A party animal, not a donkey in disguise
By David Grant Long
You’ve probably heard the buzz about Mark Larson, the state representative from the 59th District.
Although he’s a Republican and has been for decades, people hint that he isn’t . . . not really. “A very moderate Republican” is how he’s often described, or “a centrist,” or even a closet Democrat who stuck an R after his name in order to garner votes in a conservative area.
But Larson, who’s winding up his fourth and final two-year stint in the lower house under the state's termlimit law, maintains he is a traditional Republican, just not the sort that currently occupy the White House and Congress.
Larson recently announced his candidacy for the Sixth District Senate seat now occupied by Sen Jim Isgar (D-Hesperus), who is widely expected to run for another term in 2006 but hasn't formally announced.
“I may seem, in this more or less neocon environment, to be an anomaly,” Larson said recently, “but I haven’t changed in the 35 years that I’ve been around and voting.
“My philosophy goes back to my grandfather, who was a Texas oil man in Fort Worth,” Larson said. “He was the treasurer of the Texas Pacific Oil Co. and one of the first drillers in Ranger, Texas, when they discovered oil years ago. He was a Republican and one who was very proud of the environmental role that he played. I remember going out to projects with him and him telling me, ‘Look at how we are able to exploit the mineral but we’re also taking care of the environment as well’.”
Larson said his grandfather also stood up for minority rights at a time when there were still issues of segregation and discrimination in Texas. “He was always so kind to everybody. He practiced Big Tent in his life. He had a huge impact on why I am a Republican.”
Larson said he believes in caring for the environment and doesn’t think that policy is at odds with historic Republican values.
“Teddy Roosevelt created the national parks; Richard Nixon was probably the single most environmental president in the history of the country. He did the Clean Air Act, the NEPA process, ESA (Endangered Species Act), EPA. He genuinely did some good things that unfortunately we’re now seeing start to be turned back.”
Larson said the people he represents don’t want environmental destruction.
“I guarantee there’s no Republican that I represent that wants to breathe dirty air or drink dirty water or not take care of the environment for the future of their grandchildren.
“When we start looking at Republican values, if people are judging me as a candidate on that, they need to go back and look at where our party’s been historically,” he said.
“When I say I want a limited role of government in my life I mean that wholesale — I don’t want to have my personal opinions put into the law.” He added that true Republican values don’t include having “the government in my body or my bedroom.”
Too much federal power?
Certainly Larson supports the traditional GOP value of states’ rights. He is outspoken about the federal government’s hubris in dictating policy to the states.
“Look at NCLB (No Child Left Behind),” he said. “An unfunded mandate. They’re only giving us half the dollars they said they would. Take the Individual Disabilities Education Act. They promised us 40 percent (funding) and we’re at 19 percent now and they keep ratcheting down.”
Then there’s highway funding. It infuriates Larson that the federal government orders states to comply with its dictates, such as lowering the legal threshold for drunk driving to a blood alcohol content of 0.8 percent, under the threat of withholding highway funds.
“They tell us we’re either at point 8 or they’ll keep back our own tax dollars,” he said. “What hubris.”
Larson blames some of the rise in federal power on the 17th Amendment to the Constitution, ratified in 1913, which changed the way U.S. senators are chosen. Previously, state legislatures appointed them; now, of course, they are elected directly by the voters.
Although the new way was more democratic, it did mean candidates had to cater to hundreds of thousands of people instead of just a few, requiring expensive campaigns. Larson thinks the old way was better.
“You now have the House and Senate both pandering to the voters instead of listening to states’ rights issues, so we’ve gone down that federalism highway of unfunded mandates and holding the states hostage if they don’t do what the federal government wants them to do.”
If Senators were still appointed by the state legislatures, he said, “we probably would be sending some of those people back to their day jobs.” He would like to return to that system, though he knows it’s unlikely.
“It would give some teeth to the 10th Amendment,” he said. (The 10th Amendment says powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states.)
His belief in states’ rights has led Larson to support the right to obtain medical marijuana, because that is what Colorado voters decided in 2000. However, the federal government has fought the states’ right to develop their own drug policies.
“They have the audacity to say, when Colorado passes a medical marijuana initiative, that ‘Congress knows better’,” he said. “I don’t think Coloradans are ready yet for the federal government to run the state.”
Losing the Drug War
Whether marijuana should be legalized entirely is another question, but one Larson is willing to consider.
“We’ve lost the War on Drugs,” he said flatly. “Drugs as a whole we need to treat differently. I supported a bill that came out three years ago, that unfortunately was vetoed, that was going to treat first-time non-violent non-distribution (drug) offenses as a medical condition and require that person to stay in house arrest, forcing them to go through treatment instead of putting them in a jail cell. That really is not solving any problems.”
He also would like to see the use of drug courts, like one in La Plata County, expanded, because the current system isn’t working. Methamphetamine use is burgeoning, he said, and drug use is now involved in six out of 10 crimes.
“We’re going to have to treat this differently or prisons will be the No. 1 expense in the state,” he said. “What’s the definition of insanity? Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Let’s get some different results by doing drug courts and putting the responsibility back on the drug user.”
