Diane Mitsch Bush is an unflashy pragmatist. Is she also Colorado’s next congresswoman?

It was 2013 and state Rep. Claire Levy, a Democrat from Boulder, was looking to introduce legislation that would increase Colorado’s renewable energy sources and cut back on coal mining. She expected to have an ally in a fellow environmentalist and Democrat, Rep. Diane Mitsch Bush of Steamboat Springs.

“Well, she was an ally,” Levy recalls, “but she was very insistent that for people in her district, a lot of their economic security depends on those coal mines and she was going to put their needs very high.”

“It took guts, as a Democrat, to stand firm when there was a real strong push for everybody to be on board with renewable energy,” Levy says. “It just took a lot of guts for her to stand up and say, ‘Yeah, I can be on board, but you have to do something for my constituents.’”

Former colleagues of Mitsch Bush, who is now running for Congress in the closely watched 3rd District of western and southern Colorado, describe her as a policy wonk and pragmatist with little interest in grabbing headlines. Her tenures as a state legislator and Routt County commissioner were defined by an almost obsessive attention to detail and a willingness to work with all sides, those colleagues recall.

“If you look at her bills, they’re not flashy, they’re not headline-grabbing, but they’re important policy changes that actually helped people’s lives in the district she represented,” said Rep. Daneya Esgar, a Pueblo Democrat.

Mitsch Bush’s political career followed a familiar trajectory — local politics followed by state politics followed by a run for Congress — but it began late in her life, after a full academic career. With snow-white hair, she is not the typical congressional candidate, a fact her friends and supporters readily acknowledge, and embrace.

“Diane is very much her own person and does not fit into anyone’s mold. She just does not,” said Rep. Edie Hooton, a Boulder Democrat who calls her a mentor. “Fortunately, as time goes on, there are fewer and fewer molds that any of us have to fit into.”

If elected, the 70-year-old Mitsch Bush would be the oldest member of the Colorado congressional delegation and the oldest person in Colorado history elected to their first congressional term. She is more than twice the age of Lauren Boebert, her 33-year-old Republican opponent.

“Voters are going to look at this 70-year-old and they’re going to see a rerun and they’re going to look at (Boebert) and see a fresh face,” said Scott McInnis, a Republican Mesa County commissioner who represented the 3rd Congressional District from 1993 to 2005.

“That’s a huge advantage in a political race. I like the Democrat — I’ve met her on numerous occasions — but I’d face the same thing if I was running. I’m 67.”

From academia to politics

Mitsch Bush grew up in a working-class home in St. Paul, Minnesota, raised by a single mother who took out payday loans to cover rent. Their lot in life improved after her mother joined a union, Mitsch Bush recalls. With union membership came dignity, respect, and a more secure financial future. For a young Mitsch Bush, that meant college, and three sociology degrees from the University of Minnesota.

Her 1979 doctoral dissertation, which can still be purchased for $41 online, is 357 pages long and titled “The Legitimation of Violence in Early Adolescence: A Longitudinal Analysis.” It begins with six quotes about violence, including one from counterculture icon Jerry Rubin that contains both a racial slur for Black people and an insulting term for police: “When a policeman shoots a n*****, that’s ‘law and order.’ But when a black man defends himself against a pig, that’s ‘violence.’”

Mitsch Bush’s campaign says she was married to a police officer at the time and doesn’t agree with Rubin’s description of violence or his language. She was merely demonstrating her understanding of the field of study and the topic she was researching, which was the legitimation of violence, her campaign says.

The dissertation set out to determine why some people view particular forms of violence as legitimate and other forms of violence as illegitimate. She followed 798 students in a large Midwestern city from sixth grade to seventh grade and interviewed them throughout to determine how parental and peer encouragement of violence — along with violence at school — shaped their views. Among other findings, she concluded that class played little role in the kids’ views of violence.

“She was a very good student, very conscientious,” recalls Paul Reynolds, a former sociology professor at the University of Minnesota and chair of the committee that supervised her doctoral thesis.

