March 2018: Reaching Beyond the Base

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Friday, March 5

“We’re just sick of politics,” people say. “We hate partisanship.”

I am working to understand what this means for my campaign. Most recently, I’ve concluded that I’m overthinking it.

To me, “partisanship” means blind allegiance to a party, which suggests an inability of a person to think for himself.  It means a reflexive dislike for a person from the other party, and dismay with the way that political differences have become deeply personal, to the degree that party affiliation can be a reason to drop a friend, or even a family member.

For most people, it’s probably simpler than that. Most voters don’t pay all that much attention to the reasons why there are parties with different priorities and philosophies. They just see what looks like constant squabbling that leads to nothing getting done. Compounding this, depending on where they live and who they hang out with, they hear lots of trash talk about one party or the other. The monikers Democrat or Republican only signify division.

“We just care about the issues,” these anti-partisan voters say.

To a politico, every issue breaks down along partisan lines. There’s a conservative way to think about the issue and a liberal way to think about it. To many voters, the issue is just the issue with a “common sense,” pragmatic solution, political parties be damned.

So, should I be identifying myself as a Democrat to these less politically engaged voters?

Recently I noticed that most politicians, at least in purple Colorado, don’t use the party label on their websites or campaign literature. This struck me as nonsensical, because surely voters care which party a candidate represents. I have thought that voters, above all, want straight-talk in a candidate.

So, hell yeah, I’m a Democrat! How’s that for authentic?

Trump, of course, never hides his partisanship: It’s his way or no way. You’re with him or against him. He’s never interested in extending an olive branch. He belittles anyone who disagrees with him. If anyone takes him on, he makes sure they are covered in mud. People who like him apparently feel that all this makes him authentic.

Then again, Trump’s incessant belligerence is surely one reason his approval ratings are in the tank. Very likely, a year of Trump in the White House is one reason many voters so intensely decry partisanship now.

How is it possible to run for office and rise above politics and party? There are real differences in people’s values, priorities and philosophies.  Parties coalesce around precisely these differences, which can’t be papered over. What’s more, isn’t the whole point of my candidacy to move voters toward progressive policies? I have wanted to win by telling voters who I am and what I want to accomplish and having them cast a vote for me because of all that, not because I haven’t revealed it to them.

I had resolved to put the words “Democrat” and “progressive” up front. I had observed that introducing myself to unaffiliated and Republican voters as a Democrat starts a conversation about how we can bridge the partisan divide. In any case, I couldn’t hide from my party affiliation even if I wanted to. Voters can sense a candidate’s party and surely notice it when they cast their ballot. If a voter is put off to read the word “Democrat” on a website or piece of literature, how will that voter overcome it when it’s time to mark their ballot for me?

On the other hand, Democratic political consultants and candidates working to win votes avoid the party label because they have powerful evidence it’s a turnoff to a lot of voters. More influential than that, my son Carlos has been insistent in telling me to drop “Democrat.”

“Most voters have no idea what Democrats stand for,” he argues. “They just hear the shit people say about Democrats. They hear you say you’re a Democrat and all it means to them is that you’re divisive. And that’s exactly the opposite of what you’re trying to do.”

Good argument.

A friend who does focus groups for a living and did some work for me came to the same conclusion. Swing voters and unaffiliated voters just don’t like the party label. It’s not that they object to my being a Democrat; it’s that they object to my trumpeting it.

I had imagined that unaffiliated voters were folks who sometimes vote Democratic and sometimes Republican, so what’s the problem with a party label? But, Carlos argued, most are unaffiliated because they don’t want to be associated with either party. In fact, “hate” is not too strong a word to describe how they feel about parties.

Yep. True, that. No doubt about it, really.

In my early campaigning I’ve met mostly with Democratic Party activists, and we’ve discussed partisanship and what it means to them. To a person, they’ve said, “Don’t you dare remove the word ‘Democrat’ from your literature!” Well, of course, they feel that way,we feel that way. We are activists for whom the party brand has mostly positive connotations.

Do Democrats lose in red districts because they waffle on their party affiliation and seem not to stand for anything? Or do they lose because they are just too Democratic for their districts? If it’s the latter, why bother to waffle? Then there are voters for whom Democrats are too establishment, or not nearly progressive enough.  So, maybe it really is this simple: we need to focus on the issues, and not the party.

