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Just one year after progressives glowed with hope, they're fighting an uphill battle again

From Seattle to Saginaw and Savannah, progressives and moderates saw the dawning of a better nation, with "change" as the defining political theme. And as the nation prepared for a new presidency, Democrats everywhere shared visions of turning their ideals and their energy from the 2008 election into a new reality.

Nowhere did that hopeful feeling exist with more clarity than here in Colorado. With Gov. Bill Ritter looking invincible, two Democratic senators in Washington along with five Dems in the House, all supported by a fervent grassroots organization inspired by the country's first African-American president, the state and local political landscape in January 2009 looked full of promise.

A year later, that landscape has turned rugged.

The strident debate over health care reform, the suffering economy, the lingering animosity created by government bailouts and stimulus money that never seem to help everyday working Americans — all of those and more have combined to erode the hope and happiness.

Obama's inauguration a year ago this week was a historic triumph, but the year since has seeped with anxiety, upheaval and political ugliness. To the cynical eye, the change Obama promised has benefited mostly banks and health insurers, all while jobs are disappearing and soldiers are dying in two wars.

The frustration and despair have trickled down, with Republicans attacking at every chance and Democrats failing to respond effectively. Last week, Colorado's Democrats were stunned when Ritter announced he wouldn't seek a second term. The uncertainty that followed, even after word came Tuesday that Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper would step into the governor's race, amplified the feeling that the state's Dems didn't have anyone truly in command.

And it showed just how much had changed, and how far they had strayed, in just one year.

Anybody home?

Tom Hart joined the Obama bandwagon a few months before election day. He believed that people could vote their way to something different, that the political system could really change.

The 64-year-old Colorado Springs resident became a "grunt laborer" for the campaign, attending house parties to make phone calls and serving as a poll-watcher on election day to make sure everyone got a chance to vote.

When Obama won, Hart envisioned a culture of involvement and a new era of post-partisanship. He took a break from politics to enjoy the view — and to his horror, many of the big ideas started shrinking. The goal of a new kind of politics disappeared as Republicans resisted Obama's overtures toward bipartisanship and Democrats reacted with anger. Then came hesitation in pulling troops out of Iraq and closing Guantanamo Bay, and the party's inability to effectively respond to GOP health-care claims about death panels and excessive taxes.

"I see this stuff, and there's absolutely no response," Hart says. "I thought of going down to the Democratic Party headquarters and asking, 'What in the hell are you people doing?'"

A year ago, when Jason DeGroot was picked as El Paso County's Democratic Party chair, he had the goal of reshaping and decentralizing the party along the lines of the Obama campaign. Instead of having the party chair try to maintain contact with a couple hundred precinct chairs, that responsibility would be handed off to the leaders in each of the county's 10 state House districts.

DeGroot says those House district leaders, eight of whom are in their first party leadership positions (like DeGroot himself), are still going strong. Which is great — except that for now, it doesn't provide much of a counterpoint to Republicans and libertarians showing up at town hall meetings and on street corners to protest health-care reform. Nor does it do much to engage a critical mass of everyday people, à la the house parties that impressed so many during the 2008 campaign.

Jill McCormick, one of those new leaders who chairs House District 18, emerged from the Obama campaign as a big proponent of house parties to help energize neighbors and possibly transform the party. Though she says they've continued in some places, McCormick admits that the idea has mostly fizzled: "People were kind of tired," she says, adding that no issue stood in for the old intensity of the campaign. "I'm finding there has to be something people are passionate about."

She hopes voters will find reason to get excited about the Democratic Party's 2010 candidates. In the meantime, she'll be focusing on the more mundane tasks of recruiting and retaining chairs in each of the 55 precincts in her district, and helping the party develop procedures to do the same work.

All this infrastructure-building could clearly help the party. But how has the party done holding on to its new voters and volunteers outside of leadership positions?

Not very well, according to Mike Stahl, executive director of the Pikes Peak Education Association. He says he's gotten e-mails updating him on issues, but nothing inviting him to any kind of gathering or event.

During the campaign, Stahl knocked on doors and made phone calls, and drew about a dozen "deeply engaged" Democrats to a debate-watching party at his house. Now, he and a friend joke about developing a bumper sticker that reads, "I voted for hope and change, and all I got was this lousy bumper sticker."

