YUMA, Colorado — If you want to see the American political divide up close, pull up a chair around noon to the bar of the Main Event, a restaurant in this tiny Eastern Plains town home to U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner.
There, in true swing-state fashion, you’ll find people like Mike Fech, a Democrat and union man who works for a railroad company, debating Republican Bill Heberlein who owns a tavern down the road— a “Trump bar,” he calls it, where a pig skull wearing a turban is mounted on the wall as a sign that his establishment is a “Muslim free zone.” Obamacare, trade, immigration, Muslims, it’s all there at the Main Event where Fox News is on the TV and a handwritten sign near the cash register reads “No out of town checks.”
Fech, in a denim shirt and with matted hair and thick glasses, explains over a burger how the Affordable Care Act allowed, for instance, his son to pay for chemotherapy when he was 18. Fech voted for Hillary Clinton. Heberlein, looking a bit like a weather-beaten Kevin Bacon in a Yuma Indians ball cap and open gray fleece over a white T-shirt and jeans, says he pays a tax penalty because he doesn’t want the government forcing him to buy insurance. He thinks President Donald Trump, for whom he voted, will keep the good parts of Obamacare anyway.
On a recent Friday there isn’t much on which these two can agree, except that they won’t punch each other when they get to talking politics. Fech believes Democrats are about people, and Republicans are about corporate profits. It’s that simple, “and it’s playing out with Trump,” he says. The look on Heberlein’s face says “You must be kidding me.” He, for one, has been happy with the first few weeks of this Trump presidency.
“It’s been dizzying, but loving every minute of it,” he says with a wide smile.
This is the town where Gardner lives, two hours from the bustling Front Range, miles from the urban corridor of Colorado Springs to Fort Collins where protesters have been flocking to his regional offices in a backlash against Donald Trump and the Republican agenda.
Since Trump’s election and a chaotic first three weeks for the White House, Gardner has been getting skewered up and down the Front Range. “Liberal country,” Heberlein calls it. Hundreds have protested outside Gardner’s Denver offices, waving signs urging him to vote against Trump’s cabinet nominations, not to repeal the ACA, and to stand up to the new president. Plenty of signs these days also point out those holding them are not, as Gardner has accused, “paid” professional protestors, but ordinary people shocked into a fearful resistance against Trump.
In Colorado Springs, posters with Gardner’s face on them and the words “missing” have popped up around the city. The senator has lately been holding regional town halls via telephone. Perhaps never has there been as much focused attention on Colorado’s congressional delegation. At the end of January, Gardner’s office said it had gotten nearly 90,000 letters and emails, and 22,000 calls and voicemails.
But not in Yuma. In this flat, windswept prairie town with its skyline of white grain silos and water towers, it has been a while since the senator had a town hall. Here, Gardner the native son, a source of hometown pride, is someone separate from Gardner the politician, who just seems to do what politicians do, blow with the wind maybe a little more than he should.
“You know, we don’t really talk about him too much,” Heberlein says, rolling a mug of coffee in his hands at the Main Event. “We’re more worried about what Trump’s doing.”
A rising star in the Republican Party, Gardner still lives in Yuma where everyone knows him. Heberlein recently fixed the roof of the Gardner family home when a tree limb fell on it.
Inside the Main Street office of The Yuma Pioneer, editor and publisher Tony Rayl, hands covered in printing ink, pulls out a blue dusty book from the paper’s archives from the early 1990s and flips through pages. There it is, a photograph of a young Cory Gardner in high school as a prominent young Democrat posing with then-Democratic Gov. Roy Romer.
“He’s a local boy,” Rayl says. And, these days, a local boy some in town, Democrats and Republicans alike, tell a visiting reporter they wish was covered more closely by the local paper, especially with all the recent outside attention to him. Especially now that he is probably the most prominent Republican in Colorado after switching parties in 2000 and getting elected first to the legislature, then to Congress and now the U.S. Senate. Rayl says he probably should try to get a sit down with the hometown hero soon and he’s glad to hear locals want a local angle on him.
“There hasn’t been anything out here, protests at his office or anything,” says Rayl. Gardner is well known and well-liked at home and any locals who have a negative reaction to anything he’s doing in D.C. would likely find a way to let Gardner know personally rather than publicly.
“I’m sure it’s not a total sanctuary when he comes back,” Rayl says. “I’m sure he catches some stuff here and there from locals.”
