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Building small in Pueblo out of necessity

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A father turned over the lion’s share of his wholesale/retail birdhouse and feeder business, “Birds of the Air,” to his young son to teach the 8-year-old fiscal responsibility. One of many small businesses thriving in Pueblo, says one woman charged with nurturing such enterprises.

The local artist who goes by the name Straight Jacket started the, excuse the pun, small-cottage industry as a single dad when his son Joey was 2. He had to give up his career working long hours selling large ticket items – cars and, if you will, people houses – because he couldn’t find anyone to care for his son during his extended work schedule. Attending college and unemployed, Straight Jacket started making three birdhouses a day from his home using only hand tools and selling them by word of mouth for $10 apiece.

“I used a hand-crank drill for the holes,” Straight Jacket said.

As for little Joey, he is now 10 and overseeing the small business. He owns 60 percent of it. Birds of the Air produces on average 300 birdhouses and feeders a month. And as hard as it is to imagine, the two aren’t even breaking a sweat saying they have the potential to at least double that number.

“My dad wanted me to be an independent business owner so I can have the chance to make some money, and it turned out to be good,” Joey said.

Birdhouses seem to be a metaphor for Pueblo, which recently has become somewhat of an incubator for fledgling small businesses.

Pueblo is typically recalled as the blue-collar steel town. And when the steel industry collapsed it took to manufacturing. But even the Pueblo Economic Development Corporation, the organization that recruits big manufacturers says small business is Pueblo’s sweet spot.

“We work with existing small companies on a regular basis,” PEDCO president and chief operating officer Jeff Shaw says. “You see expansion with companies like LastLeaf and Formulary 55. What you don’t see publicly is the work involving retention. By definition the vast majority of companies in Pueblo are small businesses. We are busier than we have been in probably 10 years or so. Consumer confidence appears to be strong and has some correlation to how busy we are.”

Caroline Trani, executive director for the Southern Colorado Small Business Development Center out of Pueblo Community College says new small businesses in Pueblo County seem to be on the rise compared with just last year based on the assistance requests made to her organization.

In 2016, SBDC served about 2,200 customers and clients and 245 of those were clients seeking technical assistance. She says her organization is on track to at least equal and likely best those numbers this year. Yet Trani cautions that funding, which comes from the state and Pueblo Community College, may limit the number of businesses SBDC can help.

As for the types of small businesses seeking assistance, “There are some (businesses) moving to the area as well as others looking to do a part-time business in addition to their day job,” she says. “There are others that are retiring from positions but looking to still work part-time through their own businesses.”

Then there are businesses like Joey’s born out of necessity to become the family’s sole source of income.

The products Joey and his dad construct, which also include other items like wooden flower arrangement holders for wedding centerpieces, are still made from their home on the city’s East Side. Wood for their projects is rough cut in the backyard and production is completed using compressed-air power tools in a 10-by-10 spare bedroom, which, believe it or not, accommodates a desk in addition to the work area.

Access to capital continues to be a challenge for businesses like Joey’s for both existing as well as start-ups, Trani says. “Qualifying for the capital as well as low interest rate options are two areas we get questions on most.”

Again according to Trani, the main types of businesses attracted to Pueblo are those in the service industry, those involved in the trades, those offering professional expertise and subcontractors.

“We have always seen many retail and small manufacturing. We also are seeing a rise in technology and ecommerce businesses.” She adds that “creative industries” continue to be a trend as well.

“I create green, blue and red birdhouses,” Joey says. “Some have flowers. Some have (Denver) Bronco signs (logos). Some have pictures. And some are just plain. I use 18-guage nails, our saw table, a hammer, paint and other utensils.”

As Joey and his dad have found, Pueblo is a desirable location for small business development, and Trani concurs.

She said the cost of doing business here is affordable and there are many quality resources available for start-up, retention and expansion needs for businesses for those that take advantage of such resources.

As for Joey, his dad had friends who used to help with the business, but those friends had personal problems and Joey feels it was “easier” for him and his dad to go it alone. The two also say there are several resources for small businesses such as theirs, but what they’ve found is that those resources tend not to address marketing.