In his part-time job at a north-side bookstore, Hart gets the feeling that many Democrats have simply gone back into the closet. Customers making political allusions there have lately presumed a staunch conservatism, from the woman buying Sarah Palin's book who asked him, "How could anyone not like her?" to the man who openly wished that the Ku Klux Klan would pay a visit to the White House.

Hart has his own thoughts about bumper stickers, explaining how an Obama sticker has twice made him the target of menacing notes, including one that read: "At some point, do the actions of the idiot you voted for force you to remove the bumper sticker, imbecile?"

It's left him yearning for last year's atmosphere of change, which reminded him of the 1960s.

"I sometimes wonder where all the hippies went," he says wistfully. After a pause he continues: "All these people who were talking about positive change — where did they go?"

A sputtering 'machine'

In the past couple weeks, U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet has talked with plenty of those people. His visit to the Independent offices last Friday was part of a recent barnstorming tour of Colorado, which took him from Durango to Greeley to Pueblo and many points in between.

The health-care debate has clearly taken a toll. When asked whether the way it's evolved has shaken the faith of some people in the Democratic Party, Bennet gives a one-word answer: "Sure."

He elaborates by saying, "On some things, I completely understand their disappointment. Public option — totally understand it. I share their disappointment."

He also voices the frustration of many by lamenting the kind of Democratic "backroom" deal-making that gave Sen. Ben Nelson's home state of Nebraska an extra cut of federal money in exchange for his crucial vote.

"My view of that is that everybody should get it, or no one should get it," he says.

In all, Bennet, appointed by Ritter to his first elected office a year ago when Ken Salazar became secretary of the Interior, sounds astonished at what's transpired in the effort to get health-care reform passed. Beyond Dems' missteps, he ascribes some blame to Republican fear-mongering, and also to the "10-minute news cycle," which puts the focus on salacious claims and controversy. He sounds a general note of frustration talking about the bizarre Senate rules that allow a minority of just 41 senators to block the will of the majority by raising the mere prospect of a filibuster.

"There's no question that the process is absolutely broken," Bennet says.

For people who were unfamiliar with the process until they got caught up in Obama's wave, discovering that can be disillusioning. As DeGroot says, "It's people who were new to politics who had a hard time watching sausage getting made."

It's not just health care, of course, that's let people down from a legislative point of view. There's also the escalation of war in Afghanistan, and the failure to address issues of utmost importance to special-interest groups who helped carry the day, such as gays still waiting for Obama to overturn the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy.

Kyle Saunders, associate professor of political science at Colorado State University, says the Obama machine is "very much reduced from what it was" because of all this.

"Many of those people are not nearly as enthusiastic," he says, "because they haven't gotten the policies they thought they were going to get."

Even some longtime Dems may have fallen victim to a perception created by the 2008 campaign, that somehow, in Bennet's words, "all of this was going to change at once." Judi Ingelido, the county Democratic Party's vice chair, considers that one of the things that may have reduced the energy level in 2009. The other is simple anxiety due to the economic recession. When so many people have to focus on putting food on the table, they're less apt to spend their time organizing demonstrations or even thinking about what's happening in Washington, D.C.

"What I'm seeing is, people are in survival mode," she says.

State in a state

Although the Democratic Party may not be as strained as your average household, it may be similarly affected by the tight financial environment.

"Because of the economy," Saunders says, "resources are only going to go to competitive elections. Because of that lesser motivation and a tougher campaign finance environment, you'll see Democrats competing in fewer elections. Political organization at the local level, where there isn't much of a Democratic base, is going to be less invested."

That's a serious threat in El Paso County. Heading into 2002, all 13 of its representatives at the state Capitol were Republicans. Michael Merrifield broke that stranglehold by eking out a 112-vote victory in House District 18, representing the west side of Colorado Springs. Since then, Merrifield has kept his seat, winning by more healthy margins in a politically divided district. He's also welcomed two other area Dems to the Capitol: John Morse, who made the Senate in 2006 and is now majority leader, and Dennis Apuan, who secured a House seat in November 2008.

This year, Democrats actually have the numbers to expand their influence locally. Merrifield, term-limited out of the House, seeks to be the first Democratic county commissioner in more than three decades. Pete Lee, who received 44 percent of the vote in a fight for state Senate in 2008, is vying for Merrifield's seat. And Tom Mowle, the county's appointed public trustee, is trying to become its clerk and recorder.

