Democrats in Moffat County rare

Party labels less meaningful at local level

Although not as uncommon as an endangered species like the black-footed ferret, the Moffat County Democrat is still a rare breed.

Outnumbered 2.6 to 1, Democrats here stand in the shadows of their more populous Republican counterparts and are represented by Republicans at every level of government, from the president of the United States to the county coroner.

But the predominance of the Republican is an issue of lifestyle and tradition, members of both parties say.

"The Republican Party's core values fit our lifestyle," said Tim Jantz, chairman of the Moffat County Central Committee.

As an agricultural community with an economy heavily based on mining, oil and hunting, many of the Republican Party's issues mesh with the needs of the city and county.

The party supports multiple use of federal lands and seldom pushes for wilderness designations. A recent survey, conducted by Colorado State University, demonstrated the majority of Moffat County residents share that view.

Likewise, the Republican Party's support of Second Amendment rights reflect the thoughts of many area residents that criminals -- not firearms -- are responsible for gun violence, Jantz said.

John Ponikvar, a member of the Community Corrections Board, said he has heard strong support for President George W. Bush among area residents. Come fall, he doesn't believe most locals will consider voting for another presidential candidate.

Issues the Democrats have been raising, such as the outsourcing of jobs to foreign nations, don't resonate with residents here, Ponikvar said. Tri-State Transmission and Generation and the coal mines that provide many residents with work haven't been affected.

Likewise, Bush's commitment to mineral extraction, even if it means making some sacrifices to the environment, complements the views of the residents who depend on drilling and mining for their livelihood. And Bush's anti-gun control stance protects a community that depends on hunting tourism for its financial well-being.

Joanne Baxter, a former teacher and registered Democrat, said that in the classroom, she saw her students align their party affiliation and political views with that of their parents.

"It just becomes a tradition. I don't know a lot of people that have changed political preferences," Baxter said.

Of the 8.439 registered voters in the county, 4,445 are registered Republicans. Unaffiliated voters outnumber Democrats 2,215 to 1,674. Fifteen voters are registered with the Green, Libertarian or Reform Parties.

Lila Herod, deputy clerk, said she suspected many voters register as independents so they can vote in the Republican primary elections.

Former Moffat County Commissioner Chuck Sis was the last Democrat elected to Moffat County public office. That was in 1992. Commissioner Darryl Steele is the only non-Republican government official currently representing Moffat County.

Steele was a lifelong Democrat, as was his father, Commissioner Sam Steele, until he grew disgusted with the Bill Clinton scandal and switched his registration to unaffiliated. When he decided to run for commissioner in 2002, he wanted to run as a Democrat but couldn't, because candidates must be affiliated with their party for one year prior to running.

Steele said he didn't know if the race for commissioner would have been more difficult had he been registered as a Democrat, but he doesn't believe party affiliation matters so much at the local government level.

"I don't think party politics have play in county government," Steele said.

On the local level, most people know the candidates personally, and if they don't, it's easy enough to arrange a meeting. But with higher levels of government, voters get few chances to meet politicians and hardly ever are able to get to know them.

John Ponikvar echoed Steele's ideas.

"On a local level people vote for the individual. A Democrat certainly has a chance. On national elections, people vote for the party," Ponikvar said.

Steele said the city usually splits its vote between candidates, while the rural part of the county is regarded as a key voting block that usually doesn't follow party lines.

Rob Gebhart can be reached at 824-7031 or by e-mail at rgebhart@craigdailypress.com.

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