Let the dialogue begin about solving the problems of Colorado’s urban/rural political divide. Or not. After the 51st state initiative failed in Weld County on Nov. 5 by 56 percent to 44 percent, Weld commissioners Sean Conway and Barbara Kirkmeyer said the effort to secede from Colorado started dialogue around the state regarding rural counties’ needs not being considered by lawmakers in the Denver-metro area.
“If the entire effort was to send a message, message received,” Conway said. “I think we have kick-started a very important dialogue that I look forward to participating in as we move forward. We’re not going away.”
Colorado House Speaker Mark Ferrandino, D-Denver, though, has a different opinion.
“If anything, I actually think it built up walls,” Ferrandino said in a phone interview from Denver. “I have known Sean for a while. He’s always welcome in my office, but doing this type of stuff doesn’t build bridges. It puts up walls. Saying, ‘We just want to be a different state,’ doesn’t say, ‘We want to work together to find the right policies for this state.’”
Ferrandino said Denver legislators won’t shut out rural Weld officials because of the 51st state effort. But, he added, “there’s a group now who are seen I think by some as more out of touch, especially when Commissioner Conway is the one pushing it and then his county doesn’t even vote for it. I think he’s out of touch with his own voters. If he’s supposed to be advocating for his constituents and he’s supposed to have a pulse on his constituents, then you would think he’d be able to get more support than that. He should talk to some of his other constituents who voted against his measure.”
Ferrandino added that having a meaningful discussion is important and he vows to be part of that, but he believes the 51st state issue was perceived by many across the state as “throwing a tantrum.”
“That’s not the right process,” he said. “We have a process in place, and we should use that process. I’m glad to see that it didn’t pass because we have a fundamental belief in our democratic process. You organize and you work to elect people who will agree with you. You don’t just say, ‘We’re going to take our toys and go home.’ I think it is a small group of people who are not happy with what’s going on and trying to make political hay out of it.”
The big question now is: What can be done to get Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper and the Democratic-dominated legislature to be more attentive to the concerns and needs of rural Colorado?
“We understand that some rural areas still feel under-represented and are not being heard. We remain committed to listening more and working with local communities all across Colorado,” Gov. Hickenlooper said in an email response Friday.
Eric Brown, director of communications for the governor, said Hickenlooper will continue to reach out to Weld County and other rural areas.
“The vote in Weld County doesn’t change our intent to continue talking to residents there or in other counties,” Brown said. “The governor held community meetings this fall on the eastern plains, in southern Colorado and on the Western Slope — and he’s been in Weld County four times in the past two months.”
Conway said the county commissioners began the journey in June with the recognition that the political divide exists, and it’s not going away.
“I think we’re going to be at the Legislature in January looking for ways to do this. We’re going to be engaging with our state legislators who, quite frankly, have been AWOL,” Conway said.
Even though 56 percent of the voters (more than 36,260) voted against the 51st state, Conway takes solace in the fact that 44 percent (28,107 yes votes) wanted a change.
“Clearly, there’s frustration out there that needs to be addressed,” Conway said. “Do we really think the governor would be saying, ‘I’m going to come to Weld County more often. That I’m going to listen more. That I’ve got to lean in more. I’ve got to have more of a dialogue here,’ if we hadn’t had this discussion? I doubt it.”
The Divide Goes Beyond Denver
If you ask Conway, the political divide between rural and urban areas isn’t just about the Denver-metro lawmakers. Conway called out Rep. Dave Young, D-Greeley, as being part of the problem.
“I think we accomplished a lot in the last few months in terms of opening up this dialogue, getting attention at the state capitol, getting the attention of legislators, including some of our own legislators in Weld County who were, quite frankly, part of the problem,” Conway said. “When you have a Dave Young, who votes against oil and gas bills that are absolutely paramount to Weld County. I want to see if he’s going to listen more. Is he going to engage more? I couldn’t get a meeting last year during the legislative session with Rep. Young. Is he going to become an active participant in this dialogue? Does he recognize there’s a problem out there?”
In response to Conway’s comments, Young said he’s had numerous interactions with Conway.
“I’m a little disappointed that he would say that he tried to set up a meeting with me and that he couldn’t get it done,” Young said. “I met with all five commissioners, at their request, after the flooding occurred to really get a sense of what was going on in the county and tell them what I was working on. I make myself extremely available. He has attended my town hall meetings that I’ve had. I’m a little surprised that he would say that I’m unavailable.”
Young said his job is to represent the people in his district.
“There are other representatives who represent other parts of northern Colorado that are primarily rural. My district, I don’t know if you really can call it urban but I don’t think it would be called rural,” Young said. “I know from lots of conversations with people in my district that we’re very sensitive to the issues of rural folks. Our economy in Weld County is driven primarily by agriculture, and that we need to really look out for the concerns of the ag community. Certainly, we’ve gotten economic benefits from the energy sector, as well, and oil and gas. I’m trying to work pretty carefully with them as well to make sure that we balance the needs of our economy and the need to make sure people’s health and safety are protected.”
