Colorado town's fate hangs on Election Day

CRAIG, COLO. (USA TODAY) - None of the yards have “I’m With Her” signs in this town of 10,000 in Colorado’s northwestern corner. The only Hillary Clinton sign you’ll see suggests she be imprisoned.

Pick any controversy, and the folks in Craig can discuss it at length. The private email server. The Clinton Foundation. Benghazi.

“She should be in jail,” says Brenda Anderson, a cleaner for the local health clinic. “It seems like the woman gets away with a lot.”

But absolutely nothing gets residents here as riled up as a comment Clinton made on March 13 during a town hall discussion. Speaking about climate change, greenhouse gases and renewable energy, Clinton said something the people in Craig can’t forgive: “… we’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business …”

That comment came during a discussion about the importance of job retraining and helping coal miners learn skills for new jobs because the natural gas boom and efforts to fight climate change already are financially burdening coal mines. At this point, the shift away from fossil fuels and toward renewables seems all but inevitable.

But that doesn’t matter much right here, right now. Because Craig means coal. And for its residents, anything that feels like an attack on coal is an attack on them, their livelihood, their entire way of life. And that means, more than almost anywhere else, Craig’s fate seemingly hangs on Election Day.

Residents here see a Clinton presidency as a death knell for their town. They believe Clinton and the EPA will continue President Obama’s efforts to tighten the laws governing coal-burning power plants, prompting them to just shut down rather than spend many more millions of dollars complying with Clean Air requirements. It’s not an idle fear: One of the mines outside Craig has already declared bankruptcy, although it’s still operating.

The three coal mines near Craig help feed the two nearby power plants. They provide hundreds of good-paying jobs — not $10-an-hour fast-food jobs, but work that’s meaningful and visible, like driving 100-ton dump trucks or the coal trains feeding the power plants or burning that coal to make electricity for millions of people across the west.

It’s money that helps them buy pickups to brave the blizzards whipping across the nearby Wyoming and Utah borders on the way to the mines and power plants. These are the kind of jobs where everyone is essential, where driving that dump truck can earn you $25 an hour.

Being a Republican is about as natural as breathing for these Americans living far from the urban life of Uber and grocery delivery and office jobs. In this county, Republicans outnumber Democrats 4-1.

Fighting a 'rigged system'

Steve Smith, 64, spent 35 years running a dragline at the Trapper Mine, tearing apart a mountainside to get at the coal beneath. It was a good job, and he could afford a nice house in town.

Now retired and nursing a broken wrist from a logging accident, Smith has time to watch television political news. He’s disgusted by what he sees and wonders how long it might be before someone takes matters into their own hands. Smith loves his country, and he worries politicians are drifting too far from the Founding Fathers’ ideals of limited government and personal responsibility.

Many people in Craig are frustrated that federal officials give so much weight and attention to protecting obscure wildlife and don’t do enough to respect another endangered species: the American coal miner, the rancher, those who live a Western life documented by the town’s Cowboy and Gunslinger Museum, where posses helped bring outlaws to justice and the government was a small and distant presence.

“They overstep in a lot of places,” Smith says.

So when a group of ranchers took over a federal wildlife refuge in Oregon earlier this year, people like Smith took notice. The ranchers, led by Ammon Bundy, argued the federal government was overstepping its authority in a variety of areas, especially in managing lands. An armed confrontation between one of the men and authorities left the protester dead, but a jury last month acquitted the remaining protesters of any federal crime. Smith says he’s impressed the Bundy group “stepped up” and took over the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge to protest.

While people here are angry at the idea that Clinton could become president, no one is ready to take such a drastic step to protect their livelihood. At least, not yet.

“Would we take up arms? Probably not,” Smith says. “It would be hard to accept Hillary. You’d still keep fighting the system, but the system is rigged.”

Tensions high as election nears

Danny Griffith laughs at the idea of the residents of this coal mining town ever doing anything like the Malheur protest. The owner of JW Snack’s bar, Griffith depends heavily on the salaries of the coal miners and power plant workers, who buy cheeseburgers and beer and wings.

Still, he allows that tensions are running high here, so high that he’s temporarily banned bar visitors from discussing presidential politics, religion or abortion.

He considers the election the chance to “pick the best loser” and worries a Clinton presidency will kill first the coal mines and power plants, then businesses like his, and then the entire town.

Craig exists almost entirely due to its proximity to the coal mines. That’s why the power plants are there, and without either, the rural area probably couldn’t support so many people.

Post-election, Griffith, 58, says most Craig residents will be looking at their household finances. If Clinton wins, he thinks those who can leave town will likely seek work elsewhere — although it’s unclear where that might be, he concedes. After all, Clinton didn’t specifically single out Craig; she referred to all American coal miners.

Today, about 65,000 people are working in the nation’s coal industry, a 12% drop from 2014. It’s the smallest number of workers on record since the federal government began tracking it since 1978.

In Colorado, coal mining employment dropped 10% from 2014 to 2015, with about 1,600 people working in the industry here. Pennsylvania, Kentucky and West Virginia remain the most important coal-mining states in the country, with Appalachian-area coal fields employing about 37,500 people.

“Everyone is afraid of what’s going to happen to the economy,” Griffith says. “The people who don’t like Hillary really, really, really don’t like her. It could be Hillary vs. Howdy Doody and they’d vote Howdy Doody because he’s not Hillary Clinton.”

'Who wants to just survive?'

Andrea Camp’s father spent 45 years working in coal mines. He’s not the kind of guy who can just shift gears into a new career, Camp says, even though Clinton has proposed extensive retraining programs for fossil fuel workers.

“It’s not that easy. You’re talking about people who have had the same job their entire lives. You don’t just retrain someone in their 60s for the world we live in now,” says Camp, 45, who runs a carpet-cleaning business with her husband.

Camp, a Republican running for a seat on the county’s governing commission, says she’s trying to focus her attention on the options Craig has going forward under a Clinton presidency. The town has brought in speakers to discuss economic development opportunities.

But Camp says residents are struggling with the reality that Clinton really does want to shut down their economic backbone, even if it takes another decade. Like many other Craig residents, Camp supports Trump, who she considers more friendly to coal.

A Trump presidency would likely extend the life of the coal mines or even expand them: His energy policy proposal calls for ending the current moratorium on new coal leases on federal land.

Craig’s support for Trump runs deeper than coal, of course. People here see Clinton as untrustworthy, followed around by scandal after scandal for decades. They think her vision for America is wrong, and they are concerned about an erosion of their Second Amendment rights. They worry about her Supreme Court picks and federal overreach on public education.

But it’s the coal, this town’s economic engine, that drives much of the decision-making as Election Day nears.

Anderson, 61, a longtime Trump supporter, says she believes the town will thrive under a Trump presidency. But would it survive a Clinton one?

“We’ll survive. But who wants to just survive? We want to thrive,” she says.

Copyright 2016 USA TODAY


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