How to turn a state liberal
Colorado's progressive miracle is a road map to a much brighter America. Here are 9 steps behind the transformation
By David Sirota
As Colorado goes, so goes the nation. With the culture and demographics of the Intermountain West so rapidly changing, this motto about my home state has become conventional wisdom in national electoral politics, and for good reason. After all, the square state is the capital of the so-called Rocky Mountain Empire, a region that is fast becoming the political equivalent of a test market for the whole country. And if it is true that the way Colorado goes is the way the nation as a whole goes, then America better get ready for some extremely large changes.
Part of Colorado’s story of change comes from the statehouse where Democrats control both the governor’s office and both chambers of the Legislature. But as much of the story comes from outside the Capitol, where organic grass-roots uprisings are obliterating old political assumptions.
For decades, this was a state whose electoral topography was reliable Republican and whose politics was dominated by an unholy coalition of cultural conservatives and oil and gas interests. In the 1980s and 1990s, it became the national conservative movement in a microcosmic petri dish, passing socially conservative constitutional amendments and a so-called Taxpayer Bill of Rights aimed at pulverizing the public sector.
Now, though, everything is shifting. In just a few years, Colorado is pioneering a Western version of pragmatic progressivism, one built on a much different political coalition than the one that made Colorado the conservative movement’s grand experiment.
Here are the nine ways the state has so quickly changed, and what this Colorado Miracle portends for America.
1. The first state in the Intermountain West to embrace serious gun control
Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) is expected today to sign the Intermountain West’s first set of serious gun regulations in contemporary history. Those include an expansion of background checks and limits on the size of bullet magazines.
After the Columbine and Aurora massacres, Colorado polls showed solid public support for sensible gun control, and public opinion eventually compelled Hickenlooper to reverse his earlier positions on the issue. Indeed, in just a few months, the conservative Democratic governor went from saying Colorado shouldn’t discuss gun control, to noncommittally acknowledging the need for a debate, to promising to support the measures if they passed the Legislature, to reassuring fellow Colorado Democrats that supporting gun control will not harm their political prospects.
If Colorado’s status as home to Columbine and Aurora and its status as a critical electoral swing state don’t convince you that its gun control moves will have a national ripple effect, then declarations from the state’s Republican leaders should suffice. As state Sen. Greg Brophy (R) told the Wall Street Journal: “This is ground zero on this issue … If these bills pass — and the Democrats survive the next election cycle — we’ll see gun-control groups spreading to other parts of the country, saying, ‘We did it in Colorado, we can do it here.’”
2. The home of Focus on the Family legalizes civil unions
With Focus on the Family headquartered in archconservative Colorado Springs, Colorado has long been one of the headquarters of the Christian right. Not surprisingly, those cultural conservative forces in the state have spent the last two decades waging a scorched earth fight against equality for gay, lesbian and transgendered Americans, ultimately passing not one but two constitutional ballot measures outlawing same-sex marriage. At the same time, the Christian right helped pass a 2006 ballot measure to outlaw recognition of same-sex domestic partnerships.
Last year, though, Democratic state lawmakers backed a civil unions bill. Simple, straightforward and long overdue as the bill was, it threw the legislative session into chaos after Republicans used their fleeting one-vote majority to prevent it from even getting an up-or-down vote. The impasse eventually forced Gov. Hickenlooper to call a special session, where the bill was rejected. However, in the process, conservatives’ anti-gay politics became so extreme and off-putting that it helped lay the groundwork for Democrats to take back the House and ultimately pass the bill.
Underscoring the speed of Colorado’s turnaround, the House bill on civil unions this time around initially passed on a voice vote, signaling that Republicans had all but given up defending the fringe elements of the Christian right. Next up? Quite likely a 2014 ballot measure to repeal Colorado’s constitutional ban on gay marriage.
