POLITICS

Vive Le North Colorado Libre? Scotland, Quebec have company in cowboy country

09/13/2014 09:00 EDT | Updated 11/13/2014 05:59 EST
FORT COLLINS, Colo. - There's a separatist movement close to home that's just suffered an electoral disappointment, is reviewing its long-term strategy, and will root in the meantime for the Yes side in Scotland's upcoming referendum.

Actually, there's more than one.

Parti Quebecois, you have company in cowboy country. A group that wants to separate from Colorado is considering its next steps after a good-but-not-good-enough result in statewide plebiscites last fall.

Like the PQ, it's now considering whether to put its separation ambitions on hold to pursue less dramatic, more achievable interim goals than its principal dream: a separate state called North Colorado.

Also like the PQ, it's got a clear sympathy for one side in next week's Scottish vote.

The leader of Colorado's 51st State Initiative hasn't followed that campaign closely. But he says he hopes that the Sept. 18 referendum scores a victory for an ideal he cherishes — tinier, more tightly knit political entities.

"I care. I think I'd like to see it be successful, but I'd want it be successful for the right reasons," said Jeffrey Hare, who co-founded the group.

"A smaller government, or a smaller group of people with more common values, can be just as successful or even more successful than a bigger entity, like the U.K., or in our case the state of Colorado."

At first glance, Hare's movement is nothing like those in Scotland or Quebec. It's not driven by a historical beef with the English. And it's grounded in small-government conservatism, unlike the social-democratic tinge to those other independence causes.

When informed that the Quebec independence party's proudest achievements include universal state-funded daycare and regulating the language of commercial store signs, he says that sounds about "180 degrees" removed from his own political philosophy.

To Hare, the state's primary purpose is to protect people's property rights — not dictate how they should use it. And he frequently quotes the U.S. Declaration of Independence to argue that when governments become tyrannical, they should be overthrown and replaced with new safeguards.

The software security consultant grew up in rural Illinois, then studied in Phoenix and spent 23 years there. Eventually, he got fed up with city life and moved with his wife and three kids back to small-town America, amid the farmlands near the Wyoming border.

But he grew frustrated with the politics in a fast-urbanizing state. The last straw came in 2013, after Colorado's Democratic administration signed into law renewable energy benchmarks for power companies, oil-and-gas regulations, universal background checks for firearms, and limits on gun-magazine sizes.

These policies, to him, were imposed by the state's urban, liberal corridor around Denver and Boulder, to the detriment of the farmers and neighbours he knew in Weld County: "We were just asking the question, 'How can we stop the assault on rural Colorado?'... Ultimately, people want to have their values respected."

He found a plan, and worked quickly to set it in motion. Within months, he went from creating a Facebook page, to holding public events, to meeting county commissioners across the state, and finally he managed to get his 51st State Initiative on the ballot in 11 counties in referendums last fall.

He said his campaign was ultimately undermined by fear. There had been flood warnings during the campaign, fuelling concern that maybe a little state might not be able to manage such crises.

Still, five of the 11 counties voted to separate. Hare's group received better than 43 per cent in every county, and as much as 62 per cent in one of them. Still, he said, that wasn't enough to proceed. The new state would have had a disjointed map, and lacked a critical population mass.

To make matters more complicated, state partition would require the support of the Colorado legislature, and the U.S. Congress. For that reason, America's existing political boundaries have proven pretty resilient.

The last time a state was partitioned, with the creation of West Virginia in 1863, it was the result of a civil war that left 600,000 dead and southern cities in flames. Similar movements in north Maine, north Florida, western Maryland and California haven't gained much traction. Nor have independence movements to create nation-states in places as diverse as Texas and Vermont.

One former candidate for governor said the Colorado movement is unique.

A group supporter who sought the Republican gubernatorial nomination this year, Roni Sylvester, said it's not primarily driven by opposition to immigration reform, marijuana legalization, or to many of the same hot-button issues that animate the Tea Party. It's mainly about protecting the economic interests of rural people who feel ignored by big-city decision makers, she said in an interview.

Hare has been drawing lessons from last fall's setback.

He said he might have been better off delaying a secession vote, to build support. He'll continue wrestling with the dilemma of timing, as he weighs whether to ask the question again in 2016.

"We haven't decided what the next move is," he said over lunch at a truck stop diner an hour north of Denver.

"Statehood is certainly on the table in the long run — but we need to reorganize and build some momentum."

Another possible move is to propose a change in the election formula in the state legislature, to switch from population-based districts to land-based ones. Or maybe he'd want to try strengthening the state constitution to repel federal initiatives.

He's told that, in Canada, that latter idea might be called a firewall.

After a short chat on Canada's own history of federal-provincial tensions, from West to East and English to French, the leader of Colorado's secessionist movement reconsiders his earlier view on his northern brethren.

Maybe they're not so different, after all.

"It sounds like they want the same issue in Canada," he said.

"They want local control — regional control — without the federal government coming in and mandating how to run their lives."