Maybe a “progressive” idea can be fairly and legitimately described as “pragmatic.” Same idea, less partisan.  Words matter. Labels matter.

You’ll be glad to hear that, as a newbie politician, I’ve decided to split the difference.

No need for the word “Democrat” on my literature or website. Partisan Dems and Republicans will quickly grasp which party I’m affiliated with, but the unaffiliated won’t be put off just as quickly.

I can still introduce myself as a Democrat when it seems relevant or helpful to advance the discussion about finding common ground. In a conversation, I can respond in the moment to how people react.

This question has had to be resolved now because it’s time for me to reach beyond the Democratic base, to start talking to those unaffiliated and swing voters. Time to print up the literature and start knocking on doors. Messaging has been thought through, studied, practiced, and is ready for deployment.

Issues first, party second.

I guess we’ll find out how well that works!

Monday, March 19

RICHARD CRAIG and the candidate at the Nucla Navajo Taco Dinner on Friday, March 16. The gun rights zealot and the gun grabber found common ground on gun regulations and might even be fast friends! There are differences with other Nucla and Naturita residents that will be harder to bridge.

People in rural places in this district, downriver from Telluride, don’t like “in-stream flows.”  An in-stream flow is water allocated to the river, as if a river has “rights” similar to what a human user of water might have. In some circumstances, thanks to rules supported by environmentalists, water users aren’t allowed to draw so much water that the river runs dry. The sentiment is that human needs should have priority over trout.

But if people are so short of water that they have to consume every drop out of a river to survive, are they really surviving? Because in that case, never mind the trout, what will the people do when the river is dry?  Maybe an in-stream flow is more than a measure to protect the environment. Maybe it’s also a form of discipline that forces people to think more deeply about our water consumption. Maybe the real underlying problem is that there are more demands for water than the amount of water that falls from the sky.

Maybe the in-stream flow is not really the problem at all. Maybe it’s just a target for thirsty people’s frustration upon learning that there’s not enough water to go around.

I’ve been to Nucla and Naturita a few times in the last weeks. There, water is an issue but so are coal and uranium. The influence of “tree huggers” on how these resources are managed is not at all welcome. Tree huggers are not seen as messengers, reporting that the resource is scarce and must be managed mindfully, or warning that there are externalized costs associated with utilizing the resource – like health and environmental impacts – that won’t be ignored. The tree huggers, in the view of many folks whose jobs are lost, are the actual cause of economic privation.

A lot of the people in Norwood, Nucla and Naturita can trace their ancestry to Telluride. Great-grandparents mined gold and silver in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Just when the mines started to shut down in the mid-twentieth century, there was a uranium boom in the West End, fueling the growth of the towns of Nucla, Naturita and Uravan. Norwood, in between Telluride and the Nucla-Naturita area, was perfectly situated to support farming and ranching, part of a regional economy that worked pretty well. While Nucla, Naturita and Norwood are still inhabited, if no longer thriving, Uravan was deemed to be so toxic after uranium mining ended that it was erased from the earth by an Atomic Energy Commission reclamation project.

Most of the miners in the region started out as Democrats, because they were laborers, and Democrats supported the labor movement and fought the exploitation of labor by rich mine owners.  Over the years, Democrats and the labor movement dramatically improved the lives of the miners, raising mining from a job just marginally above slavery to a job that was still dangerous, but provided a good life. The unionized mining companies, at their peak, provided not only well-paying jobs, but health clinics, schools, and housing. A company town like Uravan was a good place to live. People who lived there remember Uravan with deep nostalgia.

With the decline of the company town as a way of life, those remaining miners and their descendants have turned bitterly against Democrats.

I was invited to the monthly Navajo Taco Night in Nucla by some of the handful of Democrats who live there. Navajo Taco Night is a fundraiser for the town’s Fourth of July celebration. There were thirty or forty people there. I was introduced and then made my way from table to table to hand folks a business card with my name, picture and some policy positions printed on it.

“What are you?” a woman asked, studying the card.

