Chuck McAfee usually votes for Democrats for state and federal offices, but in the red county of Montezuma, the 72-year-old wheat farmer is registered Republican out of necessity.
“At the moment, I’m a Republican because it’s the only way you get to have much of a voice here,” said McAfee, who wants to vote in primaries where there are competitive races and acknowledged a “tactical error” in running as a Democrat for the county commission about 10 years ago.
Republicans outnumber Democrats almost 2-1 in Montezuma, according to the Montezuma County Clerk’s Office. The 4,579 registered Democrats also lag behind unaffiliated voters by 1,503 registrations.
Democrats in red America sometimes feel like strangers in a strange land, unsure how to start a conversation with their neighbors at a time when issues have become so emotionally charged and political allegiances have become so rigid.
“There’s some good exceptions, but for the most part we continue to be very conservative and, in my view, somewhat mean-spirited,” said McAfee, a native of Montezuma who grew up in a Republican household.
The attitude he encounters is that, “‘If you don’t agree with me, there’s no reason to have a conversation.’ It’s not the kind of thing where people can have a position and are thoughtful about it and they’re willing to explore; that’s what is missing in my point of view.”
Marikay Shellman, 63, who lives in rural La Plata County between Ignacio and Bayfield, has learned to keep her politics to herself.
“Even with the Obama campaign, I didn’t want to knock on doors out here. I went with a friend to Durango. You don’t want to offend your neighbors,” she said.
“There are people I used to have more open relationships with who have become entrenched (in their political attitudes). They see the world as so black and white. There has been a real division. I don’t even think to see them any more. If I do, it’s on a more casual level.”
While La Plata overall went for President Barack Obama, it was a much different story in Montezuma, where Mitt Romney got 60 percent of the vote in the presidential election last year. Amendment 64, which legalized recreational marijuana, got 1,391 more votes than Obama.
But Ric Plese, who has turned his Cortez gardening shop, Cliffrose, into an oasis in a political desert, has learned to enjoy the difference.
“I happen to be gay, too. My philosophy has not been to roll over and play dead. I don’t want everybody in the majority to think I think like them,” Plese said. “Even though my vote does not have much weight in the county, I’m still going to put out my yard signs, bumper stickers and be vocal.”
Plese has hosted Democratic meetings at his shop to reinvigorate the party and create a space for like-minded people to socialize.
“We had 110 people at a meeting. Everybody was like ‘Wow, this is amazing,’” Plese said.
“During the build-up to the Iraq war, we were a center for people to come in and scream because they knew they could,” he said.
This was the time when French fries were called Freedom fries as a rebuke to France for not joining the military alliance against Iraq.
So Plese hosted “Viva La France” parties on Bastille Day for four years in a row.
“We had everything French – the food, the wine, the water. This was in opposition to (President) Bush being against France. That was fun. We probably had 150 people at a party with little French flags,” he said.
He realizes his politics have probably hurt business.
“Being gay and a vocal liberal, I probably have scared off some conservatives and gun-toting people who don’t want to shop at my store,” Plese said. “I figure I’m not going to be a millionaire, but I will make a living.”
Apart from the wife of a local elected official peeling off one of his political bumper stickers in front of him, Plese said he has been left alone. He realizes, too, that he’s not much of a threat in conservative country.
“On one level, they think he’s a minority, so who cares what he thinks?” Plese said.
He is happy living in a more progressive neighborhood of Cortez.
“Urban areas tend to be more liberal than rural and suburban areas; even on a microcosm like Cortez that tends to be true,” Plese said.
He appreciates that the City Council has been forward-thinking in supporting renewable energy projects, such as solar panels on the Recreation Center, as well as being generous with parks and a bicycle trail system.
“To be able to walk and ride your bike – this is going out on a limb – but that tends to be a more progressive concept, instead of ‘Let’s drive to the restaurant,’” he said.
Plese said he is not against compromise, either.
“In a small town, you may meet in the center more because you have to, but I have not hidden my politics at all,” Plese said.
During the debate about gun legislation in the spring, Shellman was happily surprised after she unloaded her frustrations on a friend who is a registered Republican.
“She’s a rancher, always had guns. She agreed with me. She didn’t seem to think there was any reason for anyone to have all those magazines or high-powered rifles.”
“That was the first time I ventured a conversation with her on politics,” Shellman said.
She has found she’s not as isolated as she thinks.
“I will go to the caucuses. I will see someone who’s a Democrat. I will think, ‘Wow, I just didn’t know.’”