Talking secession in Wray
People here voted to explore breaking away from Colorado and forming a new state. What was it all about? It’s complicated.
WRAY, Colo. — In their hands you can feel the land, the cornstalks, fence posts, castrating knives and hard dirt. First in the hands of the greeters in the Methodist church foyer. Then in the hands of the members of the congregation welcoming visitors to Thanksgiving service. You could feel it like you could feel the morning chill.
“Your fingers would get cold, too,” one man told another.
The temperatures had dipped. He said he couldn’t get his tractor to start.
As the men were speaking, the church choir, dressed in robes the color of Indian paintbrush, shuffled in. The congregation of mostly older people hushed, their textured faces cast in kaleidoscopic late-morning light pushed through stained-glass windows. It was a more colorful snapshot of the kinds of faces you see all around town.
Wray is the seat of Yuma County, far out on the eastern plains. Yuma is one of the five rural counties in Colorado that voted to secede this fall. On Election Day I had come here to cover the vote. I came back a few weeks later to see what had changed.
The secession movement was symbolic all along, despite what its main proponents said. The hurdles, practical and bureaucratic, were many and high, although they were never fully explained to voters. The Colorado legislature would have to approve the split, for one, then Congress would have to approve it, too. Also rarely mentioned in the debate was that the dry, high plains, overwhelmingly agricultural region considering secession would, if it seceded, have to negotiate with Colorado for water rights. Citizens in six counties where the question appeared on the ballot, rejected the proposal. Yuma joined Kit Carson, Washington, Phillips and Cheyenne in voting for officials to take steps to see what it would take.
In Church and on the main drag in town the weekend before Thanksgiving, Wray was still a part of Colorado, and many of the people in town weren’t expecting anything about that to ever change. The vote came and went like the late-autumn wind sweeping through the town. Indeed, whatever message the vote was meant to deliver was drowned out in the resounding defeat of Amendment 66 — a proposal to raise a billion dollars in taxes for education.
Wray is the hometown of conservative state senator-cum-gubernatorial candidate Greg Brophy. It’s an agricultural Eden: first in the state for production of corn, second for sugar beets, second after Weld County for all cattle and calves, first for dry beans and competitive in wheat. It also hosts the highest harvest from pheasant hunting in Colorado. Wray seems to fly an American flag on every block. Everyone seems to know everyone else and you can walk to the end of town and back before your need to pull your pie out of the oven.
The secession movement showcased and fueled a political narrative about an alleged great divide between rural and urban Colorado. On the blogs and on television, no complexity was allowed to enter the discussion. Rural Coloradans are Fox News watchers who like guns and hate the government. Urban Coloradans are liberal, ethnically diverse newcomers who watch MSNBC and support gay rights, legal marijuana and big government. There’s some truth in all of that. But there’s a lot more truth outside all of that.
For the most part, the folks I spoke with here were not aggressively or even explicitly anti-government. Never mind the 51st State Initiative’s website, which reads, “We simply want to be left alone to live our lives without a dictatorial central government forcing itself upon us.” Never mind the media depiction of the movement as rugged individualists pushing back against urban-government overreach. Never mind all the libertarian thrust associated with the vote.
Many who advocated secession were actually advocating for more government. They hardly wanted to be left alone. Neglect, not overreach, was the real problem. Get people talking and they tell you that too many resources had been diverted to other areas of the state. They let you know pretty clearly that rural America’s relationship with the government is in fact more intimate than it is for most people living in cities. Folks in Wray wanted a larger share of the pie for their schools and their streets. They wanted more representation to secure more resources. And they wanted those public resources delivered more effectively and efficiently.
More than 40 percent of the voters in Wray voted against secession. Putting aside ideological differences on cultural issues like pot and gay rights and even guns, after a few days here, you learn that people here see more things in a responsive state government than are dreamt of in secession.
“Five Kernels of Corn” was the title of Reverend Norman Stott’s sermon. In the back of the church there were sandwich bags that you could fill with kernels near the exit. We all exited carrying what looked like baggies of pills.
Stott told jokes that got the congregation laughing and slapping their thighs. We prayed for friends and neighbors who were ill or in car and ATV accidents, for the leaders of the local, state, and national governments, even in this tumultuous time.
