Meanwhile, Back at the Ranch

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."

And he's as stubborn as old Marvin. Between campaign stops, McKinley plans to keep working, taking customers on horseback trips with his Kirkwell Cattle Company and doing odd ranching jobs. He's looking for a campaign manager and hoping the Colorado Democrats will be able to match the cash he raises. "This fundraising thing, I think we lose focus," McKinley says. "It would be better if we put jars out and elect people the way you elect a homecoming king and queen, by who has the most pennies in the jar."

But until then, McKinley plans to play the political game as much as a maverick can. So he's doing a lot of talking and a lot of listening -- to his constituents, if not the usual political pundits. "He really knows the issues," Miklosi says. "He has a lot to say about strengthening the agricultural economy, about health care, education, transportation." He has answers ready on the tough issues of gun control and abortion, too. Not pat Democratic answers, but answers that should play in rural Colorado. (On abortion, he says, "The fact is, the unborn fetus is not a member of society, so the government can't make a law." As for gun control, "We should just follow the Constitution -- we don't need any more laws.") He thinks he'd support a legislative commission on Columbine; after his work on the grand jury, he knows the hazards of keeping secrets from the citizens.

And so during his six-city, twelve-media-stop tour, McKinley just kept delivering what he calls his "sermons" to any audience he could find -- sometimes reporters, sometimes fellow ranchers, sometimes just Miklosi. "He's smart, but he connects with the common man," Miklosi says. "What you see is what you get."

They put 500 miles on Miklosi's increasingly dirty car. "That trip gave new meaning to the word 'country,'" McKinley says. And then, finally, they pulled off the highway outside Walsh and headed down a dirt road to the ranch where McKinley lives with his schoolteacher wife, Jan, and their four adopted children. "A small United Nations," McKinley says. "For the U.S. Census, we had to ask for double forms."

When they got out of the car, Miklosi jokingly asked if he could borrow McKinley's hose. Instead, he got another sermon. "Never waste," McKinley told him. Not water, not your principles. And, as McKinley says, "have the determination it takes to tackle hell with a squirt gun full of holy water."

Hold your horses: This could be a wild ride.

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