Joe Garcia initially opts for the disclaimer when asked about his old home.
"It's a beautiful place," he says of Colorado Springs.
Then he pauses for a moment, as though considering his words carefully.
"It's a challenging environment, politically," he says finally, obviously referring to being a Democrat. "I think sometimes people there didn't value what a good infrastructure, and good schools, and a reasonable government could do to make the community better. In fact, in some ways, we put that community at risk by failing to invest in it."
Harvard Law School-educated Garcia, 53, was president of Pikes Peak Community College during its growth years of 2001 to 2006. He served on many boards in town, including those of the YMCA of the Pikes Peak Region, the Colorado Springs Regional Economic Development Corp., the Downtown Depot Arts District, the Pikes Peak Community Foundation and Goodwill Industries of Colorado Springs.
It all taught him an important lesson.
"I had to learn to work with people from the other side, or I never would have gotten anything done," he says. "And I think a lot of Republicans down [in the Springs] have come to respect the work I did, even if they don't like the party I'm affiliated with."
From the top
That could only help John Hickenlooper, who in August tapped Garcia to be his gubernatorial running mate.
If Hickenlooper wins, Garcia will have a lot to offer as lieutenant governor. He's worked as a Springs attorney in commercial litigation with Holme Roberts & Owen. He was appointed by Govs. Roy Romer and Bill Owens to the board of the Colorado Housing and Finance Authority, and served for more than a decade. In 1999, he was named one of 10 regional administrators for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development by the Clinton administration. Since 2006, Garcia has been president of Colorado State University – Pueblo, where he's credited with innovation in academics and race relations. (He's on unpaid leave and will resign if elected.)
As he has for years, Garcia's dedicating himself to the mission of educating more kids. In fact, when the Independent reached him, he was at the University of Denver, speaking to students.
"Just in these last couple weeks, I've been going around the state talking with students and college presidents, talking about both how they're doing and how the state can help them do better," Garcia says. "I'm asking a lot about what they're doing to maintain access for low-income people, especially at a time when we're all increasing tuition pretty dramatically to make up for the shortfall in state funding."
Garcia wants kids to be aware of the financial help that's available. He also hopes that as lieutenant governor, he'd be able to open more nontraditional doors to higher ed. For instance, Garcia wants to make it easier for kids to get college credit while in high school, move on to a community college, then transfer to a more expensive four-year university without losing any credits. Currently, that process can be confusing for students, many of whom end up taking classes that don't count toward their degree.
'A critical piece'
Technicalities aside, Garcia says the most important thing is that young people know what a difference a degree makes. It made a difference to him. And to his brothers and sister. And even to his mom.
"My mother, after we were all grown and gone, when she was 56, she started at a community college and earned her degree, both a community college degree and then going on to a four-year college," Garcia remembers. "She got her degree at, I think, the age of 63.
"I talk to people a lot about education. That it's never too late, but the earlier you start, the better. And I talk to them about the fact that I'm a pretty ordinary guy who just happened to be the beneficiary of a good education, and it's allowed me to do a lot of things. So there's value to pursuing it."
Yet education hasn't exactly been the hot-button issue of the 2010 election, something Garcia readily admits.
"I realize that in my role as lieutenant governor, my primary job is to support the governor in his initiatives, and his initiatives really are about improving the business climate in Colorado, and creating more jobs, creating more economic opportunity," Garcia says. "I think — and he thinks — that higher education is a critical piece of that. We can't turn around the economy if we don't have a good school system. And so that's my top priority, is to work with both K-12 and higher ed to improve educational opportunities, particularly for people from traditionally underrepresented groups."