Keeping Western Slope district intact is essential
By Bonnie Petersen
It was rather enlightening to sit in on the meeting of the Joint Committee on Redistricting last month. It is amazing to hear the perceptions of people who don’t live in our district and how they might make changes that will radically impact communities, without recognizing the consequences of those actions.
The immediate concern of Club 20 is that western Colorado, mostly rural in nature, continue to have representation at the nation’s capital by a person who understands the unique issues of the counties west of the Continental Divide. We strongly advocate that western Colorado remain intact in one congressional district because all Colorado counties west of the Continental Divide do share a very strong community of interest.
Population growth was raised at the meeting I attended as a potential reason to split western Colorado along the Interstate 70 corridor, but nothing could be further from the truth. Looking at the growth map, there was substantial growth over the last decade all along the Western Slope, from the Wyoming border to the New Mexico border.
While there was some concentrated growth along I-70, it is important to note that a good deal of that growth is related to regional-hub support services that draw people from north and south of I-70 for retail purposes, professional services, medical services and educational opportunities. Thousands of Mesa County residents commute to communities north and south of I-70 for employment.
Mesa State College draws students from all across the Western Slope. Enrollment has increased nearly 60 percent in the last decade. Mesa also has a campus in Montrose and is the designated regional education provider for 14 counties — all those counties are in western Colorado. Nearly 70 percent of Mesa’s students come from the communities on the Western Slope.
The Veterans Affairs Hospital in Grand Junction serves veterans from every community on the Western Slope. St. Mary’s Hospital is a regional care center where most trauma cases from Western Colorado and Eastern Utah are taken for treatment. Indeed, St. Mary’s draws patients that need advanced testing and technical medical procedures from all around the Western Slope.
There is not a county in western Colorado that does not have some sort of tourism economy, and all the tourism across the Western Slope is related to public lands, water and wildlife. Most western Colorado counties have some level of agricultural production and natural resource development, all of which are critical to the well-being of the communities and the livelihood of the citizens.
As 70 percent of western Colorado is owned by the federal government, it is critical that Western Slope counties and citizens have access to a knowledgeable federal congressional representative.
There was also much discussion at the meeting about the community of Longmont. Longmont citizens said in public hearings that they don’t share a community of interest with Boulder. If Longmont — a community that has cast a wide net to capture businesses fleeing Boulder and provides housing to those working in Boulder and is a stone’s throw away from Boulder — has no community of interest with Boulder, then how can anyone reasonably say that Grand, Moffat, Routt, Garfield, Eagle, Summit, Gunnison, Delta and Mesa counties do have a community of interest with Boulder? No such community of interest exists between western Colorado counties and Boulder.
There was a good deal of discussion about Chaffee County requesting to be included in the 3rd Congressional District. One only needs to look at Chaffee County’s current situation in the 5th Congressional District to understand that request. Chaffee is a county with a population of just under 18,000 in a district with one population center in excess of 620,000. A candidate most likely doesn’t even have to know Chaffee County is in the district to win that election, basically rendering Chaffee County without representation.
Under the Democrats’ redistricting plans, 45 rural Colorado counties would suffer the same fate as Chaffee County. The huge population centers added to districts with these rural counties by these plans greatly overshadow the rural areas. Congressional candidates could win elections without ever leaving the Front Range. This ill serves Colorado’s rural counties and ultimately the entire citizenry of Colorado.
As the 3rd Congressional District now stands, a candidate must be visible in all counties and understand the unique issues of the citizens in the entire district. To ignore any part of the district could result in failure at the ballot box.
Another point of discussion at the meeting I attended was “competitive districts.” How can you get a more competitive district than the 3rd Congressional District has been? Over the last number of years, our representatives have included Wayne Aspinall – D; Ray Kogovsek – D; Mike Strang — R; Ben Nighthorse Campbell – D; Scott McInnis – R; John Salazar – D; Scott Tipton – R.
We at CLUB 20 urge lawmakers to keep redistricting out of the courts and we urge them to keep legitimate communities of interest, like western Colorado and the Eastern Plains, intact. Colorado’s rural communities have as much right to federal representation as urban communities.
Our state can ill afford a costly court battle and our citizens deserve better than that from the Colorado Legislature in these difficult times.
Bonnie Petersen is executive director of Club 20, the Western Slope advocacy organization.