Glenna Nix outside her home in Nucla, Colo. Her daughter, who cared for two of her own daughters and had extraordinary expenses for seizure medication, recently committed suicide.CreditCreditDaniel Brenner for The New York Times
NUCLA, Colo. — Richard Craig, gun lover, 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 gained this small community in southwestern Colorado some notoriety. “I believe in our Constitution,” Craig told me. “Having our guns is just part of American freedom.” As for President Trump, “I think he’s an idiot. He should quit tweeting and keep his mouth shut.”
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, purple state par excellence.
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 stab at a revival. It’s heavily Republican, like most of small-town America. It is also part of what Deana Sheriff, an economic recovery coordinator, called “the Mild West” — complete with broadband and a mill for heritage grains. Nobody is running around with six-shooters on hips taking potshots at streetlights.
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 Trump in 2016; Colorado, thanks mainly to Denver and Boulder, gave Hillary Clinton a narrow victory.
Because population growth and immigration are concentrated in the Front Range, Colorado seems to be edging bluer. Much of the national focus right now is on the Sixth Congressional District, where Mike Coffman, a five-term Republican representative, is trailing Jason Crow, who would be the first Democrat ever to hold the seat. A Crow victory would provide one of the 23 seats Democrats need to take the House.
But Colorado has not split into the irreconcilable political tribes that have turned Washington into a symbol of polarization. Division is not the whole American story, despite Trump’s best efforts. In Colorado, immense space still equals possibility, an old American promise. Crisscrossing the state, I found more people interested in problem-solving than point-scoring.
Colorado’s economy is humming and diversifying. 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, told me that when he goes to the East Coast, “I do feel like an outsider. The way we approach things here, it’s almost like we’re speaking a different language. 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.
Might he, eyeing 2020, run for the Democratic Party nomination for president on this can-do, bridge-building platform? “We are certainly looking at it,” Hickenlooper said. “We spent the summer talking to people that are really smart. I’m preparing, but don’t think I’d make a decision probably until February.”
That sounds to me like a yes. 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 Trump has tapped into a deep-seated economic and cultural 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, have gone to a four-day week for lack of tax revenue. In rural areas, health insurance premiums have soared, sometimes 30 percent or more above Denver levels, because only one insurer remains. So people go without while others worry they will lose their Medicaid if they take a job. They clean bathrooms for billionaires in Telluride for a minimum wage.
“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,” Senator Michael Bennet, a Democrat (whose brother happens to run the Times Opinion section), told me.
The feeling of being left behind, forgotten or cheated by a rigged system in a country of sharpening inequality is America’s core dilemma. The question now is who will more effectively convince Americans that the American dream can be restored: 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 and blue-collar and barely middle-class America (like the teachers who went on strike in Colorado this year) in a way that does not sound patronizing?
At the 5th Avenue Grill in Nucla, with its trophy elk on the wall and a sign saying “Home of the Free Because of the Brave,” Bob Ralph, a plumber, had no doubt. He told me: “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, and so in a sense Republican-inclined; but it’s been won over by strong local Democratic leadership. “It’s not at all a blue state to be taken for granted; things can easily be reversed,” Ken Salazar, a former secretary of the interior in the Obama administration and a Colorado native, told me. “People will vote for results-oriented candidates. Results matter: That’s the Coloradan standard.”
I went to Denver to meet Hickenlooper, a tall, languid, affable 66-year-old transplant from the East Coast who has produced results. He came to Colorado as a geologist for a petroleum company and experienced the shock of unemployment after being 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.
“The one thing you learn in the restaurant business,” the governor told me, “is there is no margin in having enemies. The only way you persuade someone is to listen harder.”
As a two-term Denver mayor starting in 2003, and now a two-term governor, Hickenlooper 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 called FasTracks, a much-improved school system and more than 850 miles of bike trails; a pro-business economy, low on red tape, that has tried to balance urban and rural demands (particularly over water) and attracted a range of new companies, from tech through recreation to the Noosa yogurt business; the legalization of recreational marijuana, now a significant source of tax revenue; and successful trade-offs in Colorado’s fierce fossil-fuel-vs.-environment debate that have preserved more than 230,000 jobs in the oil and gas sector.
Some issues elude compromise, of course. In 2013, after the Aurora theater mass shooting the previous year, Hickenlooper signed into law a ban on high-capacity gun magazines that hold more than 15 rounds. This is the measure that incensed Richard Craig and led, as a protest, to Nucla’s obligatory gun-ownership ordinance.
“I just got mad because these talking heads decided we did not need high-capacity magazines, and we ended up losing a firearms accessory factory with dozens of jobs that went to Wyoming,” Craig said.
Over in nearby Grand Junction, the largest town on the Western Slope, such views are widespread, even if the Mild West is evident again on a Main Street offering lattes, pottery and beads. On the way into town is a large billboard that went up after Trump’s ignominious 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. She’s a liberal blogger, often insulted by her local opponents as a “libtard.” Landman was so angered by Trump’s betrayal in Helsinki that she paid for the poster and has been able to keep it there through supporters’ contributions.
