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A hometown historian discovers why Colorado Springs is so Republican

Growing up here, Alex Johnson was always aware that his family was in the majority.

El Paso County is home to more than 175,000 Republicans, 91,000 Democrats and 154,000 unaffiliated voters. As you may have noticed, it tends to elect almost exclusively Republican candidates.

That's never bothered Johnson, 21, who just graduated with a bachelor's degree in political science from the University of Denver, where he served as president of the College Republicans. Johnson is now looking for his first job — as a legislative aide, he hopes, for a particularly conservative state representative from Colorado Springs.

Still, he's always been curious about how this city became such a consistent Republican stronghold. So when he decided to write a bachelor's thesis (which was optional), he focused on answering that question by searching archives, talking with local historians like Pioneers Museum director Matt Mayberry, and consulting community leaders like Thayer Tutt, the president/chief investment officer and trustee of the El Pomar Foundation.

We sat down with him to talk about his thesis, which examines four historical developments that served to cement the power of the Republican upper class and expand its support locally: the 1890s clash over mining unions; the 1920s showdown between Springs Republicans and the Ku Klux Klan; the city's bid to acquire major military bases in the 1940s and 1950s; and the explosive growth of the evangelical sector in the 1990s.

"In a larger sense," Johnson says, "it sort of tells the story of elite power and the Republican Party's power, because those things are very connected and I didn't try to divorce them."

Indy: In the 1890s and early 1900s, anti-union Republicans in Colorado Springs went up against the Western Federation of Miners in Cripple Creek, over what was then the biggest industry, gold mining. Colorado Springs residents largely ran the mines and didn't want any interference; miners in Cripple Creek, which was then a part of El Paso County, wanted more rights and their own county with separate representation. The Springs lost that battle ... What did that mean for both sides?

Johnson: The miners, it's my view, felt underrepresented because the county officials came from Colorado Springs. The state senators favored Springs interests. The state representatives were focused on this area instead of Cripple Creek and all its outlying towns, which had the population base of the county ...

I'm not actually convinced that much changed when they separated the county, because Cripple Creek still continued to be a mining area ... and then of course you saw the subsequent Colorado Labor Wars in [1903] and [1904], so this clearly wasn't settled by the division of the county ... But I think that having a common struggle and a common enemy in the Western Federation of Miners definitely helped [Springs Republicans] organize.

Why did Republicans fight so hard to keep the county together? Didn't they benefit politically when it split, because they lost a large liberal population?

They wanted that population base, and they wanted sort of that power at the state level. They just wanted [Cripple Creek voters] to "vote right." And ultimately, in my view, it's a story of control, it's a story of power, because they wanted to maintain some sort of power and agency over their facilities and over their workers, and I think one of the means to do that was through politics.

Let's jump to the 1920s, when the Ku Klux Klan was successfully seeking statewide political power [even getting a Klan-member governor and senator, plus a Klan-supporting senator, elected]. It was unsuccessful in Colorado Springs elections. Is that maybe, ironically, because the Springs was so white and conservative?

Yes. That's one of the reasons that a number of scholars have identified that the Klan did not succeed here. Because in Pueblo they could organize against immigrants, in Denver they could organize against Jewish communities. ... In Colorado Springs, the lack of immigrant communities and the lack of people of color, I think, definitely contributed to the fact that the Klan didn't succeed.

Can you explain how the KKK failed in the Springs elections?

So in addition to having those lack-of-organizing issues ... they just had completely inept leadership, because most of the Klan's leadership was Denver-based. ... Those two reasons are sort of subsidiary, though, to the fact that an organized elite group [the Citizens' Committee] — primarily of business owners, social elites, political elites — organized against them ... They used political tools, they used City Council to not grant the Klan a parade license, they used [the Gazette-Telegraph] to harass them, and also threatened to publish the names of every Klan member.

Then you later describe how they basically kicked them out of the Republican assemblies.

So the Klan governor and senators and all the Klan officials were elected in 1924. In 1925, they tried to come to the Springs and were beaten in the municipal election by, like, 52 to 48 percent ... but then they lost by even a larger percentage a month later [in the school board elections] ... And then after a bunch of their bills died [in the state legislature], the Republican Party started to really fight back and sort of reorganize to — I use the word "exorcise" the Klan. ...

The Klan used the Republican Party processes to get power. So they used the caucus system, they used the assembly process, they used established mechanisms. Well, the party had control of those, too. So in the 1926 election, the party tried to control the appropriation of delegates and the number of sort of seats that each county and each area would get. And in so doing, they tried to block out Klan candidates. And they did. They were successful in doing that, and the Klan lost that year.

You write something that I find very interesting: "The Citizens' Committee opposed the Klan because the Klan was bad for business." Do you think that was just a campaign strategy, or do you think that was really true?

By the 1920s [there was a growing tourism economy], so sort of fulfilling Palmer's early vision of this as a resort town ... and I think that one of the main reasons you see them organizing is because they don't want to be seen as a Klan-governed city. ...

Thayer Tutt, the president and chief investment officer of [El Pomar Foundation, founded by mining magnate Spencer Penrose], basically backed this up by saying — I interviewed him for the project and he said — Penrose was against anything bad for business.

That jobs theme carries through into the '40s and '50s, when the Springs wooed and won Fort Carson and the Air Force Academy. Can you explain the part that The Broadmoor hotel had in securing Fort Carson?

Economic elites influenced city policymakers to give them land for Fort Carson, and then the city purchased this land to give it to the federal government. ... So then they lobby the War Department in Washington, they lobby their congressman. ... We get Fort Carson, or Camp Carson then, and then that sort of acts as a magnet to get other facilities because there's already the assets here.

So the role played by The Broadmoor is to sort of woo them about how great Colorado Springs was ... they used The Broadmoor as a way to sort of play up Colorado Springs' reputation ... and impress these people from Washington.

Your final chapter is the 1990s culture wars and the growth of the evangelical movement. El Pomar gave $4 million to Focus on the Family to headquarter here in 1990. And again, you say the motivation was jobs. But if so, then why not court a different big industry?

Why these people? I think that looking back through our history, it's always been that way. Not necessarily religious groups, but the Springs elite attract the kind of people they want to live here.

So General Palmer — [historian] Marshall Sprague famously wrote in Newport in the Rockies, our sort of great tome on local history — he said, "Money came to Colorado Springs because Colorado Springs wanted money to come." So it sort of acted as a magnet for capital to come in those early years.

And I think the same thing could be said for Focus in the early '90s. Yes, this industry definitely brought jobs, but they were also the kind of people they wanted to come here. Or the kind of culture that we accept here.

These evangelical organizations helped pass anti-gay Amendment 2 in 1992, which led the Springs to be seen as the capital of the "Hate State." Did that image dissuade local Republicans, or do you think it was a badge of honor?

I think it was absolutely the latter ... folks like [former Colorado for Family Values chairman] Will Perkins were super-happy about the recognition that came afterwards because they saw a new market that they could sort of parlay into coming here. ...

There's a certain magnetism that comes with a county that's this Republican, just as there's a certain magnetism that comes with a county that's as Democratic as Boulder.

  • A hometown historian discovers why Colorado Springs is so Republican

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