Dear progressives, don’t give up on the small-town West

Political advice from a Democrat who ran and lost his own campaign for mayor.

 

Forrest Whitman is a contributor to Writers on the Range, an opinion service of High Country News. He lives in Salida, Colorado.


Some elections are fun and bring out the best in people, and maybe some of the local contests this November fall into that happy category. Others, not so much.

Not long ago I ran for mayor in a conservative rural town in the West. Sometimes I got the bum’s rush when I went door to door: “This ain’t Boulder!” “No Democrats wanted!” and so on, but that was rare.

Many folks wanted to talk with me, however. Of course, there was a fair amount of rough political mockery, including a few half-page cartoons in the local paper depicting me as a puppet or driving a train to ruin. (I used to work as a brakeman.) I expected the local and consistently right-wing paper to endorse my opponent, and it did. But the campaign was mostly civil.

In the end, I surprised most everyone by getting 44.63 percent of the vote, and that against an old-guard favorite. The respectable showing was mostly due to my superb campaign manager, but also because I think progressive ideas are no longer considered completely crazy in the small-town West. So why do progressives so seldom win? And is there anything that can be done about it? 

First, anyone with a “progressive” bent has to begin by acknowledging the values of the rest of the locals, especially anybody born in the area. These people feel like they built the streets, the water plant, the parks and the other infrastructure, largely because they are right about that. They’re right, too, to argue that the basic services — police, fire, streets, water — are what a city is all about.

You’ve got to piggyback on those values. Low-income housing might sound like a stretch, but many towns need housing for essential workers. Alternative energy can save communities money. Recreation and art centers can help bring clean small business to town. Trails programs and amenities such as swimming pools can boost the amount of sales tax paid by tourists. A more diverse ethnic and racial population can lead to more tourism — and better restaurants. 

Georgetown, Colorado is one of many small towns where mining was the primary economy.

But building new things on an old past is tricky. It helps if you have a friend in the old guard who is willing to introduce you and your “newcomer” ideas. The old-timers, and they aren’t always old, aren’t likely to talk to you unless someone they know introduces you. They will be friendly, but that’s it. It’s always best to tip your hat to the old oligarchs as soon as you announce a run. It’s also best not to invade their Rotary Club without invitation. In my town we have two clubs, one for old-timers — lunch, mostly Republican — and one for newcomers — breakfast, mostly Democrats. I go to breakfast.

Anyone running against the old guard has to admit right away to being a newcomer. Mostly that includes anyone who has lived in town less than 15 years, although some locals define a newcomer as anyone whose parents weren’t born in the town. If the long-timers feel threatened, they will run someone sure to win, like the high school baseball coach, the retired manager of the best-known business, or maybe even the popular bartender at the Elks Club.  

That’s exactly why I lost. I ended up running against a business leader well known in the local Catholic Church. He’d even run the annual turkey dinner with his wife. I, after all, was only a former two-term county commissioner, albeit in another county, part of a water roundtable created by the governor, former chair of the local county Democratic party, and so on. None of those qualifications could stand up to a good turkey dinner, or a well-known local dog, for that matter. I admit I did poorly debating Woody, the dog, who campaigned through a helpful “dog psychic.” True story, in case you’re wondering.

Yet local progressive groups shouldn’t give up on the small-town West. There will be some hard-core cases, of course. But even if someone hints that you have a Muslim son-in-law, ignore the taunts and run anyway. Accept the fact that our political discourse has been heavily influenced by media outlets supporting the extreme right wing. It’s also a given that a couple of generations have grown up hearing that government is “the problem,” in the immortal words of Ronald Reagan. Those negative factors are real, but they don’t have to be crushing.

I’m not saying progressive candidates will win many victories in the small-town West. But by building on the basic decency and values already there, and by developing and using smart political skills, it can be done, eventually. Also, if you can possibly avoid debating a dog, do it. 

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at betsym@hcn.org.