Can Colorado Save America? NYT Op/Ed

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Glenna Nix outside her home in Nucla, Colo. Her daughter, who cared for two of her own daughters and had extraordinary expenses for seizure medication, recently committed suicide. CreditDaniel Brenner for The New York Times

NUCLA, Colo. — Richard Craig, gun lover, Trump hater, is the man behind the local ordinance here that made gun ownership obligatory for the head of every household. The unusual rule, approved overwhelmingly by the town board in 2013, has gained this small community in southwestern Colorado some notoriety. “I believe in our Constitution,” Craig told me. “Having our guns is just part of American freedom.” As for President Trump, “I think he’s an idiot. He should quit tweeting and keep his mouth shut.”

Craig, 78, a pro-mining registered Democrat in camo shorts and Birkenstocks who refuses to join the National Rifle Association, is an ornery nonideological American. In other words, he’s a lot like Colorado, purple state par excellence.

Nucla, population just over 700, was founded around 1900 by a utopian socialist group, lived off uranium mining during the Cold War and has now turned to the cultivation of marijuana’s cousin, hemp, in a stab at a revival. It’s heavily Republican, like most of small-town America. It is also part of what Deana Sheriff, an economic recovery coordinator, called “the Mild West” — complete with broadband and a mill for heritage grains. Nobody is running around with six-shooters on hips taking potshots at streetlights.

Richard Craig at home in Nucla, where owning a gun isn’t only allowed, it’s required of the head of each household. Credit Daniel Brenner for The New York Times

On the eve of critical midterm elections, Colorado presents an American microcosm, its population of 5.6 million split more or less evenly among Republicans, Democrats and independents. Liberals, including an influx of immigrants, tend to inhabit the more urban Front Range, east of the Rockies; Trump support is intense in the rural Western Slope. Montrose County, home to Nucla, voted 67.9 percent for Trump in 2016; Colorado, thanks mainly to Denver and Boulder, gave Hillary Clinton a narrow victory.

Because population growth and immigration are concentrated in the Front Range, Colorado seems to be edging bluer. Much of the national focus right now is on the Sixth Congressional District, where Mike Coffman, a five-term Republican representative, is trailing Jason Crow, who would be the first Democrat ever to hold the seat. A Crow victory would provide one of the 23 seats Democrats need to take the House.

But Colorado has not split into the irreconcilable political tribes that have turned Washington into a symbol of polarization. Division is not the whole American story, despite Trump’s best efforts. In Colorado, immense space still equals possibility, an old American promise. Crisscrossing the state, I found more people interested in problem-solving than point-scoring.

Colorado’s economy is humming and diversifying. Its unemployment rate is 2.9 percent. Its capacity for compromise — as an oil-and-natural-gas state with limited water committed to environmental preservation and an outdoors lifestyle — is conspicuous.

John Hickenlooper, Governor of Colorado speaks at an event titled The forgotten Americans: An economic agenda for a divided nation at the Brookings Institution in Washington, DCCredit Michael Brochstein/SOPA Images, via LightRocket, via Getty Images

John Hickenlooper, the term-limited Democratic governor, told me that when he goes to the East Coast, “I do feel like an outsider. The way we approach things here, it’s almost like we’re speaking a different language. In the West, I think there is an inclination, almost an instinct, to sit down with people you disagree with and sort of sort through” — as he did with the oil and gas industry to produce a rational energy policy, the nation’s first regulatory framework limiting future emissions.

Might he, eyeing 2020, run for the Democratic Party nomination for president on this can-do, bridge-building platform? “We are certainly looking at it,” Hickenlooper said. “We spent the summer talking to people that are really smart. I’m preparing, but don’t think I’d make a decision probably until February.”

That sounds to me like a yes. A Hickenlooper candidacy would be interesting because there’s no way to govern Colorado, as he has for eight years, without dealing with the way Trump has tapped into a deep-seated economic and cultural frustration. Trump support is no abstraction here, or cause for derision. It’s a fact.

Despite the strong economy, hardship is widespread. Wages have lagged. Some school districts, like Pueblo, have gone to a four-day week for lack of tax revenue. In rural areas, health insurance premiums have soared, sometimes 30 percent or more above Denver levels, because only one insurer remains. So people go without while others worry they will lose their Medicaid if they take a job. They clean bathrooms for billionaires in Telluride for a minimum wage.

“Just like the rest of the country, most people can’t easily afford housing, can’t easily afford health care, can’t easily afford higher education or early childhood education; so another way of saying that is most of the people cannot afford a middle-class lifestyle,” Senator Michael Bennet, a Democrat (whose brother happens to run the Times Opinion section), told me.

The feeling of being left behind, forgotten or cheated by a rigged system in a country of sharpening inequality is America’s core dilemma. The question now is who will more effectively convince Americans that the American dream can be restored: Trump, with his unscrupulous rabble-rousing and America-first nationalism masking tax and other policies that favor the one percent, or a Democratic Party that rediscovers the ability to speak to small-town and blue-collar and barely middle-class America (like the teachers who went on strike in Colorado this year) in a way that does not sound patronizing?


