DNC in Denver: 100 years in the making
Ft. Collins Correspondent
Vail, CO Colorado
The path to the Democratic National Convention in Denver next week cuts through Seneca Falls and Selma, Boston in 2004, Iowa in 2008 and Iraq for the past five years.
For the first time ever, the path led a woman and a black man to the top of the national political pedestal, both calling for change on a national scale and personifying it in their very candidacies.
And for once, the center of the country is taking center stage, not only playing host to a national political convention for the first time in a century but also churning with possibility for both parties.
It is fitting that the Democrats chose Denver to nominate a candidate, Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, whose message is about change. Coloradans know a lot about change. The history of the West is written in it. It’s the only constant: changing fields among different crops, changing weather from snow to sun, changing demographics from farms to cities, changing rivers from snowpack to drought, changing universities from agriculture to “green” research.
Lately, change has also come about in Western politics. Just eight years ago, the governors of the Rocky Mountain spine states were all Republicans. Now they’re all Democrats.
Whether Obama or John McCain, the Republican presumptive nominee who also talks about changing Washington, will actually be able to affect change is, of course, still up for debate.
But the atmosphere is ripe for it, in the region and the rest of the country. The Democratic National Convention, in the heart of the West, is the culmination of it all.
To U.S. Sen. Ken Salazar, the DNC is steeped in history, for the country and the Western states.
“First of all, the nomination of the next president of the United States, in my view, is being held here in Colorado and here in the West. That’s historic in and of itself. And second, someone of Barack Obama’s background”a mother from Kansas, a Kenyan father and him being able to break through the ceiling and become a presidential nominee, I think is a testament to the greatness of America. It’s a testament to the fact that we are an inclusive America. No matter who you are, no matter where you are from, you have the possibility of living the American dream,” he said in an interview with reporters.
“It’s a dream we have seen take shape through the course of our history,” he continued. “There were times when women were not allowed to vote, for more than half the history of our country. There were times when there was slavery and segregation of African-Americans and also of Hispanics here in this country. That history, I think, shows that we have been an America in progress. And I think Barack Obama’s nomination is a milestone in making that progress.”
Progress is a key word among Western Democrats, who will come to the convention with bells on, excited by past successes in several governors’ races and congressional races.
Western Democrats like to say they are a different breed. Traditional labels don’t fit.
Pat Waak, chairwoman of the Colorado Democratic Party, said she disagrees with her Republican counterpart, Dick Wadhams, that calling Democrats liberals will make people cringe and push the button for “R.”
“I think there is this incredible independent streak among Western voters who could care less about what you call them,” she said.
In general, she and others said, Western voters tend to choose candidates based on who reflects their values. That helps explain why people like Bill Ritter, a pro-life, pro-environment Catholic Democrat, can win the governor’s mansion. And Ritter is not alone; Wyoming, Montana, Arizona and New Mexico also have Democratic governors who came to office on messages of environmental stewardship and new ideas.
Waak said Coloradans come from far and wide, including coastal liberal strongholds, but they make up their minds based on their concern for issues central to life in this part of the country.
“It’s just a different group of people out here. They don’t even necessarily call themselves environmentalists, per se, but their values are for preserving the land and the water. If you don’t understand that, then the West becomes a puzzle to you,” she said. “And over and over again, you are tending to use old standards of measurement in politics. And they just don’t work here.”
Of course, Republicans argue their core beliefs, including using the region’s abundant resources and preserving the type of family values that its first settlers lived by, are more aligned with voters in the West. Wadhams has said in several interviews he is excited for liberal Democrats to share the stage with moderate Western politicians like Ritter and Salazar.
But it comes down to the numbers, and if voter registration records are any indication, Colorado voters are a consistently independent-minded bunch.
From October 2000 through June of this year, unaffiliated voters were the only group to gain registration statewide, comprising roughly 34 percent of the electorate. Republicans still hold the lead, with 35 percent of registered voters, although the number has dropped a percentage point over the course of the Bush administration. Democrats have held steady at roughly 30 percent.
The difference is clearer in the 4th Congressional District, where unaffiliated voters have made large gains in the past few election cycles.
Republicans still hold an edge in CD-4, but independents are a force to be reckoned with, said John Straayer, a political science professor at Colorado State University who studies Colorado politics.
“What I make of it is that the breeze is blowing away from the Republicans,” he said. “The real growth is in the unaffiliated area.”
The large number of unaffiliated voters represents a challenge and an opportunity for Democrats.
Evan Dreyer, Ritter’s spokesman, said Democratic leaders view it as an opportunity.
“It really allows leaders like Gov. Ritter and other Western governors to do what the public and the people want, which is to fix things that are broken, to overcome challenges, and to create opportunities for people, and to do that in a non-partisan, a-partisan way,” he said.
