Grass Roots Politics, Grama Grass Style
(UPDATE: U.S. Rep. John Salazar, D, representing Colorado’s 3rd Congressional district, was defeated for reelection by Republican Scott Tipton of Cortez by 4 percentage points. Salazar, a popular incumbent seeking a fourth term, had defeated Tipton by more than 10 points in 2006. The Oct. 13 FEC report showed Salazar received 1.8 million to Tipton’s $923,000. This is an account of a campaign stop in Salazar’s final tour of the San Luis Valley, which he carried by more than 60 per cent, but that plus a weaker showing in Pueblo and Durango was not enough to counter Tipton’s 60 per cent victory in Grand Junction, Delta, Montrose and Cortez. )
Moffat, Colorado, a dot in a high 5,000-square-mile dry lake bed called the San Luis Valley. Pure land. Old West. Snow-dusted mountain ranges, San Juans west, Sangre de Cristos east. Collegiate peaks north, infinity south. This town is so small that nobody needs an address for the political reception (Democrat). Willow Springs Bed and Breakfast is the biggest house in town.
Halloween, but nobody is scary.
A 39-foot rented RV rolls in on schedule. The brothers step down in their polished boots and slim fit Wranglers and fresh dress shirts and hats. John Salazar represents the 3rd Colorado Congressional District. Ken Salazar, the older brother, is Barack Obama’s secretary of interior. Former two-term Gov. Roy Romer, in a leather jacket, steps down.
They begin shaking hands with the small gathering of locals in the dirt street in front of the house, going first to people they don’t know, then to the local candidates — state Sen. Gail Schwartz, County Commissioners Sam Pace and Linda Joseph, Sheriff Mike Norris, County Clerk Melinda Meyers.
There are issues here — the Air Force plan to resume ground-skimming training flights, the proposed solar steam generation plants, the proposed high-voltage power line, the fight over approval of gas exploration in the Baca National Wildlife Refuge — but the activists are standing down. There are no TV crews, no media mikes open for embarrassing slips. There are no screamers, no sign wavers, no guns. This is personal politics, the way it used to be.
Halloween, and nobody is mad as hell.
The congressman asked how many people are living now in the Crestone-Baca subdivision. Maybe 1,800, but many are part time, I said. He asked about the hot springs. I put the two questions together. The Salazars are sixth-generation (!) natives of the valley. The Baca subdivision is barely one generation old, but rapidly growing. Yes, Anglos from elsewhere like to soak, and so forth, but Valley View hot springs is owned by a land trust passionately dedicated to preserving an old ranch, an old mine, some rare bats in a cave. He must know this. He is a curious man.
Inside the B and B after the introductions and snapshots, Romer — he’s not running for anything — spoke warmly of the Salazars and coldly of what is happening to America. The interior secretary took the stairs next (the open landing made a good stage) told of his attachment to the valley and his love of its beauty. He suggested protection of the valley in the manner of a World Heritage Site. Then he introduced his brother, saying that Karl Rove is putting extra money from his secret donors into the campaign against him. Why? Because John Salazar’s defeat would be posted as a trophy, a coup against the brother of an Obama cabinet member.
Next, the congressman took pride in his vote for the health care bill and his vote for the Obama stimulus package, which helped mediate the financial crisis. Suddenly he recognized Christine Canaly in the group and invited her to the stairs. “I used to hate environmentalists,” he said, giving her a hug. Explanation: he was a farmer and the newcomers with all their issues threatened his livelihood; then came the water fight (a clever entrepreneur was buying up water rights in the valley for future transfer to Denver) and the farmers and environmentalists united and won. “I used to think she was a Republican,” John Salazar said. “Just because you have a good business sense does not mean you are a Republican,” Chris Canaly said.
In the middle of all this came a knock on the door. It was a little kid and his mother. The boy was made up like a zombie or a vampire. “Trick or treat.” He held out his plastic pumpkin basket and went around the room. He got cookies that had been set out for the reception. He got candy from the house trick-r-treat horde. And he got improvised contributions from the crowd. Money, I think.
As the kid walked out the door with his full pumpkin there were comments that he had a bright future. Fund-raiser, somebody suggested. Visions of Karl Rove, however, came to my mind. Undercover sycophant, agent of empire masquerading as a fat kid, going from corporate door to corporate door in the dark of night, sucking handouts from Big Oil vampires, Big Coal grave diggers, Wall Street hangmen.
Halloween, I thought. Be afraid.
But an hour later we were driving slowly along F Street in Salida to get pizza. It is a classic street of late Victorian houses, perfect for haunting. Hundreds of kids in costume and their parents lined the walks. At some houses they were lined up waiting to approach the doors. Small donations, diverse candidates, door to door, person to person. American democracy. Be not afraid.