I wasn’t sure what she meant so she made herself clear: “Democrat or Republican?”

“I’m a Democrat.”

“We don’t like Democrats,” she said.

So much for my strategy of putting issues ahead of party, at least this time.

A younger man across from her and next to where I was standing growled, “Democrats kill jobs.”

A woman sitting with them sheepishly admitted she was a Democrat, not to express solidarity with me, but as a way of asking me to leave her out of the discussion.

The man was a coal miner, and the local coal mine and associated power plant are being shut down, a direct and immediate threat to the future of the town. He was likely already out of work, or soon would be.

“Well, coal use is being reduced everywhere,” I offered, not very helpfully.

“For no good reason,” the miner said.

“Because of emissions?” the first woman asked.

“It’s a complicated problem,” I said. “The utilities are moving away from coal because natural gas is cheaper. And even though some people don’t believe the emissions contribute to global warming, a lot of other people do, so there’s a global push to cleaner fuels like natural gas. It’s pretty hard for a place like Nucla to fight against huge global trends like those.”

“What about cars?” the woman said. “There’s way more cars than coal plants.”

“Well, there’s a move toward electric cars for the same reason,” I said. “And electricity from coal is a major source of carbon dioxide and natural gas is available as an alternative.”

“Coal is cheaper than gas,” the miner said.  I don’t think I contradicted him, but it wouldn’t have been necessary. “China is building hundreds of coal plants,” he added.

“China is pulling back from that,” I said. “And China is also producing more and more energy from renewables, more than we are. And we already getting close to twenty percent of our electricity from renewables like wind and hydro and solar panels.”

“What about the other eighty percent?” he asked.

“Well, a lot is coming from natural gas, which is cleaner and cheaper than coal. It’s a transition fuel away from carbon.”

“Don’t try to argue with me about coal,” he warned. “I know more about coal than you ever will.”

He couldn’t deny his job had been lost, but he insisted “there was no need.”  “No need” was his mantra, a sentiment anyone who has ever felt like the victim of an injustice can appreciate. The job was lost not to fate, but to the self-interested politics of tree huggers, Obama, and Democrats.

It’s important to note that the loss of coal jobs in Nucla and Naturita comes barely a generation after the loss of uranium jobs, for exactly the same reasons: it’s not economic to mine local uranium when there are huge supplies cheaper to mine in Australia, Canada and South Africa, and at a time when there is a diminishing demand for uranium. Moreover, there are environmental and health costs to mining and milling uranium, and generating electricity from it, which contribute to making it uneconomical.

This leaves the residents of Nucla and Naturita struggling to imagine a future without coal or uranium; and faced with likely water shortages. This is a riddle that would challenge the most sophisticated economic visionary.  West End residents kick around ideas: How about a hemp industry? How about a new reservoir? How about the upgrade, already in the works, for Nucla’s airport? How about snagging some of the recreational tourism centered on Moab to the west and Telluride to the east? How about attracting retirees?

But retirees would require modern medical facilities and, in fact, all of those possible futures come with similar caveats that make them seem unlikely. Who’s to say hemp will ever take off, and even if it did, why would Nucla and Naturita have any advantage in such an industry? Who would pay the millions for a new reservoir and is there enough water to keep it filled? What will draw planes to land at the airport? Tourism jobs might be generated, but they pay minimum wage.

Add to all that the misery imposed on the community even before the closure of the coal mine and power plant. How many older couples are raising their grandchildren because their children are battling opioids or alcohol? This is not a random question. I’ve talked to people like this who are, understandably, both proud of what they’ve been called upon to do and embarrassed that they had to do it. How many Nucla and Naturita residents are on welfare? Someone who should know told me the number is 38 percent, though I haven’t fact-checked it. There is really no need; the community’s poverty is evident.

We can talk reasonably about common ground issues, and I try.

“My father was a uranium prospector here in the early 1950s,” I say, to break the ice.  “I remember playing with a Geiger counter I found in his study when I was a toddler.”

“What was his name?” some old timers ask. Nobody has remembered him, of course, because there were thousands of lonely prospectors like him, roaming the canyons and mesas, Geiger counters in hand, looking for a fortune that only a few of them found. Had he staked a small claim and put down roots, I might have been born there, might have grown up there, could have become a Nucla old timer myself. The circumstance of our birth is the first momentous event in every life, and it sets the course for everything that follows.