Children came forward to the pulpit at one point. They sat in a crescent moon around an older woman who asked what they had to be thankful for. They responded: Family, family, God, family, school, God, God, community, food, sports, church, God.
“God, very good.”
When the Reverend finished his sermon, the congregation linked hands and said their thank yous. They formed a human chain snaking through the church. They said they were grateful for pretty much the same things the kids mentioned: God, family, community, country, health.
Then 92-year-old Lucile Bledsoe, one of the choir, spoke up: “I’m grateful for Norman Rockwell, who painted such beautiful pictures of America and showed our way of life.”
Two weeks earlier, on Election Day, Wray was quiet. A small steady stream of pickups pulled into spots on the wide streets downtown. Most people in far flung Yuma County use mail ballots. Hardly any traffic drifted to the voting center.
When I spoke with people in stores or on the streets, they were friendly, but at least at first reluctant to talk about secession. Many deferred to someone they figured knew more about it than they did, offering names and phone numbers. There was an entrenched sense of privacy: how one votes, what one’s political leanings, were of no business, let alone of interest, to anyone else.
Tonia Roseberry, the owner of the homey Canyon Coffee and Café downtown, adamantly declined to comment. She said I could call her husband. Todd Roseberry told me that he voted for secession because he felt disenfranchised. His civic duty to vote never seemed to make a difference. He saw the spoils of the Eastern Plains drifting west. Agriculture, oil and gas, education and highway renewal — he said the money for all those things coagulated in the urban arteries of the state and much of it goes to maintain mountain highways. Rural counties were being bilked.
“Out here we got potholes that could swallow up a motorcycle,” he said. “Unless it’s a catastrophe, there’s no recognition [from the Front Range] of nothing [out here].”
Roseberry said the Front Range “put a kibosh on” the natural gas industry that four years ago was generating massive amounts of money. According to a 2009 assessor’s report, the net value of gas production in Yuma County was $228,228,950, more than half of Yuma County’s total assessed value of all agriculture, mineral, oil and gas, and commercial property. In 2012, natural gas production dropped to $90,000,000, or about a third.
When natural gas was booming, people were “buying houses and pickups.” You could go downtown to the bars and find company any night of the week. Even though the decline in natural gas began in 2010 — coinciding with a national drop in prices — many voters were frustrated by Senate Bill 13-252, signed into law in June. The bill requires the state to double use of renewable energy to 20 percent by 2020. Residents in Wray feared they’d see higher electric costs and see more downtick in the local economy.
Downtown Wray hops less. Farmers and ranchers who once profitably leased land to companies have seen returns drop. Others have entered legal battles about mineral rights and productivity.
“I honestly think if we had a 51st state, we’d benefit small-town Colorado,” Roseberry said.
Wingfield appears at first to be an outlier in Yuma County politics. He was chair of the Yuma County Democrats from 1985 to 1997. He was elected to the Board of Commissioners in 1997 and has been on the board ever since. He lives in the ranch house his grandfather built in 1908 on land his grandfather homesteaded in 1886. Wingfield drives 250 cows, a necessary cutback from earlier numbers, and he farms about 2,000 acres and raises mammoth donkeys.
He printed a 2014 calendar and gave me a copy. It doesn’t mention he’s a commissioner, but it says in bold italics: “SELLING MAMMOTH DONKEYS.”
“I think [the secession movement] is making us look like a bunch of backward hicks,” Wingfield said. “Yeah, it’s a joke. Yeah, they know it’s not really going to be passed.”
Wingfield didn’t think the so-called Philips County proposal would pass, either. It had sparked the imagination of many rural county commissioners. It stipulates representation based on geography and land distribution. It also cuts into the alleged “leave me alone!” ethos here. The Philips proposal seeks to increase rural representation. Like voters in Wyoming, who enjoy 66 times the amount of representation as voters in California, counties toying with the proposal want to scrub away any feelings of disenfranchisement. The rural Coloradans behind the proposal want to weight representation in their favor.
In Yuma, commissioners decided to include secession on the ballot if supporters could collet roughly 700 valid signatures endorsing the plan. The signature drive was headed by Elizabeth Lenz. The Lenz family runs a large farming operation. They have received more federal subsidies since 1995 than any of the other 2,625 subsidy recipients in Yuma County. That’s saying something. Yuma is the subsidy-grabbing leader in Colorado. It received 14.4 percent or $321,798,233 of total statewide farming subsidies.
