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Efforts underway on Western Slope to quell political extremism and restore civility

Hundreds have signed a pledge to continue disagreeing, but to do so politely and with the public good as the prime driver
People attend the Truth and Justice Rally at the old Mesa County Courthouse on Dec. 1 in Grand Junction. Guest speakers included Mesa County Clerk and Recorder Tina Peters. (Hugh Carey/The Colorado Sun file)

GRAND JUNCTION — The push for civility in a county marred by toxic disagreements began with a beer.

Tim Sarmo, former regional manager for the Colorado Department of Local Affairs, was having a brew with a friend after the Jan. 6, 2021, storming of the nation’s capital. They were bemoaning the ugly partisanship and misinformation that had led to the attack. They saw the same extremism erupting locally in hateful letters to the editor, unruly crowds in public meetings and flag-festooned pickup trucks gunning their engines around the streets of Mesa County.

Mesa County had long been a bastion of conservative politics in Colorado. Its voting history colors it unabashedly scarlet. But going back to tea party fury more than a decade ago – fury kicked into overdrive by the extreme brashness of Donald Trump – noxious behavior had engulfed normal partisan differences. Vocal groups of zealots had drowned out the voices of citizens who considered themselves civic-minded, rational moderates, Sarmo said.

The 3rd Congressional District that includes Mesa County had elected pistol-packing political newcomer Lauren Boebert and cheered her mean-girl tweets and political stunts. Right-wing Republicans went on to support Mesa County Clerk Tina Peters as she was indicted for her role in compromising her own voting equipment. They overlooked her possible felony crimes, and even made her their nominee for Colorado secretary of state.

Lauren Boebert, then a Republican candidate for Colorado’s 3rd Congressional District, observes a prayer during a get-out-the-vote-rally at the Grand Junction Motor Speedway in Grand Junction in 2020. (Barton Glasser/Special to The Colorado Sun)

The Mesa County commissioners who had been esteemed as staunch conservatives were suddenly attacked for not living up to a new scale of far-right, conspiracy-laden conservatism. Longtime important political issues, like the management of natural resources and balancing budgets, were lost in the shouting over election fraud and pandemic hoaxes.

For some residents, Mesa County was no longer just Republican red. It was red in the face as Boebert and Peters catapulted the county into the national media with regular appearances or mentions on Fox News, on far-right podcasts and in the pages of The New York Times and The Washington Post. Residents started getting “what’s going on out there?” calls.

“Where did the discussion go between rational people who are attempting to solve problems,” Sarmo found himself wondering.

Sarmo had spent most of a lifetime as a Democrat and later as an unaffiliated voter trying to solve problems for local communities and help residents see eye-to-eye. He knew there were still reasonable people on the left, the right and in the middle. They just weren’t making headlines on Fox News. And they weren’t being heard in local commissioner or school board meetings.

He put his mediator hat back on.

Tim Sarmo, the retired city administrator for Palisade, is one of six core organizers who conceived of and established the group “Restore the Balance” in an effort to counter extremism in politics. The website for the group offers a pledge that embraces seven principles to stand up to extremism, and 1,700 people have already endorsed that pledge. (Gretel Daugherty/Special to The Colorado Sun)

Over the course of many beers and coffees with many friends, an idea coalesced for a local effort that would bring angry citizens on both sides of the political spectrum back to some kind of decent discourse.

Five high-profile, politically diverse friends of Sarmo’s who had also spent much of their lives in public office, on boards and at the helm of businesses came up with a movement they called Restore the Balance. In a Sunday opinion piece in the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel in January, they announced their effort to highlight the civic values they feel are shared by the majority of Mesa County residents. They followed that with full-page ads displaying the signatures of the more than 1,700 people who signed a pledge to agree to continue disagreeing, but to do so politely and with the public good as the prime driver.

“Call it decency, civility, respect or plain good manners. We think it is something worth bringing back,” the founders of Restore the Balance wrote about their guiding principles.

Supporters of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump scream “lock her up” during a campaign rally on Oct. 18, 2016, in Grand Junction. (Evan Vucci/Associated Press file)
Sick and tired of incendiary politics

As Restore the Balance gears up to add community gatherings, voter surveys and candidate endorsements to what thus far has been a statement of principles, similar efforts are popping up around the state and the country. They have been organized by those sick and tired of incendiary politics.

Braver Angels, Colorado Unify Challenge and a nascent Durango group, People, Not Party, are gathering those looking for respectful discourse, not f-bomb-lobbing arguments, to once again become the basis for deciding political differences.

The Durango movement will kick off with a meeting after the Easter holiday to officially form a group that might serve to overcome what Scott Perez, an unaffiliated voter and a supporter of the effort, calls “the bomb throwers” – those who are reactionary, not truly conservative.

