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Democracy running wild

Column by George Sibley

Politics – December 2004 – Colorado Central Magazine

ELECTION NIGHT, I was sitting at home going back and forth between the disaster area of book piles and paper piles I call my office, and the bedroom where we keep the television (out of the closet but not out of the bedroom), and as the national voting picture was unfolding, I was just getting more and more depressed.

So I put on my coat and went downtown to find out how things were going in the places the television didn’t cover, like the place where I live. I wandered into the Firebrand Deli, where the Democrats were hanging out. These days, I’m a Democrat by default: I’m not the least bit happy with the party, and basically think it blew the election by catering to some illusionary middle when it could have been working to build the radical center.

But things were better downtown at the Firebrand. For one thing, if you’re going to be depressed, it’s better to be depressed together. But for another, it gradually began to dawn on us that something unusual might be unfolding down on the ground where we live…. It started when Kathleen Curry burst in around 10:30 p.m. to tell us fellow Democrats that the Rocky Mountain News had declared her the winner in the 61st State House District.

Wow! So early! And the two County Commissioner races were – surprising to me – dead heats at that point, with only a couple-three precincts reported. Then there was Pete Coors (minus twins) shortly after Kathleen’s announcement, on the TV conceding to Ken Salazar. Wow! What’s happening here in conservative Colorado?

Commissioner candidate Hap Channell and his campaign manager (his sister) and I went down the street to the Peace Pub, where a massive number of college students who had been out in the streets and on the phone for the past several days as part of a Get Out The Vote drive were working it off in good Dionysian Democrat style – big cheers for Hap when he walked in, and I snuck a dance or two with students, violating the fraternization clause in my social contract, but what the hell.

Then back to the Firebrand, but no new postings in the County Commissioner races, and at midnight Heidi kicked us out. Some went home, some went in search of another bar, but I went to the newspaper office, where Mike and Chris and Stephen were trying to put out an election-morning Extra. But news was not flowing from the courthouse, so I volunteered to be the runner (or fast walker, at my advancing age) hanging out at the courthouse waiting for precinct tallies. There’d been a minor technical problem with the vote counter (we do paper ballots, electronically counted), but about 12:30 a.m. that was worked out and the precinct counts began to roll, and thus I got to be privy to the unfolding Gunnison County phenomenon that night – a once mostly Republican county going totally Democrat.

BY ABOUT 2 A.M. it was clear: for what I suspect is the first time ever (I haven’t been able to verify this yet), all three Gunnison County Commissioners were going to be Democrats — and none of the three would be a rancher. Our State House Rep would be a Democrat; our Congressman in Washington would be a Democrat; we were going big for the Democrat who won the Senate seat; and if we had been electing our own president – true throughout most of the Headwaters region – it would have been John Kerry by a modest landslide. It was unprecedented, and almost unimaginable, for Gunnison County.

Well, since that night, I have had enough time to think about all of the things that are wrong with this picture – the same problem the Republicans now face on the national level (not being able to blame the opposition for any of the things that probably won’t get done); the problem of the flailing pendulum that always eventually swings back to kick you in the ass, extreme begetting extreme; the unpleasant fact that a lot of the winning campaigns were as fear-based as the presidential race was, except it was fear about water rather than terrorism.

But all that noted – I just want to remember the feeling of walking home that night, at about 3:15 with the last precinct in and the Extra off to Merle’s press in Salida. Formulating a philosophy of politics as I hustled through the Gunnison cold.

I remember the starburnt certainty that, wherever there are humans, there are basically just two political parties. On the one hand, there’s the party of those who believe that it is a hard life, and we are each in it alone, manager of a business called me, and we each have to look out for number one.

And on the other hand, there’s the party of those who believe that it is a hard life, but we are all in it together, and it will all work out best if we all commit to working through it together.

The second party we don’t hear much from these days. We’re all capitalists, all rugged American individualists today. But it felt different downtown that night, at the Firebrand and the Peace Pub, where we had all began to realize that, locally, something at least unusual was happening.

I know, in the light of day, that too much of either party is too much – I have both too much of the individual and too much of the community in me to ever choose one party to the exclusion of the other. But I wasn’t thinking of that, that night, eyes tearing from the cold or fatigue or something; that night I knew we didn’t want the pallid middle. Shying away from the excesses of either party, we needed their union in the radical center, the impossible best of both. Will we ever get there? Some nights it seems possible, although it doesn’t always carry over into the next morning – when we woke up to the realization that out in the heavier weather of the cultural environment, a storm was brewing, fueled by fear and hate. But I hold that night close, what might have been, what always might yet be.

George Sibley teaches and writes in Gunnison. A collection of his essays, Dragons in Paradise, should be at bookstores any day now.