George W. Bush may fancy himself a cowboy, but former U.S. Rep. Pat Williams thinks Westerners know better. “Real Western cowboys don’t swagger, they don’t spend money they don’t have, and they don’t pick fights for the heck of it,” he says.
Williams, who was elected to nine terms in Congress from Montana, was the opening speaker Friday as a newly forming organization, Democrats for the West, gathered in Boise, Idaho, for a two-day winter meeting. About 90 people are on hand for the conference, and on Saturday, the group will plan for an official roll-out in late January, probably with nine simultaneous press conferences in the capitals of the nine states the organization represents: Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming.
There was a time, not so long ago, Williams said, when Western Democrats including Mike Mansfield, Frank Church, and Arizona’s Udall brothers were known across the nation. What the region lacks in numerical clout, it more than made up for in progressive policy initiatives. The 1990s brought a long electoral drought for the region’s Democrats, but there are signs now the party’ fortunes may again be on the rise. Western Democrats have recently elected three governors and many mayors (including Boise’s Dave Bieter, a Democratic state legislator who polled 52 percent in an ostensibly nonpartisan four-person race last month). Montana Democrats are within four seats of having a majority in their House. And in New Mexico, Democrats control both the House and the Senate, and Gov. Bill Richardson is widely considered one of the party’s rising national stars.
With its rapid population growth, the Mountain West is one of the nation’s most vibrant regions, Williams noted, “and we the 17 million citizens of the Mountain West deserve better than we’re getting.” Despite the fact 53 percent of Westerners identify themselves as Republicans, George W. Bush’s policies are wildly unpopular in the region. A CNN poll showed 39 percent of the region’s people believe strongly that the country is on the wrong track – the highest negative of any region in the United States. (Fewer than half the region’s voters believe either strongly or somewhat that the country is on the right track under Bush.)
Each speaker for the meeting’s opening day sounded themes on which Democrats have opportunity to make gains in 2004. Courtney White, executive director of the Santa Fe-based Quivira Coalition suggested that Democrats can provide leadership by seeking – as his group has – “the radical center” on environmental and land-use issues. Jerry Brady, who challenged Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne last year, and pollster Joshua Ulibarri of Lake Snell & Perry, both urged Democrats to reclaim high-quality jobs as the party’s central issue. Daniel Kemmis of Center for the Rocky Mountain West at the University of Montana, noted that the fact the West is one of the nation’s fastest-changing regions makes it ripe both for Democratic creativity and small-d democratic renewal … “people solving problems and finding ways to make things work.”
Would you like to make a contribution to start-up costs for Democrats for the West? Donations can be made via the Idaho Democratic Party's website at https://www.d4d.org/idpldg.htm or by sending a check to P.O. Box 445, Boise, ID 83701. Because you cannot designate online that your contribution is for Democrats for the West, you'll also need to send an email to email@example.com to have them earmark your contribution for DFW.