3. Rejecting Tancredo-style politics and allowing children of undocumented immigrants to pay in-state tuition rates
In recent years, when many political observers have thought about Colorado, they’ve thought about Republican anti-immigrant icon Tom Tancredo and the politics of demonizing minorities. Here’s the great news: With 2013′s passage of the ASSET Bill, Colorado is no longer Tom Tancredo country.
That’s right, seven years after state Democrats held a special legislative session to try to mimic the GOP’s Tancredo-infused politics, NBC-9News reports that Democrats in that same Legislature passed legislation to “allow undocumented students who have attended a Colorado high school for at least three years and graduated or obtained their G.E.D. the right to obtain in-state tuition at a Colorado college or university.”
No doubt, a major factor driving the shift on immigration is the state’s demographic changes — demographic (and thus, political) changes, by the way, that mimic those in the country at large.
“The state is already more than 20 percent Latino,” notes ABC News. “By comparison, the Latino share of the U.S. population will reach 19.4 by 2020 and 21.2 by 2025, according to Census projections. That means it’s becoming impossible for politicians to have success in Colorado at the statewide level without the support of the Latino community. And at this rate, pols may increasingly find themselves in the same position across the country.”
4. An anti-fracking uprising in the middle of oil/gas country
As an oil producing state, Colorado has long been defined by the mantra “drill, baby, drill.” With the state holding some of the largest natural gas reserves in the country, politicians and fossil fuel executives might have expected that Colorado politics would soon also be defined by a newer version of that same mantra: “frack, baby, frack.” But thanks to a series of local uprisings, that hasn’t yet happened.
From ultra-conservative Colorado Springs to Republican-leaning Longmont to the middle-of-the-road Fort Collins to super-liberal Boulder, local uprisings have been putting up potential roadblocks to unbridled fracking.
With a raft of studies raising serious environmental and public health questions about the natural gas exploration process, these uprisings have occurred despite the best efforts of Gov. Hickenlooper to suppress them — and they have been genuinely transpartisan. Indeed, as the Longmont Times-Call put it in reporting on that city’s overwhelming vote to regulate fracking, the “ballot issue that succeeded in banning hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, from the city caught hold in both Republican- and Democratic-leaning precincts.”
What explains the spontaneous pushback against fracking? Obviously, the raft of studies raising serious environmental and public health questions about fracking has raised legitimate fears among Coloradans rightly afraid for their families’ well-being. But there’s also the little-discussed shift in the state’s economy. As I reported back in 2008 for the New York Times Magazine:
According to Headwaters Economics, a Montana-based research group, the energy sector currently employs only 1.3 percent of the region’s work force. And mining generated just 2.9 percent of all personal income in the five natural-gas-producing Western states in 2006. By contrast, retirement benefits, service jobs and professional industries generated about 55 percent of the region’s income. Many of these sectors have an interest in reducing energy development. After all, retirees, professionals and tourism businesses often come to the region for the open spaces.
Yes, for all the talk of how huge and important the fossil fuel industry is to Colorado and the Intermountain West, that industry is actually relatively small compared to the rest of the region’s economy. With that industry’s diminishing size and importance naturally comes a change in political priorities for voters, many of whom are moving to a state like Colorado to escape — rather than live amid — a fracking-dominated industrial zone.
5. A historic victory for drug policy reform
Where other states like California failed at the ballot box to limit the destructive drug war, Colorado succeeded in 2012. Breaking away from the old arguments about marijuana, drug reformers here pioneered an innovative campaign that predicated the #$%$ legalization campaign on a simple question: Why should a state known for a toxic substance (alcohol) not allow its citizens to consume a less toxic substance (pot)? So central to the campaign was this message, in fact, that drug reformers actually named their ballot measure “The Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol Act of 2012.”
The result of that laser-focused message was a huge vote in favor of legalizing marijuana. So overwhelming was that vote, in fact, that foreign nations are now explicitly citing Colorado as a primary reason the world should reevaluate the larger drug war and begin to reform punitive narcotics laws.