Gardner comes back plenty enough, say the handful of locals who spoke about him. He goes to church and shops for groceries, usually with his young children in tow. A waitress at one local Mexican restaurant says she’s not happy with Trump’s harping on Mexicans— Trump has said a federal judge could not do his job impartially because he is of Mexican descent, has called Mexicans rapists and murderers, and said Mexico will pay for a border wall— but the waitress said she likely would not say anything to Gardner the next time he comes in for a meal. What difference would it make?
Some in town see Gardner as an ambitious politician doing what he needs to do to get ahead in Washington where he likely always wanted to wind up— a hometown boy now navigating a toxic system in D.C.
You can hear that in morning conversations among the ladies at Daylight Donuts along 8th Avenue in Yuma.
“A lot of us try to stay in the middle,” says Shirley Haruf, a retiree who remembers Gardner at the local school where she worked.
“We try,” says Lucille Koenig, who lives on a farm.
“And Cory, yes, he’s local, we know him as an honest, good person,” says Shirley.
“But he’s too into it,” says Lucille.
“Politicians today, I think they get so caught up in being politically correct,” Shirley says. “You want to think, ‘What, Cory, do you really believe?’”
“I think that’s true,” says Lucille.
“He has tried to be in the middle, and he’ll try to see both sides, and he’ll get blasted because this is strong Republican [in Yuma],” Shirley says
“He’s between a rock and a hard place,” says Lucille. “He’s damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t.”
Yuma County went for Donald Trump by 80 percent over Hillary Clinton on Election Day. In 2014, only 513 people in the county voted for Gardner’s Democratic opponent Mark Udall and Gardner hauled in 3,678 votes. The town of Yuma has roughly 3,500 residents and is about 37 percent Hispanic. Most people who live there work in farming, administration and construction. Immigrants work on the large hog and dairy farms and feedlots. There’s an ethanol plant, a health center, and a little downtown entertainment district. Today there are about 3,000 registered Republicans in the whole county, and about 800 Democrats.
One of those Republicans, a Gardner and Trump voter who works at the local ethanol plant, is Dan Chancellor. He’s a big man in a blue T-shirt and big beard, standing outside his house in the shadow of a Yuma water tower, a child’s scooter dangling from one hand.
“No one is talking about him,” Chancellor says of Gardner whom he sees sometimes at church down the road. “They’re talking about Trump.”
There was a time, though, when people did talk about Cory Gardner plenty in Yuma.
It was just before the election, in October, when in responding to published tape recordings of Trump demeaning women, the fresh-faced junior senator from Colorado called Trump a candidate “whose flaws are beyond mere moral shortcomings and who shows a disgust for American character and a disdain for dignity unbecoming of the presidency.” Gardner pledged he would not vote for Trump, and said he would write in the name of Mike Pence instead.
“A lot of people were talking about that,” Chancellor says. “A lot of them said ‘We’ll see where he goes, he can change his mind.’”
A similar story unspooled at the Main Event.
“That hurt him out here. That pissed a lot of people off out here,” Heberlein said about Gardner’s Trump diss just before the election. “When he first went against Trump there was a lot of people talking, ‘Well he just killed his political career out here.’ They were pissed … Everybody was pissed. Really upset. Couldn’t believe it.”
But not so much anymore. Now it’s all Trump all the time.
Spend a day talking to a dozen or more people in Yuma with a press badge dangling from your neck, though, and eventually word gets around. Someone calls someone who says they want to talk.
You’ll get a phone call from a 970 area code and a text message directing you to a place without a physical address just outside of town. But no tape recorders, and no names in print. You have to understand a lot of people do business with the Gardner family. Gardner’s father runs a farm implement dealership in town.
But an older man and a middle-aged man want you to know not everyone in Yuma is a right-wing Republican, and not everyone in town thinks their U.S. senator is “the glory from Yuma.”
There might not be a lot of Democrats out here in the country, but there are some and they tend to keep it quiet, they’ll tell you. They watch CNN while they do work in their garage and they say they’re very worried about Trump, and have never seen anything like it. They don’t have too much hope Gardner will stand up to him, either, because he’s always got his nose in the air, they say, always sniffing to see which way to tack to make it to the top, maybe even a run for president one day. Sure, they got a brief rise out of the hometown backlash when Gardner bad-mouthed Trump before the election, but “he’s sniffing his way back now.”