The Colorado Unify Challenge which facilitates communication between those with political differences was put into play by Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser, a Democrat, and former Colorado Secretary of State Wayne Williams, a Republican, who have both been dismayed at the toxic polarization in the state. The Colorado challenge is an outgrowth of Unify America, which calls on citizens across the country to sign up for conversations with those of opposing political persuasions.

That effort grew out of the Attorney General Alliance’s Ginsburg-Scalia Initiative which was based on the friendship of two late U.S. Supreme Court justices, Antonin Scalia and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The justices got along well despite being on opposite ends of the political spectrum. The initiative became an attempt to inspire others to look beyond political differences.

Hundreds of people across Colorado have signed up for Colorado Unify Challenge sessions later this month at the same time people across the country will be paired in virtual talks.

Braver Angels is a 6-year-old national effort that promotes political empathy. The group, started in the Midwest by a family therapist and a marriage counselor during the divisive Trump/Clinton presidential contest, uses podcasts, workshops, music and debates to bring red and blue partisans together. Braver Angels links politicians and their staff members as well as ordinary citizens.

Supporters of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump wait for his arrival during a campaign rally on Oct. 18, 2016, in Grand Junction. (Evan Vucci/Associated Press file)
Politicians expect criticism for participating

The goal of Restore the Balance is to stop “irrational political fanaticism,” and highlight the values of the majority of Mesa County residents, the group said in its opinion piece. It has drawn signers of its pledge from across the country as well as Mexico and Canada.

The majority of the pledge signers are from Mesa County, and there are a handful of people on the far left among the signatories, but there are no names on the list of the far-right provocateurs in the county. Very few elected politicians have signed.

Candidates who have taken the pledge can be counted on one hand. Rick Taggart, a Grand Junction City Council member who is running as a Republican for state House District 55, is one of them.

“I have always been a big believer that polarization just causes us to freeze when it comes to the legislative process,” he said about his support for Restore the Balance.

Marina Zimmerman, from Archuleta County, said she was challenging U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert in the Republican primary to bridge the deep partisan divide she says has made government dysfunctional. (Handout)

Taggart said he hasn’t faced any direct criticism yet for signing the pledge but he does expect it as his campaign moves forward.

“If I am going to be criticized for something, I would like to be criticized for that,” he said.

Marina Zimmerman of Archuleta County signed the pledge before failing to make the Republican primary ballot to challenge Boebert. Zimmerman did not garner enough support at a state Republican assembly earlier this month where delegates overwhelmingly supported candidates who baselessly believe the 2020 election was stolen.

Zimmerman’s rejection of extremist viewpoints, like stolen-election falsehoods, also didn’t gain her traction in Mesa County. After a recent candidate forum at the far-right Stand for the Constitution group, members criticized her for not being a true conservative.

“I am against extremism and political theater,” Zimmerman said. “I feel like such antics are destroying our Republican Party.”

Zimmerman has been working with another moderating group called the Republican Accountability Project that formed after the Jan. 6 insurrection. That project seeks to weed out Republican politicians who are questioning the legitimacy of the last presidential election and those spreading other falsehoods.

Mesa County Republican Party Chairman Kevin McCarney, who has referred to Boebert as his “adopted daughter,” said he was not aware of the Restore the Balance pledge. When told by a reporter about its policies, he criticized any request for civility that comes from Democrats, calling it “hypocritical.”

“I find it odd that that would come up now. I had to sit through four years of Democrats’ incivility,” he said. “I think it’s a bunch of BS personally. This is the way politics have always been. It was the Democrats who once called Lincoln a gorilla.”

Brandon Leuallen pens the Mesa County Liberty Report, a newsletter published on social-media channels. His writings are geared toward the right-wing faction of Mesa County that protested vaccines during the height of the pandemic and supports election-denying candidates. Leuallen has not signed the pledge, but said he was open to learning more about Restore the Balance.

“I don’t mind working with anybody. There are certain things that we will never agree on, but in some of those areas we are trying to find more compromise” he said. “Calling each other racists or Nazis. That is something kids do.”

Leuallen said even though he is aligned with those who believe that Trump didn’t lose the 2020 election, he thinks that, like many other politically-charged topics, should be open to debate.

“If you lose a debate, you lose,” he said. “You didn’t have it right.”

Tea party member Dave Privett, 47, of Parker, waves an American Flag while dressed as a patriot during a rally at the State Capitol in 2010. (Matt McClain/The Denver Post, via AP)
How might the conversation be restarted?

