CRAIG — The Museum of Northwest Colorado, established in 1964 to house artifacts and preserve legends of the Old West, is located in the small town of Craig and currently features an exhibit of Norman Rockwell, the famed American painter and illustrator known for his scenes of everyday life and Americana. When Republican candidate Mitt Romney traveled there earlier in the week to campaign for the presidency, he could have been starring in a leading role in a true life scene straight from a Norman Rockwell drawing board. An impressive number of the town’s 10,000 residents gathered at the local park to witness the historic event — no other presidential candidate had ever before visited thir community. Handmade signs adorning local establishments welcomed the GOP contender to town. The local high school band blared out a repertoire of slightly scratchy tunes. And young children, cusping miniature flags in their small hands, took in the unusual activity in town that day. The local radio station broadcast Romney’s 14-minute speech and all the hoopla live on air.
The town of Craig, nestled in the most northwestern corner of the state, is bordered by Wyoming on the north and Utah on the west. Its high desert landscape and scenic back country is dotted with abundant wildlife, including one of the last free-roaming herds of wild mustangs. Some consider the area the elk hunting capital of the world.
It is also in the heart of Colorado coal country, with three coal mining operations located within a short distance of the city and the largest coal-fired power generation plant in Colorado six miles south of Craig. Many of the residents rely on the mining industry for their livelihood, and the town elders — or at least those who were around in the late 1970s and early 1980s — remember the collapse of the then-booming oil shale industry thought to be their new lifeline thirty years ago.
A potential president of the United States was now showering Craig with attention, initially drummed up by local resident and hotel owner Frank Moe, who was featured prominently in a video produced by Energy for America, a pro-development group comprised of the American Energy Alliance and the Institute for Energy Research.
“The Perfect Storm over Craig, CO,” captured the attention of the Romney campaign. The candidate, who the next day would receive enough delegate support to be considered the Republican standard bearer in the race, spent the night before at Moe’s Best Western hotel located on the outskirts of town.
As he told the crowd the next morning, “We said, we’ve got to come here and let you know that we care about what’s happening in Craig… We care about what’s happening in rural America.”
He continued, “I’m not going to forget Craig, Colorado. I’m not going to forget communities like this across the country that are hurting right now under this president.”
Looking over a crowd enhanced in size by miners bussed in from nearby locales, Romney criticized Obama for creating a hostile climate for business owners and energy producers and singled out the EPA as a major culprit.
Terry Carwile, mayor of Craig, told reporters that the local economy had actually blossomed. Unemployment in Moffat County is slightly above the national average at 8.3 percent in April — down from 11.1 percent in 2010, according to statistics from the Department of Labor.
And cornered by local and national media before Romney arrived at the park, Republican State Party Chairman Ryan Call acknowledged that coal production in the area had helped the local economy.
In fact, the Denver GOP leader admitted in response to a news hound’s question that the economy in Craig and in Moffat County appeared stronger than in a lot of other western slope communities. “That’s a good thing,” Call said, “we certainly welcome that kind of opportunity.” But he stressed that in the overall picture, things did not look so bright.
Romney himself talked about the distorted boasts of the current administration, denouncing claims from Obama enthusiasts. “Now his campaign these days is trying to find a twig to hang on to, some little excuse they can grab and say, ‘Look, things are getting a little better, aren’t they?’” he said. “And the answer is yeah — things are getting a little better in a lot of places in this country, but it’s not thanks to his policies. It’s in spite of his policies.”