TRAIL MIX | The state fair, politicians — and a side of beef

Author: Ernest Luning - August 31, 2018 - Updated: September 13, 2018

State Sen. Leroy Garcia, D-Pueblo, shows a steer at the Governor's Beef Show on Friday, Aug. 24, 2018, at the Colorado State Fair in Pueblo. (Shawn Martini/Special to Colorado Politics)State Sen. Leroy Garcia, D-Pueblo, shows a steer at the Governor’s Beef Show on Friday, Aug. 24, 2018, at the Colorado State Fair in Pueblo. (Shawn Martini/Special to Colorado Politics)

On a Friday night in late August, Pueblo is the center of Colorado’s political universe — and for about an hour, it all comes down to what happens inside the sawdust ring at the Livestock Pavilion Arena on the grounds of the Colorado State Fair.

Lawmakers and politicians descend from around the state on the fair for opening day — this year, it was Aug. 24 — to mingle and dine sumptuously at the annual legislative barbecue, a shindig thrown by the Pueblo Chamber of Commerce and other sponsors.

In even years, it’s the customary pause before the mad dash from Labor Day to Election Day, before the upcoming two months of flying elbows makes it easy to forget that political opponents are also neighbors and often friends.

It’s also a chance for Pueblo to showcase the fair, which this year celebrates its 146th year.

Several hundred civic leaders, officials, lobbyists and media types made the barbecue this year, including U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner and both major party gubernatorial nominees, Jared Polis and Walker Stapleton.

Conversation was more likely to concern your cousin from Monte Vista and this year’s peach crop than it was the day’s political news, though there was plenty of chatter too about the looming election.

“It’s not just about Pueblo, it’s about southern Colorado, it’s about the history of agriculture in Colorado — it’s an opportunity for people from throughout Colorado to come together to celebrate ag,” said state Rep. Daneya Esgar, a Pueblo Democrat serving her second term, who swelled with hometown pride as she made her way through the fairgrounds along with Trail Mix after the barbecue had concluded.

Stopping for a moment to get her bearings, Esgar pointed yonder, toward the Livestock Pavilion.

“I’ve got to go show a cow,” she said.

So did Trial Mix.

While some community leaders departed the barbecue for the Oak Ridge Boys concert, a handful took the route Esgar was navigating.

In its ninth year, the Governor’s Beef Show, sponsored by the Colorado Farm Bureau, kicks off the livestock competition by bringing together young market exhibitors with what organizers term dignitaries, though Trail Mix also got a shot at it.

The idea is, the youngsters bringing their cows to the fair get to pair up with celebrities, who then show the animals after a few minutes of instruction.

“Last year, I learned. This year, I’m hoping to win,” Esgar said, recalling that she competed the year before.

She had some advice: “You have to scratch it right with the scratcher. It’s like a big back-scratcher. It makes it calm.”

As she continued walking toward the show ring, Esgar reflected on the state fair and its place in the state.

“The state fair has been a quintessential part of Pueblo. When you look at the 4-H kids, the FFA kids who come here and show their animals, it really is a gem for southern Colorado. I appreciate the legislative barbecue, because it brings legislators from across Colorado here to see how important this type of life is for people in southern Colorado,” she said.

It’s become customary, she added, for lawmakers around the state to talk about moving the fair — which pumps $34 million into the economy, according to a 2011 study — to the Denver area. Edgar scoffs at the notion.

“There’s always going to be people who want to move the state fair out of Pueblo, for whatever their reasons are. But we have made such a good point of showing people that the state fair truly highlights southern Colorado in a way that doesn’t get recognized in other spaces. If this were to move to Denver, when they already have the National Western Stock Show, that’s leaving a whole entire quadrant out of competitions, out of the kind of event that’s going to showcase this heritage,” she said.

Esgar admitted she wants it to stay in Pueblo for selfish reasons but said it’s more than that.

“When I stop and meet people here who come from Lamar, who come from Trinidad, who come from the San Luis Valley, they don’t have the means or have the time to go to Denver all the time. There’s this concept that there’s two different Colorados — there’s Denver, and there’s the rest of us. Moving this kind of event that truly highlights rural Colorado, to Denver? It’s concerning.”

When she returns to the Capitol in January, she said — she’ll have to win re-election in the heavily Democratic House District 46 seat — Esgar said she intends to reconvene a group of lawmakers, including representatives from the Joint Budget Committee and the audit and capital development committees, who met briefly last session to ponder the future of the state fair and the massive fairgrounds.

“There’s more than $30 million worth of capital that needs to be taken care of — controlled maintenance,” she said. “The state’s kind of forgotten about it, the state’s kind of tossed it aside because it’s just the state fair in Pueblo. There’s historical buildings here. We should take care of it. This is state property, we should take care of it.”

Her proposal would have to wait, however. The Governor’s Beef Show was upon us.

VIPs showing cows included Stapleton, U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, Senate Minority Leader Leroy Garcia of Pueblo, state Sen. Larry Crowder of Alamosa, state Rep. Daneya Esgar of Pueblo and former state Rep. Clarice Navarro, the executive director of the state Farm Services Agency.

Others were Don Brown, the Colorado commissioner of agriculture; Zac Lowe of the State Fair Foundation; Anneleise Phippen of the National Western Stock Show; and Rosemarie DelMonte of the state fair’s board of commissioners.

After all the standing and figure eights, the processionals around the arena, the catcalls from the bleachers and lots of scratching — Esgar was right about that show stick — the judges proclaimed the champion: Jesse Clay of the Rocky Mountain chapter of the UDT/Navy SEAL Foundation, who showed with Brandon Hill of Morgan County.

And in a surprise, the Reserve Champion ribbon went to Trail Mix, who was assisted heroically by Trista Lebsack of Adams County. Her steer, Milo, turned out to be the largest and, it’s safe to say, the least compliant of them all, a factor the judges said they took into consideration.

Ernest Luning

Ernest Luning

Ernest Luning is a political correspondent for Colorado Politics. He has covered politics and government for newspapers and online news sites in Colorado for more than 25 years, including at the Highlands Ranch Herald, the Jefferson Sentinels chain of community newspapers and the Aurora Sentinel, where he was the city hall and cops reporter. After editing the Aurora Daily Sun, he was a political reporter and blogger for The Colorado Independent site. For nearly a decade, he was a senior political reporter and occasional editor at The Colorado Statesman before the 119-year-old publication merged with Colorado Politics in 2017.