While the move by residents in several Colorado counties to secede from the state has been described as frustration over recent moves by the legislature in Denver, a retired political scientist and author says the move actually is a symptom of a much larger undercurrent of frustration that Republicans are in a prime position to tap into in 2014 and beyond.
“What is happening in Colorado is a little bit different than what we have seen elsewhere,” Charles Dunn a retired political scientist with Regent University said. “What we’re seeing is a manifestation of the frustration and distrust by the people in Weld County who are angry at what their state government and leaders are doing and this has caused them to be distrustful of them.”
Immediately following the reelection of Barack Obama in 2012 petitions from every state began appearing on the White House’s “We the People” website respectfully asking for permission to be allowed to secede from the union.
The Louisiana petition, which was the first to appear on the site, quoted from the Declaration of Independence: “‘Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or abolish it, and institute new Government.’”
The petition quickly reached the 25,000 signature threshold for generating a White House response and was subsequently followed by petitions from the remaining states. The movement was ridiculed in the mainstream media and by liberal groups who expressed vitriol for the peaceful requests. One counter-petition demanded the White House deport everyone who signed a petition.
The administration was finally forced to respond to the numerous requests, in a statement that included a promotion for Obama’s actions, by stating that the founding fathers “did not provide a way to walk away” from the union.
However, while the administration attempted to dismiss these concerns out of hand, the issue did not go away, but instead began to smolder.
On Monday, Weld County became the fourth county in Colorado to vote to put the issue of breaking away from the state to voters. On Thursday, Moffat County voted to join their sister counties on the issue. The Colorado session issue has garnered national attention primarily because of Weld County, which is one of the nation’s largest counties and has been a leader in the secession movement.
The idea of states breaking up is nothing new; in 1863 West Virginia seceded from Virginia to form its own state. While this is the last time a state was actually formed from another state, it was not the last time the idea was discussed.
During the 1980s residents of northern California frequently talked of separating from the southern portion of the state because of it being more liberal than the north. Residents of Illinois have frequently complained about the influence of Cook County on the rest of the state and have occasionally indicated their desire to separate from Chicago. Texas has likewise frequently talked of secession as have the residents of South Carolina.
However, the situation in Colorado is different than these previous movements in that while individuals have expressed a desire to separate from the state, the current movement is being supported by elected county officials.
The ballot’s language says, “Shall the Board of County Commissioners of Weld County, in concert with the county commissioners of other Colorado counties, pursue becoming the 51st state of the United States of America?”
Prior to the vote by Weld officials, Sedgwick, Cheyenne and Yuma counties had already passed identical measures. Phillips, Logan, Kit Carson and Moffat counties have since been added to the list of counties considering secession.
Prior to the vote, Weld commissioners said they were responding to their constituents who told them they felt as if the state’s urban areas were at war with them.
“This level of frustration has been high and there’s a lot of pent up anger,” commissioner Barbara Kirkmeyer said. “It should be up to the voters and they feel they are not being looked up to by the governor and legislators. They feel this is a great exercise in democracy and that this is what the Declaration of Independence is all about.”
Commissioner Doug Rademacher said the reason this issue has come to a head is because legislators in Denver have abandoned the morals and vision that long represented the state.
"I think rural America, not just rural counties, have been under attack for years now. Some of the rulemaking coming from the government has been quite disappointing as they try to dictate to us how we will live and frankly I don't think they share our vision, and our morals. After attending three of the last four meetings it is very evident that people want this issue on the ballot."
Talks regarding the statehood initiative began last June when commissioners from several northern and eastern Colorado counties were discussing their frustrations with the 2013 legislative session – including the passage of firearm restrictions, oil and gas regulations and renewable energy mandates on rural Colorado.
The energy legislation was seen by some as being intended to punish rural Colorado by requiring rural electric cooperatives derive 20 percent of their energy from renewables by 2020. Many of rural electric utilities use hydropower; however the Democrats in the legislature deliberately excluded it as counting toward the goal.
The bill was seen as being an attack on the oil and gas industry, which is thriving in Weld County.
Among the bills passed by the Democrat-controlled legislature were a series of radical bills that included legalizing actions by abortionists such as Kermit Gosnell, the Philadelphia abortionist who was recently convicted of murdering several babies. Officials also passed a series of gun control bills that among other things outlawed the sale of nearly all new gun magazines in the state. Those with existing magazines are breaking the law if they do something as innocuous as handing to a friend to help clear a jam.
Gov. John Hickenlooper also has gone on record as expressing disdain for rural Coloradans in his state. During his 2010 campaign for governor against WND columnist and former congressman Tom Tancredo, he accused rural citizens of having "backwards thinking" when it comes to traditional values.
"I think a couple things, I mean, you know, the tragic death of Matthew Shepard occurred in Wyoming. Colorado and Wyoming are very similar," Hickenlooper said. "We have some of the same, you know, backwards thinking in the kind of rural Western areas you see in, you know, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico… at the same time, Denver has, I think, one of the more robust, politically active gay and lesbian, bisexual and transgendered communities, really, in the United States."
