February 2018: Let’s Talk

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Monday, February 5

I am in Denver, where I participated in a visit with state officials jointly sponsored by the three organizations that represent rural counties. The event consisted of presentations by department heads and legislative leaders to bring the group of visiting local officials, business leaders and interested citizens  from Colorado’s outback up to speed on the most pressing issues the state faces.

Those most pressing issues all revolve around money, or more precisely the shortage of money, because the state and the local jurisdictions within the state have all been handcuffed by provisions voters enacted into the state constitution during the “taxpayer revolt” of the 1980s and 1990s, severely restricting the government’s ability to raise taxes. The biggest problem is that both the Gallagher Amendment (restricting property taxes) and TABOR (the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights) ratchet down tax rates using inflexible formulas, while raising any tax always requires voter approval.  Rural counties and towns are particularly affected, because rural voters are so reluctant to raise taxes – realistically, they often can’t afford it – while richer and more urban counties have successfully raised taxes for local projects. As a result, parts of urban Colorado have better roads, schools, and medical and recreational facilities, and parts of rural Colorado fall further behind.

The good news is that there seems to be a growing understanding among members of  both parties that TABOR and Gallagher need to be addressed if the state is going to move forward. For me to get elected will require my sharing this understanding with voters in the 58th, and if I am elected, I will look forward to helping the state develop new ways of raising revenue for public investments.

Perhaps the biggest takeaway from the legislative visit is that there is a deepening recognition that the fortunes of urban and rural Colorado are inextricably tied to one another. Tourism centered on outdoor recreation is, after all, one of the state’s biggest industries ($28 billion in consumer spending in 2016, with tourism contributing another $19.7  billion). As Kelly Brough, CEO of the Denver Chamber of Commerce put it, Colorado prospers when it provides both good jobs and a high quality of life. The state can’t thrive if either one is lacking, and while metro Denver boasts a robust economy, the appeal of the surrounding mountains is an essential part of Denver’s attraction to businesses and employees. Conversely, the rural areas depend on the economic stimulus of countless visitors from urban Colorado.  While Denver must offer a high quality of life to go along with the good jobs it is currently generating, rural Colorado must offer good jobs to go along with the high quality of life it boasts.

Thus, to bring the state together, in the effort underway to craft a ballot question that voters will consider in November to fund $6 billion in transportation improvements, projects will be spread across the state and won’t focus simply on the urban I-70 and I-25 corridors. That may sound like a lot of money unless you consider there are already $9 billion in unfunded transportation projects in the state.  Still it will be an impressive feat if the ballot measure passes, because there hasn’t been a single new statewide tax increase since TABOR became law in 2005.

Also in Denver, I attended the annual state Democratic Party Dinner, newly renamed the Obama Dinner.  All of the state candidates were there, and there was plenty of optimism about the party’s prospects of holding on to the Governor’s Mansion, the State House of Representatives and flipping the one or two seats needed to take the State Senate. There is a broad consensus that the same motivation that has fueled my campaign is motivating Democrats everywhere to “run for something.” I’m looking forward to getting back on the campaign trail next week, so I can get back to meeting with voters for conversations about the issues that matter most to all of us, regardless of our political leanings.

Based on my conversations with fellow Democrats in Denver, I see two major challenges ahead for my campaign.

  • It is not easy to get in front of voters, especially for a candidate in a down ballot race like mine. The fact is, not many voters pay much attention to a state representative candidate.  So I have to double down on my efforts to find meetings to attend and hosts for small house parties.  If I could figure out how to schedule it, I would gladly do multiple events and appearances every single day between now and the election. Or, to be less qualified in expressing this: I will figure out how to schedule myself so that I can do multiple events every single day!
  • It won’t be easy to raise what I’m told is the minimum of $100,000 to run a competitive race. I’ve been slow out of the gate on my campaign (starting in mid-November) but remittance envelopes are printed (at last) so I’ll be making a more explicit pitch for donations at all future events.

But there’s been progress too, particularly in terms of my ability to speak about the issues. I’m learning, from experience, how to both avoid partisanship and speak honestly with voters who are deeply skeptical of Democrats.

Attendees at my most recent house party, hosted in late January by Jane Ryan and Sharon Hoffman in Montrose, was mostly Democrats, and there’s nothing wrong with that. By and large, Dems are fired up to push back against Trump.  Speaking to a group of Dems brings out my inner partisan, which made at least one of the guests uncomfortable.  To her credit, she spoke up.

She observed the appeal of Donald Trump and Don Coram (not to conflate them) is folksiness, or an ability to connect with average voters. She mentioned Bill Clinton, too.

“I know a lot of Democrats are comfortable using intellectual language,” she said. “But it doesn’t connect with everyone.”

This goes to the cultural divide that has become congruent with the political divide. Without her saying it, part of what I heard is that I’m not folksy, or relatable to average voters, of whom she was one.

“I hear what you are saying,” I said. “But the problem is I can’t be what I’m not. So, the question is, Can average voters consider voting for me if I meet them and we have an honest conversation?”

If there was too much partisanship in my presentation for a self-described average voter, would less partisanship turn off Democrats? If I’m neither folksy nor a centrist, then why am I running in the first place?

So, I emailed this voter the day after the house party and sent proposed language for me to use at future meetings with voters. She responded that she liked it.

