NOTE: PULP started out with a premise that we wanted to have a frank discussion with elected officials in our region about civility, bipartisanship and compromise in the 2014 legislative session. Our reasoning was, for the most part, politician’s ideologies are generally predictable depending on their party. The goal was to go beyond soundbites and understand how they think things should get done. Instead, the story became realizing a disconnect between how politicians perceive their job and the work they’re doing and how citizens see these same actions.
Congress’ approval rating has reached a new low. Since 1974, the approval rating has averaged around 33 percent, which could be argued is low to begin with, but new numbers released last month by Gallup said approval has dipped down to 9 percent.
Polling done in June revealed that political gridlock and indecision were the top reasons why Americans are so skeptical of the job congress is doing, according to a Fiscal Times article from Nov. 12.
Compare the approval rating to findings that partisan politics is at a 25-year high. The Pew Research Center has been tracking polarization since 1987, and the value gap has changed. Pew reported there has been more stability than not among the 48 political values they tracked. However, the partisan gap has doubled. In other words, conservatives rule the Republican Party and liberals rule the Democrats.
How in a time, when approval is down, is polarization possibly getting worse?
Joel Johnson, political science professor at CSU-Pueblo, gave one simple reason. Congress as a whole doesn’t have to be popular. Each congressman just needs to be popular enough to get elected in his or her district or state.
This also means state governments are different when it comes to polarization. For example, a state like Utah doesn’t experience gridlock. They’re completely Republican and always have been. A state like Colorado, where both parties have been in power, is different.
“Polarization is so extreme that secession is on the table,” Johnson said.
Ballotpedia, a non-profit and non-partisan online, political encyclopedia, also says states have become more partisan over the years.
In a study completed by the organization from 1993 to 2013, it was found that it is more and more likely now that a state is under the control of just one political party. They call it a trifecta when one party controls the governor’s seat and both legislatures. In 2012, there were two times as many trifectas as there were in 1992.
Colorado is one of those trifecta states.
Of course, polarized and partisan are not absolute synonyms, but columns appearing in the New York Times and Washington Post have said when a state is ‘blue’ (has a Democratic trifecta), it’s more likely to pass progressive legislation and ‘red’ states (Republican trifectas) pass conservative legislation.
That isn’t anything new, but because Colorado has two strong parties, gridlock and indecision are more common. For instance, the battle over gun legislation and the recall elections that followed. They speak volumes about the political state of Colorado. (See Gun Fight Over Money in the Dark)
The lack of compromise in legislation that led to the recall of two senators and multiple attempts of others is the obvious connection between partisanship and polarization in the state.
Unlike on a national level, state senators and representatives live in the very towns and neighborhoods they represent. For the most part, they preach community rather than partisanship.
Pulp talked to the politicians in Southern Colorado, and the main question we posed was what their role in the minority or majority was and how they are, or have, worked with the other side in the past. If state politics is really about the community and knowing the constituents, party lines should play less of a role.
For Larry Crowder, state senator for Colorado district 35, reaching across the aisle is easy, and he likes talking about it.
After sending one email about my article’s premise, he committed to being at my office two days later to talk about the next legislative session and improving the region. And he showed up.
There were no dodged calls or unanswered emails.
We talked about the issues he believes will be controversial in the next legislative session. They’re few, he said, after all, it’s an election year.
He brought up SB 252, the bill that increased the requirement of alternative energy in electric cooperatives in Colorado by 20 percent by 2020. He opposed it, but he didn’t.
He voted against the bill because it wasn’t good for rural Colorado, he said. It wasn’t the premise that was wrong though. It was the time frame the bill had. To double the requirement in the proposed time was more expensive for the people in his district.
It wouldn’t have mattered who introduced the legislation, Democrat or Republican, Crowder said, he wasn’t going to vote for it.
The problem in Denver, he added, is that there isn’t any debate between the two parties. Regarding the gun bills, he said, “they (the Democrats) sat in their chairs, because they knew they had the votes.”
The partisan acts of the legislature haven’t affected him at all though, he said, “I feel that I was representing the people like I would want to be represented.”
For Crowder, being politically driven, rather than by the people of the district, means they’re walking on eggshells.
He’s comfortable in his position crossing party lines.
The recall of Angela Giron put Senator George Rivera in office, but in the eyes of Rivera this wasn’t Democrat versus Republican. “A lot of Democrats put me in office,” he said.
The recall was about listening to the voters. So would Rivera, if faced with an issue that didn’t support the Republican agenda, vote against his party?
“(I’ll) do what’s best for the most people in the state,” he said, but he didn’t go into detail.
This is Rivera’s first term in office and his first time in politics, but he said he sees a lot of value in working with the Democrats. They have the same values, he said, and “we have a lot more in common than not.”
His goal for 2014 is to get through the legislative session, “I know enough to know that I don’t know,” he said. But he said he doesn’t have an agenda. He wants to build bridges, and repealing the gun laws aren’t even his top priority, though he did say the new universal background check policy has got to go. He said he owes it to the people who supported him.
He talked a lot about taxes. He supports Clarice Navarro-Ratzlaff’s proposal of tax-free days and said he would co-sponsor the bill.
Rivera was eager to talk about his duty as a voice of the people in 2014.
Leroy Garcia, House District 46, said in his year in the legislature he hasn’t witnessed much partisanship, “I can only speak from my experience, and the statistics aren’t what I see.”
Last year, he worked on the Critical Care Paramedic Bill, which passed unanimously through the house and senate. He said he also supported the Fort Lyons bill that Ratzlaff-Navarro co-sponsored.
“The legislation I chose to work on were specific to Pueblo and Southern Colorado,” Garcia said. It’s critical at this time, he added, that the two parties work together because no one-person has the answer.
Garcia said he doesn’t want to be part of a legislative body that is unable to get things done, and he feels 90 percent of those elected into the legislature are their for their districts, not their party.
Navarro-Ratzlaff was unreachable. She returned one call, and after the questions were sent to her email she did not respond. A follow-up call was not returned.
If you talk to politicians, they’ll say the partisanship doesn’t affect them. They’re in office to serve and listen to the people, but it doesn’t change what the statistics show.
Politicians are supposed to listen to their constituents, but that was the biggest complaint among the the effort which recalled Senator Angela Giron, and it’s the number one complaint in the counties wanting to secede. They don’t believe politics under the gold dome cater to their needs.
With politicians claiming they’re listening, statistics showing partisanship and voters recalling elected officials because they feel like they’re not being heard, there is an obvious disconnect. What started out as a discussion on how elected representatives view civility and compromise ended with this question to me and maybe to you too. If politicians are listening to the voters, why aren’t the voters convinced?
— by Kara Mason, News Editor