An energy economist from Durango who supported the presidential run of U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minnesota, and has donated to local Democratic Party candidates has been selected as an unaffiliated representative on the 12-member commission that will draw new boundaries for Colorado’s U.S. congressional districts.
Lori Smith Schell said she is a friend with state Rep. Barbara McLachlan, D-Durango, and has donated to her political campaigns.
She also said she and her husband, Jeff Schell, who is a Democrat, share a bank account, and she felt her husband and her political donations should be disclosed.
“Part of our donations was to Barbara McLachlan, who’s a personal friend; I think there was a Democratic fundraiser that we attended,” she said.
Asked if she believed her past history of supporting Democratic candidates would interfere with her ability to be fair to Republicans in drawing new congressional districts, Schell said, “I do not believe it will be an impediment.”
Asked if she had donated to Republican candidates as well, Schell said, “Not in this time frame.”
In November 2018, voters overwhelmingly approved Amendment Y by a 71% to 29% margin to create an independent commission to redraw congressional district lines after each U.S. census.
Previously, redrawing the map for Colorado’s U.S. House of Representative districts was handled by the state Legislature. However, court challenges have emerged the last four times congressional districts were redrawn by the Legislature. Members of the party not in power have consistently claimed lines were gerrymandered – or drawn in a manner to favor election of members of the party that was in control of the Legislature.
Creating the Independent Congressional Redistricting Commission was viewed by its proponents as a way of reducing political influence in redrawing congressional maps.
An added variable this year is that Colorado is expected to gain another seat in the U.S. House, bringing the state’s total number of U.S. House members to eight.
The redistricting committee has not yet had its first meeting. Schell was among the first six members of the commission randomly selected Feb. 2. The final six members of the commission were randomly chosen Monday.
Six criteria exist for the redistricting commission to draw new boundaries for U.S. House districts:
Each district should have about equal population.Each district should be made up of contiguous geographic areas.Each district should comply with the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965 and its amendments.Each district should preserve whole communities of interest and whole political subdivisions such as counties and cities.Each district should be as compact as possible.Districts should be drawn to maximize politically competitive districts.“I’ve been a lifelong unaffiliated. I have no ax to grind,” Schell said. “From my perspective, it’s a numbers game. Data is a powerful tool in whosever hands it is. And I would like to make sure that in the hands of this commission, that it is used to try and obtain these six criteria to the best of our ability.”
Schell, who holds a doctorate in mineral economics and operation from Pennsylvania State University, said she has always registered unaffiliated and has never voted a straight ticket during any election.
Schell is the founder and president of Empowered Energy, a consultancy that has included analysis work for the U.S. Department of Energy and Los Alamos National Laboratory. Empowered Energy focuses on examination of renewable energy, natural gas, electric power and emissions.
Schell ran for the La Plata Electric Association board of directors in 2016, but was not elected. She served as the vice president of the International Association for Energy Economics in 2015-16 and has been a senior fellow and past president of the United States Association for Energy Economics.
Dick Wadhams, a Republican consultant and former chairman of the state Republican Party, said he does not know Schell, but said her past record supporting Democrats undermines confidence in the Colorado Independent Congressional Redistricting Commission.
He said: “I don’t know how any reasonable person could look at the fact that she has apparently been active on behalf of Democrats in the past and was a backer of Amy Klobuchar’s presidential campaign – those are definitely signs of Democratic activism – and not come to the conclusion that her selection violates at least the spirit of the redistricting commission. I think it undermines the confidence that voters should have in members who are allegedly unaffiliated.”
Further adding to Wadhams’ distress about the nature of the unaffiliated members added to the commission, another unaffiliated member, Jolie Brawner of Denver was a supporter of the presidential campaign of Bernie Sanders, is an independent member of the U.S. Senate who caucuses with the Democrats and describes himself as a democratic socialist.
“I’m perplexed by this. I think it’s unfortunate. I think it undermines the confidence that voters should have in unaffiliated members,” he said. “It certainly raises red flags for me.”
Wadhams said he hoped Schell is honest in her assessment that her past political campaign contributions won’t taint her work on the redistricting commission.
“There’s no recourse. She’s been appointed. So it’s a done deal,” he said. “And I hope she takes her work seriously as somebody who’s supposed to be nonpartisan, unaffiliated. I hope she’s capable of doing that.”
Republican Tom Compton, a La Plata County rancher, former LPEA board member and former president of the Colorado Cattleman’s Association, wrote a letter in support of Schell’s application to be considered for the redistricting commission.
Compton said he believes Schell can be fair and impartial serving on the redistricting commission.
“I’ve always been impressed with her ability to listen to me,” Compton said. “She can give her side of an argument and, I think, give my side of the argument a fair hearing. I have never noticed a sharp ideological bent on her part. I’m a fairly conservative Republican. And she and I differ on a lot of issues. But I was always impressed with her ability to be what I thought was fair.”
Joe Jackson, communications director for the state Republican Party, said the party has challenged more than 100 unaffiliated applicants to the redistricting commission based on “the applicants’ history of partisan campaign contributions.”
But he was not sure if the GOP had challenged Schell’s application.
“These applications were challenged based on the applicant’s history of partisan campaign contributions, partisan social media activity, disclosed activity that was partisan or a combination of all three. We want to make sure that those chosen to be unaffiliated members are actually unaffiliated voters – not secret Democrats or secret Republicans,” he said.
Jessika Shipley, staff director of the Colorado Independent Congressional Redistricting Commission, said Schell was not among the unaffiliated applicants challenged by the state Republican Party.
People selected as unaffiliated members of the Colorado Independent Redistricting Commissions must be listed as unaffiliated for at least the last five years.
This story has been updated to correct the spelling of state Rep. Barbara McLachlan’s last name in a quotation from Lori Smith Schell and to clarify U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders’ political affiliation.