Press "Enter" to skip to content

We’re all partisan, and we should admit it

Essay by Martha Quillen

Local Politics – March 2001 – Colorado Central Magazine

IN THE PAST, I’ve grumbled quite a bit about partisan politics, and so has Ed, and dozens upon dozens of national columnists, and many of the people writing letters to our local newspapers, and… People on the streets, over ridges, near to bridges; in the cities, next to bays, near the highways; in the region, on the hillsides, by the legion…

But not until recently have I began to wonder what it is we all mean by partisan.

By one dictionary definition, a “partisan” is a weapon with a long shaft and a blade, and that description does provide an apt metaphor for the kind of “partisan” politicking we see today. But I’m pretty sure people these days are not upset about a sixteenth- century spear.

Instead, our primary concern about “partisan politics” is that vociferous political bias is divisive and tends to reduce our political process to mudslinging and grandstanding. And although name-calling and audacious displays of moral outrage and contempt for the opposition may work well during campaigns, such tactics don’t necessarily contribute to earnest discussion, reasonable compromise, or to drafting legislation that will be acceptable to the majority of the citizens.

But I’ve said all of this before (as have numerous others).

This last election, though, has made me wonder just what it is that’s making us so partisan. What is it that’s reducing us to mudslinging and name-calling?

During the last few years, I’ve heard a lot of angry rhetoric — often stimulated by divisiveness and us-versus-them defensiveness. But a lot of it probably shouldn’t be classified as particularly partisan.

In Chaffee County, many of the issues we’ve faced have aroused vociferous proponents and angry opponents along the way, but they weren’t necessarily encouraged by any particular factions in the first place. Such controversies didn’t start out as partisan struggles; they just seemed to disintegrate into such — as the arguments turned toward how the opposition was wrong-headed, dangerous, self-serving, and deceitful.

Ah… But it’s impossible to discuss contentious local issues in general — for every issue has its own logic, advocates, proponents and time frame, and each follows it’s own course toward becoming intractable, mean-spirited and perhaps even insoluble.

In 2000, for example, a heated race for County Commissioner fully divulged a huge rift in opinion about how the county should handle developers — a rift that has no doubt been building for years. Although boisterous arguments about various real-estate developments in Chaffee County have been standard — as they have been throughout Central Colorado — the extent to which local citizens actually felt abused and threatened by differing policies and proposed policies was certainly not clear to me before this election.

Despite some clamorous debates about various subdivisions, trails, public projects, and comprehensive plans, I’d always thought Chaffee County’s citizens were pretty compatible. In regard to environmental and land use issues, our county didn’t seem to harbor a lot of extremists. On the contrary, across the board, our townspeople, ranchers, hunters, fishermen, and recreationalists had always seemed fairly conservation-oriented.

As I saw it (perhaps wrongly), skiers, snowmobilers, and jeep aficionados in Chaffee County usually seemed willing to compromise when conflicts arose, and ranchers and townspeople were often aligned in opposing water exportation and generally supporting current wildlife and forest service policy.

IN SHORT, in political matters, people in Chaffee County had always struck me as basically moderate. But I should qualify my comments. Most residents in Chaffee County are conservative Republicans, and in Salida we’ve got our share of liberal Democrats — and I suppose there are some people who really hate guns, and who’d vote yes on all gun control measures, a not very prudent thing to talk about here, but they have not pressed the issue. And that’s what I’m calling moderate; regardless of party affiliation, the majority seemed content with a live-and-let-live attitude.

Despite big ideological splits in the West, the citizens of Chaffee County have never struck me as being polarized by anti-grazing or anti-hunting sentiments, or by gun control proposals, or Wise-Use rhetoric. On the contrary, for the most part Chaffee County residents seemed determined to tolerate, and sometimes even champion, their neighbors’ rights — whether they agreed with their neighbors or not.

When Salida instituted loitering laws, curfews, building codes, watering restrictions, parking ordinances, and the like, there were always citizens in attendance who spoke on behalf of their neighbors rather than themselves — because they were worried about the kids, or the people with big yards, or the do-it-yourselfers, or the residents who couldn’t afford more fines.

