If politics is a baseball game, I don't even own a bat

  • Democrat-Republican dominated states in election

    Diane Sylvain

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 congressman.

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 Nevada.

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 Legislature.

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.

His 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 Aspen.

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 years.

Did Powers lose because she wasn't a native?

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 green newcomers.

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.

Voter 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 18,726.

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 719,000.

So much for a new, greening West.

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.

Unless 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 sovereign.

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.

Ed Marston is publisher of High Country News.

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