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A Divided Region Of A Swing State: The Political Landscape Of Pueblo, Colo.


I'm Ari Shapiro in Pueblo, Colo. We've been here for the last week talking with voters as part of our election year project called Where Voters Are. It involves NPR hosts, correspondents and our colleagues at member stations around the country. Between now and Election Day, we'll be talking about where voters are on the candidates, on the issues and where they are in the country because place has a lot to do with how people think about politics.

Pueblo, Colo., is a working-class town with a complicated political identity. And so we've enlisted the help of Colorado Public Radio politics reporter Bente Birkeland, who is here with me in Pueblo.

Hi, Bente.

BENTE BIRKELAND, BYLINE: Hi. Happy to talk to you.

SHAPIRO: You cover politics for Colorado Public Radio, and this state has been trending blue in recent years. How do the politics of the city of Pueblo fit into the larger state picture?

BIRKELAND: It occupies a unique place in Colorado politics. Historically, Colorado has been a swing state, but in 2018, Democrats made significant gains. Democrats now control both chambers of the state legislature. The governor's office flipped a congressional seat near Denver from red to blue and voted for Hillary Clinton in the presidential race. Pueblo County is more of a swing area. Registered Democrats outnumber Republicans, but President Donald Trump won here.

SHAPIRO: So interesting. So you've got this blue trend in the state of Colorado. But in Pueblo, a historically labor-union town, it's actually shifting a little more red. I know you've been talking to voters in the city all week. Tell me about who you've met and why you think Trump resonated in Pueblo when he lost in the state of Colorado.

BIRKELAND: Well, Pueblo's two hours south of Denver. It's a much more rural area. And Trump's message of changing the status quo played well. The economy here is not as strong as other parts of the state where it's really booming. And Republicans by and large voted for Trump here.

Tammy Highberger is one of those Republicans. She's a special education teacher at Pueblo East High School. And she said she likes his personality, his tweets, his policies. She feels he's one of the people. And on one of the big issues she's concerned about, immigration, she really likes his stance.

TAMMY HIGHBERGER: I absolutely support the wall, anything to try to keep people who are not supposed to be here out. I think that's one of my bigger problems is everybody allowing these sanctuary cities and allowing illegals in here where taxpayers are footing the bill.

BIRKELAND: And she thinks he's delivering on his campaign promises. She's thrilled to vote for him. What's interesting is the school she teaches at is overwhelmingly Hispanic students, and this town is about 50% Latino.

SHAPIRO: So Tammy is all Trump all the way in 2020. Did you meet people who were more on the fence?

BIRKELAND: I didn't personally talk to anyone who was on the fence about the presidential race. Democratic voters told me they could actually understand why Trump did well here because of the economic argument. This is considered Colorado's mini-Rust Belt, if you will. But right now, those Democrats said they just - they cannot wrap their heads around why someone would still back Trump. They point to his policies, his personality and leadership style, the impeachment. And when I talked to a variety of Democrats, they kept asking, why? Why? Tell me why.

SHAPIRO: So, like, the political has become personal here as in much of the country.

HIGHBERGER: Yes, and one voter I talked to, Jacqueline Riggs who's another teacher at the high school, she really epitomizes that. She's a mother of seven, grandmother of 21, born and raised in Pueblo. Her husband was in the Air Force, so they traveled the world. And she's back here now.

She voted for Trump even though she disagrees with him on some of his major policies. She doesn't back the border wall. She's very pro-union and helped lead a teacher strike here. But she likes Trump's stance on trade, and the economy's good.

JACQUELINE RIGGS: Are his personal values, like, the way he's lived his life, divorce and affairs and saying things that he's said about women and about - no. Those are not my values. But his policies are. Like, I don't take it seriously. I think it's this sort of rhetoric, banter, like, political just, like, in your face. I wish he wouldn't do it as much as he does. Honestly, people hear that stuff, and that's all they hear.

SHAPIRO: So one thing that makes Pueblo politics so interesting is that two years after Trump won by a razor-thin margin here - less than 1 percentage point - Pueblo voters supported Jared Polis for governor, who won his race. He's the first openly gay governor in the country, Colorado's first Jewish governor.

BIRKELAND: Yes, and Governor Jared Polis launched his campaign in Pueblo. And since he's been governor, he's come here close to a dozen times. He granted me a one-on-one interview to talk about Pueblo. He said he considers the area, in some ways, the heart of Colorado, given its ethnic diversity and rich cultural history.

And one Democratic political operative I talked to said if we could figure out Pueblo, we could figure out the country. The voter we just heard from, Jacqueline Riggs who backed Trump, she voted for Polis, too. She liked his education policy platform. So I asked Polis, what lessons could Democrats learn from your campaign?

JARED POLIS: I ran on my business success as somebody who's created jobs and successful companies. I mean, that's something that Mike Bloomberg would be able to say that I think would resonate well - probably other things other candidates that, you know, can say. But I mean, people want to see that lived experience. Like, you know, don't just talk about it. You know, what have you done? How can we know you can produce?

SHAPIRO: A city of 100,000 people that could be considered the political heart of Colorado.

Bente, thanks for joining us here in Pueblo.

BIRKELAND: Thanks so much, Ari.

SHAPIRO: Bente Birkeland is a politics reporter for Colorado Public Radio. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Bente Birkeland has been reporting on state legislative issues for KUNC and Rocky Mountain Community Radio since 2006. Originally, from Minnesota, Bente likes to hike and ski in her spare time. She keeps track of state politics throughout the year but is especially busy during the annual legislative session from January through early May.