Does the GOP own Montezuma County?

It’s been 10 years since any Democrat was elected to a county office in Montezuma County.

Back in 2002, two made it. Sandy Greenlee was chosen treasurer, and Joey Chavez was re-elected as sheriff.

But Greenlee lost her next bid in 2006 to Republican Sherry Dyess, and Chavez resigned in the middle of his term and was replaced by Republican Gerald Wallace.

Since then, all the county’s elected officials — commissioners, assessor, sheriff, clerk and so on — have been from the GOP.

And the one-party lock stands a good chance of continuing. At press time, there were six Republicans vying for two open seats on the county commission. Dewayne Findley and Casey McClellan are on the ballot in District 3, and Tim Hunter had turned in petitions to join them. In District 2, Keenan Ertel made the ballot, Pat DeGagne-Rule petitioned on, and Bud Garner had turned in his petitions. The number of valid signatures for Garner and Hunter had not been confirmed. No Democrats or Greens are running, although two unaffiliated candidates — Greg Kemp and Larry Don Suckla — have said they will try to petition onto the general-election ballot in District 3.

The Republican lock on the county has prompted a lively discussion about, first, whether Democrats and Greens should switch parties in order to vote in the primary — and second, whether they should bother changing back, since so many local races are decided in the primary rather than the general election.

“I switched several years ago to vote in a Republican primary, and that’s still where the action is,” said Chuck McAfee, who ran for county commissioner as a Democrat in 2002 but lost. “I never switched back.”

He said he isn’t shy about telling people he’s a Republican. “I do it every chance I get. I don’t have any problem acknowledging that.”

He sees nothing strange or unethical about belonging to the party, even though it isn’t the one that would best reflect his values.

“The laws are clear, and I’m not violating anything. I have an opinion that on a national and state level, a lot of political effort goes into trying to limit access to the polls, and to me this is kind of fun, to know I can get around some of that by switching parties.

“Plus it makes me feel like I’m doing more than being a bystander.”

Tazewell Vass, owner of the Dolores Food Market in Dolores, became a Republican in 2006 to vote for Wallace as sheriff in the primary.

He urges all his left-leaning friends and acquaintances to switch over and has been sending out e-mails with a link to a state web site where voters can change affiliations.

“Let’s face it,” he said. “Our election for commissioner will probably be decided in the primary in June.”

But he’s encountered some resistance, and he blames it on political laziness.

“Some Greens and liberals and Democrats are relieved that they don’t have to vote — that’s been my perception,” Vass said. “I talk to some of them and their eyes glaze over. They don’t want to have to make the effort to get educated about the commissioner candidates, even though they know there are some of them they would prefer over others.”

This year Vass went a step further and became a delegate to the Republican county assembly. “I went to our precinct caucus here at the Ponderosa restaurant and we elected 13 delegates to the assembly. I was fifth [in the voting].

“I’d never been to an assembly before. It was weird.”

The Republican assembly turned out to be turbulent. For instance, in the voting for district attorney in the 22nd Judicial District, former Democrat Will Furse received 80 out of 140 votes cast and made it onto the ballot, forcing incumbent DA Russ Wasley to have to petition on. Vass was one of Furse’s supporters.

“I had Republicans yelling at me, because you can change 30 days before the caucus [and vote in the caucus]. I said, ‘I’ve been a Republican since Gerald Wallace’.”

Vass said his message to locals on the political left is: “You want the Republican party to be more moderate? Then show up.” Though some traditional Republicans are dismayed by the idea of Democrats infiltrating the party, others are saying, in effect, come on in — the water’s fine.

DeGagne-Rule, longtime chair of the Montezuma County Republican Party until she resigned to run for commissioner this year, said she understands Democrats’ motivation to switch.

“If they want a voice on who’s going to be in office, they do need to change parties,” she said. “If you truly do vote for the person, putting your party beliefs aside, you’re going to have to change in order to have a voice.”

Likewise, Judi Lichliter, president of the Montezuma County Republican Women and a member of the executive board of the Republican Central Committee, said, “That’s something that people have done and I think it’s their personal call. I think a lot of them in the past have made it quite clear that’s what they’re doing, to vote in the primary for a person they support.

“Some became Republican delegates to the assembly and some just flipped back. That’s acceptable. That’s their prerogative.

“I don’t have much of a problem with it until they affect the whole system and get it off keel.”

County Clerk Carol Tullis said people have indeed been switching, but so far there hasn’t been a huge surge of them.

“Every primary election we have people switching,” she said. “I can’t say that there’s been a big flood so far. We’ve had a lot of unaffiliateds declare a party – we’ve had more unaffiliateds change than Democrats to Republicans.”