I make it clear that, if elected to the state legislature, I will do everything I can to support the community’s heroic economic redevelopment efforts. I will fight for affordable health care and enough funding for education to allow the local school district to return from a four-day to a five-day school week. We can lament the harsh division in American society, and we can agree we have more in common than we have that divides us. We can find agreement on the wedge issues of guns, abortion and immigration.

But there is one wedge issue that is impossible to bridge, at least with true believers. His name is Donald Trump, the wedgiest of wedge issues, so I try to avoid him.  Sometimes that’s not possible, because what these Trump voters see is an irrational hatred of Trump, and of them for liking Trump, on the part of the tree-hugging, job-wrecking Democrats. From their perspective, we “elitists” are the source of the deep division in American society, not them.

One woman told me she was horrified by the hatred on a friend’s Facebook page after Trump was elected.

“You would have found the same anger on my Facebook page,” I said. “For people coming from where I come from, we were in a state of shock after the election, because Trump was just not acceptable.”

“That’s how I felt about Obama, especially when he was re-elected,” the woman said.  “But I accepted it. I didn’t go crazy over it and get nasty. I respected the office.”

This was not the first time I heard that argument. I heard it from a trainer at my gym right after the election, and have heard it repeated since.

“People on my side can’t understand that equivalence,” I said. “What did Obama do that was so divisive? I could understand if you were comparing Obama to Bush or Reagan. I didn’t like Bush or Reagan’s policies, but I didn’t find them intolerable, like Trump. Obama was so moderate, so sane, so decent. What did he do that you hated?”

“I admired that he was a good family man,” she acknowledged. “And I wanted to be proud that our nation elected a black man as president.

“But our economy died after he was elected.”

“The crash happened before he was elected,” I countered. “He turned it around.”

“Not here.  And he killed coal.”

“He was in support of moving the economy to cleaner energy,” I agreed.

“Global warming is a religion,” she said.

“It’s science,” I said. “It’s as real as the medical science that is treating your husband.”

Perhaps that was unfair of me. She had earlier confided that her husband has cancer. She shook her head.

“If we don’t share the same facts, how can we ever find common ground?” I asked.

“How could people in Telluride think that our little power plant here was hurting them?” she replied.

“That would be a foolish thing for them to say,” I said. “The power plant here didn’t cause Telluride any direct harm. But coal is being phased out because natural gas is cheaper for utilities. And many people do believe the science, which says we need to transition away from carbon as quickly as possible and so any reduction in the use of coal is a step in the right direction. Maybe it’s not politics but reality, the reality of economics and the environment, that is killing coal.”

I understand it’s a short journey for anyone to take, from losing their livelihood to believing the war on coal is part of a global-warming hoax to voting for Donald Trump. Trump and other Republicans have added a bunch of additional cultural signposts to speed the journey to the politics of resentment: things like their unqualified support for gun rights and blaming immigrants for all kinds of ills. I have come to see that the most potent of these cultural issues is resentment of the “elites,” and that’s because it is undeniable that success in life is being increasingly concentrated at the top of the income ladder. The rich are getting vastly richer while the working class stagnates at best, and the middle class is squeezed, and along with that come all sorts of sharper cultural differences.

How Trump, as the epitome of privilege, has positioned himself as a champion of working people is infuriating, but not hard to understand.  All Trump really had to do was embrace, for example, the fiction that there is a War on Coal. In an age of deepening tribal instincts, identifying with one of the two American tribes, red or blue, is just that simple.

I look, walk and talk like an “elitist.” I live in Telluride and wear too much black. And if there’s the slightest doubt, a person may ask: “What are you?”

“A Democrat.”

With all of that, when I introduce myself to a Trump voter, that person assumes instantly that I think he or she is a dumb shit. This puts that Trump voter in a defensive posture. For me to validate the vote for Trump as a reasonable political choice is close to impossible, if I’m honest, because everything about Trump is anathema to me.  It follows from the Trump voter’s perspective, that elitists like me are the source of the great division in American life precisely because we are so disdainful of Trump and his voters. To bring it back to Nucla and Naturita, there’s consistency in that view, because the War on Coal and our “religious” belief in global warming are, in fact, threats to their way of life.

