Confessions of a party-switcher

Essay by Ed Quillen

Local Politics – August 2000 – Colorado Central Magazine –

I HALF-EXPECTED A THREE-PIECE SUIT to materialize around me, a phenomenon which would no doubt be followed shortly by a sudden, inexplicable craving to play golf.

But nothing of the sort happened when I signed a blue card and switched my voting registration from Democratic to Republican.

It’s not that I was a very good Democrat in the first place. I think school vouchers deserve a fair trial (and if that destroys the public schools, then they deserve to die), and I’m rather visceral in my opposition to new gun-control laws, or indeed, new laws of almost any kind.

In point of fact, I actually spent a good many years as a registered Republican — which isn’t all that surprising since I was born in Colorado to a family that was proud to be the descendants of western farmers, ranchers, and small-town business owners. The truth is, I was pretty much raised Republican, and a large part of me will probably always be Republican.

But to be a registered Republican, today — the party that proudly represents the “Money Power” that my Populist great-grandfather William Henry Quillen spent his life railing against — what the hell was I doing?

I was listening to my friends. An impressive number of Yellow Dog Democrats (a phrase that originated years ago to describe citizens who would vote for a yellow dog before they’d vote for a Republican) had changed their registrations so they could vote for Joe De Luca for county commissioner in the Aug. 8 Republican primary.

Many had changed parties much earlier this year, so they could work for De Luca at the precinct caucuses and at the county assembly, where he got nearly half the votes and thus a spot on the primary ballot.

This has inspired some controversy, a Chaffee County version of what was happening in early Republican presidential primary states that had “open” primary elections. Any registered voter, not just registered Republicans, could cast a ballot in those primaries, and Arizona Sen. John McCain (one of the few people in politics of either party that I admire or respect, by the way) openly sought those votes, and he got them.

Naturally this angered the GOP hacks and bagmen who had greased the path for Texas Gov. George W. Bush (a centrist governor of a Southern state with few known principles beyond winning elections, and what the hell, we’re used to that in the White House).

COLORADO’S PRIMARY isn’t as “open” as those. You’ve got to be registered in the party. If you’re an “independent” — that is, not registered as a Republican, Democrat, Green, Libertarian, etc. — then you can ask for a given party’s ballot at the primary, but thereafter you’re considered a member of that party unless you go up to the courthouse and change your registration.

And then there’s the California system, where one person can vote in the Democratic primary for governor, Republican for attorney general, Green for district attorney, Libertarian for state senator, etc. Or could. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in June that a primary this open violates a constitutional freedom of association — that parties have the right to limit primary voting to their own members.

So if I become a member, it’s proper to vote in that party’s primary, right?

Martha and I have discussed this at length. Her view is that it’s somewhat troubling that so many people today are changing parties just to vote in the primaries (especially when it’s people like me who can seldom say “Republican” without prefacing it with “Goddamn hypocritical lying corporate-lackey mean-spirited gay-bashing hate-mongering.”)

Curiously, she admits that such party-switching sometimes produces a candidate who’s more palatable to a majority of voters. But at the same time, she fears that if such tactics become standard the practice could as easily be used to assure that the opposing party has unrepresentative (or even unelectable) candidates.

TO SOME DEGREE I agree with her, but I also remember my first election in Grand County, right after we moved there in 1974. I registered as a Democrat, even though there the Republican nomination was pretty much the election, and, just as in Chaffee County this year, there was a Republican primary for county commissioner: Bob Quick vs. Herb Ritschard.

Quick was head-and-shoulders a better candidate with a much better grasp of Grand County’s problems and a realistic knowledge of what the county government could and couldn’t do about them. However, there had been Ritschards on ranches in Grand County since before the railroad arrived, and it was pretty hard to find somebody who wasn’t somehow related to the Ritschards.

Quick lost the primary by only a vote or two, and I then promised myself that if my vote would indeed matter in an election I truly cared about, I would henceforth get in a position to cast that vote.

So I’ve put myself in the position to vote for Joe De Luca in the primary, or perhaps more accurately, to vote against incumbent Frank McMurry and the cabal of realty agents and developers who support McMurry.

