Rocky Mountain Low

During his 12 years as a U.S. Congressman from Colorado, David Skaggs did his best to listen to all his constituents. He held open office hours during which anyone could just walk in. He hosted town meetings around his district, which covered the northwest suburbs of Denver. He set up at supermarkets, talking to whoever stopped by.

What Skaggs discovered early on, however, was that not everyone sought to be heard. Middle-class and affluent people made contact all the time. They were most likely to write letters, ask for a meeting, join a local environmental group, volunteer on his campaigns, and, of course, write checks at re-election time. From those at the bottom of the economic ladder, though, the congressman heard very little. "Most of them were too busy surviving to be very active," Skaggs says. "There is a correlation between wealth and discretionary time and a desire to influence public policy."

Indeed, there is. Rarely has that correlation been more deeply entrenched in American politics than in recent years. Better-off Americans haven't only been the big winners in an economy that siphons wealth upward; they have also found ways to speak louder and grab more political power. The fortunes of low-income Americans have been in a corresponding slide: Americans in the bottom-third income bracket both cast a smaller percentage of overall votes and take home a smaller piece of the national income pie than they did 30 years ago.

It's true that economic and political inequality are self-reinforcing trends that have helped to lock in power for the wealthy. But that's only part of the story. These two trends have had the most impact in places most affected by another big shift of the past decade: rising conservative activism.

Colorado illustrates the point. Like much of the nation, Colorado has become a less forgiving place for the poor while the rich enjoy more political clout. "It has always been hard to win here when it comes to issues that affect low-income people," says Maureen Farrell, executive director of the Colorado Center on Law and Policy. "But what was hard before is even harder." Conservative Republicans now control all branches of the state government, and -- helped by the state's Taxpayer Bill of Rights law, passed in 1992, which imposes the most severe limits on government taxes and spending found in any state -- are working hard at starving it. Similar conservative expansion is happening across the country at the state level, as Republicans now control more than half of all state legislature seats for the first time since 1952.

In 2002 and 2003, Colorado didn't pay out money to poor working families under its Earned Income Tax Credit law because it couldn't afford the expense. The state also recently passed a law abolishing Medicaid benefits for legal immigrants -- the only state in the United States to do so -- and dumped 15,000 poor kids from its health-care rolls. Every budget season, the state's programs for the poor are treated as fair game, even as other items like highway spending enjoy constitutional protections.

All of this has come about in the last decade. Before the boom of the late 1980s and especially the 1990s, Colorado was far more liberal. It sent Pat Schroeder, Tim Wirth, and Gary Hart to Congress, attracted a fair number of ex-hippie migrants, and was generally more compassionate to the less fortunate than other western mountain states. As recently as 1992, the year Bill Clinton won Colorado, Democrats held a slight edge in party registrations there.

High-tech firms and finance led Colorado's economic growth. The cities of Denver, Boulder, and Colorado Springs sprawled out in every direction. Coloradoans enjoyed huge income gains -- which, like elsewhere, were shared unevenly. Rising inequality has been less acute in Colorado than in other states, and it mostly occurred in the 1980s, but the trends are still pretty startling. According to the liberal Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, between the late 1970s and the late 1990s, the average income of the richest fifth of Colorado families soared by nearly 40 percent, increasing their income by an average of more than $43,000 a year, while the bottom fifth of families enjoyed only a 17-percent rise in income, or a measly $2,930.

Civic life in Colorado also followed a familiar trajectory. In 1996, the last year that David Skaggs ran for office, the Institute for Money in State Politics reports that about $5 million was contributed to candidates in Colorado. In 2002, that amount was up to a staggering $49 million. This campaign-spending surge mirrored national trends, but it also reflected changes in Colorado. The boom of the late 1990s created striking concentrations of wealth that were put to work in state politics. The telecom company Qwest became a major campaign donor, as did Echo Star Communications and Level 3 Communications. Donations also flowed from Colorado's newly expanded upper-middle class.

