The iPhone buzzes as we’re cruising down the road and the number flashes Grand Junction. Anna Stout, the mayor of Grand Junction and Democrat running for the 3rd Congressional District seat, had left a voicemail once before. Maybe this is her?
She introduces herself, lets us know she’ll be in the San Luis Valley over the weekend to talk about her campaign and asks to visit. We agreed to meet at the Sanctuary in Alamosa on Saturday ahead of her campaign stop at the Purple Pig Pizzeria and before the Adams State’s women’s basketball game.
Here’s an abridged version of the conversation that followed based on areas The Citizen has taken an interest in – education, water, agriculture, environment, the working class, and because we are an extension of the southern border as the Rio Grande flows, immigration.
If you have questions you would like us to pose to candidates running in the 3rd Congressional District in 2024, Democrat or Republican, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll add it into the mix as we hear and engage with candidates.
Alamosa Citizen: First things first, how do you impress upon primary voters that you should be the Democratic nominee for the 3rd Congressional District, rather than Adam Frisch or any other Democrat?
Anna Stout: Our campaign is really focused on the relational aspect of what some people would call retail politics, but also the idea that voters are individuals. I’m a voter, you’re voters. We know that when we want to cast a vote, we want to feel connected to the person that we’re voting for. Politics has definitely gotten to the point – and it’s always been this way to an extent, but more and more so recently – we feel like we’re voting against the thing that we don’t want, or voting for the best of bad choices or of things that we don’t want. And hearing from neighbors of mine, from members of my community, from members of the district, that it’s been a while since we’ve really felt connected to our candidate, and felt that sort of limbic connection or that emotional connection that we’ve looked at a candidate and said, ‘I can see myself in that candidate, and I know that candidate can see my struggles or my life and appreciate where I’m coming from, and therefore will be somebody who advocates for me from a place of understanding.’ And so this is a race that we see is a very complicated district, because it’s an amalgamation of different ideologies, and lifestyles, and geographies, and politics. And so you’re not politicking to a monolith. You’re really trying to understand people. It’s a district made up of a bunch of very different people, but a lot of it boils down to the same values, or the same priorities, or the same concerns. And that’s what our race is about is connection, and connecting one-on-one with people in small groups in medium-sized groups and having this personal connection with people.
AC: What are the issues of Grand Junction, where you’re the mayor, that resonate across the 3rd Congressional District?
Anna Stout: Grand Junction’s a really interesting community. We are, I think, known for being pretty conservative, pretty right-leaning. And yet we have a mayor who’s been the mayor for two terms. I’ve been elected twice on city council as an unopposed candidate. And that’s significant because I’m left-learning, I’m a Democratic candidate. And the city council, to be clear, is a nonpartisan race. So you’re not running on a party ticket. But to be elected twice without opposition in a right-leaning district really shows that I understand my community. And this isn’t about a party agenda. It’s not about party lines. And what’s going on in Grand Junction, so much of the issues in Grand Junction are the issues that we share across the district and across the state, concerns about water, and impact on population, on agriculture, and just on our security long term. That’s something that’s top of mind in Grand Junction, and it’s throughout the district. Water issues are one of the most important issues that we’re discussing. Housing is a really big challenge in Grand Junction and in Western Colorado, but also throughout the district … So certainly, water and housing are two issues that are shared district-wide. This is not a district thing. This is not a Grand Junction thing. This is a national question right now, and that’s women’s freedoms and reproductive rights. It’s not specific to Grand Junction or to any specific community in the area, but it’s something that’s top of mind for many of us, because we’re taking steps backward significantly. And the reproductive rights that my mother had were somehow better than the reproductive rights that my niece has at this point, from a national standpoint. And that’s something that resonates across the district, across the state, and across the country. Also, another issue … immigration impacts our communities in a major way, and that’s true for many communities in the district, often for different reasons. But when we look at how much of this district is agricultural or relies on the hospitality industry, we have massive impacts on different communities throughout the district when we have immigration backlogs and we have a broken system. When we have farmers and ranchers who are having a hard time bringing H-2A visa workers up, when we have hospitality industry employers who can’t get around the H-2B visa cap. So immigration is another issue that impacts all of us, and in some cases it’s very personal, because it impacts people whose family members are tied up in the immigration system or have been impacted by it.
AC: On policy specifically, the U.S.-Mexico border is nine hours from here. The Rio Grande corridor has always been a historical natural migration pattern into Colorado, into the San Luis Valley. From a federal policy perspective, what policies would you advocate for when it comes to immigration, when it comes to visas, when it comes to border security? Very specific topics that we wrestle with.
