Blue-ing the West | The Nation


Blue-ing the West

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For New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, a much-talked-about potential 2008 presidential candidate, immigration is part of a panoply of issues that should, he says, make his region "fertile territory" for national Democrats. "I've long been an advocate that the Democratic Party should emphasize and gravitate to the West," the Governor argues. Capturing states within his region would, he says, "give us a beachhead. It would make us a national party. Now we're an East Coast and a West Coast party."

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November's election suggests that the shift he envisions may already be happening: Such states as Montana are now electing Democratic populists. Moreover, even before November's election, most of the big cities throughout the region, including Denver, Las Vegas, Salt Lake City, Albuquerque, Santa Fe, Boise and Missoula, were already run by Democratic mayors, or by mayors elected in nonpartisan races who openly identify with their state Democratic parties. These politicians have supported a dramatically increased minimum wage, and most have made economic populism a key part of their platform. They have stepped back from coastal Democrats' rhetoric on gun control--Richardson, who was endorsed by the National Rifle Association in his re-election campaign, is adamant that a candidate's position on gun control "should never be a litmus test again." Many have pushed energy conservation and alternative energy proposals as part of a larger Western environmental vision that has created unlikely alliances among hunters, fishermen, ranchers and Sierra Club-type environmentalists. And they have advocated large-scale investments in high-tech public transit systems in an attempt to curb runaway suburban sprawl.

"If you had the right kind of Democrat and took guns off the table," argues Governor Richardson's re-election campaign chief, Dave Contarino, "you could even win Montana."

While Richardson is the most obvious potential beneficiary of a Western tilt in '08, someone like John Edwards could also reap the fruits of this shift. In much the same way that a Californian, Ronald Reagan, rode to power atop the early Southern GOP wave, a Southern populist untainted by religious fundamentalism could ride the growing Western wave for the Democrats, creating alliances hinted at in Bill Clinton's two presidential election victories but subsequently lost. "Although a Southerner, he [Edwards] could connect," argues Boise Mayor David Bieter. For Bieter, winning the West is at least in part an exercise in linguistics rather than a matter of simply fielding regional candidates. "You need to learn to speak to the values of Westerners--it's a different political language, less ideological and more to people in their homes. The national party can be sort of elitist. The Republicans have been real skilled in taking somebody like Bush, with an absolute silver spoon upbringing, and making him appeal to the common man. And the Democrats have lost that touch."

In early 2005 Gary Hart--now a professor at the University of Colorado in Denver and described by local political consultant Mike Stratton as the "John the Baptist" of the Western movement--was asked by the chair of the state Democrats to write a memo that could be forwarded to incoming DNC chair Howard Dean, outlining the importance of the interior West to Democratic presidential prospects. Sitting down in his home in Kittredge, Hart typed out two and a half pages, broken down into ten crucial bullet points.

The party, he wrote, needed to pay more attention to Western environmental issues, with locally based environmental policies that didn't appear to be imposed from afar; it had to look toward a managed growth approach that would allow booming Western economies, increasingly based around high-tech companies in place of traditional resource-extraction industries, to grow while not undermining the high quality of life drawing so many to the region--and that would involve a commitment to invest heavily in public transit, clean-energy initiatives and anti-sprawl housing policies, all initiatives embraced by local Democratic politicians in recent years; it needed to promote a strong national security agenda that would appeal to Westerners long involved, from the earliest days of the cold war, in the country's military and defense infrastructure; and, finally, its leaders had to do more than pay lip service to the values of Western individualism.

"The religious right," Hart opined, "preaches values. Democrats, regionally and nationally, should espouse principles, for ourselves and for our country. 'Values' have religious overtones. Principles are humanistic and secular."

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