After each election I become the fearful character in a Gary Larson cartoon, peering through window slats to discover that neighboring houses are occupied by large canines, drooling spittle and looking hungrily in my direction.
After 12 elections, I ought to have more stomach for the results,
but each biennium comes as fresh horror. The 1994 election was bad
but supposedly a fluke. This year wasn't a fluke: It continued a
long-term trend that finally expelled the last Intermountain
Democrats from the House of Representatives.
Until Nov. 5, Democrats always had a few Western congressmen: Pat
Williams up in Montana, Ben Nighthorse Campbell (before he switched
parties) in western Colorado, Bill Orton over in southern Utah, Tom
Foley in eastern Oregon, Wayne Owens in Salt Lake City. Now those
scattered few are gone. With the exception of Denver-Boulder, you
have to go to the West Coast or the Southwest to find a Democratic
Democrats were once strong in the
region's governors' mansions: Michael Sullivan in Wyoming and
before him Ed Herschler, Scott Matheson in Utah, Cecil Andrus in
Idaho. Imagine, Democratic governors in Utah and Idaho and Wyoming.
Now there are only Roy Romer in Colorado and Bob Miller in
I look at the post-election-day maps for
the president's race and see that I'm in the middle of a sea of
Dole states. I'd have to travel several hours south over rough
roads to pro-Clinton New Mexico. To the east, I'd have to drive to
Missouri. To the west, I'd have to go through Utah - would state
officials let a Democrat do that? - to reach the Clinton-voting
state of Nevada. North is the worst. I'd have to drive through half
of Colorado, and then all of Wyoming and Montana to Canada to ask
for political asylum.
A few things are
marginally less Republican. Delta County, Colo., where I vote, went
for Ronald Reagan in the 1980s by about 75 percent. But on Nov. 5,
Dole only got 52 percent here; Clinton got 31 percent. So at home
I'm lonely but not totally alone.
I can take the
national stuff. What stunned me was the fate of three local
Democratic candidates for the Colorado state
I was sure Cole Wist would win.
He's a young lawyer, son of a local coal miner, and a
self-proclaimed Wayne Aspinall Democrat (a former western Colorado
congressman who oversaw the damming of the Colorado River and the
clearcutting of its watershed). Wist wrapped himself in the
traditional West, was cautiously supportive of the transfer of the
BLM land to the states, spoke well of a destructive water project,
and ran a vigorous and articulate campaign.
opponent, Republican Kay Alexander, wouldn't commit herself on any
issue (-Ask me next year," she said), had her state-senator husband
answer questions during at least one public forum, and wouldn't
tell what she had been doing before she moved to the district two
years ago. But since Alexander was a Republican, Wist didn't even
win his home Delta County, and lost overall 52 percent to 48
percent. Was that because he was a faux Democrat, not even standing
up for the public lands?
Then take state Senate
incumbent Linda Powers from the ski town of Crested Butte. She has
been both progressive and a conservationist for four years. She is
a wonderful campaigner and probably knows more people in my town
than I do. And she's blessed, in terms of fund raising, with two
ski towns in her district: Crested Butte and
She lost 52 percent to 48 percent to a
former miner from Leadville, Ken Chlouber, whose major campaign
position was: A liberal New Yorker has no business representing
"us." Powers has lived in western Colorado for more than 20
Did Powers lose because she wasn't a
Then look what happened to Vicki
Felmlee. She ran an energetic first campaign for an open state
House seat in nearby Mesa County, centered on Grand Junction. She's
been volunteering and leading civic efforts in that area for years.
She knows everyone. She knocked on 3,000 doors. Felmlee also had
the New West on her side: Mesa County's population and economy have
boomed over the past few years, and we all know that must mean
Her opponent, Matt Smith, was a
faceless attorney with a weak civic record who dodged every issue
except improving a local road.
The result: Smith
won, 60 percent to 40 percent.
registration numbers show what the three candidates were up
against. To take Felmlee's Mesa County, from 1992 to 1996 its
population went from 98,000 to almost 107,000. During the same
period, Republican registration went from 21,000 to 27,680, while
Democratic registration was rising, barely, from 17,506 to
Is this a fluke? Is the New West
concentrated in the Denver area? Colorado in the same booming
period went from 3.4 million people to 3.7 million people. When the
growth started, registered Democrats outnumbered registered
Republicans 681,000 to 668,000. But in 1996, Republicans
outnumbered Democrats by an incredible 824,000 to
So much for a new, greening
Not only do Democratic candidates in the
Intermountain West always lack resources and a party machine and
registered voters, but it is very hard on a person to run where you
are the "other."
A candidate for state
legislature in a rural area must travel 10,000 to 20,000 miles
chasing voters in far-flung communities. The traveling is done
alone or with a campaign manager who drives so the candidate can
nap. They go from town to town where there is no Democratic
organization and may be damn few Democrats, but always lots of
Republicans, especially at public forums.
they're superhuman, it doesn't take long for them to try to fit in
- to pretend they are not an alien. Most candidates take on at
least the cultural trappings of the down-home Westerner. Some slide
into Republican positions.
It's not their fault,
this lack of comfort, this inability to find political and cultural
ground to stand on. What Democratic-environmentalist candidates
face was on display in HCN's Sept. 30 lead story on Idaho
senatorial candidate Walt Minnick. The article opened with him
attempting, without much luck, to handshake amid a crowd streaming
into a rodeo.
The 1996 election means that
environmentalists who live in the region's towns and small cities
can only influence the federal land by begging help from East or
West Coast congresspeople to create a wilderness, or from a federal
judge to stop a logging project, or from President Clinton to buy
out a mine.
It works, but it doesn't build a
local base. And it creates a sense that the West is under outside
attack, as shown by the effectiveness of the 1994 Republican "War
on the West" campaign. This loss of sovereignty results in
destructive politics. Everyone knows that it doesn't make sense to
transfer the federal lands to the states. But there is pressure to
do so because if the states had the lands, they'd be more
So long as environmentalists depend
on outside help to protect the federal land, we will see the region
send extremists to Congress - people like Larry Craig and Helen
Chenoweth of Idaho, and Barbara Cubin of Wyoming, all of whom were
re-elected in 1996.
At the same time, given that
the West is politically destabilized and so has fewer and fewer
moderate Republicans in office, the environmental movement can't
give up outside force. Without it, the present congressional
delegations would pick the last bits of meat off the West's bones
in a decade.
Until we come up with new
strategies, the environmental movement and people throughout the
nation who love the region's beauty and wildness appear condemned
to an unending job of policing the Intermountain states. We will
never be able to say:
Now there are elected
officials in the West who will balance economic and ecological
needs. Now there is no more need for unending nationwide alerts,
any more than people in Montana feel called upon to send money to
protect New York City's Central Park or the Los Angeles County
Museum of Art.
is publisher of High Country