God, Guns and Ganja: Colorado Is the Future of American Politics

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In 2012, Colorado passed marijuana legislation that made even Amsterdam look stuffy. Blaine Harrington III/Corbis

“You are at ground zero of an unbridled fascist contagion of fundamentalist Christianity, supremacy, exceptionalism, triumphalism and extremism.” Former Reagan White House lawyer Michael L. “Mikey” Weinstein is holding forth at a table in the Broadmoor, the renowned Colorado Springs resort where George W. Bush famously vowed to stop drinking the morning after his 40th birthday. In the porte cochère, taxidermied elk have stared with glassy eyes at countless military contractors and Pentagon brass arriving to meet commanders at Cheyenne Mountain, the piney bunker for America’s nuclear weapons command looming above the hotel.

Weinstein, a pugnacious Air Force Academy graduate, third-generation military, with a fire-engine-red polo shirt and a beacon of a bald head, prefers to meet at this five-star nuclear Xanadu not because he likes sitting at the bar by the pretty, private lake where well-heeled families paddle in rowboats, but because it has “good security”—something he has needed since he founded the Military Religious Freedom Foundation in 2005, representing more than 42,000 active-duty military who object to having Christian evangelizers in uniform. Weinstein, who endured anti-Semitic taunts as a cadet, has had to clean feces and animal heads off his lawn and fields death threats for filing complaints about proselytizers, such as the Air Force Academy professor who scrawled a red heart on his blackboard this past Valentine’s Day that read, “Jesus wants you to be his valentine,” and the engineering professor at the same institution who told his students the only equation they really needed to know was “1 (cross) + 3 (nails) = 4 (given).”

Colorado, geographical heart of the United States, home base for America’s air defenses, is also the nation’s fun-house-mirror Mini-Me, a schizophrenic state of political contradictions. Atheists fight Christian evangelical organizations in Colorado Springs, while anti-abortion evangelicals are trying to get voters to redefine embryos as persons. Two of the nation’s worst gun massacres happened here, and yet assault weapons and concealed carry are legal everywhere except Denver. But Colorado, as one political consultant puts it, is not Alabama. It is home to some of the nation’s most progressive institutions, ideas and individuals. It was the first state to legalize abortion; its post-Aurora firearms restrictions have withstood sustained attacks from the gun lobby; the nation’s top climate scientists are based here; and its citizens have been legally buying, growing, selling, eating and smoking weed since January 2014.

With God, guns and ganja entwined in the state’s culture, Colorado is the swingiest of swing states. The Rocky Mountain State went Republican in all but two presidential elections between 1952 and 2004—but then picked Barack Obama twice. A progressive coalition turned the state Legislature Democratic in 2004 for the first time since 1960, but Republicans have since recaptured the Colorado Senate. The two parties have been trading the governor’s office and two U.S. Senate seats with the slimmest of margins. And Coloradans get to vote on things like legalizing pot and defining embryos as people because there’s a relatively low bar for getting issues onto the ballot.

The wild card here is that while passionate, issue-driven groups manipulate some blocs of voters, the state is filling up with unaligned millennials. Leaning on contentious issues sometimes backfires: Colorado has clusters of vocal religious conservatives, but attacks on reproductive rights bring young, single women out to vote for Democrats. Colorado’s politics look extreme, but folks in Denver say the real action is happening toward the middle. National politicians who can navigate Colorado’s contradictions probably get America too. That might be why Hillary Clinton scheduled her first campaign stop outside the early primary states in Colorado.

With God on Whose Side?

The U.S. Air Force Academy is located in the vicinity of a godly triangle. It takes five minutes to drive from the Air Force Academy to the 87-acre compound of Focus on the Family, founded by James Dobson, author and psychologist, known for saying Connecticut’s Sandy Hook school massacre was God’s revenge for legal abortion and gay marriage in America, and that battered women bait their men into violence. One can see the massive blue dome of New Life Church, a megachurch with 14,000 parishioners (and former home of defrocked Pastor Ted Haggard, outed by a male escort), from the entrance to the Air Force Academy, and New Life sends in buses on Sunday to ferry cadets to services. Colorado Christian University, home to a major Christian conservative political think tank, is just down the highway.

