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VOICES OF THE VOTERS: ACROSS THE DIVIDE | The Northern Colorado cities where no one party has a monopoly

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FORT COLLINS, CO - AUGUST 28: Hannah Kramer, a senior at Colorado State University, is heading to the Bio-Medical Sciences Department on August 28, 2020 in Fort Collins, Colorado. On this day without classes, she is serving as an undergraduate research assistant to help gain research experience toward her degree. (Photo By Kathryn Scott)

Note: This article is part of an occasional series to capture views among Coloradans.

Up the Interstate 25 corridor, the Northern Colorado cities of Fort Collins, Loveland and Longmont straddle the geographical and historical divide between rural and urban, past and present, and Democrat and Republican.

Larimer County, home to the first two cities, has voted for the statewide winner in the past three election cycles: Democrats Gov. Jared Polis in 2018 and Hillary Clinton in 2016, but also U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner in 2014. Longmont to the south splits between Boulder and Weld Counties, whose political leanings are nearly mirror images of each other.

Between 2010 and 2019, Fort Collins and Loveland grew in population by nearly 18% (and Longmont at almost 14%). That exceeded the 14.5% growth rate of the state as a whole. Traffic and housing have become issues, just like they are in other metro areas. Although increasingly urbanized, one can still find farms within city limits. And within close proximity to one of the most popular national parks, the regulation of fracking is nonetheless a continuing issue.

The area sends a mix of Democrats and Republicans to the state legislature. Unsurprisingly, people living just a few miles from each other can hold views of the most strident progressives or the most devout conservatives in the state. Colorado Politics spoke to five of them about the election, current events and their political involvement.

The Trump-supporting veteran

Dwight Miles has some friends who are “Never Trump” people.

“I have one who just does not like the current president’s personality at all. Just absolutely does not,” said the 83-year-old Fort Collins resident. “There’s room for discussion, room for debate, but we’re not going to ruin friendships over it.”

Miles grew up not far away, in tiny Carr, before joining the U.S. Air Force. He served for 23 years and moved to Fort Collins to be closer to his aging parents. As a child, the value that stuck with him was patriotism, which Miles defined as “respecting our law, believing in the Constitution and believing in our way of life.”

He believes President Donald Trump is the most conservative leader the country has had, and that it’s “hard to match [his] love of country.” That said, Miles did find it inappropriate when Trump used the 2020 National Prayer Breakfast to bash his political opponents.

“I’m not religious per se. There’s just a right place and a wrong place to do things,” he added.

A registered Republican, Miles votes in every election, but believes the state’s mail ballot system “lacks control.” He does not care for the Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate, former Gov. John Hickenlooper. Specifically, as a supporter of the death penalty, Miles resented how Hickenlooper gave a convicted murderer a reprieve from death row in 2013.

On the other hand, he has phone banked for Republican U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner and “liked the way he handled himself.”

“The senator’s recent parks and recreation act that he just got passed I think very definitely proves himself as a conservationist and willing to make sure we keep our public lands going where they should be,” said Miles, referring to the Great American Outdoors Act, legislation Gardner sponsored this year to provide money for backlogged park maintenance and guarantee funding for the nation’s conservation program.

He worried about the effect of the pandemic on veterans, saying it makes it harder to get services and has slowed down assistance to homeless veterans (“seems to be more of them these days”). At the same time, Miles doesn’t think “it’s as dangerous as it’s made out to be” and that “there’s some things you really can’t fix .... Other pandemics, we let it run its course.”

The college student

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FORT COLLINS, CO - AUGUST 28: Hannah Kramer, a senior at Colorado State University, is heading to the Bio-Medical Sciences Department on August 28, 2020 in Fort Collins, Colorado. On this day without classes, she is serving as an undergraduate research assistant to help gain research experience toward her degree. (Photo By Kathryn Scott)

Her first year at Colorado State University, Hannah Kramer wrote a message in honor of the Jewish new year, Rosh Hashanah, on her dorm room’s white board. When she returned later, she saw that someone had added a statement of their own: “Heil Hitler.”

Although Kramer, now a 21-year-old senior, experienced a different atmosphere on the CSU campus compared to her childhood in conservative, largely white Highlands Ranch, where she was bullied for being different, it was another pang of fear.

One year prior, Election Day 2016, “I was scared for my life,” she said. She anticipated "regulations over the way people are treated based on their background and their ethnicity and their culture and heritage...ableist, sexist, etc. behavior that Trump has shown in the past and that he’s shown today. I wasn’t sure it would affect me personally. But it wasn’t something that I wanted.”

A registered Democrat, she is of a “vote blue no matter who” mindset. While her support for Democrat Joe Biden is not without hesitation, she believes he is the “damage control” candidate. Healthcare for all, education for all and defunding the military are her key issues, and she was an active supporter of U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. Despite her very liberal views, she likes the more moderate Hickenlooper, saying he has good policies and is a “charismatic person.”

During the pandemic, the only job she could find was an overnight dock shift at Lowe’s in Loveland, living alone in a four-bedroom apartment after her roommates left.

To the state and federal governments, “I’d like to put all of the responsibility on them” for not controlling COVID-19, Kramer said. “If we as voters had made better decisions in 2016 and 2018, we would not be in this situation or not be in as tight of a situation as we are currently.”

The anti-racism activist

“We’re a very diverse country. There are many different voices that historically have not been heard that need to be heard, and I think the next president — I hope — will surround themselves with people who are going to listen,” said Katherine Valdez.

Valdez, a Democrat who described her age as “Gen X,” has lived in Fort Collins for 18 years. Asked whether she saw any Democratic presidential candidate who exemplified that value of inclusivity, she paused for several seconds.

“I will support whoever the Democratic Party puts their support behind,” Valdez concluded.

