to do.
Friends back home in the Valley are in his ear about running again in 2024, some even suggesting he challenge Rep. Lauren Boebert to represent the 3rd Congressional District. He’s heard the calls and understands the water issues he cares so much about will find their way to the nation’s capital.
Like others in the water community he’s frustrated by Boebert’s apparent lack of engagement on the critical issues of the Colorado and Rio Grande basins. There was frustration at the Rio Grande Water Conservation District that a federal House bill called the Rio Grande Water Security Act was introduced last session by New Mexico Rep. Melanie Stansbury without their knowledge and without Boebert, their congressperson’s, involvement.
The bill actually made it out of the House but was detoured through the U.S. Senate through political maneuvering to make sure it wouldn’t advance into law. Simpson and his team at the Rio Grande Water Conservation District, along with staff in U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet’s office, helped bring attention to the flaws they saw in the bill.
If Simpson is tempted to challenge Boebert it would be because of the water issues on the Colorado and Rio Grande basins.
He’s vowed to work the 2023 legislative session and then give more thought to his political future. He has a new state senate district to represent and spent the summer traveling to Telluride, Cortez, Durango and other communities west of the San Luis Valley which coincidentally aligns to the 3rd Congressional District.
“They are definitely different, but they are also similar in a lot of respects,” he said of representing communities west of the San Luis Valley versus his travels east the past two years.
“It’s still rural Colorado,” he said. “The southeast is dominated by irrigated agriculture. There is certainly an abundance of some of that going west but not to the same level. There will be more ranching and there’s a lot more public land going west.”
And there’s the Colorado River and its troubles, which Simpson is deeply attuned to given his work at the Rio Grande Water Conservation District and efforts to recover the Upper Rio Grande Basin.
It’s the water issues on the Colorado and Rio Grande that Simpson said are most critical and where he plans to continue to focus his legislative attention.
“There’s just such a compelling and growing concern on my part and others about where water is going to push this state, and I think legislators need to be better engaged and better informed,” he said.
Heading into this third legislative session he enters the Capitol more confident and with friends, as they say, on both sides of the aisle.
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