DENVER — The nation’s newest state, if rural Colorado residents had their way, would be about the size of Vermont but with the population of a small town spread across miles of farmland. There wouldn’t be civil unions for gay couples, new renewable energy standards, or limits on ammunition magazines.
Those were some of the reasons five counties on the state’s Eastern Plains voted on Election Day last Tuesday to approve the creation of a 51st state.
Secession supporters know the votes were symbolic, designed to grab the attention of a Democrat-controlled Legislature. They say the vote results emphasize a growing frustration in conservative prairie towns with the more populous and liberal urban Front Range, which has helped solidify the Democrats’ power.
“We can’t outvote the metropolitan areas anymore, and the rural areas don’t have a voice anymore,” said Perk Odell, 80, a lifelong resident of Akron in Washington County, which voted to secede.
The five counties share borders, covering about 9,500 square miles, and have a combined population of about 29,200. Four of the counties — Philips, Yuma, Kit Carson, and Cheyenne — border Kansas. They are solidly Republican areas that have long identified more with Kansas and Nebraska because of their agricultural background than with Denver.
Towns such as Akron, population 1,700, were founded in the 1880s along railroads and thrived as agriculture producers, booming in the 1900s during grain shortages. They began a decline in the 1920s that continued through the Dust Bowl, and their populations have decreased or remained stagnant since.
What remains are tight-knit communities where grain silos are sometimes the tallest structures around.
Other parts of the state, meanwhile, have grown. More than 80 percent of Colorado’s 5 million residents live on the Front Range. The counties that voted to secede now only have two state representatives and one state senator.
In some ways, the feelings of being ignored date to the days of Colorado’s gold rush, when miners flocked to the Front Range, said Dr. Tom Noel, a history professor at the University of Colorado at Denver.
“Ever since the gold rush, those areas have been places that people rush over, and I think that’s still how people feel — like people are just whizzing past them at 80 miles an hour,” Noel said.
But for the cluster of rural counties to become a new state, Colorado lawmakers would have to sign off, followed by Congress — a scenario that even supporters of the plan say is highly unlikely.
Long shot though it may be, supporters of the 51st state movement say they believe they’ve succeeded in getting their message across that lawmakers at the state’s Capitol aren’t listening to their concerns.
One of the concerns that wasn’t heard was about a proposal mandating that Colorado’s rural cooperative electric associations get 20 percent of their energy from renewable sources by 2020, up from 10 percent. The bill was approved by Democrats without GOP support.
Governor John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, has taken notice. “We understand that some rural areas still feel underrepresented and are not being heard,” he said. “We remain committed to listening more and working with local communities all across Colorado.”