While heated debate rages among scholars as to whether rising campaign spending has biased public policy in favor of the rich, few dispute the more general point: that wealthy Americans have outsized clout in politics. Princeton University scholar Martin Gilens recently conducted a comparison between public preferences and political outcomes on numerous issues during the 1990s. He looked specifically at areas where low-income and high-income Americans held different views -- e.g., NAFTA and the Clinton health-care plan. Again and again, the preferences of the wealthy won out.

Another Princeton scholar, Larry Bartels, examined the responsiveness of U.S. senators to rich and poor constituents on a variety of issues in the late 1980s and early '90s, from the minimum wage to abortion. He found that senators were far more responsive to the wealthy. In explaining his findings, Bartels noted the greater propensity of wealthier constituents to vote and contact senators or their staff.

This point echoes the central finding of Voice and Equality, an important 1995 study of unequal participation by Sidney Verba, Kay Schlozman, and Henry Brady. Based on a survey of 15,000 people and 2,500 individual interviews, the study found that Americans making more than $75,000 a year not only voted at much higher rates than those making under $15,000 but were nearly 10 times more likely to make a campaign contribution, four times more likely to volunteer for a political campaign, twice as likely to contact a public official, and three times as likely to be affiliated with a political organization.

And that leads public officials to pay attention. "It was an operational guide in the campaign season to focus on people most likely to vote," says Skaggs. There was also "a bias toward seeing people who had helped on the campaign."

Gaps in income and participation widened everywhere during the last two decades, but the political fortunes of low-income Americans have varied widely across states. Despite its comparatively low rate of economic inequality and above-average voter turnout, Colorado occupies an extreme: It is among those states where the poor seem to have been almost entirely shut out of the political process. A key variable here has been a strong conservative movement that was energized by boom times.

During the 1980s and '90s, many of Colorado's new residents were white and affluent, coming to take professional jobs. While professionals and high-tech workers are reputedly socially liberal, the newcomers to Colorado during the boom were often conservative. Like other mountain states, Colorado attracted white flight from Texas and California. It also drew a large number of military retirees, who settled around Colorado Springs, home to the U.S. Air Force Academy and a number of defense contractors, as well as the national conservative group Focus on the Family.

The state took a big step to the right in 1992, when the Taxpayer Bill of Rights law and an anti-gay-rights law were passed by a ballot initiative. Six years later, in 1998, the Republican Party secured total dominance when Bill Owens was elected Colorado's first GOP governor in nearly three decades. Owens has since won re-election in a landslide and been rated the best governor in the United States by the conservative National Review.

As in other states, the right-wing ascendancy in Colorado was led by a relatively small group of ideologues, including religious conservatives based in Colorado Springs and libertarian-leaning Republicans with ties to business. "What was already there and latent in Colorado became more organized," says Wade Buchanan, who heads the Bell Policy Center, a nonpartisan Denver think tank. New money for Republican political campaigns came from wealthy Coloradoans working in the boom industries, and from old conservative money like the Coors family, while activist ground troops were recruited in the conservative suburbs. The movement's message was simple, and was echoing across the nation during the 1990s: Cut government, reduce taxes, strengthen family values. Colorado's well-oiled conservative operation easily overwhelmed the state's fragmented low-income and immigrant communities, as well as liberal constituencies centered in Denver and Boulder. It also outmaneuvered the moderate wing of the state's Republican Party, which now barely exists.

All the while, a great many ordinary Coloradoans -- particularly younger residents who seldom voted -- paid little or no attention to what was happening. Conservative Republicans came to dominate state politics even as roughly two-thirds of Coloradoans identify themselves as either Democrats or unaffiliated.

Still, there is one hopeful lesson from the Colorado experience. It is that American politics remains a very fluid game where small groups of likeminded activists can seize the advantage through smart and disciplined action. So far, the new inequities in American life have bolstered the position of the wealthy at the expense of everyone else. But these inequities do not necessarily stand as immovable barriers to reform. Ideas and activism matter as much as ever.

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