A Colorado District As Barometer for US

FROM the rumpled hills of Aspen to the buff-brown plains of Pueblo, Colorado's Third Congressional District encompasses some of the most diverse terrain - and political sentiment - in the United States.

Thus it provides a unique topographical map for charting the thinking of the American electorate. In recent elections, this sprawling district has voted down to the percentage point with Colorado, and has voted with the rest of the nation in the last two presidential contests. It is a bellwether district in what is becoming a bellwether state - one that could be particularly important this fall.

As the campaign heads for its first test in the Rocky Mountain West tomorrow, the electorate mood here is sober. Voters don't care as much about who is up or down in the race as they do about issues - primarily pocketbook concerns.

To plumb their sentiments, the Monitor traveled 500 miles across the district early last month, stopping in on electrical workers in Pueblo, ranchers in South Park, and realtors in the ski resort of Breckenridge.

One overriding conclusion: Even in a relative boom time, economic anxiety bedevils all but the most affluent. It's an issue that Pat Buchanan has already mined and one that may continue to reverberate through the fall. Workers feel they are slipping down the economic ladder. Trade unions are gaining. The poor and underemployed are worried about rents in the social safety net.

Fiscal conservatism rates high, but social conservative issues, such as abortion, barely register with voters here. Across the spectrum, voters are wary of those who want to make family and morality into a political issue.

These concerns are mixed with a sense of alienation from the political class. The desire for change remains unfulfilled, before by President Clinton and now by the Republican Congress and its "revolution." Time and again, voters express a lack of enthusiasm for any of the political choices currently available.

The Third District spans the breadth of this Western state. It is home to old mining towns transformed into trendy ski resorts, cattle ranches giving ground to tract homes, and mill towns seeking a new life with high technology. Ute Indians and Hispanic communities going back 350 years share this land with Slovak steelworkers and telecommuters.

Colorado's political importance has grown in recent years. It is the most populous of the noncoastal Western states. Its booming economy has made it a magnet for economic migrants. Its spirited, independent-minded politics have made it a trendsetter on many national issues, from term limits to controlling urban sprawl. Political observers predict this will be one of the most hotly contested Western states in the election.

The Monitor survey indicates that Mr. Clinton, against the expectations of many political experts here as recently as a year ago, has a good shot at carrying the Third District and all of Colorado. Though the state has been heavily Republican for the past 30 years, in 1992 Clinton won Colorado - with the help of a large 23 percent vote for independent Ross Perot. Even without a Perot option, strategists say Clinton can win here.

No Republican candidate inspires the "kind of enthusiasm and loyalty that you had for people like Ronald Reagan," explains GOP state chairman Don Bain.

"If Democrats return to the fold and Republicans are somewhat dispirited - and this state sits on a large bloc of ticket splitters and one-third unaffiliated voters - then there is more than enough swing here to put this state in Clinton's camp," says Denver pollster Floyd Ciruli.

Steel Town Sings Blue-Collar Blues

A few years back, the members of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers - like many other workers in this blue-collar, industrial city of Pueblo, on the banks of the Arkansas River - had only one thing on their minds.

"Guns. The Democrats are going to take away my guns," says electrical worker Ron Scott, summing up the views his union brothers held then.

And when it came to elections, the fact that these men were registered Democrats, like their fathers and grandfathers, didn't matter much. "People voted the way the NRA [National Rifle Association] said to vote," Mr. Scott says.

In 1992, those votes helped elect Republican Scott McInnis to Congress. Two years later, in the election that brought the Republicans to power in the US Congress, Pueblo voters sent a Republican to the state legislature for the first time in 40 years.

Today the union men are regretting those votes. "We've taken some serious hits," says Brian Miller, the young and energetic president of Local 12. "Members are coming back to traditional paycheck issues."

Sitting around a table in the one-story, red-brick union hall, officers and members of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers in Pueblo speak with a clarity and force that reflects deep conviction. The same themes were echoed in talks with other unionists here, from steelworkers to supermarket employees.

"There's no job security," says Guy Runco, the head of IBEW Local 667, representing utility-company workers. "In the past, corporate America was willing to let us come up along with them. They're not anymore."

