Bloomberg News

Colorado Secessionists Push for Independence After Flood

September 27, 2013

Colorado Secessionists Still Push for Independence After Flood

Mud, rocks and debris came very close to a group of homes along a washed out U.S. 34 of the Big Thompson River in the Big Thompson Canyon in Larimer County Colorado on September 14, 2013. Photographer: Andy Cross/The Denver Post via Getty Images

Colorado’s worst flooding in half a century killed eight people, destroyed thousands of homes and wiped out hundreds of miles of roads, yet it hasn’t damped enthusiasm in 11 counties to secede from the state.

Three counties with measures on the Nov. 5 ballot, asking voters if they favor forming a 51st state, sustained millions of dollars in flood damage. Secession leaders say they’re quickly rebuilding roads so farmers can get their crops to market and repairing water and sewer systems, without outside help.

“Our local officials have seen very little, if any, direct state or federal aid,” said Weld County Commissioner Sean Conway. “We’ve assisted more than 800 families and 2,500 people. Of the 140 roads closed, we’re down to 27. If anything, this disaster has shown we have the ability to be our own state.”

Anger in rural parts of Colorado, Maryland and California over gun control, tax proposals, renewable energy mandates and other issues have residents pushing ballot measures and petition drives to secede. While unlikely to gain the required approval of state legislatures, the movements illustrate how people in some remote areas are reacting against legislative agendas advanced by urban lawmakers.

They also reflect redistricting efforts that followed a shift in population over the past four decades from small towns to metropolitan centers. Secessionists say city dwellers enjoy greater representation in state legislatures than farmers and miners in less populated areas. They emphasize that their movement is nonpartisan.

‘Huge Problem’

“People are mad about the gerrymandering of legislative and congressional districts -- it’s a huge problem in this state,” said Scott Strzelczyk, a software consultant who created a Facebook page under the name “Western Maryland: A New State Initiative.”

About half of Maryland’s legislature is comprised of representatives hailing from the Eastern Shore and urban areas, making it hard for residents in the rural, mountainous northwest to be heard, he added.

In Colorado, efforts that redrew boundaries for congressional districts and state legislative seats to better reflect a population shift toward Denver exacerbated ideological differences among the electorate. The swing state’s changing political attitudes helped President Barack Obama, a Democrat, defeat Republican Mitt Romney in 2012.

Bucking Convention

Coloradans aren’t afraid to buck convention. Voters last year legalized marijuana for people 21 and older. Parents in rural areas often teach their children to handle firearms, which can be seen on racks in the rear windows of pickup trucks.

Colorado’s independent streak is also reflected in the diversity of its residents, from the Christian ministry Focus on the Family in Colorado Springs to shops selling tie-dyed T-shirts in Boulder and a shrine to Hunter Thompson, the creator of “Gonzo” journalism, near Aspen.

The effort to form a new state in Colorado picked up momentum when county commissioners discovered their constituents were up in arms over the toughest gun-control restrictions in a decade, enacted by the Democratic-controlled legislature in a session ending May 8.

“In June, we went to the annual Colorado County Commissioners Association meeting and said let’s sit down with some fellow county commissioners and see what they think,” said Weld County’s Conway, 54. “To our absolute shock and surprise, it became very clear that they felt the same and that they felt politically disenfranchised too.”

New Laws

In Colorado, many secessionists oppose new laws requiring background checks for gun sales, limiting the capacity of ammunition magazines and requiring rural electricity providers to double the amount of power from renewable energy by 2020. A successful recall on Sept. 10 of the Democratic state senate president and a Democratic senator who supported those laws buoyed the resolve of gun-rights supporters.

“The urban corridor dominates the legislature,” said Tom Gilley, president of the 51st State Initiative. “They pass rules that get shoved down our throat. The farmers get squeezed with additional costs.”

In the legislature, five of the 65 House members and two of the 35 senators’ districts’ fall within counties where residents will consider secession. Several others represent portions of those areas.

Peach Groves

About 75 percent of Colorado’s population of five million makes its home in eight counties hugging the foothills of the Colorado Rockies, known as the Front Range. The rest are spread across 56 counties from peach groves on the Western slope to cattle ranches on the Eastern plains.

Secession initiatives are long shots because they require the approval of legislatures in the states in which they originated, as well as the go-ahead from Congress, said John Straayer, a political science professor at Fort Collins-based Colorado State University.

“I can’t imagine a majority in the Colorado legislature petitioning Congress to create a new state, nor Congress giving an area with 369,746 people two U.S. senators,” said Straayer, co-author of “State of Change: Colorado Politics in the Twenty-First Century.”

“Some of those areas were hit pretty badly by the flooding and they are getting a lot of attention,” Straayer said. “I’ve been watching this and wondering whether some of those folks might be rethinking if they want to separate from the state.”

Successful Push

The last successful push to form a new state occurred as a result of the Civil War, when West Virginia split from Virginia in 1863. Numerous attempts since then in states including California and Kansas failed to gain political momentum.

Texas Governor Rick Perry, a Republican, alluded to secession at a Tea Party rally in 2009, saying, “When we came into the nation in 1845, we were a republic, we were a stand-alone nation,” and adding, “And one of the deals was, we can leave anytime we want. So we’re kind of thinking about that again,” according to a CNN report. In a later interview on Fox News, he pointed out that he never used the term secession.

Dozens of failed attempts by counties in northern California to secede from the state haven’t deterred the Jefferson Declaration Committee, a secession movement based in Siskiyou County, which borders Oregon.

Siskiyou and its neighbor to the east, Modoc County, voted this month to secede from California to form the state of Jefferson. About 53,500 people live in the two counties, a fraction of the state’s 38 million residents, according to 2012 figures from the U.S. Census Bureau.

Secession Proponents

Secession proponents say they are looking for eight or nine nearby counties to commit their support to the effort before approaching the state legislature.

“The state of California in its present size and its present form is ungovernable,” said Mark Baird, a rancher who spoke on behalf of the Jefferson Declaration on Sept. 24 at the Modoc County board of supervisors meeting. “This isn’t about trees, or frogs, or birds, or water, or guns. This is about the self-representation for people -- we have two representatives for the northern third of the state.”

Baird emphasized to supervisors that a new state could be economically viable.

In Colorado, as flood waters receded from bean farmers’ fields, scores of families hunkered down in shelters and energy companies hastened to clean up 11 deluge-related oil spills totaling about 34,500 gallons, secession proponents said their state would also be self-supporting.

Top Producers

Four of the state’s five top-producing agricultural counties could be located within the breakaway state’s borders, according the Colorado Agriculture Department. Weld, Yuma, Logan and Kit Carson counties together contributed 51 percent, or $3.05 billion, of the total value of agricultural products in 2007, the most recent year for which numbers are available.

Weld, the largest of the counties considering secession, boasts the highest number of active oil and natural-gas wells of any county in the nation, with 20,554 as of Sept. 5, according to the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission.

“We’ve done more to help the state than the state has done to help us,” said Conway. “I had a FEMA director walk up to me and say ‘I’ve never seen a community respond better to a disaster than Weld County. You are so self-sufficient, you are organized and you know what you need to do -- you don’t wait around with your hand out.’”

To contact the reporters on this story: Jennifer Oldham in Denver at joldham1@bloomberg.net; Margaret Newkirk in Atlanta at mnewkirk@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Stephen Merelman at smerelman@bloomberg.net


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