Weinstein attended the Air Force Academy in the 1970s, but he didn’t start fighting against its Christian activism until his two sons went there and complained about the “para-church organizations,” like Cru (Campus Crusade for Christ) and the Navigators, which have free run of the campus and at one point plastered the common areas with fliers for screenings of Mel Gibson’s controversial The Passion of the Christ.

It’s difficult to know which came first—the Air Force proselytizers or the area’s Christian fundamentalist community. Colorado Springs started inviting evangelical organizations like Focus on the Family to the city in the 1980s for economic reasons. Since a significant number of residents are active or retired military, and many also happen to be conservative and religious, it was a natural fit.

10_06_Colorado_03 Juniors from the U.S. Air Force Academy of Colorado Springs, in front of the Protestant Chapel of the base. The Air Force Academy has been peppered with protests because of the proliferation of proselytizers in uniform. Johann Rousselot/laif/Redux

Besides colonizing Colorado Springs and the U.S. Air Force Academy, religious conservatives are pushing draconian abortion restrictions, like “personhood,” in the state that legalized abortion first, before 1973’s Roe v. Wade decision. Last winter, the Republican Senate considered six anti-abortion bills, including fetal homicide legislation with boilerplate language crafted by a national anti-abortion outfit, Americans United for Life, and mandatory transvaginal ultrasounds. “ In my almost eight years here, that is the most anti-abortion legislation we have ever seen in one session,” says lawyer Cathy Alderman, vice president of public affairs for Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains.

Colorado voters have also considered three ballot measures defining life as beginning at conception with personhood amendments to their state constitution. Bob Enyart, or “Pastor Bob,” has a radio show out of Denver and is on the board of Colorado Right to Life. Working with Personhood USA, another national anti-abortion organization based in Colorado, Pastor Bob and CRTL gathered the signatures to get personhood amendments on Colorado ballots. Voters shot down the proposal three times, but on each occasion it garnered 1 or 2 percent more support, which CRTL regards as a sign of success.

Pastor Bob agreed to sit down in the lobby of Denver’s Brown Palace Hotel and discuss strategy in an era when a majority of Coloradans support legal abortion. He says his litmus test remains, no matter what the polls say: “Any politician willing to kill a single person is disqualified.”

Pastor Bob and CRTL’s influence on Colorado’s Republican-controlled Senate is strong enough that it let die this year a nationally recognized teen birth control program that cut teen pregnancies and abortions by 40 percent in the state. The bottom line on that program, he says, was that it encouraged teen girls to have sex. “If you don’t love God, our creator, you celebrate irresponsibility. You hate God.” Birth control pills, he believes, are bad for women. “A college athlete taking the same amount of steroids would be kicked off the team.”

Pastor Bob and CRTL arrange daily protests outside abortion clinics, trying to talk patients out of having the procedure. He directed me to the Planned Parenthood office in Denver, where several protesters waited by the parking lot with a poster of a bloody fetus. A man with a long white beard had brought a ladder to perch in the branches of a pine tree overlooking the lot and, gnome-like, whisper to passing women below, “Don’t kill your baby.”

Thirty miles north of Denver, Dr. Warren Hern works behind bulletproof glass. Hern, 76, is one of four doctors in the United States who openly perform third-term abortions. Hern was studying public health when the Supreme Court handed down its Roe v. Wade decision. Colorado had already decriminalized abortion in cases of rape, incest and fetal disability in 1967, and Hern came home and started a practice. “I decided doing abortions was the most important thing I could do in medicine.”

Forty years on, Hern believes he could meet the same fate as his friend George Tiller—a Kansas doctor who provided third-term abortions and was shot and killed by an anti-abortion fanatic in 2009. Hern has erected a wall between his office and the sidewalk, as well as bulletproof glass around his receptionist. Cellphones must be surrendered upon entry. Boulder was among the first cities in the nation to pass a so-called “bubble law” requiring abortion protesters to stay 8 feet from women entering clinics. But Hern says the law is ineffectual. “The person who’s being assaulted has to call for help. She’s not going to call for help. My patients have a catastrophic problem: They want to have a baby, and there is something terribly wrong. And they get harassed mercilessly by these people. They have no pity.”