ANOTHER PROPOSAL FOR RURAL AREAS
Kirkmeyer said a positive thing that came out of the 51st state initiative was the Phillips County plan which would set representation throughout the state based on geography rather than population.
“That is something we will continue to work on and push,” Kirkmeyer said. “This is just the first chapter.”
The Phillips County plan would base either the state House or Senate representation on area instead of population, similar to Congress in which the House of Representatives is based on population, but the Senate has two senators from every state no matter the population.
“We look forward to working with those counties who put this on the ballot. We have been working on this Phillips County idea, which came out of this,” Conway said. “Without this discussion, we would never have come up with this Phillips County idea. I think that’s gaining momentum. Quite frankly, I think that potentially could be the solution out there. We’ll see as we proceed forward.”
Ferrandino said it’s his understanding that based on a U.S. Supreme Court decision, the Phillips County plan would be unconstitutional.
“Everyone I talked to and all of our non-partisan legal staff seems to think the court is pretty clear,” he said. “While I understand the idea around it, if you do it based on counties, there are counties that have a few thousand people and giving them more representation might be a worthwhile goal, but the over 600,00 people who live in Denver, who I represent over 10 percent of them, losing their representation is a problem and making them have less of a voice is not a fair way either.”
Ferrandino said there has been division in the state before, but not to the point of trying to form a new state.
“Every state goes through that. Colorado is changing both demographically and politically over the last couple of decades, and that’s going to continue,” Ferrandino said. “Anytime change happens, there are always people who try to stop change and that causes issues.”
John Straayer, a political analyst and political science professor for 47 years at Colorado State University, said the Phillips County plan is a non-starter because of the Reynolds vs. Sims 1964 Supreme Court case that ruled that all districts in any state legislature must be equal in population.
“The case law is very settled on that matter,” Straayer said. “Then there was one specific to Colorado, and it just blows my mind that nobody seems to have looked at it or paid attention to it. That followed Reynolds v. Sims the same year and the case is called Lucas v. Colorado. The peculiar thing for me through all of this is how in the world does this talk about the Phillips plan keeps going and going and going without some very clear recognition that it’s going to fly in the face of settled law, and that law has been settled now for half a century. You can’t do it. It’s unconstitutional.”
IS THERE A SOLUTION?
Young agrees there are some urban/rural issues to discuss, but he thinks most issues are more complicated than that.
“I’m not sure I saw solutions being brought forward through the whole conversation on the 51st state, but we have issues around water that are of concern to everybody in the state,” Young said. “Agriculture uses 84 percent of our water, and they’re already claiming that there are impending shortages. If agriculture is affected, we’re all affected. It’s a complicated situation that we need to work together to resolve.
“Education is an issue that’s complicated. That cuts across urban versus rural. We’ve got children all across the state in small or large communities that need better access to education and quality education.”
Young agrees that some people don’t feel as if they have a voice at the table, which to him sounds like a communication problem.
“It’s of concern to me when people say they want to be heard, but then they want to isolate or separate themselves from those they expect to have listen to them,” he said. “That doesn’t seem to be an effective solution.”
He added, “I think if you feel like you’re not being heard that you should be working harder to make sure you’re heard, and to me separating or seceding from the state has the opposite effect. I want to say without equivocation that I am certainly willing to work with others, whether they be Republicans or Democrats or other parties, to be part of the process of coming up with solutions. We have to craft solutions that work for all Coloradans.”
Ferrandino said there is a shift in population happening nationwide with more people moving to urban and suburban areas.
“That has implications, but when you look at the Flood (Disaster Study) Committee, it’s being chaired by a Republican (Sen. Scott Renfroe, R-Greeley) and Democrat (Young), both from Weld County,” Ferrandino said. “I think people in urban areas understand the issues and try to understand the issues in rural areas, and rural areas try to understand the issues in urban areas. They’re different, and we have to balance both of those. But we’re all one state and we have to look out for the best interests of the entire state.”
Ferrandino believes it’s vital to have an open-door policy and listen to everyone.
“It doesn’t mean you always agree, but everyone has to have the right to have their voice heard,” Ferrandino said. “A lot of people who say we won’t listen never come down to talk to us. It’s funny that Sean says we don’t listen when he’s always welcome to call me and always welcome to come and have a meeting with me, and he has had meetings with me. The best policies are when people sit around the table and discuss things in a meaningful way, that they understand that they’re not going to get everything that they want. A 51st state strategy is about getting everything you want. It’s saying. “We don’t want to compromise.’ It’s kind of like the Republicans in D.C. who shut down the government. ‘We don’t want to negotiate. We want our way or no way at all.’ ”
Straayer thinks the debate will continue between rural versus urban residents.
“The grievances that some folks have felt being slighted perhaps or not having their voice heard adequately in the legislature, I think, that concern will probably continue,” Straayer said. “There will be continued efforts to press the rural message and the rural agenda. The fact of the matter is that the people live on the Front Range and the urban area. That’s where political clout is. I think if the rural areas that lean heavily Republican want to have their concerns addressed more effectively, they’ve got to get more Republicans elected.”