When Salida worked on its comprehensive plan, a large majority of the city respondents felt that keeping the ranchers here and preserving agricultural land were extremely important objectives. In the nineties (as Coloradans worked on comprehensive plans and futuristic visions), Chaffee County newcomers, oldtimers, ranchers, townspeople, and business owners alike seemed fundamentally together in wanting some growth but fearing rampant growth; in fearing suburban sprawl but not desiring cumbersome regulations; and in wanting improved roads, parks and trails but being unwilling to impose additional taxes or offend reluctant landowners in order to have them.

But I don’t mean to sound like Pangloss here, spouting off about how Chaffee County is (or ever was) the best of all possible worlds — because in Chaffee County we can feud as flamboyantly as anyone, anywhere, and political issues have often gotten out of hand.

WE’RE ALSO pretty handy mudslingers and name-callers. (Although in our arena both sides tend to brand opponents as “outsiders,” “trust-funders,” and “rich yuppies” instead of embracing the more popular national designations like “bleeding heart liberals” or “narrow-minded bigots.”)

But on the whole, even though Chaffee County has split into clamorous and occasionally even hostile factions again and again, I wouldn’t have thought we were particularly divided in our politics.

What side a person supported in regard to a housing project or golf course was not really a matter of whether he was a liberal or conservative, or a Democrat or Republican. For the most part, factions here came and went. Although Realtors may have stuck together on a zoning issue; and teachers on a school bond, and merchants on a tax issue, eventually everybody would schism over a proposed noise ordinance or subdivision.

But that may be changing.

In the past few years, escalating conflicts over growth issues have built some stronger alliances between concerned citizens. At this point, these factions are somewhat amorphous and disordered, but they definitely influence local politics. In the last election, a growing schism between pro- and anti- growth forces made the Chaffee County Republican Primary between Commissioner Frank McMurray and challenger Joe De Luca a costly, heated, and hard-fought race.

During the campaign (and after), incumbent McMurray characterized his opponent as someone who would stop growth, Aspenize the Valley, destroy business, drive out the poor, and bamboozle ranchers into losing their land to conservation trusts. Whereas De Luca’s campaign sounded almost boring in comparison as he repeatedly explained what conservation easements and land trusts were, and suggested that we stream-line the permit process for businesses, and encourage in-town and next-to-town development to minimize sprawl.

In retrospect, the emotionalism of the McMurray-De Luca race seems kind of silly. They were both Republicans, both natives, both part of prominent, well-known families, one candidate was a rancher, the other’s father has a ranch. What’s more, they both saw sustaining economic development as the primary issue facing Chaffee County. Sure, they disagreed on how to do that, but neither one of them seemed to regard the environment or expanding recreational opportunities to be of greater import. Thus, the tenor of that race seems kind of funny, but a little ominous, too.

Some of the hype undoubtedly happened because a lot of Democrats reregistered to join the fray, and Democrats are somewhat naturally seen as the opposition.

YET REPUBLICAN Mountain Mail publisher Merle Baranczyk also supported De Luca, and the numbers would indicate that De Luca probably would have squeaked to victory even if the Democrats had all gone fishing during the primary. Personally, I suspect that most voters perceived De Luca to be the more centrist candidate, and that his win indicates that Chaffee County is still basically moderate — especially on growth and land use issues.

But that, of course, is not how McMurray and his supporters look at it. As they see it (keep in mind I’m assuming this from letters and articles in the newspaper, statements made at public meetings, and things McMurray supporters have said), they’re surviving, and some of them are even thriving after a long, local recession, and now some people want to stop the growth and drive the county back into near bankruptcy.

Although McMurray lost his race, he continues to be vocal about county affairs, a good thing, I think, because we need active citizens to air their views.

But it’s no secret that I think McMurray’s dead wrong about policy. He sticks to tried and true methods to encourage growth and promote our county — which may have made some sense twenty years ago. But now we don’t have to do a damned thing to attract people. We don’t have to offer bargains and exemptions or assume all of the costs of new people moving here in order to keep business coming into our county.

As for my own position: I’m not against further development, but would certainly like to see better fire- protection measures in subdivisions. I think close-in development is a good idea, but also tend to view all of the valley between Salida and Poncha Springs as pretty close-in. I think we need to look very closely at the cost of new development — in providing roads, police protection, emergency services — and somehow figure out how to share them; but I think we have to do this not to stop growth as the McMurray camp would have it, but because local wages have not kept pace with spiraling housing costs and beleaguered citizens shouldn’t have to pay to supplement a boom that isn’t serving them.

