New Mexico is shaping up to be one of the most interesting battleground states in the West this year. The presidential polls are starting to look good for Obama, and Representative Tom Udall, a member of the West's most famous environmentalist family, has a good chance of taking the Senate seat currently held by the legendarily anti-green Pete Domenici.
So New Mexico is just the sort of state where the Republican Party should be moving towards the center on environmental issues. Right? Not according to Heather Wilson, U.S House member from the state's first congressional district who recently lost a bid for the Republican nomination in New Mexico's Senate race. She lists jobs, the price of gas, and national defense as the three main issues for voters in her home state. The environment? "Not so much," she says. "The price of energy is a much bigger deal. The environment never even gets into double digits in the polls as the issue that voters think is most important."
Maybe she's right about the polls. Voters have plenty to worry about these days, what with a war and a recession going on. It's hard to care too much about Bush gutting the Endangered Species Act when your job just got offshored. But my guess is that there are a lot of New Mexico voters who count the environment as at least the second or third most important issue on their list. And my guess is that a candidate's position on the environment could sway some of these people's votes. And maybe that's why the oddsmakers at the web's most sophisticated electoral projection site give Tom Udall a 77% chance of winning the election this November.
On Wednesday evening, a coalition of peace groups organized a march in an effort to elevate the voices of anti-war veterans.
Obama's speech last night at Invesco stadium was, hands down, one of the best I have ever heard. It was a night for the history books, even if the Republicans did their best to distract us from that fact with their left-field nomination of Sarah Palin. But Obama's speech was only the second best of all the speeches I heard this week in Denver. The best was by Walt Gasson.
Gasson is a Wyoming native, a sportsman, and a Republican. And he's "mad as hell" about the impacts that the oil and gas boom is having on his state. He's not opposed to energy development done right -- and in the right places -- but he says that the heedless drilling going on right now is the biggest threat to wild lands and wildlife that he's ever seen.
Wyoming residents, he says, are losing their "home places," "the places we live for, the places, we love, the places we bequeath to our children like precious family heirlooms. That's the true price of drilling in the West -- the loss of home place for each of us, for our children and our childrens' children."
I won't tell recount his whole speech, because we're hoping that he'll write for High Country News in the future, and I'd hate to steal his thunder. But I don't think that anyone who listened to it will ever look at oil and gas quite the same, even if they never make it to Wyoming to see the land that we've sacrificed at the altar of cheap energy.
As Gasson put it, "maybe you're never going to stand on a butte in the Red Desert and Be able to see a hundred miles. Maybe you'll never experience that silence so deep you can feel it in your soul. But let me ask you this: don't you think that somebody should? Even if you never see it or touch it or feel it, wouldn't you just like to know it's there?"
"It was magical."
That's how Tillie Herrera Brummell, a diminutive woman with salt and pepper hair and round spectacles, described the closing extravaganza of the Democratic National Convention. Brummell, a native New Mexican who currently lives in Mountainair, sat with her son, Daniel, on a bus taking Convention-goers from the event back into town. She spoke with passion, in the distinctive accent of a New Mexican Hispanic, about Democratic politics in her state.
Brummell was in Denver as a special guest of her state's delegation. Her son explained that she had helped a lot of Democratic politicians get into office in New Mexico, and this was a way of repaying her. Like just about everyone else listening to Obama's speech, she seemed thrilled and genuinely moved.
She's also optimistic that Obama can win her state which, despite its history as a Democratic stronghold, has become something of a swing state in recent years. Clinton dominated New Mexico in 1992, but Gore barely beat out Bush in 2000, and Bush took the state in 2004.
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It's not that often that Wallace Stegner's words are woven into a political speech before an audience of 75,000 (plus all those folks watching on television). But during the blockbuster, Super Bowl-esque spectacle that closed out the 2008 Democratic National Convention, Rep. Mark Udall -- a candidate for Senate here in Colorado -- did just that.
This is the quote from the prepared transcript of his speech:
That’s why Wallace Stegner, the great Western writer, called us “the stickers.” They taught us that going forward means going together. With so many challenges ahead of us, it will take every bit of our Western strength, common sense, independence and pragmatism to get our country back on track and moving forward.
Though I was shooting photos, not taking notes, I'm pretty sure that's not what Udall actually said. It was more like, "Wallace Stegner called the West the native place of hope." Udall also talked about his father, Mo Udall, another influential Western politician.
Adding to the Western vibe of the event, N.M. Gov. Bill Richardson also spoke on Thursday, to deafening applause. Of course, he was wearing a yellow tie (where's the bolo, Guv?). Udall, for the record, wore a tasteful bolo tie during his speech.