I met Landman, who moved to Grand Junction from Los Angeles, “because you can still be by yourself on the final frontier,” in a bagel cafe. To her, the Trump phenomenon has been about releasing xenophobic emotions suppressed as the country headed in a direction many did not like. “It’s scary to see it. And now that box has been opened, I’m not sure how we close it again.”
As we spoke, Elisa Allen, who was on vacation with her family from Baltimore and had seen the billboard, approached. “It’s nice to find some sanity in the craziness,” she said, pressing $40 on Landman.
I drove across town to see Pastor Robert Babcox, who dismissed the billboard as a vile insult (“like saying all Democrats are Nazis”) and listed his reasons for backing Trump.
“We want to be left alone; he speaks to our isolationism,” Babcox said. “As a father of four daughters I will not take them to Target,” he said, angry about the store’s choose-your-gender bathrooms. “A nation without laws is chaos,” he said, alluding to his support for Trump’s now-reversed border policy under which nearly 3,000 children were separated from their parents. “The derricks outside town are starting up again thanks to the president,” he said. “Trump,” Babcox concluded, “deserves credit for sticking to his guns.”
I asked Babcox about a Hickenlooper run for president. “He’d be foolish to do that, does not stand a chance,” he said. “What a silly law that high-capacity magazine thing is! He wants to make us like California, but you’re not going to have Priuses around here.”
So are Democrats the enemy? Babcox became reflective, recalling Navy days when, he said, 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 told me. “I say to Liberals, let’s try to find things we can agree on.”
It seemed a genuine Coloradan sentiment.
The race for Hickenlooper’s successor as governor pits Walker Stapleton, the Republican state treasurer, against Jared Polis, a five-term Democratic congressman from Boulder who made a fortune in online start-ups. A recent poll from the American Politics Research Lab in Boulder shows Polis leading Stapleton, 54 percent to 42 percent.
Polis seems to be gaining most traction through his bold proposals for universal full-day preschool, powering Colorado’s energy grid 100 percent from renewables by 2040 and ending what, in an interview, he called the “big health care rip off,” perhaps through a single-payer system.
Anger at Trump and the erosion of middle-class life seems to have reinforced a progressive mood among Coloradans. This is suggested by strong support for Amendment 73, a state constitutional amendment that would raise taxes on individuals earning over $150,000 and corporations to increase public school spending.
Seth Cagin is one of these mobilized Coloradans. A retired publisher in Telluride, he has knocked on several thousand doors in his campaign as a Democratic candidate for the State House. He’d never run for office before Trump came along. His is an uphill struggle in generally conservative counties, including Montrose. But Cagin finds that wedge issues like guns, immigration and abortion tend to obscure the fact that many Coloradans of whatever political persuasion want the same things: affordable health care, better schools, higher wages and protection of Colorado’s public lands and water. They want a chance at a middle class life in a decent environment.
Yet, as Cagin told me, “One thing every single Trump supporter knows as soon as you start to talk to them is that we think they’re dumb and look down on them.” Democrats, he suggested, might reflect on that.
Don Colcord, a pharmacist and one of the rare Democrats in Nucla, also believes that the party needs to stop alienating small-town America. Environmental concerns are worthy, but what happens when, as in Nucla, they lead to the imminent shutdown of a coal-fired power plant with the loss of dozens of jobs and the tax base that pays for schools? “It’s a sacrificial cow to the environmental movement,” he said.
While I was in Nucla, I went to the funeral service at the First Baptist Church for Lacie Redd, a 34-year-old divorced mother of two girls who had just committed suicide by shooting herself.
Redd’s mother, Glenna Nix, worked at Colcord’s pharmacy. He knows the family. Redd suffered from seizures; her prescription medicine was wildly 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,” Colcord recalled. In the end, it was too much for Redd — caring for her girls, coping with seizures, getting her medicine, just plain surviving.
“There are a lot of wonderful things about free enterprise,” Colcord reflected. “And a lot of devastating things, too. Good-old America. Yeah, good-old America.”
America cannot find enduring solutions to big problems like health care one party at a time. But Washington has lost the capacity for negotiated outcomes. Trump’s Republicans are all about slash-and-burn. As Senator Bennet told me: “We can’t get anything of importance done. When was the last time you heard a politician say I only got 65 percent of what I wanted but here is why I think we should do it?”
Against this backdrop of paralysis, Colorado has done better. The grandeur of its beauty and space seem to stir some nobler instinct in the name of preserving nature and advancing the common good. It’s impossible to drive across the state and not be reminded of the first boundlessness of American potential. People disagree; they are not, however, disagreeable.
“The West is the most collaborative place,” Hickenlooper told me. “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 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? Do you want your differences used to fan a violent atmosphere where explosive devices get sent to critics of Trump? Or do you want your difference negotiated to produce reasonable outcomes that may restore the American dream?
Salazar, the Democrat and former interior secretary, told me: “I hope our presidential candidate is someone from the West or Rocky Mountains. 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.”