In sum, I think we need to be somewhere in the middle of the road on policy, and it seems to me De Luca will move us a little closer to the center line. But as the factions, tensions, and opportunities in Chaffee County change, so might the voters.

RIGHT NOW THOUGH, it’s obvious to me that a lot of McMurray supporters really are scared. They think that someone’s going to change things, mess everything up, and drive them out with high prices and impossible standards.

— Which is weird, because that’s probably one of the biggest fears among De Luca supporters, too; the only difference is that they think De Luca’s the man to prevent it.

But then there’s another conundrum. McMurray also gleaned support from realtors and ranchers who would understandably like to see land values go up, which of course means higher prices across the board — since poor people seldom live on high-priced land.

Which begs the question: Where would McMurray’s policies eventually lead? And where will De Luca’s?

Those questions aren’t easy to answer, and yet crazily enough during a campaign the candidates all tend to talk as if they know exactly what their policies will bring — which is a little scary. When it comes to managing the economy, even Alan Greenspan keeps tweaking, changing and reassessing his policies. And even the professors who write economics textbooks and the top stock market analysts aren’t as cocksure about things as some politicians.

BUT THAT’S WHAT I liked about De Luca; he wanted to try some new things and introduce some new policies, but he didn’t seem too ideologically tied to any given solution. My hope was that he would listen, compromise, and look for some kind of synthesis, but that he wouldn’t see growth and selling real estate as our only hope for the future.

De Luca’s proposals could be wrong, though. They might not deliver what he thinks they will, or he may turn out to be more extremist or less able than I thought. And I guess that’s one of the reason’s I’ve always thought it was stupid to be too partisan. What difference does it make if your party triumphs, if it turns out you chose the wrong candidate with the wrong plan to make things work?

After this last election, though, I’m beginning to rethink my entire impression of “partisan.”

I know a couple of fierce McMurray supporters who pretty much want exactly what I want for Chaffee County — and they think McMurray’s going to deliver it. And they’re not stupid, or naive, or politically unaware.

But they do work in agriculture. So maybe this is really all financial — just another classic Marxist struggle. Maybe the factions here are really classes.

Well, that’s almost certainly some of it. The factions voting in the Republican primary seemed sharply divided by occupation — assuming newspaper letters and funding reports are any indication of how people vote. Ranchers and Realtors generally backed McMurray, as did many contractors, and at least some construction workers — presumably because they felt McMurray’s perspective would safeguard their careers. I didn’t really see any occupational preference for De Luca, but I knew many small-business owners who thought his ideas might help stabilize a boom that seems to spur expenses more than profits.

But I’m no Marxist, so I figure most citizens don’t just vote their pocketbook. I think most people have to believe that’s there’s more to their political positions than just their own reward — whether there is or not. So even if money is a powerful motivator, I don’t think it’s the only reason my friends look at things differently.

But how would I know how they see things? They see things differently than I do; they see people differently. And maybe that’s because they’re Republicans.

Not so long ago, I was railing about all of the tumultuous, obstreperous partisan politicking we’ve seen in the last few years. But after this last election, I’m beginning to believe that people are just partisan, and complaining about it makes about as much sense as complaining because people are bipedal.

Bipedalism doesn’t always work well, either; people are always complaining about their sore backs and aching shoulders. But whether bipedalism is a good thing or not, people are not going to start crawling around on their hands and knees.

And people aren’t going to quit being partisan either. My friends aren’t going to suddenly agree with me, and I’m not going to agree with them.

DON’T GET ME WRONG, though. I’m a Democrat, but I do vote for Republicans. I voted for De Luca in November, and once upon a time I voted for Jerry Ford (which makes me one of the few people in the country — be they Republican or Democrat — who did). Over the years, I’ve voted for Republicans, Democrats, Greens, Libertarians…

So I guess I’m not a great Democrat, but I’m obviously partisan. And even if I wanted to give up my partisan leanings for lent, I don’t think I could; because I think they come from how I feel about issues, how I hear the rhetoric, how I understand the sound bites, and what I think my party stands for.