Health care, tribal sovereignty, education, economic development and criminal justice. These are some of the most critical issues with which Native Americans are currently wrestling, and there's a lot on the line in the 2008 election. This was the message at Wednesday's "Native Nations United for Change Policy Discussion."
"We've suffered through a long, cold winter of George W. Bush," said Keith Harper, a tribal lawyer. "His policies have either been exclusion or outright hostility. And we need a fundamental change... and Barack Obama is the man to make that fundamental change."
And the Obama campaign has reached out to Indian country, inviting leaders to participate in policy and platform development early on. With Native Americans comprising a sizeable number of eligible voters in Western swing states -- and with 85% of those voting Democratic -- it's no wonder Obama is reaching out to Native communities.
The campaign recently added Wizi Garriott as chief organizer for Indian country, and he's working to get out the Native vote. Garriott cited an impressive statistic: there are 20,000 untapped American Indian voters in Montana, a state where Democratic Senator Jon Tester won by just 3,000 votes in 2006.
And American Indian voters could play crucial roles in New Mexico,Colorado and North Dakota, as well.
Far from the crowds and the jumbotron cameras, a group of about 50 Native Americans met in a quiet basement room of the Denver Art Museum on Wednesday. The meeting -- entitled the "Native Nations Policy Discussion" -- was largely made up of tribal leaders and delegates.
When we came in the door, a greeter saw our press passes and grasped my hand for longer than is customary. “We need you,” she said. “We need you.”
This unusually personal reception was perhaps apt -- it soon became evident that the underlying theme of the event was the invisibility of Native Americans on the political scene. And the hope that with Obama as president, that would change. Add to this the noticeable lack of media at the event, especially compared to the media blitzes at so many other events in Denver this week.
The forum began with three speeches by old white men -- Congressman Dale Kildee, Congressman Norm Dicks and Senator Byron Dorgan -- each of whom listed their past efforts on behalf of Indian Country, in true campaign style. But once representatives of the tribes got to talking, it became clear that these gentlemen are the exception in D.C. (if what they say about themselves is true).
“We suffer from one thing more than any other group, and that is invisibility,” Keith Harper, a tribal lawyer, told the crowd. “We don’t have a seat at the policy-making table.”
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After a long day of meetings and protest-following, a police officer informed us that the road to our car was closed. A half a block away, we found a small group of re-routed pedestrians staring across the street -- enchanted by an odd little robot that was inspecting a "suspicious package." The wheeled machine, which bore some resemblance to Johnny Five (the star of Short Circuit), danced around the brown cardboard box that had been abandoned in the parking lot next to Union Station, eyeballing it, approaching it hesitantly, then backing away. We were the only media outlet on the scene, so we captured the action on video.
As we strolled by twenty minutes later, the Boulder County Bomb Squad was suiting up an officer in gear that looked like something out of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Things were moving pretty slowly, so we didn't stick around long enough to see the resolution.
This morning, however, we passed by the scene on our way to the office and found a blown up cardboard box and thousands of sheets of paper scattered throughout the parking lot. Apparently, the bomb squad blew up the box. We chatted with an attendant who was cleaning up the mess before swarms of convention-goers stormed downtown yet again. The contents of the "suspicious package": Barack Obama fliers.
There was plenty of hype leading up to the Convention about the potential for big protests. Recreate 68 planned some serious, mischievous action, as did DNC Disruption 08 and other groups. As of Wednesday evening, most of that had fizzled. Protests were generally small and -- except for one that snaked down the 16th Street Mall -- followed the designated parade routes (meaning they were largely out of the public eye). In some cases, they even became the butt of media jokes.
By day three of the Convention, the media had done their part to drum up drama around the Convention. After Hillary came out in strong support of Obama, the talking heads indicated that Bill Clinton was "having a more difficult time coming around to that position." That was enough to give television viewers the hint: Better watch Clinton's speech, because he might say some wild and crazy things! Of course he didn't. The biggest surprise inside the Pepsi Center was N.M. Gov. Bill Richardson's speech getting moved from the already prominent position on Wednesday, to center stage on Thursday (Colo. Gov Bill Ritter will also speak before Obama).
Outside, things were more interesting.
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The National Wildlife Federation hosted a reception at the posh Curtis hotel in downtown Denver on Wednesday. They called it, I Hunt, I Fish, I Vote Conservation. The whole shindig had a decidedly less liberal feel to it than other DNC events. After all, these were hunters, anglers and the like, who, as Bob Carpenter, pollster for American Viewpoints, pointed out, are predominantly Republican or Independent.
However, Carpenter said, they are willing to swing to the left if it will help slow global warming and protect habitat for the game they pursue. He said that his polling indicates that hunters are conservative, vote in large numbers and more than half of them are undecided about who they'll vote for in November. Forty-seven percent of his respondents believe that "gun rights are important, but conservation is just as important," says Carpenter.
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