10_06_Colorado_04 Dr. Warren Hern looks out the window of his clinic in Boulder, Colorado in 2009. At the time Dr. George Tiller, another late term abortion doctor, was murdered in Wichita, Kansas, Hern was was under 24-hour watch by an armed federal security team due to similar threats against his practice. Hern is one of just four doctors in the U.S. who will openly perform third-term abortions, which is why he sleeps with a shotgun. Jamie Kripke

Like Weinstein, Hern calls the religious opposition “fascists.” “You can’t debate fascists who want to kill you,” he says. “They are opposed to the basic premises of Western society.” Hern is no Second Amendment zealot, but he has been sleeping with a shotgun near his bed since the 1970s.

Shoot Out the Lights

By day, Aurora is indistinguishable from the other pop-up exurbs along Interstate 25, with purple mountains to the west, fruited plains to the east. The urban and exurban strip constitutes Colorado’s most densely populated area. Almost every store is a franchise of a national chain, and almost every home is painted a shade of tan and planted on a curving street with a name that is some combination of the words rock, creek, stony, ridge or pine. But at night, the wilderness-dark seeps across the acres of poured cement that surround Town Center at Aurora, a mall whose parking lot is so vast, not even the lights of the marquee at the Century 16 multiplex penetrate all its shadows. They certainly did not shine on James Holmes as he slipped out of an emergency exit door late on July 20, 2012, armed himself, donned tactical military gear, then slipped back inside to spray moviegoers with hundreds of bullets, killing 12 people and wounding 70 others before going back out into the dark to wait for the cops.

The Century Aurora 16 theaters are still open, and on a recent summer night, almost exactly three years after the massacre and a few days before a jury returned 165 guilty verdicts against the former neuroscience student, dozens of parents and children waited patiently to catch a late showing of Minions 3-D. The shooting did not seem to be on their minds, but four uniformed police officers worked the ticket line, smiling and handing out junior police badge stickers to the kids, greeting everyone personally.

Assault weapons, as well as concealed or open carry, are legal almost everywhere in Colorado except Denver, and these gun rights have not diminished since the double carnage of Columbine in 1999 and Aurora in 2012. (In fact, Colorado’s concealed carry law, expanding gun rights, was passed in 2003, arguably in response to Columbine.) But area gun control advocates like Moms Demand Action are at war not just with the National Rifle Association but with a homegrown lobby, Rocky Mountain Gun Owners, which pours money into Colorado politics and has been getting state legislators elected and unelected with a massive email list, a conduit for daily spams with alarming warnings and donations links.

In 2013, the Democratic-controlled Legislature passed significant gun control measures banning online-only training for concealed weapons permits, requiring people to pay for their own background checks, limiting the size of ammunition magazines to 15 rounds and making background checks mandatory on private gun sales and transfers. That success brought a furious gun lobby backlash and two recall elections, including that of the Senate president. In 2014, the Senate returned to Republican control, thanks in part to the efforts of the gun lobby.

The post-Aurora gun control laws remain in place, but death by bullet remains tragically frequent, like the apparently errant shot in Pike National Forest that killed a man in July as he roasted marshmallows with his grandkids. The source of that bullet, as well as whether it was fired deliberately, remains unknown, but it highlighted the issue of gun safety in a fully armed state.

