Sonnenberg returns to farm after 16-year legislative career
When Jerry Sonnenberg, a farmer and rancher from Sterling, Colo., arrived in 2006 at the Capitol to serve as a freshman legislator on the House side, he was the only farmer on the floor. The day after his last session ended, he was home and planting corn.
On Monday, Sonnenberg said he was surprised by his grandson, Pake, leading the pledge to begin the day’s session on the Senate floor, a task he said Pake did exceptionally well. Sonnenberg was joined by his youngest son, Ryan, and his wife, Thea, as well as their daughter, Palmer. Sonnenberg was honored by his peers for his service as he exits, term limited in both chambers.
Sonnenberg said he’s happy to return to the farm and his family, especially his grandkids, though he hopes his public service career isn’t over. He has thrown his hat in the ring to be the next Logan County Commissioner. Current Commissioner Byron Pelton is running for Sonnenberg’s Senate seat, and he said given the conservative-leaning voter base, Pelton will likely be his replacement in Denver.
He said he will continue to be involved in policy, but is looking forward to being back on the farm and ranch on a regular basis. He joked that his return may be more of an adjustment for his family than anyone.
“I had a job interview not too long ago and when it was all done, the people interviewing told me, ‘you’re kind of old, you’re kind of stuck in your ways, and you’re kind of bullheaded’ and it was really hard to hear my sons talk about me that way,” he joked. “The truth is that it’s good to be home.”
Involvement in Colorado Farm Bureau spurred the beginning of Sonnenberg’s public service career as he served on various boards and committees, and he chaired the committee that wrote the first Right to Farm planning and zoning guidelines in Logan County. People encouraged him to be a voice for agriculture in Denver and he did so after some consideration.
Sonnenberg was term limited in the House the same year that then-Sen. Greg Brophy, also a northeastern Colorado farmer, was term limited, which allowed him to serve 16 consecutive years, a public service career he said he enjoyed immensely.
“I wore out a few vehicles driving back and forth,” he said. “You may not know this, but I spent a lot of time driving home, too, during the week if I didn’t have committee in the afternoon if they needed help with the cows in the winter or something.”
The miles were nothing new living in rural Colorado and representing a district comprised of 21,000 square miles, 11 counties, and 25% of the state’s school districts. Always an advocate for education, he said he visited teachers and students in every school district during his first year in the Senate. The tour took eight days.
A number of agriculture-savvy senators are departing, leaving a significant void, though Sonnenberg said Sen. Cleve Simpson, a farmer and water expert from the San Luis Valley and Rep. Rod Pelton, who will leave the House for the Senate will both be able to take up the slack. In the Senate, Don Coram, Chris Holbert, John Cooke, Kerry Donovan, Brittany Pettersen, and Ray Scott all concluded their Senate careers this week.
Moving forward, he said it’s important for those in agriculture to adopt urban legislators, building relationships prior to the introduction of devastating legislation to help them build connections to agriculture and rural areas that will serve them in supporting the industry.
“A number of people do this for a number of different reasons,” he said. “It’s a hard job to do because it pulls you from your family. I made the commitment to my family when I started that I will still come home on a regular basis to see your activities, whether it’s an FFA activity or a school program. That’s challenging for those of us in rural Colorado.”
On Monday, after grandson Pake’s pledge, Sen. Chris Holbert, minority leader, read the traditional tribute to Sonnenberg, outlining his 16 years of service in both the House and Senate. During his tenure, he served as the Senate president pro tem, the chair of the Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee, and the vice chair of the state veterans affairs committee. He served on a number of additional committees and chaired the Water Resource Committee.
Holbert said the story he wanted to say about “his friend, the farmer, who taught us all about food, fiber and fuel” is that “he fights for what he believes in, stands for what he believes in, but he’s one of the most pure gentlemen you’ll ever meet, never starting a meal without all seated and a prayer. He exemplifies what it means to be a senator, and before that, a representative.”
“God bless you, Jerry. Sonnenberg, God bless the Sonnenberg family, and God bless the constituents of Senate District 1 for sending this man, my dear friend, to represent you,” he said.
Sen. Kerry Donovan, chair of the Senate Agriculture committee, who is also ending her career at the Capitol, said in her eight years serving with Sonnenberg there are a number of stories she recalls about Sonnenberg.
Donovan said Sonnenberg has championed agriculture, rural communities, young people, healthcare, and the issues he has deemed most important to his district.
“Ag would look a lot different in this state right now without Sen. Sonnenberg’s voice at the Capitol,” she said.
Sen. Don Coram, a rancher who represents Montrose and is also concluding his service at the capitol, said he was sad to see — as he has jokingly referred to him many times — the good Senator from Nebraska leave.
“Jerry Sonnenberg is a guy out in the lead for rural Colorado,” Coram said.
Sen. John Cooke said Sonnenberg was his mentor when it came to issues around agriculture and water, a complicated subject he said, “only lawyers and Jerry can figure out.” He lauded Sonnenberg for his generosity and work ethic, always traveling his district to best represent it.
Sen. Rhonda Fields, D- Aurora, said she served with Sonnenberg in the House, and then the Senate, always observing his work and manner.
“You are the ultimate image of what statesmanship looks like,” she said. “You’re a very noble man, the way I see it, and it expresses itself in so many ways here.”
Fields said Sonnenberg always knows where he stands on an issue and has strong convictions about what is best for his constituents, rural Colorado, and agriculture.
“When you see him, you should not be confused about what he stands for because he tells those stories every time he’s down here so he’s given me a picture of what it’s like to run a farm or all the ag issues and challenges they face,” she said.
She said her appreciation and understanding of agriculture has grown and she has learned to never leave rural Colorado out of the decisions made at the Capitol.
Sen. Paul Lundeen, R- Monument said Sonnenberg is a strategist, a competitor, and a mentor.
“Politics is a tough business,” he said. “A lot of it is timing, a lot of it is luck, sometimes it’s generous and sometimes it punishes you. Jerry has always rolled with that and been able to and willing to lean on everything he has learned.”
Sen. Ray Scott, R- Grand Junction, said the best advice he was given by Sonnenberg was to “breathe and think” and it’s this calming effect he’ll miss.
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