The other party
Editor’s Note: This is the first of a two-part series dealing with a political minority in the Cowboy State: Progressives. Today, Goshen County residents talk about their political beliefs. On Friday, The Telegram will introduce local individuals who espouse those beliefs.
GOSHEN COUNTY – The beacon of progressiveness in Goshen County sits just blocks away from the heart of Torrington.
It’s a quaint house on a corner lot. The exterior is immaculately cared for. It’s not new construction, but it’s in near-perfect condition. It’s pink with purple pillars and white trim. They’re not traditional colors by any means, but they fit the home.
As the United States of America continues to split at the seams and divisiveness is the essence of national political discourse, the pink house has, from time to time, boasted a strong message important to its owner, Cindy Cochran.
In 2017, Cochran hung a sign from the house’s roof to comment on a series of events in Charlottesville, Va., when a protestor in a display for racial equality was killed by a white supremacist who drove into a crowd of protestors. It happened during a rally called ‘Unite the Right,’ which was attended by white sumpremacists, neo-Nazis and members of the Ku Klux Klan. The racists marched through the streets of Charlottesville carrying tiki torches and reciting traditional Nazi mantras such as “blood and soil.”
They were eventually challenged by civil rights groups and activists, and the events turned violent.
President Donald Trump told the nation he believed there were “good people on both sides.”
Cochran, who is white, couldn’t stay silent.
She hung a large banner on her roof - “No Nazis, No KKK, No Fascist USA.”
At the time, Cochran told the Telegram her ultimate goal in creating the signs is to raise awareness and start a dialogue regarding ongoing issues in the U.S.
“We need to ask ourselves, ‘Am I part of the problem or part of the solution?’” she said. “There’s some disconnect here (in Goshen County), because a lot of the things that are happening are not happening here. Injustice to one person is injustice to everybody. If people think it’s not going to spread to this area, it is.”
Cochran’s home is also adorned with a silhouette of former Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, and it bears the words ‘Defend the Sacred.’
While many of Cochran’s statements are temporary – they hang until the weather destroys them – the image of Bernie is permanent. Locally, the pale pink facade is known as the ‘Bernie house.’
And years after she hung her first banner, just months before the 2020 general election – which is poised to be one of the most divisive in American history, between Trump and Democrat Joe Biden – the beacon of progressive thought can sometimes be a lightning rod.
But it’s worth it for Cochran. Her ultimate goal is to help create a better world for her children and grandchildren.
“It’s about truth, it’s about justice, it’s about dignity,” she said. “And if we are the country we say we are, then it’s about what life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for all means.”
Cochran may be the most visible, but she’s just one of a growing crowd of progressive thinkers in Goshen County – an undeniable conservative and Republican stronghold in a state that can virtually guarantee three Electoral College votes, two senators and a representative for the GOP cause.
They come from diverse backgrounds and, while they mostly eschew labels, they’re known by many names – progressives, liberals, Democrats. Whatever you call them, their numbers are growing.
That was evident June 5 when more than 100 people turned up in downtown Torrington to march against racial inequality and police brutality. Cochran called it “monumental.” It’s evident on social media, where political debates rage almost all hours of the day. And, believe it or not, it’s evident in election results.
Now, Wyoming is as firmly Republican as any state can be – but it’s not without exceptions, according to Joe Barbuto, who heads the Wyoming Democratic Party, which has grown from one to four full time staffers since 2017.
“I sometimes joke that it’s like trying to move water uphill with a fork, but the work is always worth it,” Barbuto said.
Most notably, Democrat Dave Freudenthal served two terms as governor, though he held some traditional conservative views. He scored a narrow win over Republican Eli Bebout in 2002, but he crushed Ray Hunkins by 77,416 votes in 2006. He even won over voters in Goshen County that year, and earned more than twice as many votes as his GOP opponent.
Since then, though, Democrats haven’t collected a single win in Goshen County. The last time Goshen County sent a Democrat to the state legislature was Representative Don Scott, who served from 1973 until 1982.
That will likely hold true in 2020 – but it may be closer than expected. In recent history, about a quarter – and sometimes more – of Goshen County’s residents vote blue.
“One of the silver linings for the Democratic Party about Donald Trump is that he’s inspired a lot more people to become involved,” Barbuto said.
This year, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic and nationwide racial unrest, data from the Goshen County Clerk’s Office shows a record number of voters have registered to cast their ballots in Goshen County.
Behind the numbers are community members: students, farmers, retirees, activists, corrections officers and more.
Some of these Goshen County residents who identify as progressive have made it clear they do not necessarily identify as Democrats, just as they don’t align themselves with Republican ideals.
One such person is Colby Ochsner, a fourth-generation farmer from Lingle. Ochsner, a white man, was a fixture at Torrington’s Black Lives Matter march, lifting a large banner with the proclamation and leading the singing of the classic protest song, “We Shall Overcome.”
Ochsner is also a registered Republican. He said while he identifies more with progressive social ideals, his vote is more powerful in a Republican primary.
“It’s important to participate in a local election,” Ochsner said. “And that’s where the most important votes are made – on the Republican ticket.”
Cochran echoes Ochsner’s sentiment, asserting the Democratic and Republican parties are “fingers on the same hand.
“Which is why progressiveness is an important option right now,” Cochran said. “So far, they’ve been holding people’s feet to the fire and they’ve been standing on their principles, I hope that doesn’t get shifted over time when progressives get more empowered.”
In modern times, the term progressive is associated with the Democratic party, though it’s more moderate and centrist members – like Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden and other establishment Democrats – have distanced themselves from the progressive movement.
Historically, the term ‘progressive’ was embraced by Republicans, especially in the early 1900s. Theodore Roosevelt actually split from the GOP to form a third party known as the Progressive Party – colloquially known as the Bull Moose Party.