Ritter won the governorship with 57 percent of the vote, which would not have been possible without strong support from unaffiliated voters.
Several people said it’s hard to say whether Democrats started being successful because they started trying harder, or whether voters realized they were aligned with Democratic values all along. It’s more like a convergence of both.
“If it’s possible for the chicken and the egg to come at the same time, then that’s what’s happening,” Dreyer said. “There has been a shift away from do-nothing, partisan warfare that is allowing this to occur. But it’s not just an allowance, it’s also seizing an opportunity to chart a new course, and to change direction.”
That’s one reason the Democrats chose to come to Denver, said Natalie Wyeth, spokeswoman for the Democratic National Convention Committee.
Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, who ran for president in 2004, took the reins of the Democratic National Committee with a plan to campaign in all 50 states, regardless of past results. That strategy helps explain Democratic successes in the region, Wyeth said.
“It’s the notion that Democrats can compete anywhere and we can win anywhere, up and down the ballot, if we show up, work hard, talk about our shared values,” she said. “This region of the country is not a flyover for us. It’s incredibly important to our success in the general election, particularly Colorado.”
She echoed Waak’s belief that Western Democrats are a special kind”everyone used the word “pragmatic” to describe Democratic politicians in the region.
Energy, land use and environmental policies are in sharper focus in the West than elsewhere, and the DNC next week will highlight Democrats who champion those issues, Wyeth said.
Denver’s smaller size allows the convention to take center stage, Wyeth said.
“If you look at recent years, we have had conventions in more of the metropolitan cities, Los Angeles, Chicago, New York,” she said. “We took a different approach this year, and we wanted to go somewhere we haven’t been in quite some time, 100 years, to be exact. Given the outpouring of enthusiasm and support, it kind of makes us wonder what took us so long.”
For Denver, the road to the DNC leads back to 2005, when the city was one of only three to apply for the chance to host the Democrats.
Waak remembers Elbra Wedgeworth, a member of the Denver City Council, raising the possibility during a visit by Dean in 2005.
“He said, ‘That’s an interesting idea,’ and that was the extent of it,” Waak said with a laugh.
But Wedgeworth went about convincing the City Council to put in a formal bid. Denver got the convention last January.
“I guess we all thought it was kind of a long shot,” Waak said. “But now we are in the throes of getting ready for one of the biggest things that has ever been done in the interior West.”
She, Salazar and others said a post-convention bump for Democrats is hard to predict”Salazar said he wouldn’t expect Obama to come out of Denver with an edge in Colorado, as he and McCain have been mostly neck-and-neck. But it can’t hurt Democratic candidates and causes, they said.
Kyle Saunders, a political science professor at CSU who studies elections and interest groups, said the convention is designed to provide a bump and serve as the nominee’s official introduction to the country.
“Will that last until after the convention, it’s hard to say,” he said, adding that he doesn’t think there will be as much electoral change as people think.
He said the general election will come down to a handful of states, just like always”but the difference is Colorado’s importance.
“It will have a big effect on Colorado, no doubt. All the Democratic partisans are going to be there and activated, and working really hard, at least for a week,” he said with a laugh. “Where we are, it’s going to be very different. It will be an atypical experience for the American voter.”
Along with Democrats, Colorado will get a chance to show off. Businesses expect a major cash infusion, amounting to a $160 million boost to the economy. Ritter will talk about the state’s beauty and resources when he addresses the crowd before Obama’s acceptance speech, Dreyer said.
Salazar said he’ll also talk about Colorado, and about how Obama’s life story is something to which Westerners and all Americans can relate.
He drew comparisons between his own life story and that of Obama, whom he called a friend and said he’s come to know well during the two freshman senators’ time in Washington.
He said when he takes the stage Wednesday night at the Pepsi Center, he’ll talk about that dream and how it is realized in his own, and Obama’s, life stories.
“I think both Barack Obama and myself are the personification of the greatness of this country. The idea of being American means there are possibilities in everybody’s future, that sometimes cannot be seen. No one would have ever anticipated the unlikely ascent of Barack Obama to be the Democratic nominee for president of the United States as he was growing up. No one would have anticipated that I would serve as a U.S. senator, given the fact that we were so poor, we didn’t have a telephone or electricity on our farm,” he said. “Yet those possibilities came about for me, in what is uniquely an American story, and those possibilities have come about for Barack Obama, which is also a unique American story. But those possibilities could only happen here in this country, they couldn’t happen anywhere else in the world. That is what makes, for me personally, this election so exciting.”
Maybe Hegel was wrong, and nations and their leaders can learn something from history.
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