Legalizing pot, considered by many to be a benign substance in comparison to meth, opiates or even alcohol, is another option to at least be considered, Larson said.
“You’re looking at a society that still thinks it’s OK to drink and drive, and at the same time we are saying that somebody who is going to smoke marijuana and stay home and make themselves fat is (a problem) of a larger magnitude. Marijuana obviously is a lesser-impact drug and people are saying, ‘Why are we treating it the same as methamphetamine?’
“I have no problem being a voice of reason when it comes to saying that we have lost the Drug War and should start looking at alternative solutions.”
Larson says listening to the voters is one thing that differentiates him from many other politicians. He lays claim to “setting the standard for true representative government” as far as keeping in touch with constituents.
“My reputation and my history of service has been stellar, I think, for my district, and I want to continue that,” he said. “I respond to all e-mail in a timely fashion, I answer every letter and I return all phone calls.” He added that even though the legislature isn’t currently in session, he still gets 80 to100 e-mails from citizens daily.
“I don't worry about status or stature — anybody with a problem that calls, I will champion their issue.”
Another way he's different from a stereotypical politician, Larson said, is that he’s up-front about his views.
“We may disagree (on an issue) and I may tell you no because I don't think that's the right way to go, but at least you'll know where I stand,” he said. “I don't tell people what I think they want to hear.”
One issue on which Larson has been outspoken is the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, or TABOR, Amendment, passed in 1992. He was likewise vocal in supporting Referenda C and D on last month’s ballot, two measures to help counteract some of the limitations of TABOR; C passed but D did not.
C’s passage will ease the state’s fiscal woes but won’t solve the basic problem, TABOR itself, Larson said.
“We fixed only one thing in TABOR that could be structural and that was the rachet-down effect,” he said. (Referendum C allows the state to keep and spend all its revenues for the next five years rather than being forced to turn some back.) “All we did was ask for a five-year timeout.
“We did not fix the problem for those who think TABOR is a problem,” he added. “We still are going to have to reconcile the differences between Amendment 23 and the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights.” (Passed by voters five years ago to shore up the traditionally niggardly funding of public education, Amendment 23 mandates annual increases in education spending regardless of what the overall revenue picture may be, while TABOR dictates that state government return to taxpayers any revenue in excess of a formula involving population increase and the perenially rising cost of living.)
Larson said legislators need to put something on the ballot that will reform the state’s conflicting budgetary laws all at once.
“We’ll never see the voters revoke the ability to vote on tax increases, but if we offer them a comprehensive tax package and say we need to look at certain aspects of TABOR, here’s what to do about TABOR, Amendment 23, Gallagher (an amendment that boosts business property taxes), I think they might consider it.”
‘A different perspective’
Larson was disappointed by the failure of Referendum D, a measure that would have allowed the state to borrow up to $2.1 billion for roads, fire and police pensions, and capital-construction projects.
“The voters shot down D and I think it was because they don’t like the implications of long-term debt,” he said, “but I don’t think there’s anybody today who wishes they hadn’t bought a house 10 years ago and had kept renting (instead).
“I don’t think people understand infrastructure is not a pay-as-you go.” He said, although many citizens do understand budgetary and economic issues, there’s a sizable group that has an overly simplistic view.
“There are people who understand the immensity of the problem and that we’re going to have to pay for it and it’s not going to be paid for in a year,” he said. “But there is also the group that says they’ve never seen a CDOT crew that they like and they think they could do better efficiencies in government than we’re doing.
“There are people who call me and say they pay their taxes so they want their road fixed. I’ll find out where they live and put a pencil to the abstract you get from the county assessor’s office and say, ‘Based on your assessed valuation you paid $19 or $20 into the highways for the county last year, so why don’t we have the county give you your 20 bucks back and you can do the best you can with those dollars?’ And it kind of puts it in a different perspective.”
Dealing with the complexities of the state budget may seem like a far cry from Larson’s former occupation as a restaurateur. He owned and operated the M&M Truck Stop south of Cortez for 22 years; although it sits vacant now at Highway 491 and County Road G, it’s still a local landmark.
But running a business with a hundred employees gave him plenty of experience in juggling a budget, dealing with people and working hard, Larson said.
Still, he never thought of himself as a politician until others urged him to run for the state House in 1998. Larson took a three-day ride on his motorcycle, did some thinking, and decided to give it a try.
“I intended to go up and serve and then go into private life, but I have found that applying what I did in business to what I’m seeing happening in the legislature, it’s too important. I feel I need to stay and be that voice for business, for the little guy.”
Larson said he has no ambitions beyond the state Senate. “I have no desire to run for governor or Congress. I don’t want to face the scrutiny and put my family through that. I want to run for (state) Senate and then go fishing.”
In the lull before a new legislative session and the 2006 election, Larson is reading Christy Whitman’s book, “It’s My Party Too.” Whitman, a former New Jersey governor, was briefly head of the EPA before she resigned in the face of political impotence in dealing with an administration that has displayed a propensity for relaxing or erasing federal safeguards of the environment and public lands.
“It’s a good book — her points are some of the issues I’ve faced of late from people,” Larson said. “I’m not sure the government we’re seeing in D.C. is representative of the Republican Party in Southwest Colorado.”