After this year's attacks on constitutional rights and rural lifestyles, Hickenlooper essentially said rural residents just need to get over it and change their lifestyle.
"This is an urban issue which is going to require some inconvenience from rural people. They're going to have to change their clip more often if they're shooting varmints or if they're at a shooting facility," the governor said during an appearance on the Mike Rosen Show.
"The concerns of rural Coloradans have been ignored for years," Bill Garcia, chairman of the Weld County Board of Commissioners said, "The last session was the straw that broke the camel's back for many people. They want change. They want to be heard. Policies being passed by the legislature in Denver are having negative impacts on the lives of rural Coloradans. This isn't an 'R' versus 'D' issue; it's much bigger than that."
Dunn says Garcia is right and that the angst expressed by rural Coloradoans is simply a symptom of a greater problem facing the nation of a whole.
"Perhaps the most important word to use regarding what is happening here is frustration," Dunn warns. "This undercurrent of frustration has been building for many years and frustration leads to a distrust of government.
"In recent years we have seen a rising percentage of Americans who distrust their government. From the mid-60s until now the only time trust in government stopped decreasing and went up was during the Reagan years. Apart from that the trust level has generally been on the decline.
"America has been known historically to have a high level of trust in its leaders however, as people become more frustrated with the increasing size of government and its failure to create an environment conducive to job creation and instead hinder growth and development; we have seen the level of disgust rise. Frustration and distrust go hand-in-hand."
Dunn explained that this level of distrust could end up being a positive thing in that it forces issues that have been suppressed to the forefront where it can be honestly discussed on the national stage.
"This is a two edged sword that is manifesting itself not just in the state of Colorado, but is also a manifestation of what is happening nationally as people are becoming concerned to where some even want to go to the extent of having their state secede from the nation. It is symptomatic of a broad array and undercurrent of frustration and distrust," he said.
According to Dunn part of the reason for the frustration is the level in which politicians have moved the country leftward at a pace that is completely inconsistent with the political shift of the vast majority of the country.
Political pundits have called Colorado a purple state for several years because although it has many conservative House members, the state has two liberal Democratic senators as well as a Democratic governor. During the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections the state went to Barack Obama. Additionally, the Democrats control both houses of the legislature.
However, when one views an electoral map of the state by county it quickly becomes obvious that geographically the state is overwhelmingly red – or GOP-leaning. In fact the blue sections exist primarily in the Denver-Boulder area and apart from these metropolitan areas the state is solidly conservative and Republican.
The nationwide electoral maps for both of Obama's campaigns reveal a similar trend. Even in 2008 when the nation as a whole was frustrated with Bush and the recession, geographically the country was still overwhelmingly GOP-leainng.
What is even more amazing is when comparing the 2008 and 2012 maps to a similar map from 1980 one discovers that as a percentage of Republican counties to Democrat counties the country has hardly changed at all. Yet despite this few would claim that the federal government is as conservative as it was in 1980.
Here's 1980, when Ronald Reagan (blue), defeated Jimmy Carter (red).
Here's 2008. Barack Obama (blue). This was after media outlets reversed party colors, giving the Democrats the blue that GOP had been identified with for years.
So the blue in the first map, and the red in the next two, clearly show a GOP dominance across the nation, as far as area goes.
Dunn says this is a critical factor that cannot be overlooked in the current level of frustration that is causing the secession talks.
"There is a sense in which the Obama victories were flukes," Dunn explained. "The reason I say this is because in both campaigns Obama ran against weak Republican candidates, McCain and Romney. If the Republican Party had nominated a forceful candidate modeled after Ronald Reagan they could have won.
"As a result of the Republican party conducting themselves so poorly in their choice of candidates they gave rise to the tea party which is a key player in this secession movement that is happening in Colorado. The media has been predicting their demise but they are still quite strong and have not gone away. They reflect this undercurrent of distrust and frustration that we see manifesting itself in this move to secede," he said.
The issues before the voters this November is not a vote to actually secede, rather it is simply asking them if they want their commissioners to pursue the issue. Even if the initiatives pass it is still an uphill battle before they would actually form their own state of North Colorado. First the issue would have to go before voters in the state as a whole and then it would have to obtain final approval from Congress which has the final say whenever a state is created from another state.
"In each of these town hall meetings we had, the vast majority of people were overwhelmingly in favor of the 51st state idea. However, we don't want to take up this issue based on just that," Garcia said. "This ballot initiative gives the voters of Weld County to plainly tell us what they want us to do. Why would anybody be opposed to us asking the voters for their opinion?"
While elected officials are frequently criticized for not listening to their constituents it is interesting to observe how county officials have been ridiculed for listening to their residents.
Prior to the bill's passage the commissioners made it plain that they were not going to back down from those who were attempting to ridicule them over the issue.
"We did our best to ensure that everyone conducted themselves in a respectful manner and we conducted the meetings in a respectful manner. However, the commissioners have been personally attacked and I don't appreciate it," commissioner Barbara Kirkmeyer said. "We were told that we were children with a disorder, that we just wanted to be rebellious and oppositional, that we're crazy, petulant, stupid, crybabies, morons, idiots, and that we were emotionally immature. Well there has been a lot of frustration and pent up anger from our constituents and I don't apologize for taking the time to listen to their concerns."
