Colorado secession initiative highlights rural-urban divide

The proposal to establish a 51st state is likely futile, but reflects disconnectedness rural Americans are feeling

An oil pump near Greeley, Colo.
Paul D. Toth/Getty Images

WELD COUNTY, Colo. — This is a county of cornfields and oil fields, center pivot irrigators next to fracking towers. Family farmers sell veggies on the roadside, combines harvest corn.

Weld is also a county on the rise, with a nearly 40 percent increase in population between 2000 and 2010. Suburban home developments abut the corn- and oil fields, creating a sharp contrast between urban and rural life.

That contrast — conflict, even — is behind a movement that calls Weld County home: the 51st State Initiative. It’s an effort aimed at creating a new state of Northern Colorado, with Greeley, the county seat of about 95,000 people, as the largest city.

On Nov. 5, residents in Weld and 10 other counties will vote on whether to start the process to create a 51st state. Those counties account for 24 percent of Colorado’s landmass, but only about 7 percent of the state’s 5 million people.

It’s a quixotic effort, and one not unique to northern Colorado, that highlights the deep divisions between urban and rural — or, at least, the sense of disconnectedness that residents of rural America are feeling. Two northern California counties recently voted to leave their state. There’s an effort underway in western Maryland.

“I think it’s a good idea,” said Julie Taylor, co-owner of Gilcrest Farm Supply. 

Gilcrest is about 40 miles northwest of the college town of Boulder, which is often held up as a poster child of all that’s wrong with urban Colorado. Taylor said the recent floods in Boulder and Weld counties are an example of the differences between urban and rural life.

“Around here, it was more worry about how’s it going to affect your livelihood, with animals and crops,” she said. “In Boulder, it was ‘How are we going to get around?’”

At Boulder’s Trident Bookstore and Café, 50-year-old Connie Ekrem took a moment from reading on her iPad Mini to express a combination of understanding and confusion about her rural neighbors’ efforts.

“I would like to hear what those who feel disenfranchised, what exactly is their issue or are their issues?” Ekrem said. “I think the idea of secession is terribly, really bad. It’d be bad for everyone.”

'Disenfranchised class'

Jeffrey Hare, a spokesman and organizer for the 51st State Initiative, said gun control legislation — universal background checks and magazine capacity limits — and laws requiring higher renewable energy standards for rural electric cooperatives are part of the impetus for the movement.

“Ultimately, what we’re trying to accomplish is better representation for rural America and more direct representation,” Hare said. “We have a disenfranchised class of voters, that are smaller and don’t have the votes to fend for their values.”

A new state, he said, “would provide a better check-and-balance for the urban-rural divide. It would also provide check-and-balance for the Republican-Democratic divide.”

That political divide may be the real root of the problem, said Daniel Lichter, a professor of policy analysis and management at Cornell University who specializes in rural demographics.

“You’ve got a tea party that is disproportionately rural, it’s disproportionately white. They are oftentimes anti-government,” Lichter said. “They see urban America, urban minorities taking over their country.

“I think we have a very big cultural gap between urban and rural America at the moment, with rural states having a whole different set of cultural values.”

That gap is evident at both the local and national levels, Lichter said. But even rural areas differ, as Jess Haynes pointed out in a conversation break while studying at Zoe’s Café in Greeley recently.

Haynes grew up in the rural mountains of Park County and has worked in the ski town of Breckenridge.

“It’s very high income, a lot more liberal, a lot more tolerant,” she said of the mountain towns. “A lot of my friends who are in the agricultural rural (region), it’s a lot more conservative, more politically right, more of a work-ethic based as opposed to play … It’s a more somber, less frivolous society.”

But Haynes, a student at Aims Community College who plans to pursue a master’s degree in social work, doubts the new state movement will appeal to many because of its complexity.

“If it makes us uncomfortable, I don’t see us doing it,” she said. “To take a step like secession, it’s going to be uncomfortable.”

Some Weld County voters haven’t heard of the effort. Others, including some business leaders, find it divisive and distracting. Even supporters admit that creating a new state is unlikely to happen.

Consider Onesimo Fernandez. At age 90, he’s lived on a farm in Weld County for 43 years. On a recent afternoon he sat in the shade of a roadside vegetable stand, near the sign that reads “Organic Raised Veggies for Sale.” News of the 51st state movement has yet to reach his rural world.

“I haven’t heard about it,” he said. “What do they want to do that for?”

'An intriguing discussion'

Greeley’s City Council and its mayor, a former state senator, are against the proposal. The Greeley Chamber of Commerce isn’t taking a position on the issue. But chamber President Sarah MacQuiddy has questions.

“I think there’s a contingency in the outlying areas who say it’s an intriguing discussion,” she said. “An intriguing discussion is one thing. But what is the cost of an intriguing discussion? Is that where you want the (county) commissioners focusing their time and their energy?”

Even Taylor in Gilcrest doubts it will happen, but points to gun regulations as an example of how state lawmakers ignore rural Coloradans. Taylor’s store next to U.S. Route 85 sells a range of farm supplies — and guns, new and used, as a large sign near the highway advertises.

If the town — and her store — were in a different state, Taylor said, “I think we wouldn’t be checking backgrounds, we wouldn’t be banning all sorts of things.”

The November votes will gauge support for secession in the 11 counties, starting what Hare acknowledges will be a difficult process.

“We think that within six months, there are going to be 25 to 30 counties in total, some that have passed it via vote and others that have supported it at the county commissioner level,” he said.

He’s even talked with a commissioner in El Paso County, the state’s largest, about joining the secession effort. The addition of El Paso County, which includes the city of Colorado Springs, could weaken the urban-rural divide arguments.

Even with support from some of the state’s 64 counties, the Legislature would have to place such a change on a statewide ballot as an amendment to the state’s Constitution, and a majority of Colorado voters would have to approve it. Then Congress would have to approve a new state.

“The bottom line is we live in a representative democracy,” said Cornell’s Lichter. “It’s not minority rule.”

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