In a year when a presidential election is drawing stark party lines, speakers at the Colorado Municipal League Conference urged local elected officials to be bipartisan.
The annual CML conference, held last week in Steamboat Springs, opened with speeches from National League of Cities President Charles Lyons and Patricia Limerick, chairwoman of the Center of the American West at the University of Colorado.
The idea that the country is very divided between red and blue states -- those that are Republican and those that are Democratic -- is outdated, Limerick said.
"The paradigm is ready for retirement," she said. "A nice party will be held in its honor, and it will hand over its office to a peppier, newer paradigm."
Party politics don't address some of the West's most pressing issues, such as water supply, growth management, land use, wildland fires and funding for reclaiming mines and nuclear sites, she said.
Limerick recalled a series of lectures by former U.S. Sectaries of the Interior that the university sponsored. She was worried about the reception that James Watt, the sectary of the interior under Ronald Reagan, would receive from her Boulder audience.
After much persuading, Watt agreed to come to Boulder. At the end of his speech, Limerick was amazed to see half of the audience stand up and applaud.
She thought the standing ovation showed respect for a man who came to speak in what could be considered unfriendly, liberal territory, and he did so with wit and grace.
She urged that kind of respect to be shown in local politics.
Limerick also discussed the problems local leaders have when the idealized West butts against the real and ever-changing West.
"Those that think of the West in very idealized terms tend to be very crabby and disillusioned when the West turns out with real people with real problems," Limerick said.
Repairing potholes and reclaiming mines are important and valuable activities, she said, but they don't hold the grandeur of the Old West image.
In her closing remarks, Limerick compared being a public official to being in a rodeo. In bull riding, she said, the more difficult the ride, the potentially higher score the cowboy could receive in the end.
"You are on your way to becoming gold-buckle, bull-riding public officials," she said of the task that lay before Colorado leaders.
Lyons, who is the mayor of Arlington, Mass., said local governments must put away partisanship to work toward local projects and noted how little a role being a Democrat or a Republican played in the National League of Cities.
"We don't build Democratic high schools, we don't build Republican roads, don't fix conservative potholes, don't turn on liberal street lamps," Lyons said.
As president of the NLC, Lyons' goal is to lessen an ever-widening socioeconomic divide in America and noted the importance of affordable housing and education in that goal.
He pointed to the city of Philadelphia, which holds 12 percent of Pennsylvania's population and 48 percent of its welfare recipients, and Baltimore, which has 13 percent of the Maryland's population and 58 percent of its welfare recipients.
"We are creating schisms between haves and have-nots, making them live in certain cities based on the ability to afford a home, on skin color or class," he said.
He pointed to the lack of federal funding for affordable housing. In the past year, the federal government allocated $30 billion to housing programs, compared with $80 billion during President Ford's term.
To those elected officials who think they can't afford to support such programs, Lyons pointed to two times when the country was in crisis but nonetheless supported programs to help propel the middle class.
In 1862, President Lincoln convinced a divided congress to pass the Homestead Act, which gave away 160-acre plots of land in the Midwest and West.
Ten days after the invasion of Normandy, President Roosevelt convinced another divided Congress to pass the GI Bill of Rights, a piece of legislation that accounted for one-third of all homes built in America and educated the returning soldiers, Lyons said.
"It created the greatest middle class in the history of the world," Lyons said.
The country needs to have another talk about education and finding jobs for young people, Lyons said.
"We do a better job of getting rid of sewage than educating kids," he said.
Lyons also recognized the dilemma Colorado officials face with the Taxpayers Bill of Rights and Amendment 23. TABOR requires municipalities to limit their spending while Amendment 23 mandates that education spending increase annually.
He told the crowd members not to lose faith in their constituents.
"I really believe the American populous is brighter than we give them credit for. They are going to respond in kind, and they are going to respond intelligently."
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