We can discuss all of this amicably, but maybe this one time I lost it.

“I’m afraid you are in for a big disappointment,” I said to one staunch Trump defender. “Mueller has the goods on Trump and it’s all going to come out. A bunch of people close to Trump have already been found guilty. He’s a money launderer who was deeply in debt to Russians, and he conspired with Putin to win the election. The New York Times and The Washington Post are not fake news. They are reporting facts. It will all come out. It has to. What will you think then?”

“I will be very surprised.”

It was as if he’d only vaguely heard that Trump was being investigated and I was in the grip of a paranoid conspiracy theory.  My belief that the Russians interfered in our election was as fantastic to him as his belief that global warming is a gigantic hoax was fantastic to me.

“Do you feel we’ve had a good, respectful conversation?” I asked, after that undisciplined parting shot. “Even though we see some things very differently, we agree on a lot of issues.”

“We’ve had a good conversation,” he said.

We had managed to lay it all out there, without expressing disrespect or anger. I felt we could be friends, but I wondered if he could bring himself to vote for me.

Though they are a distinct minority, there are also a handful of Democrats in Nucla and Naturita.  I met with a group of them, at a meeting I organized with the help of a former resident of the area, Vicki Phelps, who now lives in Telluride, and Don Colcord,  the beloved pharmacist who’s famous as a rare West End Democrat.

That’s where water and in-stream flows came up.

“What do you think about water?” asked a man, who I later learned was Richard Craig. Richard, who is rail-thin, with a long white beard, is running for Mayor of Nucla.

“A big subject,” I said. “There’s not enough of it falling from the sky to meet all the demands for it. So, it has to be managed very carefully.”

Water is essential to agriculture, of course, which is a remaining source of livelihoods on the West End, but another natural resource that, like coal and uranium, is subject to all sorts of regulation that can seem arbitrary and unfair. Trout Unlimited, which fights to protect in-stream flows, is deeply resented here, its very name often spit out like a cuss word.  Our discussion turned to the proposal for a new reservoir in the area, and whether it is a good idea because it might help sustain the local economy. I was asked if I would support it.  Not knowing any details about the proposal, I said I didn’t know, but agreed that additional water storage will have to be part of any reasonable water management plan.

The core issue is not water, of course, but whether Nucla and Naturita will survive or will be erased from the map, like Uravan has been.  Without being able to mine and process uranium or coal, without enough water to grow crops, the most likely potential future is recreational tourism. The area is halfway between the tourist destinations of Moab and Telluride. Breathtakingly beautiful, it should be able to capture a share of tourist dollars. But tourism-related jobs, as everyone at the meeting knew, are low-paid.

One woman said that her son, laid off from the now-shuttered power plant, has had to take a 25-hour a week minimum-wage job in Telluride. Some Telluride employers limit jobs to part-time because working more than 25 hours triggers benefits the employer is forced to pay.  That means that the formerly well-paid power-plant worker is now forced to work without either benefits or enough earnings to live on, plus a regular commute of more than an hour each way on dangerous mountain roads.

This group seemed mindful that the misery of their community stems from large economic, environmental and societal phenomena. Maybe this is why they were Democrats, albeit moderate ones.  Yes, overregulation is a problem, but global warming is real and so coal isn’t likely to make a comeback. There is a growing gap between rich and poor, globally and nationally, not just locally, which means that many people can survive only if the social safety net is strengthened, not shredded. Immigrants, documented or not, should not be scapegoated as the source of problems, but in reality they fill agricultural jobs that keep the economy afloat. If Nucla and Naturita do move toward a recreation-based economy, that economy may not provide much prosperity.

This conversation was neither fueled by resentment of elites nor was it optimistic about the community’s future.

“What about guns?” Richard Craig asked. And then he sort-of cracked a joke revealing he was behind two famous Nucla trolls, both promulgated before the word “troll” was used to describe tweaking political opponents: the notorious Nucla Prairie Dog Shoot (July 1992) and an equally notorious town law requiring the head of every household to keep a gun in order to provide for his own self-defense (May 2013).