I spoke with Lenz’s son Rodney late on Election Day.
“This is not about bad people versus good people. This is about ideas,” he said. He believes a few counties on the Front Range had dictated how rural Coloradans live their lives. He talked about legalized marijuana.
But marijuana retail is decided on a municipal basis. If anything, the state’s new marijuana laws embrace the idea of local control, the thing secessionists like Lenz refer to in conversation about government repeatedly. The laws guarantee the state government will step back and let local elected officials and consumers decide the parameters of pot use.
Wingfield thought the secession movement hurt Wray’s credibility. Real work could be done within the political process.
“We work hard to make sure the rest of the state takes us seriously. And [the secession] does us no good.”
In the 12 years he was the head of the Yuma County Democrats, they floated 12 candidates in head-to-head races against Republicans for county offices. Their candidate won 9 out of 12 times in what he estimated was 30 to 35 races.
“Maybe we’re not as conservative as you think.”
The great conspiracy of Wray is the number of coincidences that directly relate to Greg Brophy, the the bike-riding melon farmer and state senator who wants to be governor. I met people who went to school with Brophy or were family friends with the Brophys or were in some other way distantly affiliated with Brophy. People asked if I knew who he was, content when I said yes. They all seem to like him tremendously. He comes up and comes up and comes up. He is the political bridge between Wray and the rest of the state.
In Town and Country Shoes on Election Day, I met Brophy’s nephew, Josh Archer. He jokingly threw up his hands and said “No interviews!” He was reticent and strong jawed and he didn’t remove his ten-gallon hat and heavy Carhartt in the shop. He didn’t like politics, he said. He didn’t get involved. He said he didn’t like attending get-togethers with the Brophy side of the family because the gatherings got too political.
The Saturday before Thanksgiving, in the Creekside Tavern, I met a 25-year-old sports reporter named Andrew Morgan who moved to Wray from Denver to work at KRDZ, the local radio station. He told me without missing a beat that he’d interviewed Brophy for the station’s “Morning Conversation” on October 20th.
Morgan consummated many of his sentences with “And what not” at the bar, but in the interview with Brophy, he was precise. In fact, Morgan broached the subject of secession with Brophy, and got him to float his “marriage counselor” metaphor eleven days before KDVR quoted him on similar wording.
“I kinda want to keep the whole state together. But I understand why they’re doing this, and I’m actually glad that they’re doing it,” Brophy told Morgan.
“Because this is what happens when you have a breakdown in respect and communication between people that are supposed to be partners. It’s almost like when a marriage goes bad because one person will no longer listen to, no longer respects, and just ignores the other party, so they just file for separation. And that’s kinda what’s going on here. We have northeast Colorado is basically filling for separation from a government that no longer listens to them and no longer respects them. My job—and this is why I’m running for governor—my job is to be the marriage counselor for Colorado and bring us all back together where we have respect for everybody in the state and we listen to everybody in the state and we have a governor for all of Colorado as opposed to the Denver-Boulder corridor.”
But Brophy wasn’t all about unity in that conversation.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if we see just a cornucopia of the leftist ideals coming out,” he said about the upcoming legislative season. “By the way, the gun control laws don’t even start to make it better. They just, it’s just more anti-second amendment and unconstitutional gun grabbing on behalf of the liberal left, this is how extreme they’ve gotten up here.”
The Sunday before Thanksgiving, Dean Wingfield drove me in his 2008 Ford F-250 around Wray to see the community: recreation center, library, daycare, hospital, senior center, middle school, elementary and high schools and the assisted living home. It was a sort of map of a person’s life in Wray.
He took me up to the bluffs to look out upon the town and west toward Denver and the mountains. Some of the earliest photographs from Wray were taken near this spot. In a hundred years, the Front Range will be more densely populated and unimagined change is all but certain, but it’s hard to imagine the corn fields and calmly grazing cattle in Wray will much change. Ranches and farms will be passed down from one generation to the next. Wray will still be a proud, if sometimes reluctant, part of Colorado.
[ Images by Shelby Kinney-Lang ]
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