Currently, Birds of the Air supplies birdhouses, feeders and small wood-crafted and refinished antique items to 15 businesses in town and is negotiating contracts with 10 others.  Among the businesses Birds of the Air supplies is Statis Events. Owner Yolanda Baca describes her downtown business on Union Avenue as an “outside the box floral shop” and she has commissioned Joey and his dad to fashion wooden bird cages and other custom wood items for her shop.   

Trani and her organization emphasize that small businesses are not just about making money.

“The live, work, play balance for entrepreneurs is just as important today, and Southern Colorado including Pueblo provides the balance that many are looking for.”

Joey and his dad plan to expand their business to include T-shirts, knives and leather goods, and they are looking for a storefront downtown they can turn into a shop hopefully by the time Joey is the ripe old age of 11. Perhaps the Small Business Development Center can help.

“Investment in our existing businesses for retention and expansion needs versus primarily attracting new businesses to Pueblo can help sustain our local economy in a more consistent manner,” Trani says.

The SBDC helps existing and new businesses with free and confidential consulting and no- or low-cost training programs that create and retain jobs, secure loans, increase sales, win government contracts and obtain certifications – among other services.

The SBDC combines information and resources from federal, state and local governments with those of the education system and private sector to help meet the needs of the small-business community. Trani along with her staff and contracted consulting experts work in partnership to provide entrepreneurs with information that, they say, can mean the difference between success and failure.

So there are helpful alternatives out there that benefit Pueblo’s many growing small businesses – even one run by a finance-conscious kid executive named Joey.

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Patriot Waiting Games

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Pueblo Marine Corps veteran David Jiron had a stroke this past April. Once out of the hospital he went through the Veterans Administration to seek follow-up treatment at one of its facilities. The VA scheduled the treatment for this coming October.

Rather than wait about half a year to see a medical provider about the aftereffects of the stroke, Jiron used his costly private health insurance to get treatment within the local Parkview health-care system.

The Veterans’ Choice Program is supposed to cut down on VA wait times by allowing veterans to receive treatment at community medical facilities, which in turn would be compensated for their services by the VA. In theory, a veteran making a trip to the family doctor would be no different than being treated by a primary care doctor at a VA facility.

Jiron praises the Choice program for how quickly the VA got him an eye exam (within a week) at a non-VA facility. Yet the VA would not allow him to use the program for his stroke follow-up at Parkview. Jiron also was frustrated that the program won’t pay the tab for the teeth cleaning he needs, and getting it done through a VA facility is difficult because he was told the VA was “short-staffed” when it came to routine dental work. As for wait times at VA facilities, he is still waiting to see a neurologist at an out-of-town VA facility related to his April stroke.

Veterans’ Choice

Jiron is Southern Colorado service officer for Disabled American Veterans. The national nonprofit organization supports the Veterans’ Choice Program, which was established the Veterans’ Choice, Accountability and Transparency Act of 2014. Signed into law by President Barack Obama and then extended by Congress and President Donald Trump this past April, the Veterans’ Choice Act came about after it was widely reported in 2014 that about 35 veterans died while waiting for appointments at VA facilities in Phoenix. Although the Choice Program was extended this year it is still considered a temporary benefit. The extension Trump signed in April and which took effect on Aug. 7 was for $2.1 billion to pay for Choice services nationwide, and when that money runs out, the Choice Program will need another extension from Congress to keep operating.

Andrew Grieb at the Colorado DAV’s Denver headquarters says his organization backs the Veterans’ Choice Program and sees it as playing a role in what the DAV hopes would become an “integrated VA health system.”

Jiron says the VA needs to “turn around” adding that current VA Secretary David Shulkin seems to be the person to do just that. But Jiron is not the only one with issues regarding Veterans’ Choice.

Small-town, big concerns

The town of Springfield in extreme southeastern Colorado has no VA facility making it a prime location for the Choice Program. The Southeast Colorado Hospital District serves Springfield and the towns of Pritchett, Vilas and Campo. David Engel is the CEO of the hospital district, which entices veterans on its Facebook page to take part in the Choice Program at its facilities. Yet despite the promotion Engel says the number of veterans taking part in program is “sparse” for two reasons. The first is that, he says, the VA rejects veterans for the Choice Program if they carry other pricey insurance like a private plan, a plan through work or Medicare. The other is that, once a veteran jumps through the VA hoops and uses Choice to see a primary care provider within the hospital district, that vet again has to clear VA hurdles to see a specialist that the primary care provider recommends. Engel, who’s relatively new to his position at the district, adds that staff members have told him of significant delays in getting reimbursed from the VA through Choice for the hospital district’s services.