Reynolds says Mitsch Bush had a promising career in sociology ahead, but chose a skiing and outdoor life in Colorado over the time-consuming rigors of academic research at top universities. She taught at Colorado State University and then Colorado Mountain College in Steamboat Springs before retiring in late 2004.

When Reynolds left the University of Minnesota in 2008 and coincidentally chose to retire in Steamboat, he was surprised to learn that a former student of his was now a county commissioner. He has been active in Mitsch Bush’s campaigns ever since, including as manager of her 2010 county commission re-election. That was an easy one, since her Republican challenger was found to be living outside the district and barred from being on the ballot, leaving Mitsch Bush unopposed.

“She focuses very much on all the details, and sometimes you can’t do that, you need to take a broader picture,” Reynolds said. “The biggest problem that campaign managers have is keeping her focused on the broader issues and not get too bogged down in all of the details.”

Her former campaign manager says she has a “compulsive attention to detail” that makes her a better lawmaker than candidate. “That’s kind of a disadvantage when she’s on the stump because when somebody in the audience asks a question, they get a 10-minute discussion with all of the subtle nuances and it overwhelms the audience,” Reynolds said with a laugh. “It kind of distracts from her message.”

Routt County commissioners in those years had to address the issues that still plague much of Colorado — affordable housing, oil and gas development — and made harder by the economic downturn, according to longtime commissioner Nancy Stahoviak, a Republican who served with Mitsch Bush for six years.

“We took a pretty strong stance that oil and gas development was welcome in Routt County, however it was not going to be done at the expense of any one community or any one population of people or any one resource,” she recalls.

“We were not political people,” Stahoviak said of the three commissioners. “When I was a commissioner, I was a Republican and Diane was a Democrat, the other commissioner was a Democrat. But we didn’t see each other that way.”

In 2012, Mitsch Bush made a leap from the commission to the legislature, winning a seat in House District 26, an Idaho-shaped patch of Routt and Eagle counties in northwest Colorado. She won the Democratic-leaning seat by a dozen percentage points that year, by a similar margin in 2014, and by more than 20 points in 2016 before leaving the Capitol to run unsuccessfully for Congress in 2018.

‘It was never for show’

Rep. Millie Hamner, a Dillon Democrat, knew there was a problem. It was 2014 and she was hearing stories from constituents about truckers who skirted the law by driving the winding roads of the world-renowned Independence Pass, saving gas and time but sometimes getting stuck and jeopardizing other drivers’ safety.

Hamner’s plan was to double, or in some cases triple, the penalties on lawbreaking truckers. With the help of Mitsch Bush, who chaired the House Transportation Committee, they brought lobbyists for the trucking industry on board with the bill and passed it. Hamner was impressed by the Democrat from Steamboat Springs.

“She was known for her stakeholder meetings, where she would bring all sides into a room to figure out how to get to a solution,” Esgar recalls. “When Diane brought a bill forward, you knew it had been vetted, you knew it had been researched.”

For a Democrat, she had unusual areas of expertise. Not only transportation, but also agriculture and water, too areas that Republicans typically had more experience with. Since most House Democrats then and now live along the Front Range, it often fell on Mitsch Bush to explain agriculture and water policy.

“She was the go-to person for me, as a freshman who really wanted to understand Colorado ag issues,” said Hooton, who still calls Mitsch Bush from time to time to discuss agriculture and water. “She was the person I went to and she spoke very passionately and eloquently about agriculture in Colorado from her pretty solidly Democratic perspective.”

In some cases, legislation that Mitsch Bush championed didn’t become law until after she left, such as a tire traction law for Interstate 70. In other cases, like the the Independence Pass bill, she was able to forge a bipartisan consensus with the Republican-controlled Senate. In very few cases did her legislation garner big media headlines or appearances on the nightly news, and that was fine with her.

“She never played to the cameras,” says Levy. “It was never for show.”

Editor’s note: This is the second of two profiles of candidates for Colorado’s 3rd Congressional District. You can read the first story, about Lauren Boebert, here.

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