Two recent events signal a new development in Western politics. The first is New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson's call for a Western primary in the mountain states of Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming. The second is the launching of a "Democrats for the West" initiative by leading Democrats from those same states, plus Alaska.
Richardson's call for a regional primary fits with his charge last fall to the Western Governors' Association, which he now chairs, to make the West "a force on policy and politics." Richardson argues that if we unite on issues, the West acquires more clout. There are pros and cons to a regional primary, but to the extent that it encourages the Mountain West to think and act like a region, it deserves careful consideration.
The fact is, though, that many Western Democrats are nervous about any attempt to give the West more clout. When most people think of an empowered West, they can only think of the Republican West they have come to know and fear. Empowering this West is not very appealing, and some of them wonder why Richardson or anyone else would want to move in that direction.
The answer from Democrats for the West is that it has no intention of letting the West remain a thoroughly Republican region. The group's objective, as expressed in an open letter, is "to build long-term, governing majorities across the region." To do that, they would need to help Western Democrats break out of a vicious cycle.
The cycle starts with the nervousness of many Democrats with anything that sounds too "Western." Democrats have been aggressive and often successful at appealing to various categories of identity, including ethnic identities, but they have been hesitant to appeal to Western identity.
It has sometimes seemed as if Democrats view "Westernness" as an essentially regressive trait. And too many Westerners sense this. This has played into relentless and successful Republican efforts to brand Democrats with being against Western interests, if not the West itself.
So effective has this branding of Democrats been, that many Western Democrats move into the second phase of the vicious cycle. It's bad enough that some Democrats are nervous about being Westerners, but far worse that many Democrats are nervous about being Democrats.
It is now not at all uncommon to see Western Democratic candidates, especially those with substantial rural constituencies, being selective about using the Democratic label at all. Given the negative branding of that Democratic label across much of the West, this nervousness is not surprising, but it is almost impossible to imagine Democrats building sustainable majorities across the region if leading Democrats feel that they have to run away from, rather than running proudly under, the Democratic banner.
Democrats for the West has taken a big step toward breaking out of this vicious cycle. Simply having Democratic giants such as Stewart Udall and Cecil Andrus raising the Democrats for the West banner reminds Democrats that they once were proud both of being Westerners and of being Democrats. As a step toward restoring that tradition, Democrats for the West has declared its intention to take back from Republicans and from non-Westerners the job of defining what the "D" after a Western candidate's name stands for.
In order to be meaningful and lasting, and more than a matter of spin, this redefinition will take hard work and discussion on the part of Democrats across the region. The elders who launched Democrats for the West have encouraged their fellow Western Democrats to engage in "an open, vigorous discussion about Western solutions to Western issues among Western Democrats in every available forum," including "state party platforms and in campaigns for offices from county commissioner to president."
If this grassroots redefinition of what the "D" stands for in the West is undertaken seriously, it should make it steadily easier for candidates to associate themselves openly, even proudly, with that Western Democratic banner. It would also enable Western Democrats to speak with a credible, unified voice in suggesting to John Kerry how he can earn Western votes. He will earn them primarily by proving that he, too, is "for the West." Both Gov. Richardson and the Democrats for the West have taken important steps toward that result. They have done it by saying, "We're proud to be Westerners and proud to be Democrats."
It will be a new day in the West when "Proud to be a Western Democrat" bumper stickers start showing up on pickups from Alaska to Arizona.
Daniel Kemmis is former mayor of Missoula, Mont. He is the author of This Sovereign Land: A New Vision for Governing the West.
Publication date: 04/29/04