Last year, she founded Diverse Fort Collins, a community project that hosts panel discussions, webinars and workshops on the topics of racial equity and inclusion. Asked if she still would have founded the group if Clinton had won the presidency, she reflected for a moment before answering in the affirmative, saying the issue of systemic racism still would have existed.

The daughter of a Filipino mother and a father from New Mexico, Valdez recalled graduating near the top of her high school class and talking with a guidance counselor about applying for colleges. She mentioned she applied to a “safety school,” to which the counselor responded, “you don’t need to apply to a safety school — you’ll get in” to the others.

“He was saying basically because my last name was Latino, I would get in no matter what,” she said. “I was really insulted. How could he dismiss my work?”

Valdez was pleased that the legislature passed a landmark policing reform bill earlier this year, and believes that Fort Collins is better situated than other police departments. “We have a police chief that’s been here for a couple of years ... he’s done a really great job developing relationships with the Latinx community and being transparent with what their goals are,” she said.

For the U.S. Senate race, Valdez knows that not everyone is happy with Hickenlooper, and characterizes him as beholden to the oil and gas industry. Still, she will support him.

The “defund the police” Republican

Terri Goons wanted to be a veterinarian when she grew up, but she found high school in Longmont boring and knew she could not stand more classes. She eventually went to college, moved away to California, and came home to Longmont 20 years ago, now working at an IT help desk.

“It was always a farm town when I was growing up,” she said. “When I returned ... it had better restaurants and shops. It was a more robust city, I guess.”

Goons added that traffic has increased correspondingly and people, apparently priced out of living in Boulder, have moved in. As such, “the city has become a lot more progressive or left leaning. The city council seems to go back and forth.”

Early in the pandemic, one of Goons’ extended family members was part of the Colorado Springs bridge club who came down with COVID-19 in one of the first large-scale spreading events. Although he was in his 80s, he survived. Nevertheless, she believed the government should not shoulder the burden of suppressing the virus.

“After the curve was flattened, I think the balance should have tipped a little more economically,” said Goons, 57. “Let people make their own choices based on how vulnerable they are. That includes mask wearing. As a vulnerable person, you need to take care of yourself as much as possible.”

A Republican, Goons recalled being “so happy” after the 2016 election because Clinton did not win. She admires Trump for having “exposed a lot of the corruption at the bureaucratic level where we saw people out to get him,” a version of the "Deep State" conspiracy.

Although she does not prefer Hickenlooper (“He didn’t want the job!”), Goons liked his pro-oil and gas stance as governor. She praised Gardner for the Great American Outdoors Act because “he got money to maintain what we already have.”

Looking to the racial justice protests and calls for police accountability earlier this summer, she called reform a noble goal that should come about through narrowing the scope of police responsibilities.

“The way to go about that to me would be to have less interactions with the police,” Goons said. “Like the face masks, they make it a law. It always ends up on the backs of police ... . If their focus was on crimes, violent crimes — you look at the cigarette thing that started the whole BLM movement, that was a tax situation,” she added, referring to the 2014 death of Eric Garner on Staten Island.

When asked if her views were similar to those advocating to defund the police — both through budget cuts but also redirection of service calls to other types of professionals — Goons answered in the affirmative.

“Removing laws from the books so that it limits reasons for all those interactions — start there. And as you need fewer police, then you can start defunding. Start where it matters.”

The priest in the middle

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LOVELAND, CO - AUGUST 28: Bryson Lillie, where he serves as pastor inside Trinity United Methodist Church on August 28, 2020 in Loveland, Colorado. (Photo By Kathryn Scott)

What does it mean to be politically unaffiliated? For the Rev. Bryson Lillie, it affords him the opportunity to vote his own personal values.

“If you want to talk about it with religious terminology, I get to elect people who I think will best promote the kingdom of god,” said the 37-year-old pastor at Trinity United Methodist Church in Loveland. “Frankly, I think it makes me more approachable for people on all sides, which is a great thing for a spiritual leader to have. You need to be available to all people and I think being an independent helps me do that.”

Trinity is a family business for Lillie, whose father was the pastor when Lillie first lived in Loveland during his middle and high school years. His wife is a teacher at a school with a high immigrant population; some of her students have lost parents to COVID-19.

“I’m gonna keep voting for people who are going to create anti-racist policies, who are working to level out the playing field when it comes to race, gender, poverty and social justice,” he said. “I love people for whom that’s a totally foreign thought. I still have to find ways to be their pastor.”

During the 2016 election, he voted for Cliton but nonetheless felt “between a rock and a hard place”: while Clinton seemed too entrenched in “old party politics ... I detest Donald Trump’s personal values.” 

“The presidential election doomed us," he said, before correcting himself; "That’s too harsh. It destined us for something like this. The general ineptness we’ve seen, foreign policy blunders,” and nearly 200,000 Americans dead from COVID-19.

Lillie feels a certain sense of déjà vu over this coming election. Biden does not seem inspiring, nor does Hickenlooper seem wholly authentic. However, the former vice president is “better than the alternative’"and Gardner is ineffective, does not hold town hall meetings with constituents and “is silent on moral values.”

Trinity has several longtime parishioners, whom Lillie characterizes as “stoically German.” At the same time, he noticed progressive, highly educated people moving to town in greater numbers. Rather than believing the Bible is apolitical, he said the issues contained therein should influence political thinking.

“One of my great frustrations as a millennial pastor dealing with a congregation where — almost all congregations I’ve observed — the majority of them are my grandparents’ age: trying to lead people to a new understanding of how God is working out in the world and help them see value in ideas of justice and inclusion, while still being able to honor who they are and what they have brought this and what they have done in their life, it’s —” he stopped and sighed. "It's a horribly hard kind of work.”

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