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The first time I visited the Mountain West was shortly after 9/11 when my partner and I made a long-planned visit to Yellowstone National Park. The golden leaves of the aspens and the cottonwoods were so radiant against the mountainside that I wanted to stop and photograph them at every turn of the road. And when people found out we were New Yorkers, we were welcomed with open arms.
Since then, we?ve travelled here more, down into the desert and up to the mountains, and I?m still awe-struck by the terrain, but the politics have taken some adjustment.
Just this week-end, the tiny town of Bluff, UT, where we have a place now, held its annual arts festival. Much of the participation was local, but lots of tourists dropped in on an arts walk, where local artists and crafts people showed (and sold) their works.
By chance, I met two couples from Grand Junction, Colorado, at separate venues. Both were leaning into retirement and both had moved to that city of nearly 60,000 on the western slope of the Rockies from some place else?one couple from Chicago and the other from Southern California. When I asked them how they liked Grand Junction, all four people said the same thing: it has no middle class, and they felt out of place.
As the fellow from Chicago said, you think you know a place when you visit, but living there can be a very different experience. He and his wife had sold a comfortable suburban home and expected to find something similar in Grand Junction, but it proved difficult. Their new city, he told me, was filled with mansions vacant much of the year because they are second or third homes for their owners. The other choice seemed to be neighborhoods where people lacked the time or money or inclination to care for their property. In Chicago, people with similar jobs were able to make a decent living at union wages. But in Grand Junction, no such opportunities seemed available. And yet, he felt sure most of them would vote for Romney/Ryan. It made him sad, but Republicans were so angry, he?d quit arguing with them, he said.
The other couple had grown up in Grand Junction, moved to California after college graduation and found good jobs which provided for a decent retirement. They managed to sell their house there before the real estate bubble burst, but returning to Grand Junction, they too were disappointed.
?I go to the symphony (and that is one of the good things Grand Junction has),? she said, ?but I feel out of place. It just seems like an excuse for a lot of people to get dressed up in their jewels and furs. I don?t seem many people like me in plain clothes who come for the music.? Yes, she said, there were arts festivals in their area, but none were as welcoming as the one in Bluff. Tickets for admission often ran to $150, and how many families could afford that?
Her husband, who had been listening to us, explained that Grand Junction is an oil town, and he thinks the economy has fallen victim to too many boom and bust cycles. ?It?s just broken,? he said. ?People seem to accept it.?
I thought about Grand Junction this morning when I read that Chevron has given $2.5 million to House Speaker John Boehner?s super-PAC. In a campaign cycle awash with cash it?s easy to brush that aside, but, according to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, Chevron?s donation is possibly the largest single donation since the Supreme Court handed down its decision unleashing restrictions on corporate cash in Citizens United. The energy lobby knows it doesn't have to worry about Mitt, but perhaps it thought other races needed attention. How much influence that money will buy in Congress to our detriment cannot be measured, but certainly it does not bode well for the environment or for the middle class in Grand Junction. More boom and bust, which inevitably tracks oil exploration, may hold promise for the working class, but inevitably it only boosts the long-term prospects of those folks in the unoccupied mansions. I don't want to live in a community like that, and I suspect you don't either.
If the Democrats survive this election in any number, surely they will find time to prioritize the repeal of Citizens United. And let?s hope that the good people on the other side of the Rockies will carry Colorado for Obama, because a Romney-picked Supreme Court could be a knock-out.