"You hear a lot these days about family values," Mr. Miller says. "What does that mean when my wife and I have to work just to get by, and somebody else is raising our kids?"

Other issues - crime, education, the country's moral decline - trigger a response that whips around the table.

"Education is an economic issue," says Kathy Ruehlen, a union employee. "You can't afford it anymore."

"So is crime," adds Scott. "You look at these kids committing crimes - dollars to doughnuts, those kids were raised by the TV."

Pueblo, with a population of about 100,000, is by far the largest city in the district. It resembles the industrial cities of the Midwest, with close-knit ethnic communities of tidy, single-family homes, built in the shadow of factory smokestacks. The giant Colorado Coal and Iron steel mill built before World War I still dominates the skyline. Hispanics, Italians, and Slovaks came here to work in the plants organized by powerful unions that used to run the city.

Then came the recession of the 1980s and the beginning of a steady downsizing of the steel mill, followed by the closing of many of the union-organized plants. In recent years, a development effort run by local businessmen has brought in new employers, including high-technology companies such as McDonnell Douglas and Unisys. But the union leaders complain that wages are far lower at these plants, the city fathers conspire with the new employers to keep out high-wage jobs, and their efforts to organize the plants are met with concerted campaigns that play on worries of unemployment.

Despite these concerns, the long-standing loyalty to the Democratic Party here has waned. "The Democratic Party started all that leaning toward radical things - the gay movement, the Rainbow Coalition - and the feeling was ordinary working people didn't mean that much to them anymore," says Rob Grinstead, Local 12 business manager. When Clinton endorsed the hated North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), that gap widened.

Then, says electrical worker Scott, "Newt [Gingrich] and the boys took over." The Republican revolution now threatens the political and social gains won by their parents and grandparents and secured by 30 years of Democratic rule in the Congress, they say.

The electrical workers tick off a list of Republican Party attempts to undermine key pieces of pro-union legislation, which guarantee union-scale wages for federally funded construction projects or defend the right to organize and bargain collectively.

So even though in many ways populist Republican presidential candidate Pat Buchanan speaks more to their concerns than Clinton does, the blue-collar voters of Pueblo seem eager to block any Republican going to the White House.

"That real disgust I heard about Bill Clinton, I don't hear at all anymore," says Chris Wiseman, the southern Colorado representative of Gov. Roy Romer. "On the contrary, people say, 'Thank God he's there - we need that veto pen.' "

Pueblo union leaders vow to join a nationwide AFL-CIO organizing drive to reverse the losses of 1994. They are being joined by volunteers in numbers not seen in years, Mr. Wiseman says.

These are people like Diana Ortiz, the chairwoman of the Pueblo Chicano Democratic Caucus and the owner of a food-catering business. On her own initiative, she has organized a group of volunteers to go door to door to register Hispanic voters, traditionally Democratic but inactive. "I have people who have never voted saying they want to vote because of the cuts happening," she says. "People on welfare are panicked now."

South Park Cowboys Feel Squeezed Out

Up amid the spectacular vistas of the Rockies, the litany of issues is very different than in Pueblo. But the unease about life, politics, and the future is palpably similar.

Cattle rancher Jim Campbell has already been up for hours delivering calves when he returns for a morning chat to the log-cabin home built by his grandparents, high in the mountain plains of South Park.

For Mr. Campbell, as for the men down the slope in Pueblo, "trying to make a living is the hardest thing." The faded linoleum on the floor, the sagging ceilings, and the old gas stove in the kitchen bear witness to his declaration.

Cattle prices have been low for a couple of years; some point to a 10-year cycle of rising and falling prices. But Campbell sees a long-term decline. "It used to take 10 cows to buy a pickup," he says. "Now it takes about 100."

Campbell, too, pins some of the blame for his woes on NAFTA. He supported the free-trade pact initially on the grounds that anything supported by George Bush, Bill Clinton, and Rush Limbaugh must be all right. "But it sure didn't take long for the cattle market to go to heck," he says, citing the influx of cheap Mexican cattle.

Most of Campbell's political agenda is peculiar to this part of Colorado. At the top of the list are water and development, issues that are intertwined. The rich meadows of the South Park, once renowned worldwide for their hay, are drying up - and the ranches with them - as the fast-growing suburbs of Denver and Colorado Springs buy up the water rights.