Massacres like Columbine and Aurora do not move Dudley Brown, Colorado’s chief gun lobbyist, head of the Rocky Mountain Gun Owners, to seek compromise. On the contrary, he calls the NRA spineless, while it sneers that he is “the Al Sharpton of the gun movement.” Brown, who drives around in a Pinzgauer, a Cold War–era Austrian troop transport truck that he calls his “political pain delivery vehicle,” controls enough money to make a difference in the state Senate and probably the Republican presidential primary. He agreed to meet with Newsweek less than 24 hours after the Aurora guilty verdicts at one of his customary hangouts, the Front Range Gun Club, in a Loveland suburban business park about an hour from downtown Denver. The lobby of the indoor range was a hive of mostly male employees in royal blue polo shirts, holstered weapons on their belts, helping customers, including a young man at the glass-top counter who wanted to show his preteen daughter how to hold a handgun before taking her down into the shooting gallery for the first time. “Will it make a loud noise?” she asked as he positioned her fingers around it.

Tall, lumbering and graying blond, Brown strode in wearing khakis with a holstered handgun and, apropos of the youthful customer, shared pictures on his phone of his preteen son and daughter, both posed with assault weapons. He then instructed me in the proper firing of two weapons belonging to the range owner’s wife—a purple plastic Czech handgun and purple plastic semi-automatic AR-15 (the make of one of Holmes’s weapons). They both made loud noises.

10_06_Colorado_05 Seth Walters, a staffer for the gun rights group Rocky Mountain Gun Owners, hands out promotional T-shirts before a gun rights rally held near a Mayors Against Illegal Guns remembrance event honoring the victims of the Aurora theater shootings on July 19, 2013, at Cherry Creek State Park in Aurora, Colorado. The man who runs Rocky Mountain Gun Owners refuses to patronize businesses that ban concealed weapons. Brennan Linsley/AP

According to Brown, there is hardly a man, woman or child in America who should not have access to a weapon and be allowed to take it almost anywhere. He doesn’t worry about Aurora-style massacres or mentally ill people buying guns. Felons who’ve served time should be able to get them too. “What keeps me up at night is thinking about all the defenseless people we’ve disarmed,” he says. “If I’d been in that theater, he might have killed one or two people—that’s it.” But he wasn’t in the theater, and he won’t ever go into it, because they don’t allow patrons to carry concealed weapons. And he avoids such places unless he absolutely must go in.

Brown can think of only one sort of place where he might agree that the government should ban weapons: “where government can guarantee your safety—places with metal detectors, like police stations. And if you can’t do that, then you better let people defend themselves.” Then he reconsiders whether police could truly guarantee his safety. “You know what they say—police are just forensic historians.”

When Rocky Mountain Gun Owners pushed Colorado Senate Republican leaders this year to repeal the post-Aurora law expanding background checks to private gun sales and transfers, Dave Hoover, a police officer whose nephew was killed at the theater, testified against it. “Here we are, dealing with the pain of reliving it,” he said to the committee. “It never goes away. It will never go away.”

That leaves Brown unmoved. “I understand their grief,” he says of the Aurora survivors. “I would never rub that in their face. But what I would say to them is my constitutional rights are not subject to your grief.”

Ganja Style

10_06_Colorado_06 Partygoers dance and smoke pot on the first of two days at the annual 4:20 marijuana festival in Denver. Despite the popularity of pot legislation, Colorado’s Democratic governor has vowed to tighten up the laws. Brennan Linsley/AP

In November 2012, Colorado voters passed Amendment 64 by almost 9 percent, adding a new right to their constitution: the right to use, produce and distribute marijuana. It was unprecedented, arguably going beyond even Amsterdam’s loose drug laws, and the political establishment was flummoxed. “Don’t break out the Cheetos or Goldfish too quickly,” Governor John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, announced the next day—and indeed, the law has been rolled out with a raft of complicated licensing and regulatory details. Weed entrepreneurs, law enforcers and users alike are still sorting through what’s legal and what’s not.

