PUEBLO — About an hour south of Colorado’s famous conservative mecca, Colorado Springs, we found the city of Pueblo hard at work. No flashy controversies here. No Focus on the Familys and no Ted Haggards. Just friendly, hard-working folks trying to help their city — like so many others in this country — recover from the recession.
It only takes a few minutes walking along downtown’s Main Street for one to realize that people here care more about what the next President can do to help Pueblo than who the new president is. Citizens have a chance to cast their votes on the Republican side in tonight’s state-wide caucuses.
The city has suffered job cuts from some major local employers. The biggest hit came when air conditioning company Trane downsized its Pueblo workforce by 37% in 2009. Even the city’s only daily newspaper, The Chieftan, had to reduce its staff by 5% (11 employees). According to some, this is indicative of a larger, negative economic trend in the area.
Jerry Denney, Vice Chairman of Pueblo County Republicans, recalls the days when Pueblo streets bustled with people. Now, he says, “You could shoot a rifle down Main Street and not hit anybody.”
Denney, who worked for the Pueblo steel mill for decades after his family relocated here in 1949, blames excessive regulation for “strangling” local businesses. He added that economically Pueblo is just hanging on.
“We just want to work,” he says. “We need to make the Pueblo economy stronger.”
Others, however, say the Pueblo economy is gaining strength. They point to a number of new urban projects that have been built or are in the planning. Construction finished on the Historic Arkansas Riverwalk last year and restoration on the city’s Judicial Building started just this week.
Sandy Gutierrez, President and CEO of the Latino Chamber of Commerce of Pueblo, sees Pueblo’s economy as down but not out.
According to Gutierrez, Pueblo weathered the recession well up until last year, which she felt was the worst in the 14 years she’s been working for the Chamber. Last year the organization saw the highest dropout rate for registered businesses in the history of the Chamber. That said, 2011 marked the end of five years of record recruitment and registration for the Chamber.
“People who are getting laid off from big companies are then deciding to open small businesses in Pueblo, and look to their community for support,” Gutierrez said.
Chambers of Commerce are pro-business entities, and as a result are often perceived as more aligned with Republican Party politics. But when asked what party Pueblo’s population generally leaned, particularly the Hispanic population, Gutierrez smiled as she replied, “We’re a Democratic city.”
In 2008 Barack Obama certainly thought so: he campaigned here three times during his presidential bid. In town a Democratic political leaning is typically attributed to the long influence of large manufacturing unions that supported the steel mills.
But there are cracks beginning to show.
For instance, in two recent elections, Pueblo voters supported Republicans in record numbers: Colorado’s Attorney General John W. Suthers and Congressional representative Scott Tipton. Republican nominee John McCain made a short stop here in 2008.
There are roughly 80,000 registered voters in Pueblo County but 160,000 residents. That means about half the population is not registered to vote. Pueblo County is almost exactly 50% Hispanic, 50% white — which means there is probably a large unregistered Hispanic population.
With a huge untapped voter population, a depressed economy, and some momentum from these recent wins, are the 2012 Republican nominees campaigning in Pueblo County?
Nope, not a bit.
Because here’s the thing: the Obama campaign is already on the ground here in a big way. The campaign has begun preparing a headquarters in an historic building right down the street from Democratic Senator Mark Udall’s Pueblo office. Though not yet open to the public, organizers have decorated the exterior windows with Colorado-specific Obama campaign materials and inside there is a massive campaign mural.
In other words, the Obama campaign thinks Pueblo matters.
In speaking with Pueblo Republicans like Denney, who characterized 2012 Republican candidates Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney as “Ruling class Republicans,” that don’t interest them, it is clear the GOP has both opportunities and a lot of ground to make up here.
In fact, even Denney said that last year he endorsed and promoted Democrat Eva Montoya for Pueblo City Council because she, as opposed to the Republican candidate, was a lifelong Pueblo resident and retired Pueblo City Schools elementary teacher. The bottom line is, these citizens care about Pueblo above party politics.