Aspen’s political reformation
October 8, 2009
I was handing out health-care reform literature at a county fair booth this summer when a rancher (revealed by his dress and well-worn boots) stopped, stared and then with all the venom he could muster shouted at me, ” Socialist Party!” A century ago in Aspen he might have shouted the same words with pride rather than with contempt.
The challenges and changes that rocked party politics from 1890 to 1920 would be barely recognizable by today’s two-party standard. Labor (especially miners’ unions), agriculturalists and women fought against the status quo. Passions ran high and even led to class warfare. Rising political parties challenged both Democrats and Republicans.
Aspen figured prominently in development of a third party, owing to the efforts of longtime resident and sometime editor of The Aspen Times, Davis H. Waite. In the 1890s the Farmers’ Alliance, miners’ unions and Greenbackers comprised the People’s Party (Populists). Their platform included direct election of senators, initiative and referendum, the eight-hour workday, unlimited coinage of silver, and government ownership of railroads and telegraph and telephone services. James B. Weaver, their presidential candidate, won in Colorado, Kansas, Idaho and Nevada in the 1892 election. Waite gained statewide recognition as a spokesman for the cause and won election as governor of Colorado under the People’s Party banner.
Although Waite encountered economic challenges when silver was demonetized and a fierce recession dominated his term, the populist platform that he helped create inspired reform movements in other parties. Many Populists joined forces with the Democratic Party in backing William Jennings Bryan’s presidential attempts. The remainder splintered into additional parties.
Aspen’s miners, most members of the Western Federation of Miners, had already won an eight-hour workday. During the economic slumps of this period, mine owners rescinded the policy. The struggle extended to mill and smelter workers.
Waite tried to enact an eight-hour workday as governor. The Fusionist Party tried again in 1896. Through major union activity, a law passed the legislature in 1899 but the Colorado state court struck down the law.
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By the 1900s the use of Pinkerton guards and state militias to break up miners’ strikes dominated the headlines. Union leaders were often arrested and literally run out of the state. Police disrupted meetings at Socialist Party headquarters in Denver for advocating the same positions that Waite had espoused previously to win the governorship.
In 1902, labor worked to pass a statewide vote urging the legislature to change the constitution to provide an eight-hour workday for those who worked in dangerous occupations. The Smelter Trust and John Osgood (of Redstone fame) coerced the legislature and Republican Gov. James Peabody to take no action. That inaction contributed to the 1904 labor wars in Cripple Creek, Telluride and Ludlow. By calling out state militia against the striking miners of Cripple Creek, Peabody earned a reputation in Aspen as the most reviled governor in Colorado history.
Democrat Alva Adams appeared to have won the most votes in the 1904 gubernatorial election in face of voter irregularities on both sides. Coal mine owners had coerced their workers to vote Republican. Incumbent governor Peabody pressured the court to give him the win. A legislative solution was required. In a secret deal, the election was given to Peabody, who was sworn in late in the day. Because even Republicans were disgusted with Peabody, however, a compromise had been worked out: Peabody immediately resigned and his lieutenant governor replaced him.
Big Bill Haywood, secretary of the Western Federation of Miners, had been arrested in the middle of the night and extradited to Idaho to stand trial for conspiracy to kill the governor of Idaho. In protest, he entered his name as the Socialist candidate for governor of Colorado in 1906. Aspen, still reeling from Colorado’s infamous election of 1904, contributed to Haywood’s 16,000 votes statewide, swaying the election away from Alva Adams to Republican Henry Buchtel.
Additional reforms attracted the support of the Progressive, Prohibition, Independent and Socialist Labor parties. Initiative and referendum passed in 1910. Farmers and ranchers supported government ownership of the railroad in order to control the cost of moving their goods to market. An eight-hour workday (outside the home) for women, banking reform, and recall of corrupt officials concerned party members, as did establishment of a state fair. Aspen hosted several of these branch political parties, including two Socialist parties. In the presidential election of 1912, Socialist candidate Eugene Debs won about the same percentage of Aspen votes as did Theodore Roosevelt, who ran as the progressive Bull Moose third-party candidate, and Republican incumbent William Howard Taft.
Some third-party reforms were enacted at both the state and national level. The struggles between Gilded Age moguls and labor continued. After World War I, the “Red Scare” diminished the Colorado Socialist Party. Progressives, Populists and Prohibitionists were absorbed by the two major parties. By 1924 the Ku Klux Klan rose to power by scapegoating German, Russian and Greek immigrants and exploiting anti-Catholic sentiments. Their dominance of Colorado’s Republican Party leadership stopped at the border of mining towns such as Aspen. The Republican Party evolved into a Colorado majority that survived for decades.