GUNNISON, Colorado - State Rep. Kathleen Curry, D-Gunnison, announced on Tuesday that she is no longer a Democrat, after having been elected to her District 61 seat three times as a member of that party.
Curry, 49, has served in the Colorado General Assembly since 2005, and is up for her fourth and final election next year. If she wins - and she currently has no opponent - her fourth two-year term will be her last due to state-imposed term limits.
Curry's district includes the eastern portion of Garfield County, along with Eagle, Gunnison, Hinsdale and Pitkin counties.
She said she filed the paperwork at the Gunnison County Courthouse on Tuesday to change her party affiliation to "unaffiliated," the same as "independent," the day after she told House Speaker Terrance Carroll and Gov. Bill Ritter of her decision.
"I just don't fit into either party," she told the Post Independent late on Tuesday. "My votes are not consistently Democratic, they're whatever I think is best for the district, and I know that has sometimes been kind of a disappointment" to party leaders.
She noted that "there has never been an Independent in the House," which may pose procedural and administrative hurdles for the chamber's leadership as it figures out what to do in the wake of her decision.
"I really just need to be focused on the district" and dealing with the concerns of her constituency, she continued, calling the residents of her district "fairly independent themselves."
Carroll, D-Denver, said he was surprised by Curry's decision and unsuccessfully tried to talk her out of it.
"But it's who Kathleen is. She really is an independent thinker. She believes that political parties aren't her thing, and I understand and respect her for that," he said. "She made a decision that was best for her."
Besides her feelings of not fitting well with either party, Curry declared, "I'm also not a very partisan person," adding that partisan politics takes up too much of her time, time she feels would be better spent attending to the concerns of her district.
Political observers in the district had little expectation that Curry's move would either alter the balance of power in the Statehouse or endanger her chances of winning re-election in 2010.
"I don't think so, because I am sure she will caucus with the Democrats," said Garfield County Republican Chairman Milt Blakey, concerning the balance of political power in the assembly.
"It kind of doesn't surprise me," said Blakey's co-chair, Shannon Stowe, adding that Curry never has been a stalwart of her party.
"I feel she does what she feels is right," Stowe said, adding that she is not aware of any Republican challenger ready to take a shot at Curry's job.
Curry has run unopposed the last two elections - 2006 and 2008.
Garfield County's Democratic chairman, Ed Sands of Rifle, had not heard that Curry was switching her affiliation, and noted that Curry is signed up to be a guest speaker at the local party's annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day fundraiser and formal dinner.
Sands, too, doubted that Curry's decision will cause trouble for the Democrats, noting that "she's a very good member [of the Assembly], and has strong support from the Democratic rank and file and leadership out here in her district."
But the chair of the state Democratic Party, Pat Waak, said in an e-mail to the Post Independent, "We have always welcomed diversity in the Democratic party so we are saddened that Rep. Curry has found it necessary to change her party affiliation. In keeping with our general policy, we will recruit a Democrat for each of the seats for the 2010 election."
Curry herself was not so sure she will be caucusing with the Democrats, pointing out that that is where they work out intra-party issues and conflicts and she is no longer in the party.
"I don't know," she said when asked about the caucusing issue. "If they invited me, I might. I can't imagine that they would invite me."
Her switch of affiliation will require the Gunnison lawmaker to relinquish her positions as speaker pro tem and chairwoman of the House Agriculture Committee.
She expects to retain at least one membership in a committee, since that is the privilege of all members "regardless of their affiliation." Curry currently is listed as speaker pro tempore as well as chair of the Agriculture, Livestock and Natural Resources Committee and a member of the Appropriations Committee.
Curry explained that she has liked holding the chairmanship, but her constituents don't seem to see such positions as terribly important.
She noted that, over the course of five years, she has had considerable support from independents and Republicans, as well as Democrats, who "focus more on the person, rather than the party label."
In her first term, she was named chair of the House Agriculture Committee, an unusual appointment for a freshman.
Before Curry's defection, Democrats held a 38-27 majority in the House.
As a self-described "conservative Democrat," she said, "I haven't changed as a person. The votes are what matter, and I'll still be voting the way I always have, which is leaning toward the Democratic party's position."
Curry acknowledged that her decision might throw a monkey wrench into Democratic plans to hold onto the District 61 seat after she leaves.
"It sounds crazy; I'm going into my last two years, and now that opens up the seat" to a strong challenge by Republicans, she conceded.
But, she added, "I didn't want to blind side them [Democrats]," by leaving the decision to a later time. By announcing it now, she leaves it open for the Democrats to try to unseat her if they want to.
According to the Colorado Secretary of State, the latest voter breakdown for District 61 shows 15,424 unaffiliated voters, 13,580 Democrats and 10,674 Republicans.
Curry registered as an unaffiliated voter too late to run as one in next year's election. Curry said she had already planned to introduce legislation next year making it easier for those who switch to unaffiliated to get on the ballot. The bill would reduce the time a person needs to be unaffiliated to run as one.
But Curry said she probably is going to have to run as a write-in candidate, which she admitted isn't an easy feat.
Garfield County is split into two House Districts, with Republican Randy Baumgardner representing the District 57 seat. He won that district, which includes the western part of Garfield County, in 2008.
The Denver Post contributed to this story.