Campaigning takes place along the fault line in American life. Sometimes, it feels like the ground could open up and swallow us all.
Yesterday I participated in the Women’s March in Cortez in the morning, attended by several hundred fired-up liberals. That evening, I attended the Nucla-Naturita Chamber of Commerce Annual Banquet, where Marta and I found ourselves sitting with my likely Republican opponent, Rep. Marc Catlin, and his wife, Kerri, along with his predecessor as State Representative from the 58th, Don Coram, who is now a State Senator.
The tribal contrasts from morning to evening could not have been sharper.
Like Montrose, Cortez is attracting a growing population of liberals. They are drawn to both cities by the outdoors Colorado lifestyle, but are priced out of the other cities on the Western Slope, like Glenwood Springs and Durango, that are a bit closer to the mountains and have already been gentrified. A big part of the appeal of Montrose and Cortez is the still-affordable housing, (though there are concerns that house prices are rising quickly). Some of these new arrivals are older and retired; some are younger and starting families. Their growing influence seems to put Cortez and Montrose on a trajectory to become, potentially, the next Glenwood and Durango.
One of the speakers at the rally that preceded the Women's March was Mary Beth McAfee, a longtime county resident making her first bid for public office as a candidate for Montezuma County Commissioner.
MB described waking up after last year’s election and looking out at the gorgeous southwestern landscape from her home on a hill and thinking to herself, “Not here!” The deep feeling that we cannot allow Trumpism to roll over our Western Slope home was MB’s motivation to run; as it was for two other first-time candidates, Mike Lavey and Jonathan Walker, both running for the Cortez City Council; as it is for me, running for the Colorado House of Representatives.
The theme of speakers at the rally before the Women’s March, and concerns voiced by the many participants to whom I introduced myself during the march, would be familiar to any Democrat at the end of the first year of the Trump era. We see Trump and Trumpism as direct and immediate threats to ourselves personally, and to people like us. We see the fury on the right as an assault on democracy itself. Our core values are defense of civil rights for classes of citizens who have traditionally been outsiders: racial minorities, sexual minorities, women, immigrants, persons whose morality is not explicitly Christian; and defense of the public sphere, or those places supported by taxpayer dollars that are open to everyone. In Colorado, protection of vast public lands is a signature issue, because these lands provide the foundation for the Western lifestyle that drew us to the area in the first place.
These liberal core values lead inevitably to receptiveness to taxes that take more from those who have prospered most in our capitalistic society in order to provide services to everyone, without discrimination; and to voice support for laws and regulations that protect the public sphere from exploitation by private interests. At the same time, laws that regulate private behavior that is of no harm to anyone else are anathema.
These folks are my base, and I speak their language.
After the march, and after a lunch meeting of activists and candidates to discuss how we can work together in our campaigns, Marta and I typed up our notes in the comfortable Cortez Public Library, its floor-to-ceiling windows offering a great view of the incoming storm, before driving two hours north, through the virtually unpopulated Disappointment Valley and Dry Creek Basin to Naturita and Nucla. We arrived early enough for a drink at the one bar in Naturita, at The Rimrock Hotel. We were welcomed at the restaurant, Uncle Reed’s Good Grub, by none-other-than the owner, “Uncle Reed.”
The place was quiet, he explained, because of the Nucla-Naturita Area Chamber of Commerce banquet set to begin in about an hour. We sat at the bar and chatted. Primed by my experience in Cortez earlier to readily introduce myself, I told Uncle Reed I am a candidate for the state House of Representatives. We shared a little data about ourselves: he arrived in Naturita by air in the mid 2000’s, landing his plane at the Nucla airport “because my wife had to pee,” took one look at the landscape and down-at-their-heels neighboring towns, and decided to stay. He bought the rundown motel and spent over a million dollars to upgrade it. He had been living in Denver, and later Las Vegas, but had grown to hate living in the city.
I told Uncle Reed that my father had been a uranium prospector in the region in the 1950s. A middle-aged couple who had come into the restaurant and were sitting nearby joined the conversation. The man had been a uranium miner, he said, for twenty years.
“One of my earliest childhood memories is playing with my father’s Geiger Counter,” I said. “There were boxes of ore samples I assume were radioactive.”
“And see, you look like you’re all right,” said the former miner’s wife.
“You can test the ore by putting in in your mouth,” her husband said, as if to affirm that exposure to uranium is harmless. “You can taste it.”
The miner appeared healthy, too, although very likely less prosperous than he was when the mines were open.
I asked Uncle Reed if he would ever vote for a Democrat.
“Why is that?”
“The Democrats have done such galling things at the State Capitol,” he said.
“What have they done that galls you?”
