In Colo., The Rural-Urban Divide Looks Like 'Core Values' Vs. 'Progress'

Oct 6, 2016
Originally published on October 6, 2016 7:03 am
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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

The presidential campaign has exposed a lot of division in this country. That is certainly the case if we look at rural parts of America compared to urban centers. And NPR's Don Gonyea spent time with two families on opposite sides of that divide in the state of Colorado.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: It is a long way from Denver out to Yuma County on the eastern edge of the state. Two-lane roads and the Rocky Mountains vanished from our rearview mirror hours ago. You're right on the Nebraska border here. It's the High Plains, Colorado farm country.

ROD LENZ: I'll give you a quick three-minute potato tour. Now, if you had a couple hours, they could take you to the cornfield, they could all over the...

GONYEA: Rod Lenz and his family owned more than 10,000 acres.

LENZ: I'm in charge of the potato operation. Oh, and Becky's husband, George, my brother, is in charge of the cattle. My brother Jim (ph) is in charge of the corn. And my brother Mike does all the chemical application...

GONYEA: Around a giant table in the farm's office, R. Lenz - he's 61 - his sister-in-law, Becky Lenz - she's 52 - and their 37-year-old nephew, by marriage, Marty Bouy - all three are reluctant Donald Trump supporters. But it's not just about Trump. Their world, their vision of Colorado, is changing.

BECKY LENZ: It's kind of frustrating to be on the rural area because there's just not enough people.

GONYEA: That's Becky Lenz wrestling with something fundamental about life in a democracy. The population in her state has changed. There's a boom underway elsewhere. There are tons more voters in Denver and along the front range of the Rockies than there used to be, and they see the world differently than she does. Colorado was for decades a pretty red state that's now turning more reliably blue. Frustrated by the shift a few years back, Yuma was among a handful of rural counties that supported a non-binding ballot proposal to secede and form a new state. Here's Marty Bouy's take.

MARTY BOUY: When it comes down to core values, what you value and what you get up for every day is different than what the front range does. And what gives them pleasure is different than what gives us pleasure.

GONYEA: The Lenz family is Catholic and conservative. A big sign on their property reads, all life is sacred. Choose life. They also worry about new regulations and about possible restrictions on land or water use. And Becky Lenz says a lot is being lost.

LENZ: I do know a neighbor who's had to sell. He was the fourth-generation farming ground, and he's had to sell it to settle estate with family members who now live in the metro area. And he says there were a lot of tears over that. But they're so removed from the rural area that they don't even care anymore.

GONYEA: Now a very different scene in Denver and a neighborhood south of downtown. This is the Sunshine House. Liz Sunshine is a graphic designer. She, her mom and her sister are at the small kitchen table checking presidential polls on their phones.

LIZ SUNSHINE: It says it's 60.5 for Hillary. But the polls-plus forecast says it's only...

GONYEA: They're Hillary Clinton supporters.

LIN GINSBERG-SUNSHINE: Don't stress.

GONYEA: And they're anxiously getting the latest election forecast from the website FiveThirtyEight.

SUNSHINE: So - but it makes me feel better right now.

GONYEA: Mom is 62-year-old Lin Ginsberg-Sunshine, an executive assistant and a loyal Democrat.

GINSBERG-SUNSHINE: This is a stressful election all the way across.

GONYEA: But this Denver native does feel very good about the fact that her city is growing and changing.

GINSBERG-SUNSHINE: Denver was known as a cow town. You know, the sidewalks rolled up at 9 o'clock.

GONYEA: Not anymore. And she says it's great to see the political change that's come with it, even if that's the very thing that worries people in Yuma County. Becca Sunshine-Dewitt is the sister.

BECCA SUNSHINE-DEWITT: I don't think that this is a matter of, well, you guys got to be in the lead for so long, and now it's our turn.

GONYEA: She does marketing for a startup and is active with the local Young Democrats. She says population growth brings good things but also complicated challenges. On the positive side, there's culture.

SUNSHINE-DEWITT: It means we get big shows from Broadway. "Hamilton" is coming to Denver. That's exciting news.

GONYEA: But more troublesome...

SUNSHINE-DEWITT: The homeless population in the state has gone up dramatically. Most of them are in Denver. And to be frank, the city and county of Denver has no idea what to do with them.

GONYEA: Finding common ground between rural and urban Colorado hasn't been easy. Here is Lin Ginsberg-Sunshine's take on that.

GINSBERG-SUNSHINE: I understand where they're coming from. I understand that, you know, here's these big-city folks, and we're imposing our views on them. I get it. I think that those big-city views are part of progress.

GONYEA: These separate discussions about Colorado in 2016 happened today and nearly 200 miles apart. The tone was always casual and very civil. The closest thing to name calling came when the Lenzes, on their farm in Yuma County, started talking about socialism. Here's Becky.

LENZ: Listen to Hillary's speeches. And when she's offering to fix everything for everybody with some government program, that's socialism.

GONYEA: It is, they said, a label that can also be applied to Clinton's supporters. Back in Denver, Becca Sunshine-Dewitt said in response that she has a word to describe Donald Trump.

SUNSHINE-DEWITT: And that word is bigot.

GONYEA: And she asked, what if she labeled all of his supporters as such?

SUNSHINE-DEWITT: And I think that if I used the term bigot to describe the farmers on the Eastern Plains, they would say, no, no, no. You don't understand us. That's not how we feel at all. And I think they're probably right. I think they probably don't feel that way.

GONYEA: Here's something else you hear from both sides - dire warnings if the other candidate wins. Lin Ginsberg-Sunshine can't imagine what a Trump presidency would actually look like.

GINSBERG-SUNSHINE: I'm kind of terrified. It does feel like that feeling in your stomach when you - it just turns.

GONYEA: But she adds, with just a bit of levity...

GINSBERG-SUNSHINE: Well, I'm not going to Canada (laughter). I mean, this is my home.

GONYEA: Meanwhile, out on the High Plains, Rod Lenz pondered another Clinton presidency.

LENZ: It's another step to the point of no return, and it's not the principles that this country was formed on. And I don't care who wants to argue with me. That's not what this country was formed on, and it's just another step past the point of no return.

GONYEA: And it gets to another thing about democracy - winning doesn't convince the other side. Don Gonyea, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.