The Mountain West: Shades of Blue Emerge Within a Sea of Red

Posted April 28, 2004 at 3:47pm

Almost every four years, we see it on our television screens: the presidential election-night map with its foreboding inland Red Sea covering the states of the Rocky Mountains and signaling that surely only Republicans are staying afloat in that crimson tide.

A group of Rocky Mountain and high-plains Westerners has recently formed an eight-state regional organization: Democrats for the West. Its purpose is not only to change all that election-night acreage from red to blue, but also to show that beneath the red facade lies a landscape on which Democrats can, and do, win elections — consistently. Democrats for the West has begun a discussion to identify problems and find solutions — using the historic Western voice of purpose and compromise rather then the anger and dissension which, for more than 20 years, has been the cornerstone of Republican campaign rhetoric in the West.

The group’s Founders Committee is a roll call of former elected officials who have demonstrated an understanding of how to both solve our problems and win elections. The committee includes several former governors: New Mexico’s Tony Anaya, Cal Rampton of Utah and Mike Sullivan of Wyoming. It also includes former secretaries of Interior Stewart Udall of New Mexico and Cecil Andrus of Idaho; former Sens. Dennis DeConcini of Arizona and Richard Bryan of Nevada; the always energetic widow of Idaho Sen. Frank Church, Bethine; former Rep. Karen Shepherd of Utah, and myself of Montana. The Founders Committee also includes former state and local officials, such as Denver Mayor Wellington Webb, Alaska Lt. Gov. Fran Ulmer and Idaho Attorney General Larry Echohawk.

Each of these Westerners, along with a vigorous executive board, want Capitol Hill to understand that we in the West not only continue to elect Democrats but are intent on electing even more.

In the 2002 general election, Democrats seized the formerly Republican governorships of Wyoming, New Mexico and Arizona. In Montana, Democrats recently won five of the state’s seven statewide offices. And although the mountain West hasn’t lately been electing too many Democrats to Congress, we do note that of the nine states of our region, including Alaska, six have one or more Democrats currently serving in the House or Senate.

In the most recent Senate race in Montana, Democrat Max Baucus won with an impressive 63 percent of the vote. Just two years earlier, Conrad Burns, a Republican, barely squeaked back into office by taking 50.6 percent over a political unknown. Recent polls for this fall’s Senate races in Colorado and Alaska show the Democratic candidates leading. I should add — with genuine gratitude — that Montana voters, beginning in the 1970s and for the next two decades, re-elected me, a liberal Democrat speaking with a Western voice, to more consecutive terms in the House than anyone in our state’s history.

Democrats have been strikingly effective in local elections in the West. Democrats currently hold the mayor’s office in Phoenix; Denver; Santa Fe, N.M.; Billings, Mont.; Salt Lake City; Boise, Idaho; Missoula, Mont.; Juneau, Alaska; Anchorage, Alaska; and Las Vegas. We Westerners sure have become weary of the constant efforts of the GOP to define us and to claim the West as being solidly Republican. Because it ain’t so!

The mountain West is America’s fastest growing region — a land in the midst of historic demographic, cultural and economic change. We Westerners want a thriving and sustainable economy, but we also realize that achieving it requires both an understanding of, and an appreciation for, those significant transitions. To Democrats, a healthy economy has always meant jobs — good-paying jobs with good benefits for our low- and middle-income workers, including, of course, American Indians, Hispanics and other hard-working minorities who populate the West. We believe that a pillar of tomorrow’s national economy should be the creation of jobs in our mountains and plains — jobs not only within the historic resource industries but also in efforts to repair the old scars on the land, from abandoned mines, retired timber roads and toxic waste dumps to the eroding clear cuts and the once-clear streams that are now choked with sediment. An economy energized by jobs in environmental repair, renewal and restoration awaits — but we need leaders willing to saddle up and lead the way.

At this critical juncture, Westerners are rejecting the politics of resentment which for too long has appealed to the lowest common denominator of fear, anger and distrust, particularly antagonism toward our federal government. Folks out here value efforts to return to the traditional Western habits of neighborliness and purpose. In this, Democrats for the West can offer a helping hand, a well-tuned ear and perhaps a clearer voice that reflects both horse sense and the need for policy innovation. Westerners have always craved creative solutions to the region’s challenges of growth, carrying capacity, governance, education and the economy. The task is significant, but Western Democrats stand ready to meet it. Again.

Former Rep. Pat Williams (D) served Montana in the House from 1979 until 1997. He teaches at the University of Montana’s Center for the Rocky Mountain West, where he also hosts a statewide public radio program and writes a regular column for the region’s newspaper.