Healthcare costs have soared in rural Colorado. Glenna Nix’s daughter committed suicide after struggling to afford medicine. (Daniel Brenner for The New York Times)
Richard Craig, gun lover, President Donald J. Trump hater, is the man behind the local ordinance here that made gun ownership obligatory for the head of every household. The unusual rule, approved overwhelmingly by the town board in 2013, has given this small community in southwestern Colorado some notoriety.
«I believe in our Constitution», Mr. Craig told me. «Having our guns is just part of American freedom». As for Mr. Trump, «I think he’s an idiot. He should quit tweeting and keep his mouth shut».
Mr. Craig, 78, a pro-mining registered Democrat in camo shorts and Birkenstocks who refuses to join the National Rifle Association, is an ornery nonideological American. In other words, he’s a lot like Colorado.
On the eve of critical midterm elections, Colorado presents an American microcosm, its population of 5.6 million split more or less evenly among Republicans, Democrats and independents. Liberals, including an influx of immigrants, tend to inhabit the more urban Front Range, east of the Rockies; Trump support is intense in the rural Western Slope. Montrose County, home to Nucla, voted 67.9 percent for Mr. Trump in 2016; Colorado, thanks mainly to Denver and Boulder, gave Hillary Clinton a narrow victory. Because population growth is concentrated in the Front Range, Colorado seems to be edging more Democratic.
But Colorado has not split into the irreconcilable political tribes that have turned Washington into a symbol of polarization. Colorado’s economy is humming. Its unemployment rate is 2.9 percent. Its capacity for compromise — as an oil-and-natural-gas state with limited water committed to environmental preservation and an outdoors lifestyle — is conspicuous.
John Hickenlooper, the term-limited Democratic governor, said, “In the West, I think there is an inclination, almost an instinct, to sit down with people you disagree with and sort of sort through” — as he did with the oil and gas industry to produce a rational energy policy, the nation’s first regulatory framework limiting future emissions.
The small town of Nucla is trying to reinvent itself by growing hemp. The now busy 5th Avenue Grill. (Daniel Brenner for The New York Times)
Might he run for the 2020 Democratic Party nomination for president on this cooperative platform? «We are certainly looking at it», he said.A Hickenlooper candidacy would be interesting because there’s no way to govern Colorado, as he has for eight years, without dealing with the way Mr. Trump has tapped into a deep-seated frustration. Trump support is no abstraction here, or cause for derision. It’s a fact.
Despite the strong economy, hardship is widespread. Wages have lagged. Some school districts, like Pueblo’s, have gone to a four-day week for lack of tax revenue. In rural areas, health insurance premiums have soared because only one insurer remains. So many go without while others worry that if they take a job, they will lose their Medicaid, the government health coverage for low income residents. «Just like the rest of the country, most people can’t easily afford housing, can’t easily afford health care, can’t easily afford higher education or early childhood education; so another way of saying that is most of the people cannot afford a middle-class lifestyle», said Senator Michael Bennet, a Colorado Democrat (whose brother runs the Times Opinion section).
The feeling of being left behind, forgotten or cheated by a rigged system in a country of sharpening inequality is America’s core predicament. The question now is who will more effectively convince Americans that the American dream can be restored: Mr. Trump, with his unscrupulous rabble-rousing and America-first nationalism masking tax and other policies that favor the one percent, or a Democratic Party that rediscovers the ability to speak to small-town, blue-collar and barely middle-class America in a way that isn’t patronizing?
Nucla, population just over 700, was founded around 1900 by a utopian socialist group, lived off uranium mining during the Cold War and has now turned to the cultivation of marijuana’s cousin, hemp, in a try at a revival. It’s heavily Republican, like most of small-town America. At the 5th Avenue Grill, Bob Ralph, a plumber, said: «A year ago we would have been the only ones here. Now you have to wait for a table. The hardware store has people waiting in line. People are eager to open businesses. I hope Trump will be a two-term president».
In the last 10 presidential elections, going back to 1980, Colorado has voted Republican six times but Democratic in the last three. It’s a state with a strong libertarian streak, suspicious of government; but it’s been won over by strong local Democratic leadership. Yet Ken Salazar, a former secretary of the interior in the Obama administration and a Colorado native, said: «People will vote for results-oriented candidates. Results matter: That’s the Coloradan standard».
Mr. Hickenlooper, an affable 66-year-old transplant from the East Coast, came to Colorado as a geologist for a petroleum company and was laid off in 1986. A period of self-doubt led to the decision to start a brewpub business. Many of his restaurants helped revive blighted downtown areas: entrepreneurship as transformative politics. As a two-term Denver mayor, and now a two-term governor, he has listened, driven by the conviction that, as he put it, «We don’t have the luxury to kind of wallow in the partisan mud pit, right?»
The effects are tangible: the renaissance of Denver, which now has a multibillion-dollar public transportation network, a much-improved school system and some 1,400 kilometers of bike trails; a pro-business economy that has tried to balance urban and rural demands and attracted new companies as diverse as tech, recreation and the Noosa yogurt business; the legalization of recreational marijuana, now a significant source of tax revenue; and successful trade-offs in Colorado’s fossil-fuel-versus-environment debate that have preserved more than 230,000 jobs in the oil and gas sector.
Some issues elude compromise. In 2013, after the Aurora theater mass shooting the previous year, Mr. Hickenlooper signed into law a ban on high-capacity gun magazines that hold more than 15 rounds. This is the measure that led, as a protest, to Nucla’s obligatory gun-ownership ordinance.
On the way into Grand Junction, the largest town on the Western Slope, is a large billboard that went up after Mr. Trump’s July meeting with President Vladimir Putin of Russia. It says «G.O.P.» on a red background with the «O» replaced by the Communist hammer and sickle. The billboard is there thanks to Anne Landman, a liberal blogger who moved from Los Angeles.
Across town, Pastor Robert Babcox dismissed the billboard as a vile insult («like saying all Democrats are Nazis») and listed his reasons for backing Mr. Trump. «We want to be left alone; he speaks to our isolationism», he said.
I asked Mr. Babcox about a Hickenlooper run for president. «He’d be foolish to do that, does not stand a chance», he said, adding: «He wants to make us like California, but you’re not going to have Priuses around here». Yet Mr. Babcox recalled his Navy days when he learned the blood of all Americans runs red. «You know, we’re all too wrapped up in our differences to see our similarities», he said. «I say to liberals, let’s try to find things we can agree on».
It seemed a genuine Coloradan sentiment. Don Colcord, a pharmacist and rare Democrat in Nucla, believes that his party needs to stop alienating small-town America.
Glenna Nix, the mother of Lacie Redd, a 34-year-old divorced mother who had just committed suicide, worked at Mr. Colcord’s pharmacy. Ms. Redd suffered from seizures; her prescription medicine was expensive. «Thirty tablets cost more than $1,000, and she needed more than one a day, and she was fighting and fighting to get insurance to cover it, and sometimes she’d run out, Mr. Colcord recalled. In the end, it was too much for Ms. Redd — caring for her girls, coping with seizures, getting her medicine, just surviving.
America cannot find enduring solutions to big problems like health care one party at a time. But while Washington has lost the capacity for negotiated outcomes, Colorado has done better. «The West is the most collaborative place», Mr. Hickenlooper said. «It’s still the place where people can come and be defined by how big their dream is and how hard they are willing to work».
It’s also the place where Ms. Redd just took her life.
The country’s challenges are vast and the basic choice before Americans in November is this: Do you want your anger manipulated or addressed?
Mr. Salazar said: «I think Hickenlooper could get traction. When you’re a governor in a place like this, you know that to get things done you need to bring people together».