Engel says as an alternative to VA Choice Program many veterans living in the communities served by his hospital district drive as far as Amarillo, Texas, to get treatment at VA facilities there.

Telling stats

VA wait times in southeastern Colorado are daunting. Brandy Morrison, congressional liaison and acting public affairs officer for the VA’s Eastern Colorado Health Care System reveals some eye-popping statistics, which were last updated on July 31. The AVERAGE wait time for a new patient to receive care at the VA’s PFC James Dunn Clinic in Pueblo is 69 days; at the VA clinic in La Junta, 54 days; at the VA’s PFC Floyd K. Lindstrom Clinic in Colorado Springs, 52 days; at the VA facility in Lamar, 36 days; at the VA clinic in Alamosa, 29 days. The new-patient wait times at the VA facility in Salida is relatively outstanding at a mere six days. The picture for average primary care wait times for patients already established in the VA system is much, much brighter:  13 days for Alamosa; 11 days for Lindstrom in the Springs; seven days each for Lamar and James Dunn in Pueblo; four days for La Junta; and for Salida, one day.

Morrison adds that a national VA statistics website uses an average of new patient and existing patient wait times for primary care and at least one other factor to come up with its numbers. Using those statistics, the national average VA primary care wait time is 4.9 days compared with 26.68 for La Junta, 22.38 days for Alamosa, 18.35 days for Lamar, 13.99 days for Pueblo’s Dunn Clinic, 12.95 the Springs’ Lindstrom Clinic and 2.88 days for Salida.

Choice restrictions

Morrison says regarding the Veterans’ Choice Program designed to cut down on VA wait times, veterans are eligible to use the program through three avenues. The first is that if wait times for the services they require are greater than 30 days. The second is if veterans needing care live 40 miles or greater from the nearest VA facility. The third is what Morison calls a “geo-burden” which means if a veteran is separated from a VA facility by such obstacles as mountains or bodies of water. Note that a veteran having other forms of insurance is not on Morrison’s list for a veteran being turned down for the Choice Program.

Yet Morrison says relatively few veterans in the Eastern Colorado region choose to take advantage of the Choice Program. In fact, she says, during the third quarter of federal fiscal year 2017 (which runs from Oct. 1, 2016, to Sept. 30) 71 percent of the veterans served by the VA’s Eastern Colorado Health Care System chose to stay with the VA for their primary care needs rather than go through the Choice Program.

Yet for a veteran opting to go into the community to use the Choice Program, Morrison says a VA employee will place them into the program and forward all pertinent medical information to the VA “third-party administrator” or TPA (which is a company called Health Net Federal Services) for appropriate scheduling.

“Once Health Net receives and accepts the referral,” Morrison says, “they begin their scheduling attempts to get the veteran scheduled as timely as possible with the provider of their choice. Since May of 2017, the VA is the primary insurance for all services received through the Veterans Choice Program.”

Regarding payment to Veterans Choice Program providers,

Getting paid

Morrison says she cannot speak to that because Health Net handles all payments to the providers as part of its contract with the VA.

And, as Southeast Colorado Hospital District CEO Engel previously indicated, reimbursements from the Choice Program are hard to come by. And, by way of example, Pulp has learned of one story about an eye care clinic in the Pueblo area having its reimbursement check sent to an eye clinic in Alaska.

Health Net Federal Services communications director, Molly Tuttle, gives a generic response to Pulp’s concerns about delayed Choice Program reimbursements.

“It is our honor and responsibility to serve the veteran community,” Tuttle, who is based in northern California, says. “We strive to provide excellent service to every veteran, every time. Health Net Federal Services has no higher priority than the fulfillment of our Veterans Choice Program obligations in support of our continuing and long-term commitment to the veteran community.

