Gary Harmon Column November 06, 2008

Buescher slips; so does power from Western Slope

If you’re looking for the world’s biggest loser on Election Day, look no farther than western Colorado.

The west side of the Continental Divide as recently as this spring aspired to run the show in Colorado, and why not?

Grand Junction Democrat Bernie Buescher was poised to grasp the speakership of the state House of Representatives. Grand Junction Republican Josh Penry was fast climbing the ranks in the state Senate.

Buescher and Penry shared a powerful weapon — each had a foot on the pedal of the state’s economic engine, which was purring along on severance taxes from energy development in western Colorado.

Colorado and the Intermountain West, in fact, defied national trends with lower unemployment rates and reasonably strong housing markets.

The political class statewide was oh so excited about the piles of money from drilling in the West that it could divvy up for one project or another elsewhere. Environmental groups and Interstate 70 through Denver were going to be big winners, as were students at Colorado colleges and universities. Really.

Everybody was going to roll in the dough and join in for regularly scheduled Orwellian Two-Minute Hates for Big Oil.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the Big Oil Investment Bank.


Voters rejected all the politicians’ big plans at the same time they were voting in Barack Obama, whose antipathy for fossil fuels, carbon footprints and greenhouse gases (campaign stops not included) is well-documented.

It could be that voters figured there was no way to reconcile building a state economy on an industry so visibly despised on one hand by the political class, so furtively embraced on the other.

Well, at least so long as prostitution wasn’t an option.

Forthcoming state regulations and federal ambivalence for petroleum could form the perfect storm that would swamp the western Colorado economy. Voters figured they could take Obama at his word and hedged their bets.

Sure, Obama dissembled about sticking to public campaign financing, but it’s one thing to lie to your enemies about money, something else entirely to mislead your friends about the evils of demon petroleum. The former is part of the game, the latter, not so much.

With the election of Obama, voters statewide said they don’t want drilling, much less the dirty money it brings.

Mesa County voters opted for another kind of purity as they ousted Buescher from the cusp of statewide power.

Buescher’s defeat, thus his elimination as speaker, leaves Marcia Neal of Grand Junction as the only Western Slope resident holding an office with a constituency that straddles the Continental Divide.

Penry might lead the state Senate’s minority, but the only perk that comes with the job is the paper cup used to hold against the wall so as to listen in on the talks in which actual policy is made.

Shorn of leadership in the House, playing second fiddle in the Senate, an afterthought for every statewide officeholder and the nether region of its congressional district — for western Colorado it’s just like old times.

That can only mean it’s time to party like it’s 1982. Before May.

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