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Lifelong ascent: Witwer ends time as legislator, but his drive to scale challenges remains

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By AJ Vicens

When Rob Witwer looks at a mountain, he doesn't see an obstacle — he sees an opportunity.

"No matter how big of a challenge you have, it starts with a single step," said Witwer, an avid climber and hiker. "If you look at a mountain, it seems so large and so insurmountable — you can't conceive of how you're going to get to the top. It's the same thing with a public policy challenge."

The Evergreen native should know. The two-term Republican state representative for House District 25 ended his political career — for now — on May 6. But Witwer climbed a lot of mountains in his time representing Jefferson County.

One challenge he scaled was an issue close to his heart: education reform. A bill sponsored by Witwer this year, which was signed by Democratic Gov. Bill Ritter on May 14, raised standards for education in Colorado.

Witwer said the genesis for that bill came when he and Sen. Josh Penry, R-Grand Junction, sponsored legislation in 2007 that mandated four years of math and three years of science for every Colorado high school student. That bill was eventually killed, but it started a conversation about education reform, Witwer said. The duo then introduced a "bolder and bigger" education reform bill in 2008, and "we thought we had a shot," Witwer said. That bill led to a call from the governor's office — the governor liked the idea but wanted to tie reform to proficiency standards, not time in the classroom on certain subjects.

"That phone call was the beginning of a bipartisan education bill," Witwer said. "It was the first step in getting to education reform, and getting to a comprehensive education reform bill that would have been inconceivable a year ago. The similarity is, ‘Never give up; never give up; never give up.’

"If you have a goal, and it's a worthwhile goal, never give up till you achieve it."

That resolve, along with a knack for bridging ideological gulfs, typified Witwer’s approach to lawmaking in the two terms he served after taking over his father’s seat in the Colorado General Assembly in January 2006.

But the 38-year-old Witwer — a lawyer who juggled a regular job, his legislative duties, a family and hobbies like climbing — allowed that the rock-climbing analogy does fall short when it comes to making laws.

"Climbing is more of a personal goal," Witwer said. "But public policy is a societal goal, and if you give up, you let down your constituents; you let down your state."

Witwer has some other hills he would like to climb in the immediate future, most notably spending more time with his four boys, who all are under 8 years old. He said campaigning is very time consuming and often monopolizes mornings, evenings and weekends, "which is critical parenting time."

Witwer is a lawyer for the Molson-Coors Brewing Co., another time-consuming job.

"Two jobs and four kids is a bit like a guy standing with one foot on a boat, one on the dock, and you feel the boat drifting," Witwer said. "You have to pick one while your kids are young. At least until the kids are out of diapers, they need me at home more."

'He accomplished remarkable things'

Penry is impressed with Witwer's success rate as a legislator.

"Rob was down there a relatively short amount of time, but he accomplished some remarkable things," Penry said.

In fact, according to the Colorado Legislative Council, Witwer was the prime sponsor of 42 bills, memorials and resolutions between Jan. 1, 2006, and May 6, 2008. Of those, 35 were bills and seven were resolutions or memorials.

Only six — all bills — were defeated, giving him an 87-percent success rate.

"I've always believed that good policy is good politics," Witwer said. "If you start with a good policy idea, you can usually get it passed."

Witwer says that most of his legislation can fit into three main categories: streamlining the state's business laws, free-market pro-environment legislation, and education reform. In the last year he's also emphasized legislation geared toward volunteer firefighters, "specifically those in the wildland-urban interface," Witwer said.

"Sen. (Mike) Kopp and I were able to pass legislation to get the only legislative committee that will meet this summer," Witwer said. "It's a committee of legislators to gather data and propose legislation to deal with the wildfire threat in the wildland-urban interface. All those bills and this committee came from a town meeting we had at the Elk Creek fire station last summer."

Witwer is proud that the General Assembly is devoting so much to studying an issue raised by the mountain community.

"It starts with a community idea, and it ends with the state being responsive to community input that was bipartisan," Witwer said.

Witwer added that putting partisan bickering aside is key to success.

"Before we were Republicans or Democrats, we were Americans," Witwer said. "Every district has people of all political persuasions. We have a responsibility to get good public policy, and sometimes that gets lost in the partisan fighting.

"If you go to the Capitol looking for disagreements, you'll find them," Witwer said. "But if you look for common ground, then the sky is the limit for what you can accomplish. That's my advice to any incoming legislator."

Praised by colleagues

Witwer was a popular figure under the gold dome on Lincoln Street. Making public policy can involve controversy, but Witwer seemed to generate a lot of friends.

"I only got to work with him for two years," said Rep. Joe Rice, D-Littleton. "And that's the biggest problem I had with him."

"He's a wonderful person to work with," Rice continued. "There's a lot of contentious issues in the legislature, and some of our friends on both sides tend to extremes on both sides. But Rob and I could usually meet in the middle.

"We clearly differ on some things, and unfortunately a lot of people create difficulties and controversy, and not every issue calls for that," Rice said. "That's what I appreciate about Rob."

Sen. Mike Kopp, R-Littleton, worked closely with Witwer on a batch of bills over the last two years, with an emphasis on helping volunteer firefighters. Kopp is going to miss his ally on what they both call a key issue for Jefferson County.

