Former Republicans strengthen state's Dem delegation

By Stephanie Clary
THE COLORADO STATESMAN

Brian O’Donnell, a Colorado delegate to the Democratic National Convention regards his past Republican affiliation and voting record as a strength — rather than a hindrance — for his new party.

“I think when you actively think about why you’re a Democrat and choose it, you become more committed and more loyal because you’ve made a conscious choice,” O’Donnell said.

O’Donnell is among a handful of Colorado delegates to the DNC who made the switch from the Grand Old Party.

Four of the delegates cite specific issues — the environment, civil rights, religion or fiscal responsibility — as the reason for changing political colors.

A change in environment

O’Donnell was raised in a family of Republicans in what he describes as a conservative part of Pennsylvania, and at 18 he cast his first presidential ballot for George H.W. Bush in the 1988 election.

“I switched right after that,” said O’Donnell, executive director of the National Conservation System Foundation. He resides in Durango.

After graduating college with a degree in economics, O’Donnell said he became involved in land conservation and environmental issues, moved to Washington, D.C., and started lobbying Congress.

“I saw first hand how members of Congress were (supporting) policy that was harming public land,” he said, adding that he noticed Republicans seemed to be the main culprits.

And on international issues?

“I found the Republican Party was becoming more of a party that shoots first and asks questions later, I guess,” he said.

O’Donnell said he has since been a volunteer for several Democratic candidates, including 2004 presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry and John Salazar, Colorado’s Democratic representative from the 3rd Congressional District.

O’Donnell said his parents also shifted to the blue side of the political spectrum after they started to feel the GOP no longer represented their beliefs.

“I do feel like the Republican Party really started to listen to its more extreme wing, and there was no room for moderates,” he said. “(My parents) started to notice it in the early- and mid-’90s.”

He sees his family’s movement to the left as part of a larger movement in both Colorado and the nation.

“I think it’s a trend, and it’s really based on the policies.”

A matter of name and civil rights

Jere Kennedy, of Lakewood, remembers voting for Republican President Dwight Eisenhower at 21, but jokes that it was his last name that led to a change in political affiliation.

“I converted in the ’60s, when President Kennedy was in the office … maybe because of the coincidence in the name,” he said with a laugh. “During the ’60s, the reason I seriously did not want to vote Republican again was because of the civil rights issues.”

Kennedy, who is retired from the Jefferson County Public Schools, said when Southern Democrat segregationists shifted toward the Republican Party, the Democratic Party became the party of civil rights — and he went with the Democrats.

“I just think this is the party for working people that will do more for the people in need, disabled people, hopefully women’s issues, as well as any type of labor,” he said.

Kennedy said his immediate family was undisturbed by his new affiliation.

His extended family, however, likes to challenge his liberal beliefs.

“They’re always accusing Democrats of being for big government,” Kennedy said. “But I think we are for effective government.”

He isn’t completely convinced his past affiliation with the GOP makes him any different from other Democrats, but he is clear on the reasons for his loyalty to the party.

“I don’t know if (my past) would make me stronger either way,” he said. “I just think the Democratic Party provides more options for
middle-class people.”

The role of religion

Centennial Mayor Pro Tem and Council Member Rebecca McClellen’s grandfather was a Republican precinct committeeman in California when she was growing up in Saratoga.

She comes from a long line of Republican activists, who, she says, were attracted to the GOP because they believed too much government was oppressive.

When McClellen went to college at San Diego State, she said she saw the Republican Party stray from its devotion to limited government.

“The politicization of religion and reproductive issues did not seem consistent (with the idea) that the government didn’t oppress people … or get all up in your business,” she said.

For McClellen, registering as a Democrat was an emotional experience.

“It was a big deal to me,” she said. “I think it really forced me to take a really hard look at both parties and at who I am.”

She said her past Republican affiliation helps keep her mindful of the concerns on both sides of the spectrum as she serves in public office.

“I think it does help to sensitize me to the issues that my neighbors care about,” she said.

She said she reamins cautious anytime politics and religion are mixed.

“I say that spirituality is a private matter,” McClellen said. “In the business of democracy, you should keep your skeptic’s hat on … and not take things on faith.”

Same issues, different parties

Jonathan Singer, of Longmont, has been unaffiliated, has voted for a Green Party candidate and has been a registered Republican.

Now a Democrat, he says he feels at home in a state that, in 2004, voted to re-elect President George W. Bush while giving Democrats control of the Colorado Legislature.

“Colorado in a lot of ways is bipolar,” he said.

He and the other Democratic delegates who have had other party affiliations “kind of represent that. We’ve examined the spectrum here … it’s the issues that bring people together, not the parties. And that’s especially true in Colorado,” he said.

For Singer, a child-protection caseworker, the issues that led him into the blue were health care, campaign finance reform and the role corporations play in politics. But before ultimately registering as a Democrat, he tasted some other political options.

During the 2000 presidential primary, Singer supported Arizona Sen. John McCain.

“His message on campaign finance resonated with me,” Singer said. “I switched (from being unaffiliated) so I could vote in the primary.”

When it became clear George W. Bush would be the Republican nominee, Singer decided not to vote in the Colorado primary.

He didn’t vote for Bush in the general election, either.

Instead, Singer supported Ralph Nader, the Green Party presidential candidate.

“I think I stayed Republican (after the 2000 election), although my girlfriend at the time — my current wife — was having a hard time talking to me,” he said.

The Republican literature flooding his mailbox only strengthened his desire to leave the party.

Then, around the time of the 2004 primaries, Singer read Nader’s account of the 2000 election, Crashing the Party.

In it, Singer said, Nader discusses universal health care and the role of corporations in government. Nader also says Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich falls in line with many of his views.

“He was talking about this Democrat who happened to be running in the primary,” Singer said.

That passage, he said, helped him realize that, “there are people who do represent my views and do work in the two-party system.”

Since then, Singer has been a registered Democrat. He was a Kucinich delegate to the 2004 DNC.

Singer said he still respects McCain’s work in campaign finance reform, including much of the McCain-Feingold Act of 2002, but he thinks Sen. Barack Obama’s decision to reject public financing makes an even stronger statement.

“I’m really happy to see Obama is raising small amounts from lots of donors,” he said. “That’s what McCain-Feingold was really about. That really captures the spirit of it.”

Singer makes it clear that he doesn’t support the current Republican Party.

“If you look at the way a lot of the old-school Republicans looked at fiscal responsibility, that makes a lot of sense to me,” he said. “Republicans, I think, unfortunately, have been taken over by a right fringe.”