“I believe in gun regulations, but I do not want to confiscate your guns,” I said. “I’m not a gun grabber. And I understand that regulations can be unnecessarily burdensome. Let me ask you: Do you think terrorists or felons or children or the mentally ill should be allowed to buy a gun?”

“No, I don’t,” Richard said.

“So, we both believe there should be some restrictions on gun ownership, and the question is, What regulations?”

He agreed. And then, to my surprise, he said he didn’t see any reason for anyone to own an AR-15.

“If you tried to hunt an elk with one of those, there wouldn’t be anything left to eat,” he said.

And Richard said he opposed bump stocks and high-capacity magazines, which, like AR-15s, are only good for mowing people down.

“I don’t want to be characterized as a gun grabber and you don’t want to defend the rights of terrorists and mass killers,” I said. “The way this issue is debated, we are both forced into corners where we don’t want to be.”

He nodded.

“So, we agree on guns?” I said.

“We do,” he said. “And we need more money for mental health, too.”

“We need that regardless of guns,” I said. “Our prisons are full of people with mental health problems, who should be getting treatment instead.”

The room nodded in agreement.

“Let me ask you all,” I said to the group. “Would you like for me to come back and campaign here? Do you think there are enough people who would like to have a conversation like we’ve just had? Can I win votes here from your more conservative friends and neighbors? Could you invite them to another meeting like this?”

“It would probably be just the same group of us, again,” one man said grimly.

We all sat quietly for a moment.

“The third Friday of every month we have Navajo Taco Night at the Fire Station,” Richard said. “You could come to that.”

“I’ll come to the next one,” I said, “if some of you are willing to be associated with me, and you promise to introduce me around.”

“Sure,” Richard said, and volunteered himself and a few others.

And so he did introduce me, last Friday night, when I pursued the most urgent conversation in America today: the dislocation and alienation of so many millions by a world in rapid and drastic transition to an uncertain future; a politics that has failed to address the dislocation; and the rise of a fervent populism that to many of us seems like a threat to democracy and social stability, economic and environmental sustainability, and world peace.

Nucla and Naturita don’t have enough population to win me the election, even if I did manage to win the majority vote there. Most voters in the 58th House District are in Cortez and Montrose. From what I have observed so far in this campaign, the residents of Cortez and Montrose, while a majority voted for Trump, are more moderate than residents of Nucla and Naturita.

But Nucla and Naturita are where the issues that divide America are so stark that they come into sharp focus, with highly applicable lessons for Cortez and Montrose and beyond. One lesson is that threading the needle – balancing honesty with tact, expressing respect without pandering, and offering hope without a gloss of unreality – is both daunting and necessary, and is the only way I can envision out of this morass.

March 24, 2018

They say you have to knock on doors to win an election, particularly an election for a down-ballot race that receives little media notice, and especially when you are running in a district where party registration is not in your favor.  That’s because only the name recognition that can come from a candidate talking personally with a voter can overcome party bias.  Basically, when a voter doesn’t know the candidates running in down-ballot races, the default position is to vote the party. And in the 58th, that’s more than enough to kill my chances of winning election.

So, I’ve started canvassing. I started in my own neighborhood in Telluride, and the takeaway was: I sure hope Telluride is not typical of the 58th! Of course, it’s not typical in that it’s far more Democratic, which meant there were fewer doors to knock on. That’s because my list of doors to knock on filters out strong Democrats and strong Republicans, so that I can focus my energies on Unaffiliated voters, and voters who lean D or R but have a history of voting for the other party on occasion. This list is generated by the Democratic Party’s Votebuilder software, whose algorithms for calculating the leanings of a voter are, well, almost certainly sometimes wrong.

Still, I appreciate not having to knock on every door. The 9,496 doors in the 58th that are left after the strong Ds and Rs, and the infrequent voters, are filtered out, is plenty daunting enough.

What was hard about Telluride?