I am planning to start out my next meetings with this:

“Hi everyone. I don’t have any idea if you are a Democrat, a Republican or Unaffiliated, or a strong Democrat or a strong Republican or a swing voter or someone who has given up on voting altogether.  But whatever your leanings may be, I want to start out by telling you that I’m a Democrat and I want your vote. That may be enough said about political parties tonight, because I would like to focus on the issues we all care about.”

Knowing myself, I will struggle to keep it that short and sweet. But what may be workable is that I won’t be hiding who I am, a Democrat; at the same time, I won’t make that aspect of my identity the center of the discussion that follows. People I’m meeting keep telling me they don’t want me to attack the other side – not even Donald Trump! – which they see as partisanship, plain and simple. They want a positive message about what I will do if elected.

That is just what Steve Bullock said. Bullock is the Democratic governor of Montana, and won by four points in 2016, in the same election that Trump won the state by 20 points. Bullock was the keynote speaker at the Obama dinner, where he pointed out that a lot of Trump voters also voted for him. He won, he said, by “showing up” in every corner of his state to talk about issues. As governor, he continued to show up in every corner of the state to discuss the importance of expanding Medicare, in part to help keep rural medical facilities afloat; and he managed to get it done, working with a Republican-dominated legislature.

It sounds like hard work but strategically simple.

Maybe it is that simple: Let’s talk.

Thursday, February 22

If a gun doesn’t get you, the NRA just might.

Gun rights versus gun control jumped to the top of the issues list after the Parkland mass shooting last week. And is it increasingly clear to me, on the campaign trail, how and why the gun issue is in a class all its own as a wedge issue that defies resolution.

More than any other issue, the right to bear arms aligns perfectly with the core conservative-Republican-rural value of self-reliance.  If you own a gun you don’t need to rely on the police to defend yourself and your family. You don’t need to visit City Market to buy meat. On top of that, the NRA and Republican Party have done a masterful job over decades of persuading gun owning voters that to regulate guns even slightly would be a violation of a Constitutional right. While those who favor gun control often feel helpless to curb gun violence because there are so many guns already in circulation, conservatives make the same argument. Gun restrictions won’t work, they say, because a person determined to carry out an attack will always be able to find a weapon, one way or another, on a black market if necessary.

The only real solution to epidemic gun violence, in this construction, would be the near-total elimination of guns in circulation by means of confiscation, which is precisely the fear the NRA stokes. Confiscation seems undoable legally, politically and practically; the alternative of massive buy backs of guns, would take decades, if it worked at all.  Neither side in the debate can imagine how a significantly sharp reduction in the number of guns in circulation in America is possible. This leaves the gun control side with having to propose partial measures that try to avoid threatening the majority of gun owners, but which the gun rights proponents immediately deride as ineffective.

Why infringe on a guy owners Constitutional right if it won’t solve the problem you’re trying to solve? the gun rights advocate asks.

Well, the gun control advocate counters, because partial measures do in fact reduce gun violence.

Then the conversation ender:  No, they don’t.

I was speaking with a woman in Dove Creek this week, who served up all of the arguments against gun control: you can’t stop a determined killer; new restrictions would just be more bureaucracy, and they wouldn’t work anyway. When I suggested that the United States has by far the biggest death rate from guns among the developed nations in the world, she said: “That’s fake news.”

“How is that?” I asked

“Those other nations just don’t report it,” she said.  Of course, those other nations may not have as many guns in circulation, she allowed, but in the United States, there are hundreds of millions of guns in circulation, so laws banning the purchase of new guns would just create the black market, even if regulation prevents a psycho from acquiring a gun legally.

The circular arguments take us back to where we start from: it’s all hopeless.

The unshakeable belief that any push for gun control is a plot against self-reliant folks has been a primary source of Republican political power, if not the primary source of it. On virtually every other issue I can think of, there is the possibility of common ground, or room for compromise, or the intransigence on one side or the other is held by a small minority with limited voting clout. On guns, Republicans have a large base of voters who deeply believe that it is heresy to give an inch on gun rights, and they vote that belief over all others. It seems that most gun owners are more than willing to let Republicans have drastic tax cuts for the uber wealthy even if it means running up the deficit; the shredding of the social safety net; poorly funded schools; unaffordable health insurance; Russian interference in U.S. elections; and a pussy-grabbing adulterous and authoritarian president – just so long as the Republicans defend their gun rights.

The gun issue is thus a perfect metaphor for this crucial moment in American history because guns take over 33,000 American lives every year at the same time that the politics of guns are one of the cornerstones of partisanship, benefitting Republicans and hurting Democrats. In the Trump era, Republican governance seems, to put it charitably, deeply risky in the realms of international affairs, environmental policy, and the survival of American democracy. This is how the gun issue may do great damage to you – it could kill you – even if you are not the victim of a shooting, by sustaining these radical Trump Republicans now in power.

So, with that, back to the campaign – in an election cycle where every week the stakes just seem to get higher, even in the trenches of the District 58 race for state representative.

Last week I worked with Matt McGovern of the Colorado Democratic Party to figure out my path to victory. We worked with the database of voters in the 58th House District and determined that there are 15,298 “persuadable” voters behind a mere 11,204 doors in my universe. These are voters not so strongly Republican that they would be highly unlikely to vote for me or so strongly Democratic that they are likely both to vote and to vote for me.

Can I knock on enough of those doors between now and the election, to have enough conversations with enough voters to win enough persuadables to join with the Democratic base and form a winning majority?

Maybe, with the help of enough volunteers; maybe if I raise enough money to hire a campaign manager; maybe if I work hard enough.

Maybe, if Parkland has been transformative and the gun issue isn’t just too big to overcome.