6. A major reevaluation of the death penalty and failed “tough on crime” policies
The Wild West is not traditionally known for its tolerance and moderation when it comes to crime and punishment. But in Colorado, that “hang ‘em high” attitude may finally be on its way out.
Last year, Republicans and Democrats in the Legislature joined together to spearhead a bill to begin the process of reforming the state’s draconian drug sentences. Additionally, after a hard-fought campaign by criminal justice advocates, the Denver Post reported that the Legislature overcame opposition by “tough on crime” zealots to pass a bipartisan bill “to dramatically curb prosecutors’ ability to charge juveniles as adults through the state’s longstanding ‘direct file’ system.”
The point of the latter bill was simple: In order to honor the distinction between the juvenile and adult criminal justice systems, legislators from both parties recognized that there must be judicial oversight of headline-seeking prosecutors when those prosecutors seek to charge juveniles as adults. The legislation’s passage was a welcome sign that the conservative demagoguery around crime and punishment may be giving way to far more pragmatic — and humane — policies.
7. Expanding funding for public education and healthcare
Colorado’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights once made the state conservatives’ gleaming small government trophy. But while TABOR still seriously harms the state’s ability to adequately fund major priorities, the last year has seen two initiatives to dramatically expand public support for education and healthcare.
The first initiative, reports the Denver Post, is a bill to “add additional revenue for items like full-day kindergarten for all and preschool for at-risk kids.” The second bill would vastly expand Medicaid coverage to cover an additional 160,000 Coloradans.
Highlighting how much the politics of spending have changed in the state, the Post headline about the latter initiative says it all: “No public opposition to Medicaid expansion bill despite years of wrangling over Obamacare.”
8. A huge vote against corporate money in politics
It is rare for a ballot measure to pass anywhere in America with more than 70 percent of the vote. But that is what happened in Colorado in 2013 when a whopping 74 percent of voters endorsed a ballot measure instructing the state’s congressional delegation and Legislature to support a U.S. constitutional amendment to overturn the infamous Citizens United decision and regulate campaign spending. Amazingly, the measure passed by such a wide margin with relatively little financial support, and as Westword notes, “what is more striking than the raw numbers is its broad support statewide — it appears to have passed by wide margins in every Colorado county.”
9. A decimated and demoralized Republican Party
If all of the Colorado Miracle’s progressive change was happening and it appeared to seriously imperil the power of progressive organizations and the Democratic Party, the story might be a bit different. It might be the tale of liberals merely trying to seize a fleeting moment. But one of the most encouraging parts of the Colorado Miracle is the fact that as it has unfolded, the Republican Party’s political prospects have been decimated.
Today, Democrats control the Legislature, the governor’s office, two U.S. Senate seats and three of the state’s seven congressional districts (with one more possibly on the way as Democrats mount a strong fight against embattled Republican Rep. Mike Coffman). As important, the Colorado GOP is in utter disarray to the point where it doesn’t appear to have a serious candidate for any of the state’s major offices.
But don’t believe my political analysis; believe Dean Singleton, the Denver Post publisher and longtime Republican power broker in Colorado. Here’s an excerpt of what he had to say in a recent radio appearance:
I think (the GOP) is dead in Colorado … It really doesn’t matter whom the Republicans put up. Republicans, in my view, won’t win another presidency in our lifetime … Republicans have (three) elected state-wide office holders, the Treasurer and the Attorney General (and Secretary of State). The Attorney General is not running for re-election, so that will go Democratic … The party has shifted so far right that that’s the kind candidates they pick. And they pick candidates that aren’t in the mainstream … I think Colorado is probably a Democratic state from now on. It is a Democratic state today, and I don’t think it’s going back.
In light of those words, Americans should be looking at what’s happening here to know what could soon be happening all over the country. If “as Colorado goes, so goes the nation,” then this square state is a glimpse into America’s potentially much brighter political future.