“The legislature has been taken over by the homosexual lobby,” he said. “They’re in there with their partners, and it disgusts me. I’m old fashioned. I don’t care what they do, but they should keep it private.”
“What else?” I asked.
“I don’t like legal marijuana,” he said. “They say it generates taxes, but I don’t think it does a bit of good.”
“Well,” I said, “it keeps a lot of people out of jail who really don’t need to be imprisoned.”
“I’ll agree that’s good,” Uncle Reed said.
“You’ve mentioned two social issues,” I said.
He nodded, and then said he was glad that the new administration in Washington was going to stimulate the oil and gas industries. He cited the opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling as a policy change he welcomed.
“That area where they want to drill is the size of a postage stamp in a huge wild area,” he said. “We can extract oil there easily, and we should.” He asserted that the State of Colorado should not subsidize renewable energy, which is only good “when the wind blows and the sun shines.”
“Wind and solar already provide ten, fifteen percent of electricity in a lot of places,” I said.
“When the wind blows and the sun shines.”
Uncle Reed called it right. I don’t think I can win his vote. And yet, he offered me a free room when I return to the area to do a “meet and greet.”
“I respect anyone who sticks his neck out,” he said.
“Well, my neck is stuck out pretty far,” I rejoined.
Marta and I headed out to the Chamber of Commerce Banquet.
Small-town America is has been sentimentalized in countless movies, country and western songs, church sermons and political speeches. But the celebrated heartland values of loyalty, patriotism, religious faith, neighborliness, and self-reliance were on full and authentic display at the banquet for roughly 120 adults. They were a tightly knit community of friends and neighbors who all seemed to know how each other’s children are doing; and are working cooperatively to advance their town. Marta and I, seemingly the only strangers, were welcomed warmly.
What were the odds that Marta and I, who arrived early, would pick seats next to where Dianna Reams, the Chamber of Commerce president, would choose to sit, with her husband, John, soon to be joined by my Republican opposition? Maybe it wasn’t exactly a coincidence. Sooner or later my path and Marc Catlin’s were bound to cross. I had sent him an email shortly after I decided to run against him, and he replied cordially. We had wished each other luck. In his email reply, he had added, graciously, “I know you care about the 58th House District.”
There were endless door prizes, donated by local businesses; a display of local arts and crafts for sale; entertainment from gifted singer-guitarist Ethan Archer (check out his compelling cover of the Black Crowes’ “She Talks to Angels”), home for the weekend from college in Grand Junction; Dianna’s summary of how much progress the community has made in the past year; and the introduction of the visiting politicians.
Sen. Coram is Dianna’s partner in a nearby hemp-growing business, one of the region’s economic development activities, and very popular. He is also a very shrewd and talented politician, who, after serving three terms in the state house, was appointed to a senate seat. His house seat was, in turn, filled by the appointment of Rep. Catlin. Both Coram and Catlin are up for reelection to their seats in November. If either will face a primary prior to reaching the general election ballot, I’m not aware of it yet. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the canny Coram run for Congress someday.
I was introduced first, and, not knowing the ropes, kept it short, saying I had already introduced myself to a number of the people in the room and hoped to meet the rest in the course of my campaign. Catlin, who was better prepared, or, perhaps, just more in sync with the vibe, told the crowd how proud and impressed he was by their progress in demonstrating just how a rural community faced with economic challenges can build its own future.
If civil rights is a core Democratic value, the corresponding Republican value is self-reliance.
Sen. Coram began by telling a joke. It seems a Newfoundlander found a lamp and rubbed it. When the genie asked what he wished for, the Newfoundlander asked for eternal life. The genie said that wasn’t possible, and told him to make a different wish. The Newfoundlander thought a moment and said, “I want to live until the day a liberal government lowers taxes and balances a budget.”
The genie said, “You are a sneaky bastard.”
The crowd laughed. I wondered why the protagonist in the story was from Newfoundland.
Then Sen. Coram described a state-funded economic development program that had given out millions – was it a hundred million? I couldn’t quite hear – in loans to businesses in Denver and Boulder and Fort Collins, and, yes, one tech startup in Telluride (but nothing else in rural Colorado). As an aside, he noted that not all of those loans will be paid back. So, Coram said he threatened to sponsor a bill to cut the program’s remaining budgeted $18 million in half and give the other half to rural Colorado; the agency director asked Coram not to run the bill, and promised to award the $9 million to rural Colorado herself.
Some of that $9 million, Coram said, would be coming Nucla’s and Naturita’s way in 2018.
Sen. Coram, you are a sneaky bastard . Or, is it that you’re a natural conservative politician?
