Colorado’s urban/rural divide to get a capital ‘R’

By Jeff Rundles | Nov 26, 2013

Over the years of covering Colorado, and in particular business in Colorado, the various divides that exist in the state have come up frequently. Oh, sure, like everywhere else in the country Colorado has its Republican and Democrat divides – and these days there are more and more political subplot divides as the radicals on both the far left and far right try and push the moderates to be more like them. But these are not the kind of divides I have been thinking about.

People lately are really talking about a rural/urban divide in Colorado, and really more specifically that divide would shape up as the Front Range urban Corridor from Colorado Springs to Fort Collins/Greeley (and, of course, encompassing the Denver metro are) versus just about every other location in the state. Our more rural brethren worry that the urban corridor, especially Denver, is excessively liberal and with its weight being thrown around foisting upon the state laws that the rural areas find unacceptable – things like gun-control, same-sex marriage or variations, and excessive tax measures for school reform.

This Us vs. Them/Rural vs. Urban mentality, however, is nothing new. It’s been going on for decades in Colorado as Denver has developed into a major urban metropolis and the rest of the state, except for the major ski towns, has seen, well, less development. The main issue has usually been that the Front Range in general and Denver in particular sucks up more than its fair share of state resources.

Just about the time I arrived in Colorado, in 1973, the urban/rural divide – expressed as a West Slope vs. Front Range divide – was a hot topic because the urban governor, John Love, resigned his position to take a job in the Nixon administration (energy czar) and the Lt. Governor, John Vanderhoof, from the Western Slope, took the reins at the state house. In 1974 Johnny Van, as he was affectionately known, lost his chance to be elected to a full term as the state’s chief executive to a little-known state legislator from Boulder, and thus the Front Range, Richard Lamm, who would go on to serve three four-year terms.

Johnny Van -- who passed away two months ago at the age of 91 -- went home to the West Slope in 1975 and took over an organization called Club 20 that still today represents West Slope issues – the “Voice of the Western Slope.” There were many times when we journalists sought out comments from Johnny Van and Club 20 to balance a story about road development and other state resource issues when we knew that rural interests would have a different point of view.

Generally speaking, however, the Front Range and Denver have all these years pretty much had their way with state resources and on the political front. Indeed, all the governors and most of the other major office holders have hailed from here, rather than rural Colorado (yes, Gov. Romer used to talk a lot about his rural roots, in Holly, but by the time he got involved he was all Denver).

But given the gun control laws passed this past session in a Democrat- and Front Range controlled state legislature, not to mention the symbolic vote by several rural eastern Colorado to leave the state and form a new one – among other divide issues – the power of the out-state interests may, for the first time in many, many years, be real.

If I was Gov. Hickenlooper and facing reelection in 2014 I’d get out of town – a lot – for the next several months. He’ll need to un-Denver himself as much as possible if he is to win. But no matter what happens in the election, the state’s rural interests – West Slope, Eastern Plains, non-ski town mountain communities – are about to be heard and heeded like never before