For the confused, the first stop might be a little café less than half an hour away from the Air Force Academy and its triangle of Christian evangelism. The Studio A64 cannabis club’s owner, KC Stark, is a doppelgänger for horn player Chet Baker, with his greaser haircut, mod sideburns, tinted glasses and black clothes. An Army veteran stationed in Germany when the wall fell, Stark is a lifetime pot user who calls himself the Steve Jobs of weed, as well as a one-man marijuana chamber of commerce. His Marijuana Business Academy has provided thousands of how-to seminars to aspiring weed entrepreneurs. “Marijuana is the fastest growing industry in America,” says Stark. “We estimate the marijuana business will generate 2.7 billion annually nationwide this year, and in 10 years, between 10 and 40 billion annually.” That economic infusion will—he believes—remake Colorado’s and eventually America’s economy into a libertarian utopia of mom-and-pop entrepreneurs selling locally grown weed for everything from backaches to recreation. “America is the greatest nation,” he says. ”You have the right to succeed and the right to suck. You have the right to try and the right to fail.”

The thing that bothers him most is that everyone doesn’t see it. “We can’t advertise on the NFL, even though we’re as big as Viagra!” he complains.

About an hour up I-25 from Colorado Springs, business professor Jim Parco might be said to share this vision, though he’s never heard of Stark and has no interest in his cannabis club. High school valedictorian, squeaky-clean Air Force Academy graduate, married to his childhood sweetheart, Parco had never tried marijuana—in fact, he thought it was evil—when he and his wife, a schoolteacher, decided to invest their savings in a dispensary. When they told their college-age daughters, one of them was so shocked she refused to talk about it for several weeks. Parco has now invested nearly $1 million and says he hopes to run it as a side business until he retires. He anticipates a time when marijuana businesses will proliferate around the state like vineyards.

The Race to the Middle

Retired Air Force Major General Irv Halter lives less than five minutes from Focus on the Family’s campus. A decorated fighter pilot who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, Halter had his last military assignment with the Joint Chiefs of Staff. As vice superintendent of the Air Force Academy, he often fielded Mikey Weinstein’s complaints about campus proselytizers. He doesn’t agree that Colorado Springs is an “unbridled fascist contagion of Christian fundamentalism,” but he recognized some problems at the academy and usually responded to the Military Religious Freedom Foundation’s complaints by quietly making changes.

Halter occupies Colorado’s political center. He used to vote Republican, but last year he ran and lost a quixotic bid for Congress as a Democrat. “I didn’t leave the Republican Party. The Republican Party left me,” he says. He now heads Governor Hickenlooper’s Department of Local Affairs.

Halter says that while Colorado can be a state of extremes, playing to the edges is a doomed strategy because of demographic changes that are making the state younger, more apolitical. “Young people don’t see the world the same way as they did 18 years ago. You can’t win running left or right.” For Halter, it’s moderation in all things, whether guns, pot or religion. Colorado’s guns trouble him most. Like Dudley Brown, Halter knows his way around weapons, and he keeps a gun or two. He understands why some of his neighbors, especially in some of the remoter exurbs along I-25, might want a weapon. “ Look, you can’t get 911 to come out to many of the places in the sparsely populated areas,” he says. “But I am concerned about everybody packing weapons. In Iraq and Afghanistan everybody did carry weapons. And if something happens, everybody starts shooting.... From my perspective as a military guy, it’s not just about rights—it’s about responsibility.”

10_06_Colorado_02 Pot smokers partake in smoking marijuana at exactly 4:20 during the annual 420 celebration in Lincoln Park near the State Capitol in Denver, Colorado on April 20. Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post/Getty

Among Halter’s duties is helping communities qualify for moneys from the state’s oil and gas severance tax. That energy boon is one reason Halter and most of the state political establishment are in no hurry to restrict coal mining or ban fracking, a bane of environmentalists. “I’m a centrist. Hickenlooper is a centrist,” Halter says. “Oil is a commodity, and folks will keep bringing it out of the ground. Our approach is businesslike: What can we practically get done? Leave aside the divisive issues.”

Moderation is the key to Colorado politics, according to Democratic political consultant Craig Hughes. From his office in an old rowing club along the banks of the South Platte River, in downtown Denver, Hughes keeps one eye on the dynamics of his state’s politics on his laptop and one out his window, where he can see the influx of millennials and tech entrepreneurs in the hip, urban neighborhoods near his office—the young, politically unaffiliated people who are changing the state’s economy and demography. A native Coloradan, Hughes got his start as a Bill Clinton campaign operative and could have stayed in Washington, but he couldn’t imagine raising his three kids in a city. In his home state, he ran campaigns for Obama and more recently, Colorado’s Democratic Senator Michael Bennet, whose election in 2010 went against the national anti-Democratic trend that year. “Colorado is the ultimate battleground state,” he says. “It will be in play and highly contested to the end.”