In brief remarks, Coram had adroitly identified spendthrift liberals as the polar opposite of those folks at the banquet, whom he praised specifically for their self-reliance and for “not looking for a handout,” and yet, in the next breath he reported delivering his proud constituents with the very state support that is shameful when liberals in Denver, Boulder and Fort Collins, and, not incidentally, Telluride, grab it for themselves. His constituents, one imagines, given their sterling character, to which he had just paid tribute, will be a far better bet to to pay the loans back than those shifty, lefty tech startups.
Coram later won a pocketknife as a door prize. I saw it clearly, since he was sitting across from me, and the labeling described it as an “outdoor edge razor-lite EDC knife.” I felt that Coram had skillfully gutted me, as the liberal in the room, with the razor-sharp rhetorical equivalent of that knife. I wondered for the rest of the evening who I could be, or what I could possibly say, to the good people at that banquet that would separate them from Coram and Catlin, politicians who not only know them a lot better than I’m likely to get to know them no matter how hard I try, but who are of them.
Underlying this entire dynamic is the fact that as tight-knit and forward-thinking as the residents of Nucla and Naturita and the West End are, they feel every bit as threatened by Denver, Boulder and Telluride liberals as the Cortez liberals feel threatened by Naturita conservatives. Liberals want to take their guns, threatening forms of recreation -- shooting and hunting -- that are as prized as hiking, skiing and camping are to liberals. Liberals want to undermine traditional families by sanctioning gays, allow illegal immigrants to compete for scarce jobs, and take money from those who have worked hard for it so they can give it to people looking for a handout. Then, for good measure, liberals want to impose dumb regulations on private business that make it harder for self-reliant people to succeed.
Several months ago, I saw Sen. Coram at a meeting of Indivisible in Ridgway, and he struggled to find the common ground with the anti-fracking activists there. I respected him for showing up, but that doesn’t mean I’d vote for him or that he won many, if any, other votes at that meeting. In Nucla last night, I sensed that he couldn’t entirely dismiss me, because I showed up. He has to hope, and maybe assumes, maybe accurately, that few voters in his base would consider voting for me.
It’s been a long time since a Democrat fought for votes in Nucla and Naturita, at least a couple of generations. The demographics suggest that the Republicans don’t need to compete for votes from the Democratic-leaning voters in the 58th House District, whereas I surely need to win swing votes to have a prayer of winning. But what has got to have Coram and Cantlin thinking is that while the progressives in southwestern rural Colorado may still be a minority, we are an increasingly vocal minority, and we just might be growing in substantial numbers. From the rural and conservative perspective, progressives have already conquered Denver, Boulder, Fort Collins and …Telluride. We’ve made inroads in Glenwood and Durango. Maybe they are already lost. Are Montrose and Cortez next?
In fact, it is this very sense – that nationwide, progressives could grow to outnumber conservatives – that underlies Trumpism. The rural culture in Nucla and Naturita and likely all over rural America is not much changed since the 1950s, except that it is facing greater economic headwinds and threats to its very survival. Ghost towns in the rural west happen with regularity, after all. Conversely, the culture embodied by the Cortez Women’s March is something new: multicultural, diverse, secular, foreign. From the conservative perspective, Donald Trump may be embarrassing, but he’s light years preferable to multicultural, diverse, secular and foreign!
Given all of that, what to make of the fact that the driving forces behind the Nucla-Naturita economic development program are impressive, strong women? The emcee at the banquet dinner was Doylene Garvey of Garvey Brothers Outfitters and Garvey Brothers Land & Cattle, a natural comedienne, who spoke proudly of her daughter Sara Bachman, who has come home after a decade away to open a local law firm. Chamber President Dianna Reams leads with obvious skill and dynamism. The chamber’s visitor center is run by charismatic Norwood native Amanda Tomlinson. Nucla native Aimee Tooker, president of the West End Economic Development Corporation, has overseen impressive economic startup activity, not to mention she recently opened her own business on main street in Nucla, the Tabeguache Trading Company. WEEDC's economic recovery coordinator is yet another impressive woman, Deana Sheriff. This team is an advertisement for empowered women everywhere.
Rapid change happens along all vectors at the same time. The changes are social, political, technological, and economic. Heck, even our climate is changing. This has put enormous strain on democracy, because change displaces some communities while it spares or even advantages others. What used to be political differences in ideology or policy preferences have morphed into deep tribal and cultural differences. As the fault lines deepen into fissures, the ground beneath our feet shifts and shakes. Our best hope for survival is to stand on common ground, which is the safest ground, or we really could fall into the abyss.
Common ground is the only message I’ve heard that resonates, for the most part, with both sides. This is the good that can, that might, culminate in November 2018, in a necessary reaction to Trump.