The ranches are disappearing, carved into subdivisions for urban escapees. Campbell points to where the dirt road that crawls up to his ranch turns off the paved roadway. "All my life there were three mailboxes there. Now there are 30 to 40 mailboxes. Some lowlifes moved in and stole the mail. Then the city people wanted locked mailboxes. They want to move away from the city, but they want their city rules up here.

"I'd like to see nobody come to Park County, but it's too late," says Campbell, who heads the county's Planning Commission. "You're going to have growth, but it's got to be smart growth."

But this rancher finds little help from the political system in facing these challenges. Talk about "family values" and issues such as abortion don't inspire him.

With a slight smile creasing his sun-leathered face, the rancher dispenses with most of the "professional politicians" around - Newt Gingrich is "just a little bantam rooster," and Clinton "isn't honest with us."

Last time around, Campbell, like 1 out of every 4 voters in this district, cast his ballot for Ross Perot. "I thought he would stir things up in Washington," he explains, but adds that Mr. Perot won't get his vote again. The rancher remains uncommitted, though he likes the idea that Steve Forbes isn't a politician.

"My first election, I had a choice between [George] McGovern and [Richard] Nixon," he recalls. "I felt like I've been cheated ever since."

In Fairplay, a Quest For Simpler Living

The county seat of Fairplay, where ranchers and gold miners used to come for supplies, lies snuggled against the snow-covered mountains to the north. This is small-town Colorado, a little threadbare, with a few signs of the wealth of the ski resorts trickling down from above. It is solidly Republican.

In the county offices on Main Street, opposite the two-story Fairplay Hotel, a few local Republican Party officials join Dave Wissel, the county assessor. They talk of battles over water, of the strains associated with shifting from the old mining and ranching economy to one dependent on recreation and urban refugees. Park County is the ninth fastest growing county in the US, they say.

"My main concern is fiscal issues," says Mr. Wissel, who sports a ponytail but hangs a stained-glass Republican elephant on his wall. "We've got to live within what we have. I would prefer to see government spend money on national defense, interstate commerce, and not a heck of a lot else."

For Dave and his wife, Lillian, life in Park County is an "exchange" - a quiet, safe, more neighborly life, but one without the economic benefits of a more fast-paced community. They are loyal Republicans, eagerly reciting the mantra of less government and less interference in their lives from the "entrenched bureaucracy" in Washington.

Like many Westerners, the Wissels are libertarian, not social conservatives. They are uncomfortable with the Christian right, which is active over the mountains in Colorado Springs and the state's eastern plains but not in the Third District. "I think each individual has his own moral code," Dave Wissel says. "I call them dogmatic Republicans," who want to "ram their views down my throat."

Dave calls himself a political junkie, eagerly following news of the presidential race on CNN and C-Span. "I've been turned off by the rhetoric," he says. "I'm so disgusted by the Republican Party chewing each other up." Lillian complains that all the candidates are millionaires. "They can never understand a middle-class person," she says. "They've never been there."

A Republican Lift In Ski Country

The road from Fairplay leads up the mountains into ski country, intersecting the stretch of resorts from Denver in the east to the posh Vail and Aspen communities. In Breckenridge, the seat of Summit County, weekend skiers from Denver crowd the mini-malls and ski condos, keeping an eye open for that second home amid the scenery.

Economic growth is steady here, proclaims realtor Bobby Heath, sitting in a plush office with a view of the ski runs. "Our [economic] peaks and valleys aren't but little bitty hills and dents," he says.

His Republicanism comes easily with the affluence of the surroundings. "Around here, the talk is mostly about cutting the capital-gains tax," says Mr. Heath, an 18-year resident. "Politicians are just throwing money away right and left. We've got to tighten up."

Heath hasn't "dived into" the Republican race yet, but if he had to chose, he says, "I'd vote for Dole - he's more experienced."

But even this Republican stalwart reveals how soft support for the GOP may be in the Third District of Colorado. "Actually, I think Clinton's done a pretty decent job," he offers. "He's had a lot of mud thrown on him. I think he made the right decision on going over to Bosnia, the right decision on negotiating with Congress. You've got to negotiate - if you don't, nothing is going to get done up there."

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