McMurry says Chaffee County is prospering and has a healthy economy. The truth — one that holds throughout Central Colorado — is that only a small segment is prospering: wages here are stagnant while housing prices skyrocket. Our economy is not healthy, but precarious. It’s based on tourism, which is seasonal and doesn’t pay good wages, and on selling rural residential real estate.

What’s the harm in all those scenic five- to 35-acre mountain estates? The Custer County Cost of Services Survey released last January isn’t the only one — just the latest and nearest — to point out that rural residential development represents a net loss to the county taxpayers.

The development brings in more taxes, but it also costs in services like road-plowing, sheriff’s patrols, school classrooms, etc. The increased tax revenues are more than offset by the increased costs: for every $1 of tax income, there’s $1.16 in increased cost of services.

Agricultural land costs only 54¢ in services for every dollar of local taxes it pays, and for commercial and industrial, the ratio is 71¢ per dollar.

In other words, continued fringe development will result in either diminished services — worse schools, unmaintained trails and parks, pot-holed washboard roads, inept sheriff’s deputies if they show up at all — or in higher taxes and fees, thereby making life here even less affordable for those of us whose “family values” did not include trust funds.

Republicans often dismiss this as a growth or no-growth issue. But it isn’t. We need commercial growth, and we’re getting it: new shops, restaurants, galleries, and service centers.

What we don’t need is to burden our new businesses with the cost of subsidizing services for a bunch of high-priced second homes inhabited by people who seldom even shop here.

NO, THIS IS NOT A MATTER of growth or no-growth. This is a matter of not encouraging developers to make a quick profit at our expense. At this point, I think we need to learn to sell real estate without selling the current population out. We need to establish standards that will discourage extravagant developments that demand more than they will ever pay for — in terms of fire protection and utility budgets.

So it seems to me that a sensible Republican public official — one who truly believes in lower taxes and smaller government and a fair playing field and all that other good stuff — would be doing his best to discourage costly developments.

Those developments are not somebody doing what he wants to do with his own property. They’re somebody tapping the public till to enrich himself. They represent a subsidy of the vilest sort: taking from the tax-paying folks who live in trailer parks and shotgun houses, and using the money to subsidize 5,000-square-foot trophy houses on 35-acre ranchettes.

That may be what modern mainstream Republicanism has come to stand for, but that’s a hell of a place for a party that began in 1854 in opposition to the continued oppression of the poorest and least powerful group in America at the time — African-American slaves.

A further benefit to such developments, if you’re in the McMurry-realty camp, is that as services decline or taxes go up, the economically challenged folks like me will be pushed out. Our property will go on the market.

I’m not rich. I can’t afford to buy all the books and magazines I need, so I rely on a public facility, the Salida Regional Library. I couldn’t afford private tutors or boarding schools for my children, so I had to rely on the public schools. I can’t afford private security guards; I rely on the publicly funded police. I can’t afford my own water supply and sewage treatment plant; I rely on public facilities.

If those services decline to where they’re no longer effective, I’ll have to move. If taxes and fees rise too much, I’ll have to move. (Or make more money, but that’s never been one of my talents; so minuscule a talent, in fact, that it can form no part of a realistic discussion.) And that means my property would be for sale — more income for the realty agents. At some point, the realty industry becomes a powerful force for social instability.

After all, if you’re happy where you are and you’re not interested in selling, then you’re not in a position to generate income for your friendly neighborhood real-estate broker. It’s in the broker’s interest that you become interested in selling — perhaps on account of increased taxes or decreased services.

Here’s a study I’d like to see. Every community needs a certain number of realty agents to handle the routine changes of life — people start families, change jobs, get transferred, die, etc. But once you surpass that number, whatever it is, then the brokers and agents will starve unless they can start churning property by creating social instability, and if they can enlist local government into their noble cause, well, why not?

BUT THAT’S JUST ME. I spent more than an hour talking with Joe De Luca one July afternoon. He sees it somewhat differently, although he has the same economic critique of fringe rural development: It costs more than it pays, and represents a governmental subsidy. And it’s subsidizing the kind of growth that Chaffee County doesn’t need.

