Supporters of a secession movement approved by voters in 5 of 11 rural Colorado counties last year haven’t been feeling the love from either major-party candidate for the governor’s office. But that’s OK with them as long as Republican Bob Beauprez, a perceived fellow traveler, wins at the polls next month.
“He gets it,” secession proponent Jeffrey T. Hare said of Beauprez.
The former congressman and Republican candidate for governor has been less outspoken about his support for the movement since announcing in the spring his intention to run for governor. But when the idea was making headlines last fall, he was a leading sympathetic voice for the movement.
“In politics today there seems to be no room for compromise, so perhaps secession is the only way to ensure that minorities have a political voice,” he told Voice of America, which described him as a “conservative activist and rancher.”
“If we are going to continue to have these ideological battles that end up maybe not moving in a very positive direction and ending in good government, just different government, maybe we ought to just go our separate ways,” he said. “Why don’t you run your state and we’ll run ours.”
Hare has no doubt Beauprez’s sympathies lie with disaffected rural conservatives, but he also concedes that, while running for governor, Beauprez is less likely to talk rural-county secession or to publicly consider ways laws could be reworked so that the metro Front Range population centers might enjoy less representation at the Capitol.
“It’s just a matter of him doing what he thinks he needs to do to get elected,” Hare said. “We’ll see what happens and how that plays out after. Certainly, we’d have a lot better support from a Republican governor in our proposals than what we’re getting out of [Democratic Gov. John] Hickenlooper right now.”
Hare is a Greeley-based accountant who served as an at-large member of the Weld County Council. He says the 51st State Initiative — a nonprofit that convinced voters in five northeastern Colorado counties to pursue breaking away from the state and perhaps being annexed by Wyoming or Nebraska in response to gun-safety and energy policies — later threw its weight behind Restoring Colorado, a ballot initiative bid to change the makeup of the State House by pinning representation to counties instead of population numbers. The group came up short on signatures in July, but vows it will try again in 2016.
“It’s just really the urban-versus-rural divide and the change of culture in the state from being traditional agriculture-based to becoming large city-based, and the differences in values between big cities and people who live in rural communities,” Hare told The Colorado Independent.
The Restoring Colorado initiative was also called the Phillips County Proposal for officials in far northeast corner of the state who supported secession. Under the plan, instead of drawing up districts based on population, the State House would go from 65 representative down to 64 – or one per Colorado county, no matter its population.
“The government is meant to be cooperative across a wide variety of interests as opposed to the tyranny of the majority imposing its will on the minority,” Hare said. “That’s it in a nutshell.”
So Phillips County, with just under 4,500 residents, would have the same representation in the Colorado State House as Denver County, with just under 650,000 people. Hare argues that’s exactly the same situation in the U.S. Senate, where neighboring Wyoming, with just over 582,000 people, has the same number of senators (two) as California with 38.3 million residents.
Not all folks in secession country back the concept.
“In one respect I do understand the reason for supporting [one representative per county],” said Don Suppes, a candidate in state Senate District 5, a mostly rural western slope region straight west from denver also home to many of the state’s most well-known ski resorts. “But when you’re trying to say that Hinsdale County with 843 people deserves the same representation as Denver County with a million, that’s going to be a tough pill to swallow.”
Hinsdale County actually has 813 residents, while Denver tallies 649,495.
“If people don’t really feel comfortable with that model, that’s what we have at the federal level [in the U.S. Senate], and frankly the U.S. Constitution would never have been approved if that Great Compromise hadn’t been put in place,” Hare counters.
Whereas secession would have required first the approval of the State Legislature and then the U.S. Congress, the Phillips County Proposal — if it ever garners enough signatures to make the ballot — could go straight to the voters.
Beauprez, a dairy-farmer-turned-banker who represented Colorado’s 7th Congressional District from 2003 to 2007, said he sympathized with the secession movement because liberal lawmakers were “shoving legislation — whether that’s gun control or renewable energy mandates or restrictions on oil and gas development — down rural Colorado’s throat.”
Hickenlooper in December told a Colorado Springs gathering of local government officials from across the state that the secession issue “really led to debates and discussions that are going to make each of your counties stronger and, I think, ultimately make the state stronger.”
Hare said that was mere lip service.
“Prior to the campaign, for Hickenlooper it was really all talk and no action,” Hare said. “He did his rural tour and pretended like he was a man of rural Colorado, but he hasn’t shown any substance to that and I don’t really anticipate anything different. He has his agenda and he’s going to continue to push that – say one thing, do another kind of a thing.”
Hare said there was a third idea that came out of the secession movement, and that’s annexation into Wyoming, especially for energy-rich counties like Moffat and Weld – where voters rejected secession last year.
“I think frankly Wyoming would probably love Weld County and probably love Moffat County that are adjacent, but I think the issue is there’s a whole lot more to rural Colorado than just a couple of counties, so we have to come up with more of a systemic change,” Hare said.
Lockstep with the Front Range
Suppes, the mayor of tiny Orchard City on the state’s Western Slope, says Snowmass Village Democrat Gail Schwartz, who currently represents the sprawling seven-country SD5 but is term-limited, was in lock step with Front Range lawmakers on issues such as gun control.
SD 5 is rural but also cosmopolitan in parts, and none of the counties in the district even placed the secession question on their ballots. It’s difficult to imagine district residents in towns like Aspen, Vail and Crested Butte could be offended by progressive thinking in Denver and Boulder or would opt for any reason to be annexed by Nebraska. Indeed, Moffat county in the northwest corner of the state was the only county on the western slope to even consider secession.
It’s a different matter in the ten northeastern counties that spearheaded the secession movement. Republican voter registration numbers in those high plains-agricultural counties far exceed Democratic registration numbers..
“There’s a real concern out there about the rural disconnect that we have out here,” Suppes said. “Our current state senator hasn’t helped any. She voted with Denver Democrats 98 percent of the time.”
Suppes’ Democratic opponent, former Vail Town Council member Kerry Donovan, says that rural Colorado is in many ways quite progressive.
“Senate District 5 is a remarkably diverse district,” Donovan said. “It’s seven counties. It’s bigger than New Jersey. It has three major rivers. It has ski resorts, organic farms, light manufacturing, breweries, Jeeping, hunting, coal mines, biomass.
“You’ve got everything going on in SD5 and you’ve got to be a moderate voice who’s willing to listen to anyone and have a very big table to bring everyone together in order to represent the district. I can have a lot of conversations with people by being a moderate — more so than being extreme on either end of the spectrum.”