Mostly that a lot of the names on the list were no longer living behind the doors I knocked on. I’ve known that there is a lot of churn in Telluride’s residential population, as people move in for a season or two and then leave, but here was direct evidence of it. While Telluride is affluent, I was surprised, going door-to-door in my own neighborhood, by how many smaller, older rental units there are, and I was filled with a kind of sadness to think about the people who come and go, moving in and out of those homes. The churn hints at a kind of restlessness as people search for a place where they can put down roots, where they might be prosperous and happy. With its high cost of living and low-wage economy, Telluride is not viable for many working people. This is likely why ski towns have lower voter turnout, on average, than the rest of Western Colorado. People who are restlessly searching for home and are attracted to the lifestyle of a resort town – only to be smacked down by its ruthless economy – may be less inclined to register and vote.

I left my door-hanger when nobody was home. I found myself talking with acquaintances whose homes I’d never visited. That’s something else that will be unlikely when I canvass in other parts of the district.

Then there was a house I was leery of visiting. The man who lived there was on my list because he was registered Unaffiliated, and is thus considered algorithmically persuadable. Though we’ve never met, I knew him to be very wealthy, and conservative, based on what I’d heard on the small-town rumor mill. Should I knock? I hesitated, but it was my first time out canvassing, and as a general principle I should be able and willing to talk to anyone. The premise of my campaign, after all, is “finding common ground.” I might win a vote by introducing myself to a neighbor I’ve never met and then having a friendly conversation.

He wasn’t home, but his wife was. Looking through the screen door I could she was on the phone. We made eye contact. Another moment of doubt: should I wave and move on? But wouldn’t that be ruder, to knock on a door and then not wait? She made a gesture indicating I should wait, but she was clearly annoyed.

“I’m sorry I interrupted you,” I said, when she came to the door.

“It’s OK. We were finishing up.”

I introduced myself by name, and as a neighbor and a candidate for office. And by way of explaining why I was asking for her husband, I said, “[NAME REDACTED] is on my list of people to visit because he’s registered independent, and I’m hoping to talk with swing voters. Are you registered?”

“That’s none of your business,” she said, sharply

I shrugged and said: “It’s public record.”

“Yes, I’m registered, and I vote,” she said, glancing at the card I had handed her. “What are you running on? What are your issues?”

“Well, state government is important,” I said. “It funds education, infrastructure spending, health care, economic development. I’m mostly concerned about the kitchen sink issues, like adequate funding for those things. I’m also running because I’m concerned about the deep divide in our political life.”

“That’s nothing new,” she said. “We are no more divided now than we’ve always been.”

“Well,” I said. “I have a different perspective, I guess.”

“What do you think we should do about education?” she asked.“There’s a petition for a statewide ballot question being circulated that would raise taxes to fund education at a higher level. I support it because school districts in rural places and smaller towns especially are struggling to pay for their schools because they don’t have enough of a property tax base. The state is required to backfill the shortfall but doesn’t have enough money to do it.  I think funding education is critical because when struggling communities can’t afford good schools, they just keep falling further behind.”

“I don’t believe we need to throw money at it,” she said. “I certainly don’t support higher taxes.”


“I need to go,” she said. “I’m busy.”

“It was nice to meet you,” I said, and left.

Late that night, I was reading on my phone when I got notification of an email from her.

Here it is:

Dear Seth,

You came to my doorstep as an eager potential running candidate for state office.

Not only did you have the gall to wait at my doorstep unannounced while I was on a call that I subsequently had to cut short to receive your presence, but then you proceeded to tell me that I was not registered in the county. Please see below that I am duly registered and am an active citizen that votes.

Not only do I vote, I am one of the largest local private donors here in Telluride. I support our community heavily and do so quietly.

You are quite unprofessional and utterly sophomoric in your approach to obtain votes. While you personally obfuscate your position of our national state (which is so far from the truth) you should’ve asked Obama the same questions while he was in power for the last 8 years. Why Obama didn’t do anything about the absolute disrepair of our state and national education, especially in the impoverished rural communities you spoke of, how sadly he ignored the inner city black communities who never gained anything from their president, Mr. Obama.

A white, middle-aged man like you who most likely doesn’t pay considerable taxes nor ever gives any philanthropic dollars, I find it quite laughable as you profess your concern for the poor, underprivileged people.