Recently Gardner has distanced himself from some of Trump’s more volatile moves. He said Trump’s travel ban on seven predominantly Muslim countries “goes too far” and that the new president should fix what Gardner called an “overly broad executive order” when Trump implemented his travel ban. He has also pushed Trump to take a “firm line” with Russia as well as keeping sanctions— and imposing new ones— on the country.
Gardner also has voted to confirm all of Trump’s cabinet nominees, and has voted with the president’s agenda 100 percent of the time in these first few weeks of the administration.
Skateboarding through downtown Yuma on a recent Friday, 18-year-old Benjamin Clawson says he, too, hears more about Trump these days than he does about Gardner, but he did hear about his latest vote on a nominee.
“The one lady doing education hasn’t had any experience with it before,” he says.
That would be Betsy DeVos, the billionaire pro-voucher cabinet choice with no degree in education and no experience as a teacher or administrator. Last week she became the first cabinet nominee in history to need a vice president to break a tie for her confirmation. Two Republicans — Susan Collins of Maine and Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski — joined Democrats in voting “No,” which led to a 50-50 tie in the Senate, broken by Vice President Mike Pence. In the days leading up to the vote, many of the protests against Gardner along the Front Range were by demonstrators lobbying him to vote “No” on her confirmation. DeVos is linked to more than $45,000 in contributions to Gardner’s successful 2014 campaign. (Murkowski has also gotten more than $40,000 from the DeVos family in the past.)
After he voted “yes,” Gardner said he spoke with DeVos, and said he believes in her commitment to public education.
“As someone who believes education decisions should be left to parents and their children with policy driven locally, Congress will hold her accountable and I will work to ensure she lives up to the commitment she made to me,” he said.
Playing with his skateboard outside a pizza joint and fiddling with a lip peircing, Clawson says he did not vote in the presidential election and wasn’t paying as much attention to politics before the election as he is now. He says he’s concerned with what’s going on in Washington, but is unsure what to do about it.
For his part, Gardner has said Americans “shouldn’t be afraid” of Trump’s policies.
Two women in Yuma taking that advice are Margie Chance, an elegant older woman with a silver necklace and rouge on her cheeks whose family used to run the local newspaper for 50 years before selling it to Rayl, and her friend Barbara Miller who owns the Main Event. The two are catching up in an art gallery on Main Street just after the sun goes down.
“Shame,” says Chance, shaking her head, about the protests in Denver. She voted for Trump and says she loves Gardner.
“I think he’s doing what he said he was going to do, that’s how we look at it,” says Miller of the new president. “We just want the United States to run as one. It’s so torn apart right now.”
Outside the gallery, on the sidewalk, Josue Chavelas, the Mexican-born minister and bookkeeper at a local Hispanic church, is concerned about the “crazy things” Trump will do in the White House, especially when it comes to immigrants. But from what he hears, he thinks Gardner, who he knows lives in town, is doing what he can, taking care of immigrants in his own community. Chavelas doesn’t hear much about Gardner at church because he tries to stay away from politics. “I don’t really like to make any trouble,” he said. “That would be a really bad idea.”
Down the block on the corner, within eyesight actually, is Bill Heberlein’s bar The Tavern, which has a flag with Trump’s face on it waving outside. Inside is that pig skull wearing that turban. Asked what he might do if a real patron came in wearing a turban, Heberlein quickly replies that he hopes it would be a Sikh. Muslims, he says, you just can’t trust. “We don’t need ’em here,” he says. And he understands how that might sound, too, and how it might look in print. But, he says, don’t take that as racist. He says he hired a Mexican bartender and is helping two undocumented immigrants with school. Under the pig skull is a large, blue Trump banner hanging over the bar. Other Trump placards are scattered on the walls throughout. One bar patron calls it “ballsy” in a town with so many Mexican immigrants.
In downtown Yuma, Heberlein has made a bet that a Trump theme won’t hurt business, though he recently found out school teachers won’t step foot in the place. “Because they’re Hillary fans,” he says.
And there it is again, that political divide, as clear in small-town Colorado as it is on the Front Range. Here, though, it’s just a lot quieter. Except at happy hour at The Tavern in Yuma where the bartender says, “I told you this is a Trump bar,” with a proud smile.
“Is this a Trump bar?” he shouts out to the dozen or so patrons gathered inside.
The answer comes back loudly in the affirmative.
Gardner photo by Gage Skidmore for Creative Commons on Flickr, others by the author