Anna Stout: Yeah, starting from an acknowledgement of how complex the immigration system and the immigration problem is, I think looking at it from a three-pronged approach. Border security and immigration reform, comprehensive, compassionate immigration reform, those are not conflicting issues. It’s a false dichotomy to say that you either have a secure border or you have good immigration policy. Those go hand-in-hand. So on the one hand, from a border security standpoint, making sure that we are preventing drugs and the kinds of criminal activity that we don’t want in this country coming up across a porous border. Certainly we need to make sure that we provide the resources that our border patrol agents, that our checkpoints need, so that we can keep a secure border. At the same time though, there are two other things that we really need to focus on if we’re going to make an impact on our broken immigration system. One is certainly reforming the system. In part, that’s funding an immigration system that has the capacity to meet the needs of the number of people who are coming into this country or who want to come into this country. So that’s increasing the number of immigration courts we have, and then all of the systems that are support systems for that or that feed into that … And kind of a subset of that is making the H-2A visa process easier for our farmers and ranchers, our agricultural industry to access and to utilize, but then also removing the cap on H-2B visas so that we don’t have an artificial cap on the labor that we need to be bringing into this country to be able to meet the needs of our industries, like our hospitality industries. But then the third leg of all of this, and this is work that I’ve been doing through my nonprofit that works in El Salvador for the last 19 years, is investing in international development. And we can’t forget that if we’re concerned about how many people are coming into this country, desperate immigration is something that we can help. Less than 1 percent of our national budget goes to our diplomatic efforts, our State Department, and then a fraction of that budget is focused on international aid. And that international aid is a critical, diplomatic way that we do immigration policy. And that’s by making the countries, the source countries where people are feeling driven from their homes to try to seek a different life, a safer life, more opportunities. … All of those things are driving people from their homes, and the complaints that people have about why people are coming up into our country, people don’t come up here when they don’t have to. And whether that’s for economic opportunities or for refuge and safety, we have to recognize that the conditions in these countries that are our neighbors, they absolutely impact what our immigration system looks like here.
AC: Do you think your background work in El Salvador, your Spanish language skills, does that give you an advantage in this particular area as you look at the field of candidates?
Anna Stout: Absolutely. Being somebody who’s been working in El Salvador for 19 years now, as a certified Spanish interpreter and certified Spanish translator, working in court in medical situations, in conventions and business scenarios, really everywhere you might need Spanish and interpreting and translation. And doing the work in El Salvador, actually in a community in the country that has sent people up here out of desperation, people fleeing from gang violence. I’m the only one in this race who actually has experience in this field, real-life experience and a real genuine understanding of both the problem and the potential solutions, and bringing that experience from almost two decades of working with immigrants and with people in El Salvador. There’s simply no policy experience on this ballot that can compete with that level of deep experience in this field.
AC: An interesting characteristic of the 3rd Congressional District is the number of institutions of higher ed in it and the economies they create, from Colorado Mesa to Western Colorado and Adams State and CSU-Pueblo not to mention the community colleges. What are your thoughts about federal student aid programs, federal student loans and cost to attend a college in the 21st Century? Can these institutions all survive?
Anna Stout: One of the things that’s been really incredible for me about growing up in this district, about growing up and then going to college here, is that I’ve had the opportunity to be a part of Mesa’s transformation. So I went to Mesa, to what is now Colorado Mesa University when it was still Mesa State College. … And what we see in Grand Junction at CMU is that it is an institution that serves a predominance of first-generation students, and we’ve worked really hard in our community. The city of Grand Junction funds the university to provide scholarships to first-gen students to keep our youth, our talent in the community, and starting their lives, and their jobs, and their professional careers in our community and keeping that resource local. That doesn’t happen, especially for first-gen students, without assistance, because college has gotten exorbitantly costly. And one of the things that we just announced at CMU is that CMU has managed to guarantee that any student coming from a family that makes under $60,000 can come to CMU without having to pay. And that’s using things like Pell Grants, that’s cobbling together all of the resources that are available both through the institution and through the federal government, and through educational assistance. … It’s so important that not just the institution and not just the communities that feed into the institution, but that we as a state, we as a district, we as a country prioritize helping students get the education that they need to be able to thrive. And in so many cases, especially in today’s world, that’s not necessarily a four-year degree. That’s a technical degree. That’s whatever the training, the certificate programs that allow them to go straight into a career where they can feel fulfilled, where they can pay their bills and start a life, and plant themselves and thrive in our communities.
One thing that’s similar about most of the communities in this district is that we lose our youth. … So many of the communities in our district are told you have to go away to be somebody. And what that does, is it drains our young talent. It takes our young families, or young potential future families away. And all of the communities in this district have an interest, a vested interest, in finding ways to make sure that our young people, if they want to stay and be close to their hometowns, be close to their families, that they have the opportunity to do so through an education, a local education that’s quality, and that gives them all the tools they need to start their lives here.
AC: What do you think are on the minds of college kids today? Or if you were in college today, what would be in your mind?
