A bastion of conservatism

Thanks to Silvia Pettem for reminding folks that Boulder was not always liberal.  This follows on an interview two weeks ago with Rob Bowman, who managed the Rocky Flats Plant for Dow Chemical.  Bowman characterized Boulder in the ’50s as a “bastion of conservatism”.

“‘In the ’50s, Boulder was a bastion of conservatism, so there was no bad rap in working at Rocky Flats,’ Bowman recalled. ‘There was one professor (at CU) that was known to be quite extremely liberal,’ Bowman said, searching his memory in vain for the name. ‘He was quite well known, because he was the one liberal in town.'”

I’m really curious who that one liberal was, since it was probably the father of a friend.

Pettem fleshes out Bowman’s characterization with some election history and relates the event that contributed most to the progressive liberalization of Boulder: when eighteen-year-olds got the vote.

There is some truth to the commonly held association of 60’s Boulder with hippies and anti-war protesters, but that is an exaggeration.  Outside of the CU campus, Boulder at that time was still broadly conservative–I remember a billboard that stood for quite some time at the intersection of north Broadway and highway 36 in the early 60’s, prominently sponsored by the John Birch Society and urging the impeachment of Earl Warren.

Signs of change were there, even then.  The Sink put a sign in the window advertising “Free beer for any card-carrying Communist”.  This somewhat belated swipe at the McCarthy Red Scare, coming while memories of the Cuban Missile Crisis (a truly existential threat) were still fresh, prompted some offended local to throw a brick through the sign and the window.  (Well, maybe it was not a local–I think political conservatives were still the majority of the CU student population at that time.)  A couple of nights later the John Birch billboard was blown up.  I clearly recall a photo of a Boulder County Sheriff’s deputy holding up the biggest piece of the sign he could find, about the size of a baseball bat.   This was an early demonstration of the doctrine of shock and awe.  No more bricks were thrown.

As Pettem notes, the flood of new young voters that came when the voting age was lowered to eighteen started to change Boulder.  The Twenty Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified by North Carolina on July 1, 1971, becoming the law of the land.  The amendment passed the Senate 94 to zero and the House 401 to 19, sending it to the states on March 23, 1971.  Its ratification was the fastest ever.  I guess some of the overwhelming support for this amendment was due to an old-fashioned sense of fairness–young men of eighteen were being sent to Vietnam to kill and die when they could not even vote.  I was very clearly aware of that–I voted in the 1971 City Council election and have not missed any election since.   (It’s worth noting that young people would vote at a much higher rate today if the draft were active.  They would probably be serious judges of what constitutes a threat.)

Boulder City Council, 1972. Back row: Richard Geesaman, Kenneth Wright, Karen Paget, Dwayne Nuzum, Janet Roberts Front row: Timothy Fuller, Richard McLean, Ruth Correll, Penfield Tate. Credit City of Boulder.

That flood of young voters did tip Boulder toward the left–two young people, Tim Fuller, a 28-year-old bookstore owner, and Karen Paget, a 26-year-old graduate student were elected to the Council.  And, Boulder gave the most votes to Penfield Tate, who was not young but was Black.

Boulder was dubbed the People’s Republic after the election of Fuller, who was gay, and Paget.  (Worse things were probably said about Tate’s election.)  Given how conservative the real Peoples’ Republic is, that might have been a pretty good moniker.

Remarkably, in December of 1973 Tate introduced an equal-rights measure that would have prohibited employers from discriminating against gays.  Just as remarkable as his act of introducing it, Tate’s equal-rights ordinance passed the Council on a 5-4 vote (for: Tate, Ruth Correll, Janet Roberts, Karen Paget and Tim Fuller).  The “vitriol” about right-sizing is but sweet nothings  compared to the firestorm that then ensued, and the Council bowed to the pressure and put the ordinance up on the ballot.  It lost, 13,000 votes to 7,400.  In 1974 voters forced a recall election and Fuller was recalled.  Tate survived by 567 votes.   (I attribute this to the Putney Swope effect.  Because not many people saw the film, you will probably have to look it up.)  However, Tate was not re-elected in 1975.

Pettem sees the reaction of Boulder to the resignation of Richard Nixon as a sign that Boulder had passed the tipping point to liberalism.  But, my recollection of that time is that simply reflected the Nixon Fatigue that cut across the political spectrum.  Boulder finally passed an equal-rights ordinance in 1987.   At that point we can probably think of it as a liberal town.  Those were the days.

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