Hughes says that despite the state’s high-profile culture wars, Colorado is a model of compromise, because the vast majority of its citizens are independents with a libertarian streak. “You don’t live here because you follow politics,” he says. “We’re not a political state. The goal of politics here is ‘Don’t mess up my life.’ So people push for real solutions. We have seen far more bipartisan cooperation than in other states. You see a lot more cooperation here than you will in Washington.”

The best proof of that apolitical tendency can be found—surprise—in Colorado Springs, where Focus on the Family Founder James Dobson gave his final radio broadcast in 2010. He moved on partly because his overtly political activities put the organization’s charitable status in jeopardy, but also because new times demanded a new approach. His replacement, Jim Daly, is a low-key, affable native Californian who has worked with Focus on the Family since 1989. I met Daly the day after he’d returned from a two-week vacation with his teen sons, which prompted him to confess to a political change of heart. He now says he would have supported the Clinton-era Family and Medical Leave Act, a statute Focus on the Family adamantly opposed because of its supposedly detrimental effect on small businesses. “That should have been something we should have said would be good for family,” Daly says. “I think we could have been a little more attuned to things that helped families. And if it raised taxes a little, so what?”

Besides breaking from the time-honored Republican strategy of binding conservative social issues to tax opponents, Daly has been seeking “points of collaboration” with former foes in the gay and feminist movements. “Dobson and [Jerry] Falwell and [Pat] Robertson were born in the ’30s,” he says. “And if I’d been born then, I’d probably be saying, ‘Maintain all the values of that time.’ But being born in the ’60s, it’s a different world. And that’s hard for the older generation to take.”

Daly referred me to his new friend, Denver gay rights activist Ted Trimpa, who has been called “the left’s answer to Karl Rove.” Trimpa was one of the architects of the national strategy for legalizing gay marriage. The two men first met at a dinner party in 2014 and quickly forged what they say is both a sincere personal friendship and one of the strangest political alliances in the nation.

Trimpa, a trim, bespectacled political Denver lawyer who got his own start on the dark side, as a lawyer representing the interests of cigarette companies, says Colorado’s political edges promote rather than retard progressive social change. “You need extremists on the right and left to make change, otherwise the middle doesn’t pay attention,” he says. “You want the Dudley Browns [although Trimpa calls Brown “evil”] and the Bernie Sanderses. It’s when public perception is deformed by [extremists] that it’s a problem. There are many more opportunities for common ground because of the extremes. We have a better opportunity to get things done because we can say, ‘We don’t want to be like them.’”

Since he and Daly became friends, they set out to find an issue on which they could agree. And they found it in a strong human trafficking bill that Colorado passed this year. “He will never agree with me on gay marriage,” says Trimpa, who proposed to his longtime boyfriend after the Supreme Court ruling this year. “But we are both trying to achieve things in the best interests of children, and stability of relationships is one aspect of that. So we are working the middle. Jim is that kind of thinker, and that’s why I love him.”

Perhaps the single greatest symbol of Colorado’s political lurching can be found in a simple can of beer. Coors, the iconic Colorado beverage “brewed with pure Rocky Mountain spring water,” has been a culture wars icon, right up there for decades with Che Guevara T-shirts and Robertson. Progressives boycotted the brand from the 1960s on for allegedly sexist and racist practices, as well as for mistreating its labor force. The conservative Coors family were the Koch brothers of their day, reliably bankrolling the right for decades. But today, the brand is associated with the LGBT movement, sponsoring gay events from coast to coast, after a corporate marketing effort targeted at gays and initially spearheaded by none other than Mary Cheney, the arch-conservative former veep’s lesbian daughter.