I think associations help define someone’s brand of partisan. What does someone conjure up when he thinks about: mountains, valleys, ranchers, hippies, prairie dogs, water, rivers? What do words and phrases — like “private property rights,” “Christian,” “all natural,” “environmental protection,” “freedom of choice,” “minority rights,” — mean to him.

(That may explain why I never liked Clinton; his rhetoric and platform were basically Republican — “support free trade,” “put more officers on the street,” “eliminate welfare.” Now there’s a phrase for you. Eliminate whose welfare?)

So what am I saying here? Am I really defending being partisan?

WELL, YEAH, SORT OF. Although I’m not trying to say it’s all right for candidates to be rude. Or that it’s a good idea for politicians to hide their head in the sand and only communicate with their fellow ostriches — because birds who flock together tend to lose sight of what the rest of the world is thinking.

But this latest election has convinced me that partisan politics, name-calling, and mud-slinging probably can’t be easily restrained — since they certainly haven’t been curtailed by all of the recent grumbling.

On the contrary, as criticism of partisan politics and negative campaigning have escalated, the candidates have actually started leveling accusations of negative campaigning (and not being able to get along with the other party) against their opponents. In the Bush-Gore campaign, Gore sanctimoniously carped about Bush’s nasty comments, and Bush accused Gore of not being able to work with Republicans (a situation that had clearly been fostered by partisan Republicans).

Recent criticisms about negative campaigning and partisan politics haven’t curbed the fighting; they’ve added ammunition. And from their own rather partisan position, the critics and commentators (myself included) have sounded like overbearing parents telling all the kiddies to play fair.

But who’s to define fair?

Surely, a candidate has a right — or perhaps even an obligation — to say what he thinks is wrong with his opponent and his opponent’s platform. And surely parties have a duty to support their causes vociferously.

But when I think about local issues that have inspired anger, indignation, conceit, and contempt, what I remember are the tough issues, the multi-layered issues — the issues that are really many separate issues. They’re issues that encompass the big questions, questions like: What should we do about growth, education, and medical treatment? How should we raise our children? How are people going to make a living here?

But instead of discussing those basic issues — and reviewing all of the boring minutia that you have to understand before you can improve budgets, financing and public systems — we’re talking about the last election and who won and who didn’t, and who didn’t have a mandate in what year.

We’re talking about how Salida cheated Poncha, and Poncha scammed Salida, and how somebody’s trying to nab somebody else’s water, and how a developer hoodwinked us all.

And the Republicans are talking about how the Democrats want to steal all of the ranches and give them to lynx, prairie dogs, wolves, buffalo, and some kind of blasted jumping mouse.

And the Democrats are talking about how the Republicans would sell every last inch of undeveloped land to a hustler with an expired credit card if someone didn’t stop them.

And what’s really scary, is that it may all be true, but talking about it is not doing us a damned bit of good — because we keep on talking about each other rather than to each other, and we keep reducing our conversation to a lot of sound bites that don’t mean the same thing to any two people in a crowd.

Let’s be serious. All of us believe in some kind of private property rights. I’d bet I couldn’t find a single person who’d just let the government walk in and take his house. And nobody wants new zoning to slash his property values.

And everybody also believes in some kind of private property restrictions. I don’t know a single Republican who wouldn’t be in court if I moved next door and tried to put in a toxic dump site, or a pornographic drive-in, or a refuge camp for displaced Palestinians.

PRESUMABLY, the trick to having some kind of meaningful two-way discussion, however, is to figure out where the person you’re talking to really stands before you start telling him where he stands.

Recently, some of the discord from the last election was resurrected when a new group formed to try to make the Upper Arkansas Water Conservancy District (UAWCD) Board an elected rather than an appointed body.

So here’s another of those important but complex issues where the right position relies upon several dozen things. And it’s a topic guaranteed to rouse tempers, incite anger, and inspire accusations.

This idea had barely been introduced when the January 23 Mountain Mail reported:

“Scanga [Terry Scanga, UAWCD assistant general manager] claims the group wants to control the Upper Arkansas Water Conservancy District in order to manipulate the district’s water resources and prevent citizens of the county from access to their water.”

Yep, and I know people who think that the district is already manipulating water so that their friends can sell more real estate and make a profit.

So maybe it’s time to admit that we are all partisan — because that may be a necessary first step toward realizing that we’re not all speaking the same language.

–Martha Quillen