Julius Caesar is said to have coined the phrase “divide et impera,” which means divide and conquer. It was his successful war strategy against the Gauls, and it has been working for military generals, and for political opponents, ever since. On the battlefield, armies that are split up are smaller and easier to defeat. In politics, it is thought of as a political tactic, getting opponents to fight each other.
The phrase has a completely different meaning to Western Slope communities facing another congressional redistricting. Many characteristics still unite those diverse rural, mountainous, agricultural, and recreational counties, including the fact that they share a congressional district. Redistricting always causes Western Slope leaders to hold their breath, though, because being split into different districts means only one thing – representation by people from elsewhere.
The Constitution requires a census every decade, and reapportionment of the congressional districts allotted to states. The process is agonizing for Colorado every time, because the State has grown continuously from its earliest settlement, and district boundaries must always be redrawn, often adding another district. In 1876, Colorado was admitted to the union with a single member of the House of Representatives, elected at-large. But by the time of the 1890 census the state was granted a second district, ten years later a third, and in another decade a fourth.
That fourth district included all of Western Colorado, which has enjoyed representation in Congress by a Western Slope resident ever since, with only one exception – the 1970s. By 1970 Colorado had grown enough to require a fifth district, and the redistricting battle went on for months, resulting in new boundaries that split the Western Slope in half. The result was as simple as it was predictable – both halves were represented by people from the Front Range for the entire decade. Previously, the Western Slope had a long and proud record of sending important leaders to Congress.
The first was Ed Taylor, the Glenwood Springs attorney who served 17 terms, the longest of any Colorado Congressman. He chaired the powerful Appropriations Committee and is especially remembered for the Taylor Grazing Act of 1934. That law finally ended range disputes, as well as sheep and cattle wars throughout the West, by establishing clear procedures for grazing permits on public lands. Taylor was one of the nation’s leading experts in agriculture, water, and mining policy, all vital to the Western Slope in his era. He died in office in 1941.
Taylor was succeeded by Robert Rockwell, a Paonia rancher and fruit grower who served in the legislature and as Lt. Governor before going to Congress. He was defeated by Wayne Aspinall of Palisade in 1948. Aspinall became even more of a legend than Taylor, especially as Chairman of the House Interior Committee from 1959-1973. He was the indispensable force behind the 1956 and 1968 Colorado River water projects laws that resulted in all the major reservoirs in the region, as well as the 1964 Wilderness Act and hundreds of other public lands, energy, and natural resources laws. He remained popular throughout his career, losing a primary in 1972 for one simple reason – redistricting had split his district in half. He lost the entire southern half of the Western Slope and suddenly found himself representing people from Ft. Collins to Sterling. He didn’t know them, and they didn’t know him.
Aspinall was replaced by Jim Johnson, a Ft. Collins attorney, because the population of the district after 1970 centered on Ft. Collins and Greeley, not Grand Junction. He was then replaced by Hank Brown, whose political base was the same region. The southern half of the Western Slope was thrown into the Pueblo district and represented by two Congressmen from Pueblo during that decade, Frank Evans and Ray Kogovsek. The Western Slope finally got its own representative again, only when reunited into a single district after the 1980 census. The district survived mostly intact during redistricting battles that added a sixth district in 1980, and a seventh in 2000. But now, danger looms again.
To be clear, this is not personal. Johnson, Evans, Brown, and Kogovsek were all dedicated and honorable Congressmen. They were not Western Slopers.
Many experts think current Rep. Lauren Boebert is popular enough across northern Colorado to survive a split in her district (they thought that about Aspinall, too). She certainly might be, but this isn’t about any particular official. The Western Slope does not deserve to be divided, because no part of the region deserves to be conquered.
Greg Walcher is former director of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources, and a Western Slope resident.
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