People who are registered in a party can change their affiliation through May 25, either by going to the clerk’s office and filling out a short form or by going online to the Secretary of State’s web site.

Unaffiliated voters can declare a party affiliation at any time, even at the polls on the day of the primary election.

No one is certain why Montezuma County has gone all red in recent years. There have been Democratic commissioners in the past — Kelly Wilson was elected in 1996 and re-elected in 2000. Certainly this is a conservative county, but it is also diverse. As of press time there were 8,234 Republicans and 4,441 Democrats in Montezuma County, according to the clerk’s office. (Numbers of unaffiliated voters were not available, but are generally between the Republicans and Democrats.) Montezuma County also has 49 Libertarians and 64 registered Greens along with one of the most active Green Party chapters in the state.

And Dolores County to the west, which is at least as conservative, has a Democrat on its county commission. Ernie Williams was re-elected in 2008 with 67 percent of the vote.

Just across the state line in San Juan County, Utah, a Democratic sheriff, Rick Eldredge, unseated the incumbent Republican in 2010.

“I’m not sure why,” said DeGagne-Rule when asked about the Republican monopoly. “I’d like to say it’s because of all the good things the Republicans do, but I don’t think that’s it. I do think we’re more active and maybe more organized.”

Bill Grimm, chair of the Montezuma County Democrats since early 2011, said he thinks the Dems’ losing record in a string of commission races has contributed to the decline of the local Democratic Party. A number of Dems have tried hard to get on the board but have fallen short, usually with about 40 percent of the vote. Fred Blackburn came the closest in 2008, getting 46.5 percent against incumbent Larrie Rule.

In addition, Grimm said, there has been a lot of “negativity” directed at Democrats in recent years. Blackburn experienced vandalism not only to some of his signs — which is a perpetual problem for any candidates locally — but to other personal property, Grimm said. “It wasn’t pleasant.”

And 2008 “was tough for Democrats in this county anyway because there was a lot of not just perceived racism, but racism,” Grimm said. He said one day a bunch of Democrats were gathered outside their headquarters on Main Street for an appearance by Sen. Mark Udall. “A pickup roared by with a couple of men in it and one of them yelled, ‘Nigger-lovers!’ at all of us.”

Along that line, Blackburn had the word “burn” scribbled out on many of his signs, Grimm said.

And the night of Obama’s election, a group of middle-schoolers walking happily along Main Street waving flags after the results were announced reported that a man in a pickup blocked their path crossing a street and yelled obscenities at them.

“I think that kind of stuff has actually created a sort of fear factor in Democrats, that they don’t want to get exposed like that,” Grimm said. “In politics, that kind of stuff goes on and you have to have a thick skin or you’re not going to last. And whether incidents like that would turn into anything substantial is another question. But some people don’t want to stick their necks out.”

While DeGagne-Rule said such incidents are terrible, she thinks Obama’s election hurt local Democrats in a different way. “I do think Bill [Grimm] is right that what goes on in Washington trickles down to everything here, and I think Obama has been an awful president and that hurts the party he’s with.”

Grimm sees a problem in that the left locally seems to be splintered. “Some people want to talk about the Move to Amend [which opposes corporate influence in politics], some want to talk about health care, some are into Occupy Wall Street. We have so many blood lines of Democrats, it’s crazy. Republicans had just a few issues they were able to focus on and stay focused.”

As party chair, Grimm said he can’t switch, but he wouldn’t anyway. “I feel there’s a certain disloyalty to my own views, even though I’m not going into it to be a Republican, just to vote in their primary. There are still some basic issues I have with the Republican Party stances – I wouldn’t be proud of myself.”

And, Grimm said, some of the current local Republican candidates are “very decent people.”

“We’ve had all Republicans in there for years and we’re all still alive,” he said. “Everything is still working. At this point I think it’s just important to get good people in office, regardless of their party, as long as they’re thoughtful and have integrity.”

Vass, however, thinks people’s reluctance to switch parties is nonsense. “My take on changing over is, you’re not going to burst into flames. If you don’t vote in the primary, that’s where the commissioners will probably be chosen, with all due respect to our unaffiliated candidates.”

No unaffiliated candidates has been elected to a Montezuma County office in recent memory.

“I’m sick to death of not being represented,” Vass said, adding that Democrats, and unaffiliated voters together make up a majority of the county. “If we had some balance in this county, if we had a strong Democratic Party, you would stay a registered Democrat and participate in the Democratic assembly.”

He also noted that a few votes can make a difference. In 1994, Sherman Kennell won the Republican primary by 8 votes and went on to become Montezuma County’s sheriff.

“When people say they can’t see themselves as Republicans,” Vass said, “I tell them, ‘Don’t call yourself a Republican. Call yourself a voter’.”

From April 2012.