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Meanwhile, Back at the Ranch

A maverick makes a run for the Statehouse.

Wes McKinley has never washed a vehicle. A horse, yes. But in the arid southeastern corner of Colorado where he lives, "washing a truck is a waste of water," McKinley says. "A waste of precious liquid."

Out in Walsh, just sixteen miles from the Oklahoma border, they talk a lot about water. Saving it, not selling it, although it's harder than ever to make a living farming -- even with all those grants and low-interest loans and subsidies. If farmers were paid a fair amount for their crops, they'd be able to survive on their own, and those government programs would go away. Instead, it's the farms that are going away. "You think being dependent on foreign oil is bad?" asks McKinley. "Can you imagine what will happen if we become a foreign-food nation? When they've got the food supplies, then they've got us."

So McKinley keeps talking about what it's going to take to save farms and ranches, to conserve and preserve the rural lifestyle. Last week he almost talked the ear off of Joe Miklosi, who drove McKinley on a whirlwind tour of La Junta, and Lamar, and Springfield, and Trinidad, and Walsenburg, and back to Trinidad -- all towns that fall in Colorado House District 64 (the former District 47, with a little land to the west and Prowers County added), where McKinley is now a Democratic candidate for the Statehouse.

Miklosi, director of operations for the House Majority Project of the Colorado Democratic Party, served as McKinley's handler on the campaign kickoff -- as much as anyone can "handle" McKinley. The third-generation rancher is a maverick of long standing, from his days as a high school science and math teacher through his work as foreman of the Rocky Flats grand jury, Colorado's first-ever special grand jury that was charged with investigating alleged environmental crimes at Rocky Flats nuclear-weapons plant. The grand jurors spent over two years considering the evidence -- much of it seized during a June 1989 FBI raid of the then-operational plant -- before deciding they wanted to indict eight employees of the Department of Energy and Rockwell International, which ran Rocky Flats for the DOE. Instead, U.S. Attorney Mike Norton cut a deal with Rockwell ten years ago next month (the $18.5 million settlement was less than Rockwell had been paid in bonuses), and the jurors were released from their duty. They were not released from their gag order, however: A motion is still pending before U.S. District Judge Richard Matsch that could release those jurors from their long, court-imposed silence, allowing them to finally tell what really went on behind those closed jury-room doors. With any luck, that will happen before the former plutonium-trigger-making bomb factory is reopened as a wildlife refuge -- which gives Matsch a deadline of 2006.

McKinley's not part of that legal maneuver, however. After the grand-jury foreman failed to get the response he wanted from Washington -- back in November 1992, the cowboy-hatted McKinley stood before the federal courthouse and assembled cameras and read a letter demanding justice that the grand jurors had sent to newly elected president Bill Clinton (McKinley's still waiting to hear back from Bill) -- he made a run at Washington himself. In 1996 McKinley traveled the Fourth Congressional District by horseback and wagon, campaigning as an independent candidate for the seat ultimately won by Republican Bob Schaffer. Although McKinley came in a very distant third, the race had its bright spots: Marvin, McKinley's mule and traveling companion, was endorsed by the Greeley Tribune, which said the animal was better qualified than either of the Republican or Democratic candidates. Marvin, after all, had never put his hoof in his mouth. "CNN picked it up," McKinley remembers. "Bob did not think it was funny."

Now Marvin's about to be pressed back into service -- for the Democrats, which is more in keeping with both the party's mascot and McKinley's political sentiments. "There's always a debate whether the Democratic symbol is a mule or a donkey," McKinley muses. "The Democratic Party is the farm party, the party of Jefferson."

Technically, the donkey is the father of a mule, a hybrid animal that can't reproduce -- unlike candidates this campaign season, who keep multiplying like bunnies.

McKinley is just one of the House Majority Project's projects, albeit the most colorful, as the Colorado Democratic Party pushes to gain the six seats that would give it the Statehouse. "It's going to be tough, but it's doable," says Katie Reinisch, a political consultant working part-time for the project. "If we have the money, we'll be able to take the majority, as we did with the Senate two years ago." In fact, they're following much the same game plan the party used in 2000 for those Senate races, beating the bushes for candidates (only two House districts are without Democratic challengers at the moment), giving advice, handling those who allow themselves to be handled. "We're trying to field candidates that we think are going to represent their districts," says Miklosi. "You can't run a Denver Democrat in District 64."

That district, which is now represented by Republican Ken Kester, has 18,656 registered Democrats, or 44 percent of the voters -- but "those are fiercely independent Democrats and unaffiliated voters, who more typically vote Republican than Democratic," Reinisch notes. Gore took the district by 3,000 votes in 2000. "It's an uphill battle," she says, "but Wes McKinley has taken those on before."

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