“We strive to address issues as they arise and continue to work with our over 14,000 community providers to service the state’s more than 80,000 Choice eligible veterans in Colorado,” she adds. “Developing a complex and consistent new program like Veterans’ Choice is a team effort, and HNFS is working closely with Congress, the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Colorado VA Medical Clinics, and local health care providers to ensure veterans have the appropriate, coordinated and convenient care they have earned for their service to our nation.”

Congressmen respond

The office of U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton (R-Cortez) representing Colorado’s 3rd District says VA wait times and the Veterans’ Choice Program do have issues. “As the Veterans’ Choice Program has been administered, it has become clear there are problems that need to be addressed, including administrative burdens and red tape in the referral process, as well as issues with payments for Choice providers,” says Liz Payne, the congressman’s communications director, in an email.

“Despite the identified problems, there are countless examples where we have seen the Choice Program work for veterans who had no access to care prior to the program’s implementation, and Congress and the VA continue to work to ensure the programs is as efficient and as streamlined as possible. Congressman Tipton and his staff also continue to work with veterans across (his district) to help them navigate the Choice Program process. We are currently serving over 1,000 veterans on Choice Program-specific casework.”

Colorado 4th District U.S. Rep. Ken Buck (R-Greeley) has this to say in an email about the Veteran’s Choice Program: “I support giving veterans more health care options through the Veterans’ Choice Act, but I recognize the challenges faced by the act over the past few years. Congress needs to continue working to improve this act so that veterans receive the care they need, when they need it.”

Kyle Huwa, Buck’s communications director, says in an email the congressman’s staff is looking into concerns Pulp has raised about long wait times at VA facilities in southeastern Colorado and the effectiveness of the Veterans Choice Act.

“Once he has more information on the specifics of the issue,” Huwa says, “he can address that question.”

Although southeastern Colorado has obvious problems with VA wait times and the Veterans’ Choice Program, there is reason to be upbeat. Air Force Veteran Phil Andreski is pleased with the VA service he receives. “No complaints from me,” he says in an email. “Don’t use VA other than getting hearing aids, and I’m satisfied.”

Andreski is the southeastern Colorado representative for the United Veterans Committee of Colorado, a Denver-based veterans’ advocacy group. He adds that he has not received any complaints from the veterans he knows about long VA wait times or the Veterans’ Choice Program.

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Me Too, when even an acting Colorado State Legislator is sexually harassed

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It took Rep. Daneya Esgar, D-Pueblo, three drafts before finally publishing a post to Facebook acknowledging that she, too, was a victim of sexual assault and harassment. The most recent incident was just a week earlier, she wrote.

State Representative Daneya Esgar made public on Facebook that she too was sexually harassed and assaulted by a “colleague” and was expected to stay quiet.

The posts tagged or titled “Me Too” started as a rallying cry after an exposé in the New York Times cataloged the sexual assault allegations against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein.

Social media posts on Twitter and Facebook came from women of all walks of life, all skin colors, all sexual orientations — a message that it wasn’t one type of woman that fell victim to sexual violence. The message was one that quickly reinforced that the problem is widespread and doesn’t discriminate.

“Like the (Facebook) post said, the first time I was sexually harassed I wasn’t even old enough to go to school,” Esgar said.

The latest was just a week before a wildfire of “Me Too” posts hit the internet.

“I was at an event with a number of different professionals and colleagues from the general assembly were there. I had to leave for another event, so I went to another table to thank the woman who planned the event,” Esgar recalled.

As she was standing, waiting to say goodbye and slip off to the next gathering, Esgar said she felt a hand wrap around her thigh “and start moving upward.”

“There was a table of people around that didn’t realize what had just happened,” said Esgar, who exclaimed, “Oh my gosh!” as she quickly realized she was groped by a man she only described as somebody she regularly works with sitting at the table.

The response from the man was, “Now, darling. You don’t need to make a scene,” according to Esgar.

“It doesn’t seem like a huge deal, but it’s completely inappropriate and for him to tell me not to make a big deal about something,” she said.

Perhaps that’s also part of the problem, Esgar said: That women often feel like they’re the ones who are overreacting.

