Hearing the range of interests, volunteer work and nonprofit endeavors former two-time Colorado state senator Gail Schwartz is engaged in brings to mind only one word: service.
After living in Snowmass Village for years, Gail and her husband, Alan Schwartz, moved to Crested Butte during her tenure in the Colorado State Senate. But late last year, they returned to the Roaring Fork Valley, settling in Willits. For the Schwartzs, it was a welcome return.
“Coming back, you can’t replace those relationships,” Schwartz notes, sipping tea on a recent morning at Bernard’s in Basalt. “I came here in ’73, and I feel so connected to this family.”
It was family that guided and inspired Schwartz to “just want to make a difference in the community.” Her father was wheelchair-bound because of polio most of his life, but he headed the March of Dimes organization in Chicago and showed her what it was to transcend limitations and take a leadership role.
She has been leading since then. “I was just passionate about making things better,” she explains.
In the Roaring Fork Valley, Schwartz honed in on housing and education, working with the Pitkin County Housing Authority and the Aspen School District. She was once nominated by then Governor Roy Romer to the Colorado Commission on Higher Education, and later elected to the Board of Regents of the University of Colorado.
In 2005, Schwartz ran for the Colorado State Senate in a conservative, rural Western Slope district that had been served by a 22-year incumbent, Lewis Entz, who had inherent power on the Agricultural Committee. Though she was a natural for the education committee, Schwartz asked to be put on the Agricultural Committee in order to keep a campaign promise to one of Entz’s supporters who feared losing Entz’s voice and power on that committee.
Schwartz served two terms in the Colorado State Senate, but was term-limited in 2014, so she ran for Congress in the 3rd congressional district and was defeated by Rep. Scott Tipton. Last year Tipton, a Republican from Cortez, was reelected after besting Democrat Diane Mitsch Bush.
Schwartz said she has no plans to run for public office again.
“I love running, engaging the people in their issues and priorities, and feeling like I can be of service,” says Schwartz. “But I think I’m more invested now in developing women, especially women in the Western Slope, to run for public office. I have put together some funding and training. We just finished one training, and we have another one coming up in Grand Junction in July.”
Schwartz explains her work with Emerge Colorado, an organization based in Denver that focuses on recruiting, training and providing a network for Democratic women leaders from diverse backgrounds.
“I believe, and I’m not being totally sexist here, but women go into public office for service, and with men there often seems to be a power component,” says Schwartz. “What I would say to young women is, step up. I know it’s complicated; they have families and children and working and obligations. But there are so many offices you can run for. We’re trying to build a bench of women that can over time step up and run for higher office and have women be part of the conversation in our local communities.”
In the Colorado senate, Schwartz became chairwoman of the committee that handles natural resources and energy, areas of interest that still excite her, along with agriculture and family farming.
“We have so many undeveloped renewal resources in our state,” she explains. “Solar and wind are pretty mature resources — but micro hydro, geothermal and biomass really need to be developed.”
Diversification in business, life
Schwartz is also proud of her work serving on the board of directors of Colorado Open Lands, a state organization focused on land conservation.
“I believe that we’ve got to preserve our easements. Conservation easements are keeping our lands in agriculture,” explains Schwartz. “Diversifying agriculture is a big priority because of water, and how we sustain agriculture and diversify agriculture.”
She points to hemp as one crop that could be used to diversify Colorado’s over reliance on hay and alfalfa farming, which use much more water than hemp. Schwartz promoted hemp as a diversifying crop in the Colorado legislature.
But one of her main focuses these days is her work with her husband in PeaceJam, a Denver-based international nonprofit that brings together young people with Nobel Peace Laureates, including Desmond Tutu, Rigoberta Menchú Tum, President Oscar Arias, Adolfo Pérez Esquivel, Mairead Corrigan Maguire, Jody Williams and others.
“PeaceJam is 22 years old. The board has 15 Nobel Peace Prize laureates, programming is in over 40 countries, and so far over a million and a half young people from all over the world have spent time with these laureates talking, listening and being inspired by their lives and their leadership,” says Schwartz. “It gives me hope to invest in this next generation because they are so smart.”
Recently, PeaceJam took 17 young people who have been involved in some type of mass shooting in the United States to Costa Rica, where they were inspired by President Oscar Arias and Jody Williams, a woman who led an international campaign to disarm landmines. Together, the kids and laureates talked about preventing gun violence.
“We're going to do something similar on climate change with young climate leaders and laureates in the next two months,” Schwartz proudly notes.
Gail and Alan Schwartz have been married 38 years, and they have three girls. Two other children previously passed away.
When she is not working on education, agriculture, training women or young leaders around the world, Gail finds time to participate in two book groups, do yoga and spend time in the outdoors. She has participated in four Ride the Rockies bike events and loves her summer hikes.
With all of these interests, does Mid-Valley politics interest her?
“Of course,” she smiles. “I think communities need to invest in creating a vision. I have found housing and education to be crucial to the well being of a community, and I think we fall short.”
Tea finished, Gail Schwartz is off to the rest of her day, and onto a new venture or new opportunity for service.