IGNACIO – In a Hollywood kind of way, one can feel the drama:
It’s January and J. Paul Brown is walking out the door, on his way to tell fellow Republicans he isn’t going to run. His wife, Debbie, stops him.
“Hold on just a minute. Let’s talk about it,” she says.
Eleven months later, he’s the state representative for the 59th District.
Not everyone is pleased. Some see him as being way too far right on the political spectrum. But to those who might root for a dirt-in-the-fingernails rancher who preaches and lives by the creed of self-sufficiency, his story is a page-turner.
He’ll be sworn in Jan. 12 at the Capitol.
“I am excited to get after it,” he says during an interview at his ranch just south of Ignacio. His wife of 34 years – they grew up not far apart along the La Plata River near the state line – sits next to him at the kitchen table.
Since his trip to the Capitol the day after the election for orientation, he’s hardly stopped moving.
A few hours ago, he was in New Mexico, picking up a Navajo man who helps tend their sheep, which winter in the lowlands and spend the summer in the San Juan Mountains.
Sheep ranching isn’t a skill that just comes to you, and it’s not one of sloth. So if hard work is the lone criteria for success in Denver, J. Paul Brown will do well.
“I’m working real hard trying to meet folks, trying to do the groundwork so I can be successful.”
That means, among other things, learning the House rules: You must ask permission to speak and begin with “Thank you, Mr. Chair.” There’s a dress code – tie and coat, no jeans.
“It’s a lot different from a county commissioners meeting,” he says.
Brown, a La Plata County commissioner from 1989 to 1993, Ignacio school board member and Colorado Farm Bureau leader, wrestled over whether to run for the Legislature. He wouldn’t do it without Debbie behind him 100 percent, and at first she wasn’t. But then son Levi, 30, stepped up to run the ranch, and, one might say, John Adams spoke to him.
An HBO series about our second president underlined the sacrifices made to create this country. Plus, J. Paul and Debbie noted a similarity between their relationship and that of John and Abigail Adams. Both men lean on their wives for counsel. J. Paul even calls his wife “Abigail” at times.
“I realized how much they went through to bring us the freedoms that we have, and I thought, ‘I need to give,’” Debbie says. “I figured it was time for me to quit being so selfish.”
What would spark someone with a pleasant life in pastoral Southwest Colorado to run for a high-profile position that means spending half the year in Denver? The question brought a hearty laugh from both J. Paul and Debbie. But a serious answer.
“It’s really a sacrifice for a family. I could understand where Debbie was coming from,” J. Paul says. He has new respect for his predecessors – Ellen Roberts, Mark Larson, Jim Dyer, Bob DeNier. “I’m going to be lonesome some. Of course, I’m going to be so busy that I’m not going to be able to think about it.”
And philosophically, he feels the call.
“This country has been good to us. This state has been good to us,” he says.
But he worries about the future and what he sees as an ongoing shift toward fewer individual freedoms.
“I feel like that freedom is what made this country so prosperous,” he says.
He has a lot to learn, and one of the first people he turned to for advice was fellow Republican Ellen Roberts, now a state senator. Brown assumed the seat she held for two terms.
Roberts, a lawyer, says that although she tried to represent agriculture, Brown’s voice on such issues may ring more clearly. She knows the two won’t agree on everything, but that’s OK.
“We’ve worked to define common ground,” she says, noting fiscal conservatism as an example. “We’re really more focused on our common ground than our differences. ...
“All we can ask is people go into the job as hard workers and with an open mind and a sense of responsibility to the district, and I think J. Paul is approaching it that way.”
Some wish he’d just kept walking out that door that January day and taken himself out of the race. For example, critics worry he won’t separate government from religion. On his website, his first belief states that “our country must turn back to God.”
“You can’t legislate morality or religion, but I do want to be a good example,” he says. “I think that’s important for our country. ... I’m certainly not perfect. I don’t want anybody to think I am, but I do want to strive to be a moral person and encourage others to be that way.”
He touts the Second Amendment and private enterprise, and isn’t shy about professing his skepticism of global warming.
“I don’t buy that it’s man-made,” he says.
He’s all for wind and solar power but doesn’t believe those should be subsidized or mandated. For him, a strong economy trumps any concerns about the climate. He points out that where the economy isn’t strong, as in the Third World, the water and sky are most polluted.
Speaking of the economy, the 2011 Legislature confronts an unenviable task: Cutting $1.1 billion from a $7 billion budget.
“Now we’ve gotta step up to the plate and try to fix some things,” Brown says.
“And he will,” Debbie pipes in. “This is a guy that if he has $10, he’ll go put it on the loan.”
Says J. Paul: “We need a government that thinks that way, and doesn’t overspend. It’s important not to start new projects until you know for sure you can pay for them and pay for them in the long term.”
It’s a philosophy that an often-fickle country showed in the November elections it supports – at least in the short term. Whether the 59th District supports J. Paul Brown in the long term is yet to be determined.
johnp@durango herald.com. John Peel writes a weekly human-interest column.