Secession and representation in Yuma

[dropcap]Y[/dropcap]uma was one of five rural Colorado counties to vote to secede from the state last November, a reaction to Democratic policymaking in Denver.

Supporters of the initiative claimed legislation that tightened gun laws, for example, and advanced clean energy and gay rights in Colorado demonstrated that people in places like Yuma on the eastern plains weren’t being adequately represented.

“This is what happens when you have a breakdown in respect and communication,” said Yuma resident Greg Brophy, a state senator and candidate for governor. “Northeast Colorado is basically filling for separation from a government that no longer listens to them and no longer respects them.”

But if representation was the concern, how representative was the secession movement? In some of the counties, the movement was driven by elected officials. Citizens were less enthused. Of eleven counties, only five voted for the so-called 51st state initiative, and the “aye” votes in those counties only meant that elected officials were given a green light to continue to explore the option.

What’s more, the fifty-plus pages of signatures in support of the secession initiative in Yuma paint a portrait of the county that seems on loan from a previous era.

The pages, obtained by the Independent through an open records request, contain something like 800 signatures. The petition gatherers needed to turn in 706 valid signatures, or 15 percent of the number of county residents who voted in the previous election.

According to census figures, the population of Yuma County is roughly 10,000 people. It has added roughly 2,000 residents in the last 100 years. The Latino population of Yuma County is now 21 percent, or 2,100 residents.

Of the 706 valid signatures that landed the secession petition on the ballot in Yuma, there were only 3 Latino surnames, which is 0.57 percent of the total.

Indeed, the petition sheets read like a manifest from a northern European ocean liner, circa 1930: Weatherly, Wagner, Sprague, Myer, Cox, Nelson, Dixon, Allen, Bowman, Murphy, Richmond, Hinkle…. There are a great many English, German and Irish names on the list.

Nine people total in Yuma county collected all of the secession signatures. The lion’s share of that work was done by the Lenz family. About 400 of the 700 signatures were collected by Elizabeth Lenz alone and another 150 on top of that were collected by her relatives. As the Independent’s Shelby Kinney-Lang has reported, the Lenz family owns a large farm in Yuma and has received $3.8 million in federal subsidies since 1995, more than any of the other 2,625 subsidy recipients in the county. Elizabeth’s son Rodney told the Independent that he felt the government in Denver was overreaching and dictating how residents of Yuma should live their lives. Ten members of the Lenz family signed the petitions in support of secession.

Colorado Congressman Cory Gardner lives in Yuma, a small city in the county. State Senator and candidate for governor Greg Brophy lives in Wray, the main town and county seat. Four Gardners and two Brophys signed the petitions. None of them appear to be directly related to the lawmakers. The Independent called Cynthia Gardner, whose name appeared on the petition sheets. It’s the same name as the Congressman’s mother.

“No, Cynthia is not Cory’s mom. I’m Cynthia,” she said. “Cory’s mom is ‘Cindy.'”

Cynthia said Gardner is a fairly common name in the region. She’s a Wray Gardner, she said, which is different from Yuma Gardners.

Cory Gardner is a Yuma voter but he didn’t respond to media inquiries about his views on secession. His spokesperson said it was a matter for state, not federal, officials to address.

Senator Brophy said he was sympathetic to the secession movement but he didn’t support it. He said that, depending on the will of his constituents, he would consider bringing a bill proposing secession in the state legislature in 2014. It’s a matter of showing respect, he said.