"Whether you agree with the idea of a 51st state or not is not the issue," Commissioner Mike Freeman said. "The issue is we should let the citizens of Weld County decide their own destiny and that is what we are doing here today with this ballot question."
The commissioners also had some harsh words for the Greeley Tribune, which has come out in opposition to the issue and told commissioners to simply drop it, arguing that among other things it would hurt the county's image.
"The Greeley Tribune said they agree with our message but they disapprove of what we are doing. What I would say to that is I don't ever think it's a bad idea for the board of county commissioners to go out and listen to our constituents," Kirkmeyer said. "I don't think that's a waste of time and I don't think it's ever a bad idea to have a discussion with our constituents and allow them to vent their frustrations as citizens of Weld County, and I don't think that giving our citizens the right to exercise one of the most basic rights guaranteed under our Constitution is a waste of money."
Dunn said regardless of whether or not the movement is able to go all the way to actual secession or not, it will succeed in shaking up the status quo and force the country to confront the disconnect between government policies and the concerns of the majority of Americans who feel the country has left their values behind.
"If these counties in Colorado were to vote in favor of secession it has the potential to set off a wildfire throughout the country," Dunn explained. "Not necessarily in the sense of having an explosion of referendums, but instead if nothing else it will expose the viability of various options to address the problem causing this frustration."
Indeed, the secession debate in Colorado has already done just that. One of the key issues that is causing consternation among the state's rural residents is the Denver-Boulder area which although a small portion geographically exerts a large amount of influence and was responsible for much of the legislation passed this year including the energy bill which exempted municipal utilities from its requirements.
Another idea that is being discussed is the possibility of changing the composition of the state's representation to make it similar to the makeup in Congress where each state has two senators regardless of its size. The proposal is known as the Phillips Plan after Phillips County administrator Randy Schafer who has suggested changing the current state senate representation model which is based on population to one where each county is given its own senator.
However even this option faces an uphill battle as it must deal with the U.S. Supreme Court which ruled in the 1964 Reynolds v. Sims case that all districts in a state legislature must be based on population.
However, Weld commissioner Sean Conway said this may not be as insurmountable as some may think because in the dissent of the ruling it was suggested by a justice that could be support for the idea of having one legislative body based on population and the other on an area's size. The case would ultimately need to be taken up again by the Supreme Court to rule on the merits of the issue.
Garcia has said he does not have faith the Supreme Court would rule in their favor which is why he supports the 51st state initiative, although he is willing to be open to a variety of options to deal with the frustration or rural residents.
If the movement were to succeed, Weld County is in a strong position to be a leader in the formation of the new state. The county is larger than Rhode Island and Delaware combined and has no long term or short term debt as well as no income tax. The county also boasts a $100 million surplus and is the top oil and gas producer in the state.
"Just last week we dedicated a $4 million crime lab for the region. We are currently building the only four lane highway in the state of Colorado. CDOT isn't doing it because they don't have the money, but we do because of good financial stewardship," Conway said. "When I tell people in urban areas that 70 percent of the state lands funding for K-12 education comes from Weld County because of all the oil and gas production they are amazed. If you include the other counties that are likely to be part of this initiative it comes … 80 percent of the income."
Garcia said the issue goes far beyond simply voting for the measure, but goes to the people having the ability to decide what they would really want their government to look like.
"When people vote for the 51st state it will also open up a host of possibilities in other areas as well," Garcia explained. "There is no preset Constitution and there are no preset statutes … We will have the opportunity to address the issue of decentralized governments and stronger local control. Weld County, we have the opportunity to make a great state."
Dunn says the situation we are seeing with the secession movement in Colorado is simply part of the ebb and flow of our nation's history.
"We have a long history in America of their being a groundswell of concern about something and then suddenly something happens to bring the people together," Dunn said. "A good example is Ronald Reagan. At the time there was great consternation in our country with Jimmy Carter and his malaise and then along comes Reagan. He was like a release valve for that pent-up frustration and hurt the nation was feeling."
"It became morning in America and that can happen again. If you were to watch the 1980 debate between Reagan and Carter and compare it to the 2012 presidential debates, the issues are the same. If Romney had conducted himself like Reagan did he would've won and our country would not be in the mess it is currently in, if Romney had been willing to address the issues the same way Reagan did in 1980," he said.
Dunn says this movement will happen whether the Republicans want it to or not and it would be a mistake for them to ignore it.
"The Republican Party needs to pay attention to what is happening and they ignore it at their own peril," Dunn warned. "The Democrats did not take tea party seriously until 2010 and the media discounted the power of the tea party and they are still discounting them.
"There is still the ballot box which can be used to force this debate onto the national stage. These counties may not necessarily get what they want, but what they have succeeded in doing is forcing the issue before the country so it must be dealt with."
Garcia had a word for those who questioned if the movement to become the 51st state could ever become a reality.
"To quote President Barack Obama, si se puede, 'yes we can.'"