Future 51st state?
Rural Colo. voters approve of secession idea
Workers, left to right, Dan Dannar, Jeff Brown, and Kevin Orr talk at Global Harvest Foods, which produces birdseed and other grains, in the rural town of Akron, the county seat of Washington County, Colo. A day earlier, a majority in Washington and four other counties on Colorados Eastern Plains voted yes on the creation of a 51st state, largely over residents' alienation from voters statewide on issues such as civil unions for gay couples, new renewable energy standards, and limits on ammunition magazines. AP photo
DENVER — The nation’s newest state, if rural Colorado residents had their way, would be about the size of Vermont but with the population of a small town spread across miles of farmland. There wouldn’t be civil unions for gay couples, new renewable energy standards, or limits on ammunition magazines.
After all, those were some of the reasons five counties on the state’s Eastern Plains voted on Election Day to approve the creation of a 51st state in the first place.
Secession supporters know the votes were symbolic, designed to grab the attention of a Democratic-controlled Legislature. They say the vote results emphasize a growing frustration in conservative prairie towns with the more populous and liberal urban Front Range, which has helped solidify the Democrats’ power.
The five counties share borders, covering about 9,500 square miles and have a combined population of about 29,200.
Towns like Akron, population 1,700, were founded in the 1880s along railroads and thrived as agriculture producers, booming in the 1900s during grain shortages. They began a decline in 1920s that continued through the Dust Bowl and their populations have decreased or remained stagnant since then.
What remains are tight-knit communities where grain silos are sometimes the tallest structures around.
Other parts of the state, meanwhile, have grown. More than 80 percent of Colorado’s 5 million residents live on the Front Range. The counties that voted to secede currently only have two state representatives and one state senator.
In some ways, the feelings of being ignored date to the days of Colorado’s gold rush, when miners flocked to the Front Range, said Dr. Tom Noel, a history professor at the University of Colorado at Denver.
“Ever since the gold rush, those areas have been places that people rush over, and I think that’s still how people feel — like people are just whizzing past them at 80 miles an hour,” Noel said.
But for the cluster of rural counties to become a new state, Colorado lawmakers would have to sign off, followed by Congress — a scenario that even supporters of the plan say is highly unlikely. Long shot though it may be, supporters of the 51st state movement say they believe they’ve succeeded in getting their message across that lawmakers at the state’s Capitol aren’t listening to their concerns.
One of the concerns that wasn’t heard was about a proposal mandating that Colorado’s rural cooperative electric associations get 20 percent of their energy from renewable sources by 2020, up from 10 percent. The bill was approved by Democrats without GOP support. Republicans next year are planning to propose making state Senate seats be apportioned by land mass instead of population to grant a bigger voice to the sparsely populated areas. Republicans hold 28 of the 65 seats in the House and 17 of 35 seats in the Senate.
Kim Weninger, 55, said, “I do think that we do have to send a message to the Front Range that you aren’t the only people in the state,” she said.
New restrictions on firearms, including banning magazines that hold more than 15 rounds, was among the slew of legislation that only highlighted an urban versus rural divide, she said.
“I have people tell me all the time that I have no reason to have a gun. Well, you know what? We have rattlesnakes in our yards. We have coyotes that get a hold of our cats. I need a weapon to protect animals, to protect myself. But somebody in Boulder is not going to understand that,” she said.