“We are (as women) absolutely conditioned to feel guilty,” she said. “We need to start calling out sexual assault and sexual harassment for what it is. We should put it out there and what was interesting about the ‘Me Too’ campaign was to see the number of men surprised by the number of women admitting they had been apart of an incident.”

House Speaker Crisanta Duran said the social media campaign has brought a sense of prevalence to the issue, but it’s one that isn’t new.

“In my opening day speech I spoke to the importance of inclusiveness, and of condemning that which is inexcusable,” she said in a statement. “Everyone should have the right to feel safe and respected in their workplace and in their day to day life.”

Duran, who would be in charge of investigating any kind of reported sexual harassment that took place in the legislature, added that “it’s clear that this is an issue that impacts us all, and we should all strive to create a more inclusive, safe, and respectful environment, in the legislature and more broadly.”

Esgar said she’s grateful that in her past she was able to have access to therapy after incidents of sexual assault, and that she feels comfortable admitting it happened to her. But that doesn’t mean every woman who has encountered that type of abuse should feel that they have to speak out like she has.

That was the flipside conversation to the campaign: that it would be a trigger for many women. Esgar said no woman should feel shamed into talking about their incident or not talking about it, healing is individual.

Nationally, one in five women will experience rape, according to the National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey. In Colorado, the prevalence of sexual assault against women is 23.8 percent, higher than the national average of 18.3 percent.

If it seems like sexual assault and harassment have landed a permanent place in the news cycle, it’s probably because it has. Esgar points to the current president, who was elected even after an old tape surfaced in which Trump boasts his own fame, saying he can do anything to women, even “grab them by the p*ssy,” as the tipping point.

The Colorado Coalition Against Sexual Assault spokeswoman, Neta Meltzer, said on one hand, the different recent news events — the Trump tape, Taylor Swift winning a symbolic dollar against her assaulter, and Weinstein’s several accusers — have shined a light on the previously taboo subject. On the other, she said many women fear they will be met with blame or disbelief if they speak up.

“Our goal is to make sure that individuals feel safe to come forward – to make sure they know that they will be believed and that they are never to blame for what happened to them,” Meltzer said. “So many survivors have been met with skepticism and victim-blaming responses, so it is easy to understand why reporting or disclosing one’s experience is not always a safe or realistic option. The important thing is that survivors get the help and resources they need, and that they know they are not alone.”

Esgar said she has been in two abusive relationships in the past, but is fortunate to have had access to counseling and now has a supportive wife and title that allows her to talk about the issue of sexual assault and harassment.

“Nothing has changed with this position. But it does give me a platform to call things out a little bit louder,” Esgar said of her job as a state lawmaker.

She recalls one particular moment during the 2017 legislative session when debate on an immigration-related bill amendment caught a comment about a rape, which Esgar said had become routine throughout the session.

Rep. Dave Williams, a Republican from Colorado Springs, referenced a case in Maryland where an 18-year-old student raped a 14-year-old girl in a school bathroom stall. It was later discovered the offender was from Guatemala, illegally living in the U.S.

On that day in mid-April Esgar left the floor and found Rep. Faith Winter, also a survivor of sexual assault, sitting and waiting out the speech outside of the chamber as well.

“I went to her and said we’ll go (and speak) together and we waited our turn to speak and we went down and basically said we didn’t want another survivor’s story to further his political agenda anymore,” Esgar said.

At the well of the House, standing side-by-side, the two were obviously upset. Winter said the story of a sexual assault victim was being used to “target hate” and “incite fear against an incredibly important population.”

Esgar told the chamber that using one woman’s traumatic experience over and over again had to end.

“We put up with it all session,” the lawmaker, on the verge of tears, said. “And we can’t take it anymore.”

The two promptly left the well and after more discussion the amendment failed.

After Esgar published her “Me Too” Facebook post she said she didn’t think it was such a big deal, even as she saw the speech from Williams as distasteful and insensitive. Esgar said she knows so many women who have encountered similar incidents as she has. But she also hopes maybe her story, like millions of others posted to social media, will shift the conversation and convince men to listen and women to stop shaming each other.

“The therapy went through helped me because of what happened. Every single day I’m working to stand up for people at the Capitol,” Esgar said. “I try to hold myself in that strength and to move me forward and be strong not just for myself but for the people I make decisions for everyday.”

