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Independents Day

There's an ominous shadow hanging over Washington, D.C., and it's no alien spaceship. The threat to the political status quo springs from a spot much more down-to-earth: Colorado, where third-party challenges are taking off faster than the grosses of this summer's cinematic blockbuster.

On Tuesday, former Governor Richard Lamm ended weeks of speculation with his official announcement that he's gunning for the Reform Party's presidential slot. Lamm, who hasn't grabbed this many headlines since a crazed man attacked his Volvo in Cherry Creek last year, talks of running a true grassroots campaign, adding energy currently missing from the "politics of the usual."

Now for something completely different.
Out on the parched, far edges of Colorado's fourth congressional district, there's hardly any grass left in which a campaign can take root. So Wes McKinley has taken his candidacy on the road. Just as Lamm walked across Colorado during his first gubernatorial campaign, McKinley has ridden over a thousand miles of his district in the past few months. (Besides their third-party candidacies, the only other thing he has in common with Lamm, McKinley says, is that "we both voted in the last Colorado election.") He's ridden the miles in a covered wagon, on a horse, and on a mule named Marvin. Starting from the ranch his grandparents homesteaded eighteen miles south of Walsh, McKinley traveled a hundred miles before he reached his first major campaign stop in Holly, Roy Romer's hometown. From there he traveled to Trinidad, Ordway, Simla, Kiowa, Fort Lupton, Julesburg, and towns in between that barely rate a dot on any map. "It's amazing how this has worked," McKinley says. "I only had the first week planned. Beyond that, it was an exercise in faith."

By the Fourth of July his faith had taken him to Brush, where he rode Marvin down the dusty main street alongside a pack of mules from the Rocky Mountain Long-Ears Association. The crowd's ears perked up when the parade emcee pointed to McKinley and announced that he was an independent candidate for the congressional seat currently held by Republican Wayne Allard. "Anyone who can handle a mule like that can handle the Democrats and Republicans," the announcer observed. The rest of the politicians were up in Greeley that day, at the Independence Stampede. McKinley had thought about riding in the big parade, too, until he was told there was room only for floats from the Republicans and Democrats.

But out on the range, along the thousand miles McKinley has traveled and the hundreds more he plans to ride to complete the loop, there's plenty of room for an independent candidate. "I've got the second-largest voter bloc," McKinley says. "Unaffiliated voters are only 2 percent or so behind Republicans." Although McKinley himself was raised a Democrat--"My father thought Republican was two words"--he's generally gone his own way, and not just politically. He's worked as a rancher, a math teacher, an oilman, an outfitter. His most unusual credential, though, came when he was named foreman of Colorado's first-ever special grand jury, charged with investigating alleged criminal violations at Rocky Flats seven years ago.

By the time the grand jurors finished wading through thousands of boxes of evidence and eighteen months of testimony, they wanted to indict eight individuals for environmental crimes. Instead, the Justice Department cut a deal with Rockwell International, which ran the plant for the Energy Department, and cut the maverick grand jury loose.

Three years to the day after he'd stood before the federal courthouse in his cowboy hat and boots, reading a letter from the grand jurors to then-president-elect Bill Clinton, asking that they be allowed to reveal what had really happened behind closed doors, last November McKinley was back outside the courthouse, announcing his candidacy.

In the intervening months, McKinley's campaign has spread far beyond Rocky Flats--a good thing, too, since even though the grand jury has been disbanded, its members can still be held in contempt of court for breaking confidentiality. "Rocky Flats is something we never discuss because of the restraints involved," McKinley says. "But there's a general feeling out there that people want some accountability in the government. They're upset about the EPA, OSHA--they feel like government and big business are stifling things. No one has a problem with taxes; they just want a fair value for their money." (McKinley's answering machine has a special message for the taxman: "If you're from the IRS, forget it. I no longer exist." For everyone else, he offers this: "Keep your powder dry, and may your horse always remain upright.")

McKinley has made his declaration of independence during hundreds of chats in corrals, on front porches and at coffeeshop counters. He's running as an unaffiliated candidate, he explains, because "when you go to the dance, you have to dance with who brung you." Everyone has been very interested, he says. Everyone, perhaps, but that one fellow south of Akron. "I rode into his yard and handed him a brochure," McKinley recalls. "He looked at it, said he knew who I was, and didn't act real interested. It turned out he was [candidate] Don Ament's campaign manager for that area. He didn't want me wasting my time."

McKinley's put plenty of time into this crusade--but then, he didn't have much else he could give. "You could say this is a no-budget campaign. We don't have any money problems--because we don't have any money," he observes with a twang that might not play in Peoria but goes over well in Prowers County.

How well, though, he won't know until November. This week he's gathering the petitions he's scattered across the district, checking to see if he's collected enough signatures to satisfy a Secretary of State's office that's been particularly persnickety this election season. (McKinley's wife was at the John Deere dealership in Lamar on Monday, trying to nab a few more names--until an employee said that one of the owners, a certain incumbent governor, doesn't allow petitions in the place.) And next Tuesday McKinley will ride Marvin into Denver and exchange those petitions for a spot on the ballot as an independent.

That's the only party he wants to be part of.
"Every time you get a group of people together and you tell them you're unaffiliated, a third will say that they're independent, too. They're proud of it," McKinley says. "The other two-thirds don't volunteer their affiliation. They don't act like they're proud of their party like the independents are.

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