The modern progressive movement, as understood in 2020, stands for combating climate change, Medicare for All, abolition of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and issues that are at the forefront of social politics in this moment – racial justice and police reform.
As quickly as the movement is growing throughout the country, its development appears to be stymied in Goshen County and other rural small towns. Recently, however, Black Lives Matter marches have gained ground in these places that traditionally are less racially diverse. Just 0.1% of Torrington’s population identifies as Black or African American, according to Census data.
These protests are “visually disruptive” in these settings, which creates counter protests by concerned small-town residents who feel their way of life is under siege, according to Nick Crane, Ph.D., University of Wyoming Assistant Professor of Geography.
“And the first half of 2020 included some disruptions in what was visible to people all over the country. Unsurprisingly, these disruptions facilitated transformations in what was visible of a place (i.e., the cultural landscape) even in small towns, where people may have been unaccustomed to seeing their neighbors at a protest for social justice,” Crane wrote in an email to the Telegram.“Especially notable for the mobilization of people – including relatively policy-privileged people – to declare that the lives of Black people matter was the visibility, especially on social media, of the murders of unarmed Black people by officials responsible for ensuring public safety.”
J.R. Judkins, a Black man who has lived in Torrington for 10 years, walked alongside his family and neighbors in the community’s Black Lives Matter march.
The march was not Judkins’ first. He marched in the 1990s in San Francisco when a Black man named Rodney King was beaten by white police officers nearly 400 miles south in Los Angeles. Though the root of both marches – police brutality – has not changed, Judkins said those in honor of George Floyd in 2020 are “totally different,” because the unrest is making its way to majority white, rural areas.
“Because of the ethnic groups, younger, older, Black, white, everyone is coming together on this one,” Judkins said. “It feels different to me.”
Another protest-veteran, Marci Shaver, a white woman and an infamous local Democrat who took on the GOP establishment in 2018 when she challenged Republican Cheri Steinmetz for a seat in the state senate – attended the event donning a pink Women’s March t-shirt. She praised the efforts of two teen-aged women who planned the event.
“It’s exciting to see that it’s the kids of the community that organized this,” Shaver said.
Bailey Walker, 19, from Torrington planned the county’s only BLM march with recent Torrington High School graduate Elyssa Cummings.
For these young white women, the march in early June was a way of bringing attention to the issue of racism, a topic not often discussed yet one that is prevalent in the community, Walker said.
Their effort was met with intense opposition on social media, with residents threatening to wield guns in defense of downtown storefronts in a Facebook group called, “You know you’re from Torrington, WY when…”
Walker said her mom told her about the posts and was scared for their safety, but in the end, Walker was confident the protest would be peaceful and meaningful for the community.
“I didn’t really think people were going to show up with guns, because I know people will say things out of fear and not really do that,” Walker said. “And even if they did, I had this feeling that when they saw that we were just being peaceful and exercising our constitutional right to protest that they would understand that we weren’t there to incite violence or destroy anything.”
‘It broke my heart’
The phrase “Black Lives Matter” often incites the knee-jerk response of “All Lives Matter” from those who see the statement as a negation of the lives of white Americans. Often these interactions both during protests and on social media are between progressives and conservatives, respectively.
“That’s so ignorant of people to think when we say Black lives matter that we’re saying white lives or Mexican lives or Asian lives don’t matter, because they do,” Judkins said. “But a Black guy will get killed unarmed for whatever reason but why is that going on? So, that’s why we say Black lives matter, too.”
These exchanges demonstrate the difficulty in finding what both Judkins and Cochran call “common ground.”
“Even if someone doesn’t agree with me, I can sit and talk with them and I’m willing to sit and listen to them, because that’s how I learn and grow as an individual,” Cochran said.
Ochsner said he engages with people who have different viewpoints from his own on social media with the goal of creating a productive dialogue. For him, it’s hard to see a future of common ground given the extreme polarity characteristic of politics today.
Social media could be dangerous for discourse as well, he said.
“A lot of times, people just try to yell the loudest,” Ochsner said. “That’s one way to communicate, but sometimes the people that yell the loudest have the most extreme viewpoints. They might get some traction. It might make it seem like it’s a mainstream viewpoint, but I don’t think that’s true.”
Vaughn Simonsen, another GoCo Democrat, said her friends know she is a Democrat – including a neighbor who “does so many nice things” for her.
“Then I look on her Facebook, and she says ‘the only good Democrat is a dead Democrat,’” Simonsen said. “It broke my heart.”
Since Trump’s election in 2016, the gap between people who identify as progressive and conservative has widened, and it seems nearly impossible to be in the middle.
A January 2020 Pew Research Center study revealed that 91% of Americans say conflicts between party coalitions are either very strong or strong. Perceived conflict between Democrats and Republicans far outweighs those between other contrasting groups, like Black and white people, rich and poor, young and old or rural residents and city residents.
Identifying as a progressive in Goshen County can be lonely, according to Cochran.
“There is an extreme level of intimidation in this community,” Cochran said. “People are literally afraid to speak up, even though their viewpoints are just as valid.”
Eva Canaday, another member of the Goshen County Democratic Party, said she has not had any problems in the workforce based on her progressive politics, but working as an election judge can bring “irritating” comments.
“I’m the only Democrat that was at our table, and the comments of the other people just kind of drove me up the wall,” Canaday said. “‘Oh, is there any other party?’”
But there is another party. There is a set of beliefs that differs from the local status quo – and its spreading. It’s in the county’s youth, its future and in its present generation of decision-makers. They’re strong in their convictions, and committed to the idea that they’re working to make the world a better place.
“It’s nice to be on the winning side of history,” Shaver said.