Barbara McLachlan’s career in the Colorado Legislature comes to a close (2024)

The four-term representative reflects on her time in the statehouse

Barbara McLachlan’s career in the Colorado Legislature comes to a close (1)

Colorado State Rep. Barbara McLachlan, seen here on June 28 in Durango. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Jerry McBride

Barbara McLachlan will soon end her political career.

She has represented Colorado District 59 in the state Legislature since 2017, and is leaving the Legislature early next year because of state term limits.

McLachlan is the only representative of the district to consecutively serve the maximum eight years, as term limits were added to the state constitution in 1991.

McLachlan, a popular representative in the Colorado Statehouse and former Durango High School journalism teacher, won her last election with more than 56% of the vote.

Connecting with people

Although McLachlan was always passionate about and involved in democratic politics, she never intended to run for office.

Her husband, Mike McLachlan, ran for the state Legislature seat in 2012, and she began campaigning with him, knocking on doors and talking with voters about issues. She enjoyed working with her husband on the campaign and in the statehouse so much that in 2016, she was persuaded to run for the seat herself.

McLachlan knew that the one-on-one discussions she had with constituents would be the lifeblood of her political career. While she was in office, answering calls and letters that she received helped her shape her legislative agenda.

“When I would come home during the session, I would meet with a lot of people and travel throughout the district, doing a town hall, saying what I had done, but also listening, because that’s where my bills would come from, was from listening to people about what they thought needed to be done,” she said.

McLachlan said she learned a lot from her constituents. Hot-button issues in the Southwest, like water and the environment, were not areas where she had experience, and so she crafted her policy based on the connections she made with voters.

Bipartisan cooperation

McLachlan also prioritized connections across the aisle while in office. At the beginning of her tenure, Democrats held only a narrow majority in the statehouse and a minority in the state Senate, so bipartisan work was strategic and efficient.

Even though that has changed over time, as Democrats now hold a supermajority in the state Legislature, McLachlan still values bipartisanship. She served on the Agriculture Committee, the only committee to with a Republican vice-chairperson, and she said that model led to more bipartisan bills.

“It’s kind of hard to say there’s a Democratic way to grow food and a Republican way to grow food, or that water is one party or the other,” she said. “It was kind of one for all and all for one there.”

District 59 is made up of La Plata, Archuleta and San Juan counties, plus part of Montezuma County. Archuleta and Montezuma counties both lean Republican, another reason McLachlan prioritized relationships across the aisle.

“If I want to meet with a senator or the legislators who are nearest to me, they’re Republicans, and if I ignore them, I’m ignoring part of my district,” she said. “I represent a lot of Republicans, so I think it’s to my benefit to say I should be listening to Republicans and I should be listening to Democrats, and I should be listening to unaffiliated (voters).”

Education at the forefront

As a former Durango High School teacher, education took center stage in McLachlan’s policymaking.

She said the biggest challenge facing educators on the Western Slope has always been money. She was chairwoman of the House Education Committee for six years. In her last legislative session, she helped get rid of the Budget Stabilization Factor, a post-2008 recession tool that pulled billions of dollars out of Colorado schools.

McLachlan said one of the greatest wins of her political career was the passage of HB19-1262, which funded full-day kindergarten across the state.

“I got letters from parents to say they got their deposit for kindergarten back today, and now they can buy new shoes and school supplies and go out to dinner with the kids,” she said. “Parents were paying for what had been considered free education in many areas and then districts like Durango kind of got that money back.”

Her calm and commanding disposition, a byproduct of her teaching career, gave McLachlan a leg up in the Legislature as well. She understood that staying calm when emotions run high was almost always the most productive approach to “14-year-old behavior” in the classroom and the statehouse.

Moving forward

McLachlan has endorsed democrat Katie Stewart to replace her, but she faces a tough decision the District 6 state senate race.

She has worked closely and become good friends with the incumbent Republican, Sen. Cleave Simpson. Although she has given money to the campaign of Simpson’s opponent, Vivian Smotherman, McLachlan has stopped short of endorsing Smotherman.

“It’s hard to endorse and feel like you’re not stabbing your friend in the back,” she said.

McLachlan wants to continue working after she leaves office, although she has no interest in running for a new position. For the time being, she hopes to travel and spend time outside.

“I’d like to go visit all the national parks in the country and see what I’ve been missing,” she said.

Barbara McLachlan’s career in the Colorado Legislature comes to a close (2024)
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