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Q&A with Sean Conway | ‘You truly can come home and make a difference’

Author: Dan Njegomir - September 10, 2018 - Updated: September 27, 2018

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Veteran GOP political insider and, more recently, Weld County Commissioner Sean Conway, right, on the campaign trail with Republican 4th Congressional District U.S. Rep. Ken Buck. (Photo courtesy Sean Conway)

He was a point man, adviser and confidant to Colorado’s U.S. senators in Washington, a consummate Beltway insider for the GOP. That’s certainly how us folks in the news biz viewed Sean Conway many years ago, especially when he was right-hand man to then-U.S. Sen. Wayne Allard.

Yet, it wasn’t until Conway came home to Weld County and won a seat on the county commission — eventually to be entangled in a cage fight that has gone on for a couple of years now — that he really learned why “all politics is local.” It was as if he were baptized into politics all over again. From the frying pan into the fire — or make that, into the blast furnace.

In today’s Q&A, Conway talks about local politics that can get downright personal. He also tells us how his native Colorado has changed; how Republicans can win — and how there could be a renewed appetite for an old political cause of his: turning rural, northeastern Colorado into the 51st state.

Colorado Politics: You defied the old truism that says you can’t go home again, returning to Weld County after decades in state and national politics. Yet it’s not as if you left politics behind back in Washington. Your tenure on the Weld County Commission — you’re now in your third term as a commissioner — has been anything but a retirement. Especially the last couple of years, the commission has been riven by tension and turmoil. What made you come back to your old stomping grounds — and run for public office? Any regrets?

Sean Conway: No regrets at all. The last 10 years have been very rewarding serving as a Weld County commissioner. Despite the last two years, many things have been accomplished: the completion of Weld County Road 49 in 2018, the largest construction project in the 157-year history of the county; a 33-mile, four-lane highway completed on time and under budget with no debt or tolls to our taxpayers. A new County Administration Building in 2011; a new dispatch center in 2013; and currently the construction of a new wing of the county jail, all done with no new taxes or debt to the residents of Weld County.

In addition, I successfully led the effort to lower the mill levy twice for property taxpayers (once in 2014 and the other in 2018) to one of the lowest in the state. Five years of effort as the chairman of the North Front Range Metropolitan Organization and 2013 co-founder of the North I-25 Coalition has led to the North I-25 Express Project, adding one lane in each direction from Johnstown to Fort Collins, which will be complete in 2020. So you truly can come home and make a difference.

CP: Another truism is that all politics is local; perhaps the reputed author of that observation, Tip O’Neill, should have added that local politics is often brutal. You and some fellow commissioners have been at odds over a host of issues. They’ve been blocking you from leadership posts; you at one point threatened to sue. The saga has been covered at length by the media. Has your experience on the commission exposed you to dynamics you didn’t encounter even as a powerful chief of staff in the U.S. Senate? Does that kind of direct and sometimes confrontational politics just go with the territory, or is there something unusual about Weld County?

Conway: Nothing during my two decades in D.C. could have prepared me for the personal attacks some of my fellow commissioners have directed at me. The last two years has reinforced that all politics is local. The contention that has existed has been over me not betraying my principles. Both of my former bosses, former U.S. Sens. Bill Armstrong and Wayne Allard, instilled in me the value of always staying true to your values and principles and speaking up when you see something not right.

The division on the Weld County Board of Commissioners centers around issues of unethical behavior and using their position to benefit themselves. It is why I believe Weld County voters have re-elected me twice with the highest vote totals for any candidate running for office in Weld County history. Yes, I believe there is something in the water: Weld County voters expect their elected officials to act in an ethical manner, and when those elected officials don’t, citizens want someone to say something.

CP: A few years back, you and some fellow commissioners were united on another issue: an initiative you championed to join with some other northeastern Colorado counties and secede from the rest of the state. It was a response to what you contended is the liberal drift of the state government and its Democratic chief exec. Though it hasn’t happened yet, are conditions still ripe for secession, in your view? Is there a growing rift between rural, agricultural Colorado and the Front Range’s metropolitan areas? Where is it all headed?

Conway: The 51st State imitative was born out of people feeling they had been disenfranchised by the Democratic/urban-dominated General Assembly. They felt the governor and those in charge of the state legislature were not listening, or worse, did not care about the challenges of those living in the rest of Colorado, the forgotten part of our state. The rural-urban divide exists even more today then it did five years ago. I believe the seeds of secession are still there, and if a blue wave this election returns us to the days of 2013, where a new liberal Democratic governor and General Assembly try to enact new extremist policies on rural Colorado, the movement could be revived.

CP: You’re a third-generation Coloradan who grew up on a ranch in the mountains, and you’ve lived over a quarter-century in Weld County. Share some details about your upbringing and how you think it influenced your politics and your outlook in general. How does your background make you feel about our state’s many newcomers who are changing Colorado’s lifestyle and arguably its politics?

Conway: I grew up in an Irish Democratic family that idolized John F. Kennedy. I was taught by my parents to work hard, practice faith and remain humble. Being exposed to an agrarian way of life gave me a healthy respect for how hard our farmers and ranchers work to put food on our table. My upbringing instilled the values of hard work, compassion for those who do not enjoy the blessings we enjoy, and being true to oneself. The Colorado I grew up in is not the Colorado of today. It is more populated, urbanized and liberal, especially in the six metro area counties which represent a majority of the state population. It is sad to see people move to Colorado and then, once here, try to change it. But that makes me more determined than ever to help fight for those of us who live in what has been labeled the “forgotten Colorado.”

Nothing during my two decades in D.C. could have prepared me for the personal attacks some of my fellow commissioners have directed at me. The last two years has reinforced that all politics is local.

CP: You long served as right-hand man to Republican Colorado U.S. Sen. Wayne Allard — an “un-politician” if ever there was one in our state. A veterinarian by trade and training, a man of fairly few words by nature, Allard came across as almost being above politics in the conventional sense. What takeaways from your time with him do you try to implement in your own political career? What can up-and-coming Republican politicians in our state learn from him?

Conway: Former Sen. Wayne Allard had the ability to connect with people from different walks of life and philosophies. He always used to say, “It is amazing what you can get accomplished, when you do not care who gets the credit.” That approach got many things done: the creation of the Rocky Mountain Arsenal Wildlife Refuge with then-U.S. Rep. Pat Schroeder; the Great National Sand Dunes National Park with then-U.S. Sen. Ken Salazar, and The National Autism Act with then-U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton. The lesson future GOP candidates can learn is do not be afraid to reach out to those on the other side of the aisle to get things done.

CP: What do you feel the GOP needs to succeed in our perennially purple state?

Conway: The most important thing for Republicans to do to appeal to the current voters is focus on issues that impact their lives: transportation, public safety, education and growth. Speak to what matters in their daily lives and impacts their quality of life. A purple voter really does not care about whether you are a Republican or Democrat. They simply want well-thought-out ideas on how to make their community a better place to work, live and play.

CP: At some point, presumably, you really will retire from politics. What will be next?

Conway: After 40 years in politics, I will be retiring from elected life in 2020, the last year of my third and final year on the Weld County Board of Commissioners. As someone who believes in the Jeffersonian ideal of public service, I look forward to becoming “Citizen Conway,” the highest title any person can hold.

Dan Njegomir

Dan Njegomir

Dan Njegomir is the opinion editor for Colorado Politics. A longtime journalist and more-than-25-year veteran of the Colorado political scene, Njegomir has been an award-winning newspaper reporter, an editorial page editor, a senior legislative staffer at the State Capitol and a political consultant.