You should return to my doorstep and apologize to me for being misinformed about my voter status. But, I’m certainly not expecting that kind of integrity.

Kind regards…because that’s what a true American would say,

[Name Redacted] (a registered voter)

There was a screenshot of her voter registration record.

Wow.  I wondered if I should ignore it. I decided to reply.  Here it is:

Dear [Name Redacted],

I’m very sorry I offended you. My recollection is that I asked if you were registered. You replied that it was none of my business. Then I observed it is a matter of public record whether someone is registered or not.  Asking someone if they are registered is not usually considered a rude question, in my experience. 

Political candidates and campaign workers often ask someone if they are registered so they know how to proceed with a conversation. For example, you might have replied that you vote elsewhere. 

We clearly are not politically aligned, which became evident quickly in the course of our conversation. Considering that, in addition to the fact that I offended you, unwittingly and unintentionally, I don’t expect you to vote for me.  

Door to door canvassing can be awkward, but it is one of the best ways for candidates to speak with voters.  I am sorry I interrupted you on the phone. I tried to back away, indicating that I would leave, but you gestured for me to stay. At that moment, I felt it would have been worse for me to leave.  

As for obfuscation, I think we understood each other very clearly, and quickly, so I can’t guess what obfuscation you are referring to. In fact, our differences seemed so obvious that I saw no point in trying to find common ground. 

But perhaps I misjudged. If so, I’d be happy to stop by again, at your convenience, both to apologize in person and to delve more deeply into issues.  


Seth Cagin

I think she’d sent the next email before she got my reply.  Here it is:

Get your facts straight.

After reading your door-knob bio, your father seemed much much more admirable serving in WW11. You seem hardly the patriotic recipient.

As of today, a few days later, no more emails.

In deconstructing this experience, did I handle it well?

Well, I probably shouldn’t have knocked on that door in the first place, but I won’t have personal knowledge of the vast majority of doors I call on, so this sort of mistake is inevitable. I’ve heard from people with experience canvassing that unpleasant encounters go with the territory. When it happens, end the conversation as quickly as possible and move on. So, I did.

Perhaps one takeaway is that the great political divide is not so new from a conservative’s perspective, especially from an extremely wealthy conservative. Hard-core conservatives, like Ann Coulter, who this woman reminded me of, have been oppositional since maybe forever. What I perceive as political moderation (Obama), this voter perceived as something ineffectual, at best. The reason the political divide feels so much deeper to me now than ever before is Trump. For a person who has been yearning for a nationalist, belligerent, anti-tax, right-wing leader who embraces Social Darwinism, my shock at how divided we are is quaint.  Trump is where they were always headed. I just didn’t know it.

Another takeaway is that we all encounter unfriendly or hostile people in our daily lives. We learn to not take it personally, to shrug it off. And the vast majority of people I’ve met on the campaign trail have been friendly and our conversations have been mutually respectful, even if we disagreed on some issues, even with Trump supporters.

But politics is hardball, and the stakes are high. New state income taxes on my “Ann Coulter” would redistribute a fraction of her wealth to help pay for the education of other people’s children. And that’s why I support it: to chip away at the intolerable income gap. Both the real Ann Coulter and my Ann Coulter, on the other hand, subscribe to an ideology that conjures up reasons why such a redistribution is wrong, can’t work, isn’t fair – or is un-American.  If we meet again to talk politics (unlikely), I’ll try to appeal to my Ann’s self-interest by suggesting that a strong social safety net is not just humane but essential in a democratic society, if the capitalism that made her rich is going to continue. Or maybe it’s OK with her if it’s democracy that fails in favor of securing the ultra-wealthy in their positions of privilege. It seems to me that those are, indeed, just how high the stakes are in this upcoming midterm election.

That is saying a lot about my little race for the Colorado State House of Representatives in the remote 58th House District.  But maybe not, considering that my Ann Coulter and I reached precisely that profound philosophical division in just a few minutes of conversation. Do we want a society that works for everyone, or only for the wealthy and powerful?

This encounter did not in the slightest discourage me from knock, knock, knocking on doors. It’s just the opposite. It underscored why it is so urgent to do it now, this year, this election. Now!