For Western politicians, roots matter


It's election season, and our rural Colorado valley bears the signs of it -- many signs, actually, plastered on hills, planted in farmer's fields, or stuck in front yards like seasonal lawn ornaments.

Some have generic messages like "Vote Republican." Others are more specific, like the signs supporting longtime rancher Mark Roeber, a Republican running for Delta County commissioner. "Coal Miners for Roeber," they declare, or "Ranchers for Roeber."

No doubt, ranchers and miners are important constituents in our valley, but there are plenty of locals not connected to either profession. I'd like to see a few different signs, perhaps along the lines of "Real Estate Agents for Roeber," say, or "Front Range Retirees Who Grow Organic Grapes for Roeber."

But Roeber doesn't need my help; he'll win because he has two essential ingredients -- a family name that can be traced back several generations in Delta County, and an R beside his name on the ballot. A few "newcomers" have tried to change the recipe. Ed Marston, HCN's former publisher, acquired a concealed gun permit and promoted fiscal restraint in his county commissioner 2008 run, but he couldn't overcome his mere 33 years in the valley and the D beside his name. Earlier this year, a Republican businessman, transplant Bob Stechert, looked like a viable candidate until Roeber, whose family homesteaded here in 1889, threw his cowboy hat into the ring.

In politics, family history -- and how it's told -- matters. Which is why HCN senior editor Ray Ring took on the task of dissecting the dead-heat U.S. Senate contest in Montana between third-generation farmer (and Democratic incumbent) Jon Tester and fifth-generation rancher (and Republican congressman) Denny Rehberg. The race may well determine which party holds the Senate. It will also test how far candidates will push their family stories to win.

As Ring discovers, Rehberg's oft-told tales of family hardship are both true and false. While Rehberg has ranching in his background, and his ancestors were indeed resourceful, he has been a politician from the get-go, sustained by salaries from political jobs and subdivisions of the family holdings. Tester, who exudes "farmer" from his missing fingers to his weekend overalls, calls Rehberg a "mansion rancher."

Will those attacks make a difference? Maybe. Should they? Pat Williams, a former Democratic congressman from Montana, believes "there is too much blaming and too many cowboy hats. … One candidate claims to be more Montanan than the other; who's to say? As Wallace Stegner once wrote, 'There are more fry cooks than farmers in this part of the country.' Politicians ought to appeal more to the reality of the West than its myth."

In an ideal world, they would, but Ring's investigation reminds us that, while voters should push candidates to address real issues, they should also pay attention to their stories -- stories that can reveal as much about a candidate as any policy paper.

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