But according to Springs-based political consultant Patrick Davis, Ritter's withdrawal could negatively impact all their efforts.

"The Democrats running in El Paso County were betting on a strong top-of-the-ticket candidate," Davis says. "If the Democrats don't pick a self-funded candidate [for governor], their candidate will be poaching donors from legislative races."

And then there's the issue of what it means for the Democrats be without a leader at the state level. Some see Ritter's withdrawal as emblematic of a backslide from the Democrats' dramatic recent gains in the West, and particularly in Colorado. In just seven years, Colorado went from having a Republican-dominated Legislature, a GOP governor and Republicans outnumbering Democrats in Congress to just the opposite.

The state is painted as the keystone to Dems' Western strategy, as was illuminated by Denver being the stage for Obama's acceptance of the Democratic nomination in August 2008 and the signing of his first major piece of legislation, the economic stimulus bill.

"Ritter paved the way for the Democratic National Convention and the stimulus bill — meant to build the party in Western America, not just Colorado," says Davis. "I think there's big symbolism going on."

One person widely seen as having the potential to swoop in and unite Colorado's Dems immediately was Ken Salazar. But Salazar passed on the governor's race, and though he endorsed Hickenlooper (as Obama later did), that had nowhere near the same effect.

Those who know Salazar well don't blame him for staying in the Interior Department, and away from a state that's facing a $1 billion budget shortfall entering 2010.

"He's happy about where he is right now. He's got a lot of responsibility and it's great job for him," says Richard Skorman, who ran Salazar's Colorado Springs office from 2006 to early 2008. "Besides, why would he want to be governor? With the state shaky, he could end up trying to battle a Republican Legislature and deal with a huge fiscal problem."

Keeping hope alive?

In the middle of all last week's uncertainty, the national political polling specialists known as Rasmussen Reports decided that actually, "Democratic prospects improve" in Colorado without Ritter. Numerous others agree.

Ritter alienated labor by killing union-friendly legislation in 2007 and 2009, and that threatened to strip his re-election bid of a key constituency in 2010. Republican candidate Scott McInnis had already jumped out to a fairly substantial lead in the polls when Ritter withdrew.

Daniel Cole, a Colorado Springs political observer and law student at Columbia University, calls Ritter the "weakest" candidate Democrats could have offered and current Senate challenger Andrew Romanoff the strongest, although Cole feels Hickenlooper and anyone else who jumps in may face a late-start handicap.

"In politics, a month can feel like a year," Cole says.

Davis agrees that with Ritter gone, Republicans are "most afraid of Andrew Romanoff."

"He's easy to like," Davis says. "He's very in tune with the way Democrats have been winning elections in Colorado. He's very in touch with the progressive side of the party."

Romanoff, the 43-year-old former speaker of the House, is in a tough spot. Whether he stays in the race against Bennet or shifts his focus to Hickenlooper, he'll be engaging another young, likable Democrat in a potentially damaging primary battle.

The only way he could remain a player and bolster the party would be if Hickenlooper could convince him to join his ticket as lieutenant governor (perhaps with added powers and a promise to step aside and let Romanoff take over in 2014), as one rumor has suggested.

While some believe Hickenlooper is too Denver-centric to compete statewide, plenty of others believe in him. A Rasmussen poll tabbed him the best challenger to McInnis. Skorman says he thinks Hickenlooper would stand a good chance, because he's level-headed, a real "Western Democrat."

Chuck Bader, political director of the Colorado Springs Area Labor Council, says Hickenlooper might be able to get Democrats, particularly labor groups, excited again.

That, or any other kind of excitement, could be a big help in 2010. Bader points out it's a lot easier for people to get excited about a candidate than an abstract issue, as Obama himself proved.

"In 2008, we thought the momentum would last longer than it did," Bader says. "We're going to work hard to light that fire again."

And from Bader's level to Bennet's, Democrats are aware that it is going to be hard work, with so many distractions and disappointments to overcome, and without influential Republican officeholders to rail against.

Heck, even Tom Hart hasn't actually jumped into his car, the one with the Obama bumper sticker, and taken that trip to Democratic headquarters to ask what's happening or how he could help.

"Yeah, I've gotten frustrated," the 64-year-old says sheepishly, "but I haven't done anything."

Staff members contributing to this story include Anthony Lane, J. Adrian Stanley, Pam Zubeck, Kirk Woundy and Ralph Routon.

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