Guest Columns

HUDSON: THE COWBOY LOBBY IS THINNING ITS HERD

Temper tantrum time on the high plains

The Colorado Statesman

What can we learn from the proposal to create North Colorado as the nation’s 51st state? Right out of the box I’d suggest supporters should settle on a sexier name. West Virginia worked well when its mountaineers were making a political statement regarding plantation slavery across the Old Dominion’s coastal flats. Native American tribal names have served well in the past — perhaps Pawnee, Comanche or Arapaho might “glam up” this campaign. 

Outside Colorado, however, the putative secession movement sounds more than a little bizarre. A handful of counties in northeastern Colorado hot to run their own affairs? What the hell could that be about? Several Western states have experienced similar threats of disgruntled sundering. Northern California grows restive each time desert California covets its water. The ribbon of counties along Colorado’s southern border has periodically grumbled that it would be far happier as part of the Land of Enchantment. Until the relatively recent arrival of cable and satellite television channels, these communities received their news almost exclusively from Albuquerque.  Their complaints against Denver have been primarily economic — “we are forgotten, ignored and maltreated by Front Range elites.” Nothing ever came of these occasional secessionary yearnings.

Even Texas, which Congress authorized to fragment itself into as many as five states after it entered the Union, has proven unable to muster the political will to do so. Our “lower 48” borders are likely set for all time and even the proponents of North Colorado must understand theirs is a fool’s errand. So we may assume they are attempting to register a political statement.  It isn’t one of economic marginalization. Theirs is the chafing that results from regulatory interference. The counties that house the massive wind farms that permit the Front Range to meet its 20 percent, and soon 30 percent, renewable energy standards take a very dim view of the imposition of renewable requirements on their own rural electric associations. The taxes thrown off by the oil and gas fracking gold rush currently underway in northeastern Colorado also makes them net contributors to state revenues. (They would like a little respect, please!)

Time for a demographic lesson: Over the past fifty years, the portion of residents classified as rural has plunged from 26 percent to 13 percent while Colorado’s overall population has exploded by more than 250 percent. No real surprise there — immigrants to the state are arriving to fill jobs, and those have expanded almost exclusively in our urban centers. Nonetheless, the cowboy lobby managed to punch well above its weight at the Legislature before the 2010 census. When I was elected to the House in 1978, nearly 40 percent of its members represented either agricultural or ‘empty quarter’ expanses where the sheep and cattle far outnumbered voters (despite the fact that the constituents they represented had actually withered to a mere 20 percent of the population). Today just 6 of Colorado’s 35 Senators and perhaps a dozen of its 65 House members represent predominantly rural districts.

This is right in line with their actual voting strength. What happened? Both term limits and growing Democratic numbers have undermined Colorado’s cowboy voice. Rural districts tended to return effective legislators to Denver for as long as they wished to serve — think of Speaker Bev Bledsoe and his decade of dominance in the Colorado House. These long serving solons chaired key legislative committees, dominated decennial reapportionment commissions and locked arms, whether Democrat or Republican, whenever the issues were water, rodeos or highway funding. If you wished to accomplish anything at the Capitol, you simply didn’t lock horns with this informal rural lobby. Introducing a bill that called out steer wrestling as an act of animal cruelty was tantamount to political suicide.

Each reapportionment commission from 1970 through 2000 enjoyed Republican majorities that placed a finger on the scales by shaving metropolitan areas outside Denver into slivers that were then swamped with nearby rural voters. As computers began crunching voting data, it became easier to tailor legislative districts that guaranteed a specific outcome in November. This changed in 2010 when a Democratic commission majority balanced far larger urban slices with handfuls of rural voters, thereby creating districts that might appear rural at first glance in terms of their geography but which would, in fact, perform as urban precincts. There was absolutely nothing illegal, unethical or improper about this. It did, however, produce a much different Colorado Legislature than we have been accustomed to.

The traditional legislative Agriculture Committees are now Agriculture and Natural Resources Committees, chaired by a market analyst from the farming hotbed of Snowmass Village in the Senate and a consulting engineer from Fort Collins in the House. Despite this apparent disrespect, and a restive sense of systemic mistreatment, most Northeast Coloradans view an adopted identity as North Coloradans as a bit like choosing to become North Koreans. They want a resolution that fits inside the square state box.

House Speaker Mark Ferrandino and Senate President John Morse each served as back bench freshmen in Democratic majorities that were hesitant to pursue an openly progressive agenda for fear they might lose control of their chambers following the next election. Liberal Democrats derisively dismissed this temporizing as “Republican light.” Democrats were defeated anyway despite their ill-fitting attempts at policy moderation. The lesson this pair learned seems to be that, at the end of the day, it’s more honorable to be hung for a wolf than a sheep. Gun controls, statewide renewable energy standards and fracking restrictions were approved in both chambers this year and then signed by an occasionally reluctant Governor — often following straight party line votes. (Apparently North Colorado is damned unhappy about this state of affairs, even if,
as seems likely, the impositions that chap them so much eventually prove slight.)

In a 21st century political arena without nuance, without compromise and without a sense of shared destiny, it might be a good idea if Colorado’s partisans all took a deep breath and stepped back long enough to actually listen to one another. If Weld County voters are down with drill rigs operating in their back yards, perhaps Front Range proponents of environmental purity should restrict their worries to their own neighborhoods. If oil and gas development were damaging the economic bounty from Colorado’s most productive agricultural lands, I suspect we’d be hearing about it. North Coloradans almost certainly love their farms, families and livestock just as much as our organic urban farmers love their plots. It might be smart if we considered trusting each other to make good decisions. Lip service to respect rings hollow when it emanates from bellowing majoritarian bullies.

Miller Hudson is an urbanite now and in the past when he represented North Denver in the Legislature in the late 1970s. But he doesn’t hate rural Colorado. He can be reached at mnhwriter@msn.com.