Mesa County’s current wave of uncivil extremism can be traced back more than a dozen years ago when the tea party was first embraced by a Libertarian-leaning faction in the country.

In 2010, a rolling tea party demonstration made a stop in a Grand Junction park. The self-identified “pro-patriots” at that rally – some dressed in Revolutionary War costumes – cheered for any mention of Joe the Plumber and Sarah Palin. They railed against Muslims, communists, gay rights, Nancy Pelosi, the media and nonconservative school curricula.

The movement didn’t garner a lot of attention in the county then. The tea party was viewed as a fringe group. But local tea party supporters continued to meet weekly at a coffee shop. That core group grew and eventually helped to cram an airplane hangar with citizens shouting their adoration for then-candidate Donald Trump and screaming out hatred of the media in 2016.

Donald Trump speaks to a crowd of about 3,000 supporters during a 2016 campaign rally in Grand Junction on Oct. 18, 2016. (William Woody/Special to The Colorado Sun)

The same faces in that crowd are now among those showing up at rallies to support Tina Peters. These conspiracy-minded conservatives have helped to put Mesa County on the national radar for political mayhem.

“Will we change the minds of these radical extremists? No,” said Thea Chase, one of the founders of Restore the Balance. “But I think people in general are tired of it. I am hoping we will have space with this effort to redirect and restart the conversation.”

Chase is currently a Palisade trustee and is the former director of the Grand Junction Business Incubator. She ran as an independent for Colorado House District 54 in 2018. She lost, but managed to earn more than a third of the votes in the Republican district.

She said after the decades she has worked in the civic arena and as a booster for the Grand Valley and Mesa County, it pains her to see an area making progress in so many ways and capitalizing on its bountiful outdoor opportunities denigrated because of a loud, extremist political faction.

“I hate seeing our community portrayed in some other way,” she said.

Thea Chase, Palisade town trustee and mayor pro tem, is one of six core organizers of the group “Restore the Balance,” which was conceived to counter extremism in politics. The group has a website that spells out seven principles, and 1,800 people have signed a pledge to follow these concepts. (Gretel Daugherty/Special to The Colorado Sun)

Besides Sarmo and Chase, Restore the Balance Founders include lifelong Democrat Bernie Buescher, who served two terms in the Colorado Legislature and later served as Colorado’s secretary of state. George Orbanek is the former editor and publisher of the Daily Sentinel newspaper and calls himself a center-right independent.

Dennis Kirtland is a retired construction company executive and former Grand Junction City Council member who had been a lifelong Republican before he became unaffiliated five years ago. Kirk Rider is a retired attorney who has been active in local affairs for nearly half a century. He also switched from Republican to unaffiliated in 2016.

The number of unaffiliated voters in Mesa County has been trending upward, mirroring what’s been happening with voter registration across Colorado. The county currently has just over 45,000 unaffiliated voters, up from around 22,000 a decade ago. Republicans have added about 5,000 new members to their ranks in that same time to claim 40,486 registered voters. Democrats’ ranks have flatlined in the county, gaining fewer than 1,000 voters over the past decade to hit 16,416.

The last time the county backed a Democratic presidential candidate was 1964 when Lyndon Johnson won. In the last election, more than 62% of voters chose Trump.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump arrives to speak at a campaign rally on Oct. 18, 2016, in Grand Junction. (Evan Vucci/Associated Press file)

The numbers don’t concern Sarmo.

He worries about those who stand against the concept of respecting and acting civilly with neighbors and friends who have differing political views. The same goes for the pledge precepts of stopping gridlock, putting the public interest before party interest, focusing on solving problems more than fundraising, and stopping the intimidation of candidates.

Sarmo said he has already seen encouraging signs that Mesa County might find its way back to productive politics. He cited the county’s response to the coronavirus pandemic. While small groups of people were waving anti-vaccine and COVID-is-a-hoax signs on street corners, the county administration created compromise through its 5-star program that helped keep businesses open. It became a model for other counties.

Sarmo also pointed to recent school board meetings with a newly elected conservative majority. Fears that the board would fire the school district administrators brought out liberals and progressives by the hundreds to show by their quiet presence that they were paying attention to board activities. After a few missteps in the beginning, the new board appeared to be listening to both sides and moderating its behavior.

Sarmo said, before the June primaries, Restore the Balance will be disseminating neutral information about candidates, holding forums and conducting a voter survey. It will recharge the campaign to draw more signers for the pledge.

“We think these principles can be endorsed by anybody from any part of the party and ideology,” Sarmo said. “People seem to agree on one thing: that things have gone too far here.”

The Colorado Sun is a reader-supported, nonpartisan news organization dedicated to covering Colorado issues. To learn more, go to coloradosun.com.