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In Aspinall Country

Column by George Sibley

Colorado politics – March 2002 – Colorado Central Magazine

WHEN COLORADO STATE SENATOR Lew Entz, of the San Luis valley, gave Colorado Attorney General Ken Salazar, also from the San Luis valley, a $50,000 hug late in January, the strange dichotomy of Colorado politics was on display.

The occasion was Salazar’s announcement that he was going to run for another term as Attorney General. Sen. Entz was there and gave him a hug and a bottle of San Luis valley water.

But within a day or so apparently, a big supporter of the Republican Party in Colorado withdrew an offer of $25,000 to support Entz’s re-election bid, which also cooked the Party’s $25,000 match. The problem: Salazar runs on the Democratic ticket and Entz is a Republican — yet Entz publicly supported Salazar in the last election, and will probably do so again, unless the Front Range Republicans succeed in reining him in.

This is just one example of the way the standard two-party system seems to be crosswise with currents running through Colorado politics. A week before that happened, I saw another, at the Colorado Water Congress Convention in Denver. At one session, John Porter, Manager of the Dolores River Water Conservancy District, was speaking about the evolution of the reclamation project down on the Dolores River in southwestern Colorado. At some point in his talk, it came out that he was a Democrat — a fact that actually brought him to blush because the room was so heavy with Republican suits. But Dick MacRavey, Executive Director of the Water Congress, immediately threw in a little explanation: “He was an Aspinall Democrat,” MacRavey said, then added for clarification, for any who needed it: “That’s nothing like a Boulder Democrat.”

The reference was to Wayne N. Aspinall, who served twelve terms as Congressman from Colorado’s West Slope District, from the 1950s through the mid-1970s: climactic years for the “reclamation era” in western American politics — and the formative years of both the environmental era and, economically, the “recreation era” in Central Colorado that has, at this point, pretty well capped off the reclamation era.

An “Aspinall Democrat” might be described as a hybrid of New Deal Democrats and Jeffersonian Republicans — a man for whom the great Roosevelt wasn’t necessarily Franklin. Aspinall once said of himself, “I was of modest intelligence but always had a strong work ethic,” and that establishes a major priority in his vision. He was always on the farm side of the West’s growing rural-urban divide (known to Aspinall Democrats as “the Continental Divide”).

Historian Richard White, in It’s Your Misfortune and None of My Own, observes that, politically, “the real battle in the West was less between Democrats and Republicans than between progressives in both parties and conservatives who dominated the powerful traditional wing of the Republican party.” The true conservatives, now as then, were the wealthy and privileged who saw the government as a way of protecting wealth and privilege, while “the progressives (of both parties) believed in an activist government capable of solving social and economic problems,” White says.

And for the first two-thirds of the 20th century, reclamation was the West’s progressive movement. Aspinall was deeply committed to a Jeffersonian/Rooseveltian vision of reclamation — lots of new farms for hardworking farmers — and as “Mr. Chairman” of the House Interior Committee, he developed the power to get a lot of it done.

HE HAD A MAJOR HAND in most of the reclamation projects in the Upper Colorado River Basin — Glen Canyon Dam, Flaming Gorge, the three “Aspinall Unit” dams on the Gunnison River, and the rest of the projects of the Colorado River Storage Project, including its last gasp, the Animas-La Plata Project near Durango that may someday actually get built in some transmogrified form.

Aspinall supported reclamation because “it makes the desert bloom. The most impressive demonstration of this,” he said, “is to stand on the bank of a canal as it wends its way over the land. On the uphill side, you have virtually a barren desert with nothing but scrub growth. On the downhill side you have green and growing crops, houses, cities and life. This is the choice in the West, irrigation or desolation, abundance or scarcity.”

But we’ve been so successful at making the desert bloom with crops, houses, cities, and human life that the progressive pendulum has swung to the uphill side of that canal. The remaining reclamation progressives might be Democrats in name, like John Porter, but they are not at all enamored of the “Boulder Democrats” whose progressive vision sees an activist government taking on (among other things) the social and economic problems associated with the advancement of minority groups and the protection of what’s left of that unreclaimed “desolate” natural environment.

A man like Ken Salazar — himself of a minority group, but from an “Aspinall Country” farm background — manages to appeal to both the “Boulder Democrats” and the remaining “Aspinall Democrats,” which anymore include a lot of rural Republicans like Entz.

“The major contribution of western politics to national politics,” White concluded, “was an almost limitless resourcefulness in finding new ways to weaken party ties.” Sounds like Colorado.

George Sibley writes from Gunnison, where he also teaches at Western State College.