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A question for the congressman, a question for the candidate

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When Justin Mahan, a Pueblo resident, couldn’t make a meet and greet lunch with U.S. Rep. Jared Polis in early August because the meeting wasn’t in a wheelchair-accessible space, the Colorado gubernatorial candidate stayed late, paid for Mahan’s pizza and the two took a few minutes to chat about Mahan’s concerns on national health care policy.

What happens with the Affordable Care Act and whether it is repealed and how it will impact Medicaid is important to Mahan, as he relies on the program.

“I have a disability and Medicaid pays for people to come into my home and help me do everyday stuff. It more or less ensures my independence, so it’s very important to me,” Mahan said. “The big thing I stressed to him (Polis) was that if Medicaid were to receive major cuts, such as those proposed during the health care repeal, there was a good chance I might end up in a nursing home.”

Given the chance, Mahan said he’d lay out the same concerns with U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, who had some reservations of the the GOP but ultimately voted for to repeal and replace ACA. Afterall, Tipton is the congressman for Pueblo.

Polis, a Boulderite, represents Colorado’s 2nd Congressional District in congress. This summer he has made more trips to speak with Puebloans in an open setting than Tipton has.

It didn’t seem to matter much to those at the meet and greet with Polis which district he represented, many came with questions and concerns of the Trump administration and what Democrats are doing in congress to fight various policy changes. Pueblo City Council president Steve Nawrocki even took an opportunity to say how embarrassed he felt that Trump was the president, and even worse that he’d won Pueblo.

The Polis event was reminiscent of a town hall with a congressman because it was. It just wasn’t a townhall with Pueblo’s congressman.

“It seems like Republicans are more reluctant to have town hall-style events ever since the health care debacle,” Mahan said. “They got a lot of bad press during those events.”

Jason Munoz, a Pueblo Democrat running for city council, helped organize the meet and greet.

For him, the town hall-style event was a good way to meet Polis and get to know the candidate’s stances on Colorado issues. But admitted there were a lot of questions for Congressman Polis, as opposed to candidate for governor Polis.

“Maybe because that was the first time in a long time that they had a federal representative willing to field tough questions,” Munoz said. “I think it does say something about the political climate.”

Tipton has hosted a handful of tele-townhalls where constituents can call in with questions, but just one in person meeting in Pueblo West.

“I think his (Polis’) town hall approach is an attempt to bridge that gap, he’s trying to connect with people who feel left out of the conversation so far,” Mahan said.

That’s also a major theme of Polis’ stops in Pueblo so far, Mahan said. When voters are asking about healthcare or Trump or education, they’re reminding the candidate that Pueblo hasn’t seen the same kind of economic growth as the Denver metro area has.

Mahan calls it the rural resentment issue, and it’s noticeable at campaign meets with Polis.

“Several people asked very pointed questions about what he is going to do about the issues places like Pueblo face, and people really felt that they’re being left out in favor of more urban places to the north – especially in Denver,” Mahan said.

Of course, those issues aren’t new. It’s not unusual to overhear a conversation where the hook is how state government has neglected Pueblo and southeastern Colorado, whether that be in jobs, infrastructure resources or education, all umbrella issues that a governor — opposed to a congressman — could more quickly create lasting impact.

For the issues Pueblo and its constituents face, there isn’t always a hard line between whether it falls in the jurisdiction of a governor or a congressman. The Polis campaign says this is particularly true with healthcare.

“Jared has a strong record of championing bold solutions to expand healthcare access and reduce costs, some of that can be applied at the state level such as pricing transparency,” said Polis’ campaign spokesperson Mara Sheldon. “That is why Jared has been traveling the state, hearing from Coloradans on what is working and not working. Jared’s guiding principles on healthcare reform are that he supports changes that expand access, reduce costs, and maintains quality.”

But the question, given the concerns of those who attend the meet and greets, remains: can Polis do more at home than back in Washington, where a lot of people’s political anxiety seems to be rooted?

“Yeah, probably so. Unless maybe he ran for Senate in 2020,” Munoz said. “But even still he could probably do more for Colorado ASAP if he becomes governor.”

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