De Luca sees two connected problems in Chaffee County’s economy: low wages and high housing costs. He’d like to address the wage problem by encouraging small enterprises with five to ten employees.

“It’s too hard to open a business here,” De Luca said. “We need to set up a sort of one-stop shopping for the planning and permits, rather than send people from office to office.” And if the county has a good plan and follows it, “then those enterprises will be in locations where the costs of utilities and roads will be reasonable.”

But what sort of enterprises? There have been accusations that De Luca wants to convert Chaffee County into Silicon Valley, as if one county commissioner could do such a thing, even if he wanted to, which De Luca doesn’t.

The fact is that, with the railroad no longer a factor, shipping costs are high here. Central Colorado may have been built to export heavy bulk commodities like stone and timber, but there’s no economic way to do that now. If a remote area is going to make things profitably, those things must bear a high value in relation to their weight and bulk.

High-tech stuff like software fits that definition, but so do things like stereo speakers, custom furniture, and art.

“If we can attract and encourage those kinds of enterprises, we’ll have a healthier economy,” De Luca said. “We’re better off with 40 businesses that employ 10 people apiece than with one that employs 400. Some will grow, providing more jobs for local residents, and as they compete for employees, wage scales will improve.”

BUT WHERE WILL PEOPLE LIVE? “Encourage development close to town where the infrastructure is in place. Work with the towns to improve their water and sewer systems. And there are grants available to cover some of those costs.”

He pointed out that the school district has trouble finding housing for teachers. It owns land, though, that could be developed into decent housing. “Around here, the land itself is a third to half the cost of a home. If you can bring that down, then you’ve got $80,000 houses instead of $120,000 houses.”

De Luca has also been hit for his support of conservation easements and land trusts. In essence, a rancher can sell his development rights to a local land trust. The trust is obliged to prevent development forever, and the rancher and his heirs can go on ranching.

They have these in Gunnison County, among other places, and it’s a voluntary transaction, although you wouldn’t know it from the critics, who act as though a land trust is the vanguard of the Red Army coming through to confiscate all private property before torching the churches and hanging the landlords.

For my part, I’d rather see 20-year agreements on development or the lack thereof; I think Thomas Jefferson was wise in his belief that the earth belongs to the living and that one generation should not dictate to the next. I think we’re arrogant when we presume to know what the best eternal use of a parcel might be.

Further, I’d rather see profitable markets for agricultural operations, so that it makes economic sense to grow cows and lettuce and potatoes here. If we had that, we wouldn’t need to care so much about developments and open space.

But for the life of me, I can’t see why I should care if a rancher wants to sell his development rights to someone who will not exercise those rights; it’s his property, after all.

However, McMurry supporters see it differently, De Luca said. “In their view, it’s a lost income opportunity for them if land is removed from the possibility of development, and so of course they’ll oppose it.”

RECENT POLITICKING has gotten as nasty as anything I can remember in Chaffee County, and that memory goes back to a worse-than-bitter recall election in 1979-80 when people quit speaking to each other for years, the Mountain Mail and its publisher and I got hit with a $2.25 million libel suit, and I was denounced as the Antichrist from a Salida pulpit.

This time around, we’ve seen Tom Hale fired as county administrator, and the McMurry-realty alliance supported the dismissal. The county managed to lose its letter opposing the Little Cochetopa Creek land exchange — an exchange supported by much of the realty group. De Luca’s family propane company has been threatened with boycotts, and has lost customers. Ron Slaughter got fired from The Mountain Mail on July 5 after reporting on McMurry’s unilateral easing of the way on some free sewer taps at Johnson Village.

Those are some excellent “negative reasons” for supporting Joe De Luca for county commissioner — he’s made the right enemies.

But I saw some positive ones. He has a clear view of the problems facing Chaffee County, and he has some reasonable ideas of how government could address those problems. He seems aware of the limitations of government, and he said he fully supports the Colorado Sunshine Law and openness and accountability of government. I’m a sucker for that one.

For a candidate who does that, well, hell, I can stand being a Republican for a while. Maybe it will even improve my credit rating.