"It's far from exaggeration to suggest that Rob will leave a void in the legislature," Kopp said. "I can think of no one who has garnered as much respect from both sides of the aisle and from both chambers as Rob Witwer. He's a very good man who also possesses rare intelligence and nearly instant like-ability. I'm sorry to see him go."

Penry called Witwer's departure a big loss.

"It's a huge loss for the Republican Party and the legislative process," Penry said. "Rob was really skilled at knowing when to reach across the aisle and work with the other side, but he was also very astute at drawing boundaries and standing on principles."

Although Penry feels that Witwer could "achieve as much as he wants in politics," he knows that he's stepping aside for the right reasons.

"There are not too many people who walk away on the upswing of their political trajectory," Penry added. "But Rob is."

Penry said people often don't realize the sacrifice state legislators make when they step away from their careers and families for 120 days or more each year to make laws.

Penry said Witwer's impact on the legislature isn't all that surprising, considering that his father — John Witwer — was also adept at forging relationships and getting things done.

"I'm not sure what's in their DNA, but it's pretty good," Penry said.

Dick Wadhams, chair of the Colorado GOP, offered his own tribute to Witwer.

"Rob is a huge loss to the Republican Caucus probably because he's one of the most respected legislators, period, in the Colorado General Assembly," Wadhams said. "There's no mistaking Rob's solid conservative reputation, yet he's regarded as someone who proposes very proactive and positive legislation, which I think has given our Republican agenda a great deal of credibility in the last two years especially."

It's one thing for politicians to weigh in on politicians, but it's another altogether for reporters to offer opinions. Reporters have the sometimes-unenviable job of translating political machinations for citizens who can’t pay close attention to the state’s government. This occasionally lead to friction between politicians and reporters, but Witwer's reputation has survived it well.

"I covered his dad, and you look in the dictionary under ‘decent,’ and John Witwer's picture is there," said Lynn Bartels, a longtime Rocky Mountain News reporter. "Rob's lucky to have those genes."

Bartels said she's had her moments of disagreement with Rob Witwer, but said he's a "gentleman in the process." Bartels listed Witwer as one of the "winners" of the 2008 legislative session in a May 6 story recapping the session.

"The Genesee Republican, hailed on both sides for brains and political savvy, leaves office this year to spend more time with his wife and four young sons," Bartels wrote.

Adam Schrager, a 9News reporter who has covered state politics and gotten to know many politicians, also praised Witwer.

"He's the only legislator that I know, certainly the only Republican, that has been universally commended by members of both parties," Schrager said. "The governor singles him out on a regular basis for being consistent and diligent on what he believes, but doing so in a manner that's constructive and moving the state forward."

The 9News reporter also had a message for the residents of House District 25: "It's going to be a challenge for your district to have someone who's as effective as he is," Schrager said. "I think it's a big challenge."

The future of HD 25

Witwer was more concerned with the direction of the district than speaking about himself.

"The immediate issue for our community will continue to be that the legislature needs to be more aware of the threat of catastrophic wildfires and their impact to the wildland-urban interface areas, and the impact to the community," Witwer said.

He said his successor needs to raise the issue and keep it in the conversation.

"Another issue is growth and transportation, and striking a balance between growth and maintaining the natural character of the mountain community," Witwer said. "And making sure we don't lose what it is that we love about this place. That's always going to be a challenge."

More broadly, Witwer said that Colorado needs to emphasize education.

"The only way the American dream will be passed on to the next generation is if we give our kids the tools they need to compete in the global community," Witwer said. "Education is the foundation of a high quality of life."

'The citizen legislature'

Witwer will look back on the last few years with fond memories of serving the community he calls home.

"I'm very honored to have served the community I grew up in," Witwer said. "There's nowhere else in the world I would rather have lived. It's where I feel the most at home. I'm pleased that a number of the policy goals I worked on came to fruition, and most of all proud to have participated in a small way in the system of government that our founding fathers gave us."

Witwer said he will miss the legislature, but he's content.

"I will definitely miss the people and the intellectual challenge of the legislature, but I'm satisfied that I was able to accomplish a lot of goals in the time I was there," Witwer said.

Leaving the legislature after a term or two is the way the system was intended, Witwer said.

"I believe in the citizen legislature," Witwer said.

Sometimes he would go into the basement of the Capitol and look at the photos of each General Assembly, going back decades.

"It was very unusual you would remember the names," Witwer said. "That humbled me and reminded me that this process is bigger than any of the individual people involved. That's the way our founders envisioned our government: a legislature made up of citizens who bring unique experiences to the Capitol and go back to the private sector, so you don't have a class of professional legislators. I'm pleased to have served, and I'm pleased to step aside."

Witwer said that his father's time in the legislature — 1998 to 2005 — was his model.

"I didn't have any more ambitious of a goal than to try and emulate what my father did when he served during his tenure," Witwer said. "I figure if I could have been half the legislator that he was, I'd have done a very good job.

"I really look at his service and my service as parts of a whole," Witwer continued. "I think we tried to serve in the same ways: community oriented and consensus oriented."

So now, as he transitions back to private life — which he said will focus on "Cub Scouts, camping, soccer games, that kind of thing" — he takes it all in and hopes he did it right.

"I hope I've been able to be an effective voice for our community," Witwer said.

Contact AJ Vicens at aj@evergreenco.com, and check www.columbinecourier.com for updates and breaking news.