Friends meet up at the 5th Avenue Grill.CreditDaniel Brenner for The New York Times

At the 5th Avenue Grill in Nucla, with its trophy elk on the wall and a sign saying “Home of the Free Because of the Brave,” Bob Ralph, a plumber, had no doubt. He told me: “A year ago we would have been the only ones here. Now you have to wait for a table. The hardware store has people waiting in line. People are eager to open businesses. I hope Trump will be a two-term president.”

In the last 10 presidential elections, going back to 1980, Colorado has voted Republican six times but Democratic in the last three. It’s a state with a strong libertarian streak, suspicious of government, and so in a sense Republican-inclined; but it’s been won over by strong local Democratic leadership. “It’s not at all a blue state to be taken for granted; things can easily be reversed,” Ken Salazar, a former secretary of the interior in the Obama administration and a Colorado native, told me. “People will vote for results-oriented candidates. Results matter: That’s the Coloradan standard.”

I went to Denver to meet Hickenlooper, a tall, languid, affable 66-year-old transplant from the East Coast who has produced results. He came to Colorado as a geologist for a petroleum company and experienced the shock of unemployment after being laid off in 1986. A period of self-doubt led to the decision to start a brewpub business. Many of his restaurants helped revive blighted downtown areas: entrepreneurship as transformative politics.

“The one thing you learn in the restaurant business,” the governor told me, “is there is no margin in having enemies. The only way you persuade someone is to listen harder.”

As a two-term Denver mayor starting in 2003, and now a two-term governor, Hickenlooper has listened, driven by the conviction that, as he put it, “We don’t have the luxury to kind of wallow in the partisan mud pit, right?”

The effects are tangible: the renaissance of Denver, which now has a multibillion-dollar public transportation network called FasTracks, a much-improved school system and more than 850 miles of bike trails; a pro-business economy, low on red tape, that has tried to balance urban and rural demands (particularly over water) and attracted a range of new companies, from tech through recreation to the Noosa yogurt business; the legalization of recreational marijuana, now a significant source of tax revenue; and successful trade-offs in Colorado’s fierce fossil-fuel-vs.-environment debate that have preserved more than 230,000 jobs in the oil and gas sector.

Some issues elude compromise, of course. In 2013, after the Aurora theater mass shooting the previous year, Hickenlooper signed into law a ban on high-capacity gun magazines that hold more than 15 rounds. This is the measure that incensed Richard Craig and led, as a protest, to Nucla’s obligatory gun-ownership ordinance.

“I just got mad because these talking heads decided we did not need high-capacity magazines, and we ended up losing a firearms accessory factory with dozens of jobs that went to Wyoming,” Craig said.

Anne Landman walks near an anti-G.O.P. billboard she had placed in Grand Junction, ColoCredit Daniel Brenner for The New York Times

Over in nearby Grand Junction, the largest town on the Western Slope, such views are widespread, even if the Mild West is evident again on a Main Street offering lattes, pottery and beads. On the way into town is a large billboard that went up after Trump’s ignominious July meeting with President Vladimir Putin of Russia. It says “G.O.P.” on a red background with the “O” replaced by the Communist hammer-and-sickle.

The billboard is there thanks to Anne Landman. She’s a liberal blogger, often insulted by her local opponents as a “libtard.” Landman was so angered by Trump’s betrayal in Helsinki that she paid for the poster and has been able to keep it there through supporters’ contributions.

I met Landman, who moved to Grand Junction from Los Angeles, “because you can still be by yourself on the final frontier,” in a bagel cafe. To her, the Trump phenomenon has been about releasing xenophobic emotions suppressed as the country headed in a direction many did not like. “It’s scary to see it. And now that box has been opened, I’m not sure how we close it again.”

As we spoke, Elisa Allen, who was on vacation with her family from Baltimore and had seen the billboard, approached. “It’s nice to find some sanity in the craziness,” she said, pressing $40 on Landman.

I drove across town to see Pastor Robert Babcox, who dismissed the billboard as a vile insult (“like saying all Democrats are Nazis”) and listed his reasons for backing Trump.


Orchard Mesa Baptist Church, where Pastor Robert Babcox leads services. Credit Daniel Brenner for The New York Times
Pastor Robert Babcox embracing two members of the congregation, Tristan White and her son Zach, 8, during a “welcome your neighbor” portion of the service. Credit Daniel Brenner for The New York Times

“We want to be left alone; he speaks to our isolationism,” Babcox said. “As a father of four daughters I will not take them to Target,” he said, angry about the store’s choose-your-gender bathrooms. “A nation without laws is chaos,” he said, alluding to his support for Trump’s now-reversed border policy under which nearly 3,000 children were separated from their parents. “The derricks outside town are starting up again thanks to the president,” he said. “Trump,” Babcox concluded, “deserves credit for sticking to his guns.”

I asked Babcox about a Hickenlooper run for president. “He’d be foolish to do that, does not stand a chance,” he said. “What a silly law that high-capacity magazine thing is! He wants to make us like California, but you’re not going to have Priuses around here.”

So are Democrats the enemy? Babcox became reflective, recalling Navy days when, he said, he learned the blood of all Americans runs red. “You know, we’re all too wrapped up in our differences to see our similarities,” he told me. “I say to Liberals, let’s try to find things we can agree on.”

It seemed a genuine Coloradan sentiment.


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