Anna Stout: I think college students right now are feeling pretty fatalistic about the opportunity to ever purchase a home, about whether or not they’re going to be able to afford the kinds of things that their parents were able to afford. I know students right now who don’t have a whole lot of hope that they’re ever going to get out of the cycle of living with roommates and renting. And our housing situation right now is not one that if I were in college, would make me feel optimistic at all. And that first step of putting down roots is having a home, and starter homes in communities across Colorado right now, but especially in our district, are virtually non-existent. So certainly if you’re a college student right now and you’re getting a degree, you’re worried about whether or not you’ll ever get out of that rental cycle, whether you’ll ever get the job that allows you to plant roots and have the life that you’ve always been promised that you can have.
AC: Communities along the Colorado River and Rio Grande are all working on sustainability challenges for these critical river systems. In your view, what has to happen for there to be a balance in meeting the water needs of ranchers and farmers and the needs of municipalities like GJ, Pueblo, and even cities along the Front Range and what role should Congress play if any?
Anna Stout: I feel like that’s a very complex question that doesn’t have a real succinct answer. Water right now, everything about water is complex. … It’s difficult to be able to sort of pare it down to an easy response. That said though, when we talk about water, and when we’re thinking about what the solutions are to this water challenge that we have right now, which I’m not sure that water challenge even captures how challenging this really is. But I think it’s an insult to turn to a farmer or a rancher and say, ‘We’re going to need you to fallow,’ because we forget about the fact that being a farmer or a rancher, this is a lifestyle and there is so much pride in being able to feed people and provide for our communities. There are also downstream effects on employees in agriculture. So that’s not to say the fallowing shouldn’t be a solution. That should certainly be on the table. But where we can step in from a policy level, and frankly where policy goes there follows the budget, is helping make our agricultural systems more efficient. We lose so much of our water to evaporation. When we have inefficient and 100-year-old canal systems that are losing water as they’re delivering water to our farms. When we have storage basins, giant bowls that are evaporating water, because we’re taking water from a place like Colorado, and we’re storing it in a place like Arizona where the temperatures are evaporating that water at a rate that’s no longer usable water. … Looking at how we have more efficient systems should be the way that we’re engaging scientists right now, and that we’re engaging policymakers, and we’re engaging farmers and ranchers, and where we can help make our irrigation and delivery systems more efficient for farmers and ranchers so that we’re not losing water in ditches. … And ultimately, the answer to our water problem, our water crisis, is actually multiple answers, and approaching this from many different ways. From better forest management, ensuring forest and riparian management. So ensuring that our tree farms are not planting trees so close together, that snow is falling and stopping at the canopy level and not making it all the way to the ground, and therefore evaporating before it becomes part of our water systems here on the ground. Ensuring that our riparian areas, our river, our edge areas are not filled with invasive, thirsty plants like the tamarisk, and that we’re not losing water that could flow in our river because of poor riparian management or poor forest management. So all of these are part of an ultimate set of solutions that have to be on the table, and farmers and ranchers should be part of the conversation, because they’re some of the best stewards of the land.
AC: Another community that is being more vocal, being more assertive in wanting their share of Colorado River, Rio Grande Basin water are Native Americans. The Middle Pueblo Tribes in New Mexico would like a seat at the table when it comes to the Rio Grande Compact. What’s the federal government’s role, what’s Congress’ role in either mediating these discussions, getting involved in these discussions? Should the federal government even be involved?
Anna Stout: Well certainly, the tribes are not getting the water allocations that they’ve been allocated, and that frankly they deserve. And so to the extent that the federal government can ensure that they are at the table and that they have strength in their voices in advocating against very, very powerful and well-established water interests, I do think the federal government has a role in that.
AC: When you look at the 3rd Congressional and you look at the San Luis Valley in particular, the biggest payroll is government – federal government, state government, local governments, higher institutions among them. When you look at that equation, how do you create more private investment, more private industry, and what are those private industries that you see potentially in the 3rd Congressional versus Colorado as a whole?
Anna Stout: The landscape and the geography of the 3rd Congressional District is really interesting from an energy standpoint. We are poised to be leaders in clean energy, if we’re able to capitalize on that, if we’re able to seize the day really, in terms of the opportunities right now for developing clean energy solutions. At the same time, though, that private industry isn’t necessarily bringing in industry from outside of the district, recruiting it to come and set up shop here. It’s also creating an environment where small businesses can thrive. And that’s where things like business incubators are incredibly valuable and supporting small business startups, supporting just the small business environment in general. And small businesses grow to medium businesses, but small businesses employ so many of the people in our communities. And where we have strong economic bases that support and allow for people to become entrepreneurs, and to chase their dreams through entrepreneurship, and through small business ownership, that’s where we start to see very strong and resilient economies as well. So certainly from a government perspective or from a policy level perspective, we can try to create the conditions necessary to attract larger industries, larger companies that come and provide lots of jobs all at once to communities throughout the third. But also, creating an environment for entrepreneurialism and for small businesses is another way that we can ensure that people are able to not just have jobs, but have vocations and thrive.