Hansen: Western Nebraskans can identify with northeast Coloradans' desire to secede - Omaha.com
Published Tuesday, November 5, 2013 at 1:00 am / Updated at 1:33 am
Hansen: Western Nebraskans can identify with northeast Coloradans' desire to secede

Toss a handful of multivitamins into the air at Wendall Gaston's pharmacy in Sidney, Neb., and Wendall bets you will hit at least one angry Coloradan.

That Coloradan won't be angry just because you plunked him with a Centrum Silver. He will be angry at the State of Colorado.

He will be so furious, in fact, that he will publicly advocate for something that hasn't happened in the United States since 1863.

He will advocate that his northeastern part of Colorado — the part that butts right up to Nebraska — should leave Colorado and form its own state.

“Probably eight out of 10 customers from Colorado bring up secession, and all eight are for it,” says Wendall, who is Safeway's head pharmacist and also the mayor of Sidney. “The anger is through the roof.”

Residents of 11 Colorado counties, including five counties bordering Nebraska, will vote today on whether to secede from the state.

To call this effort a long shot doesn't do the phrase “long shot” justice. A 51st state — one that would have to be OK'd by both Colorado and then Congress — seems about as likely as a Powerball jackpot.

But the residents of Nebraska's Panhandle I talked to aren't making fun of their next-door neighbors like they poke fun at the University of Colorado's hapless football team.

They know that secession will never become reality, that there will never be a North Colorado or a New Colorado or a Colorado Too. They know that many people who will vote to secede have no concept of how hard it would be to set up an entirely new state — new infrastructure, new funding mechanisms and quite possibly new expenditures when state subsidies disappear.

But they also told me that, at its core, secession isn't really about secession. It's a protest.

“These folks are dead serious,” says Gary Person, Sidney's longtime city manager. “They feel like Colorado is becoming something they don't want to be, and there's no way they can stop it. They feel their voice isn't being heard.”

In at least one way, western Nebraskans can relate.

How would you feel if you belonged to a state organization and had to drive five to six hours to each meeting because the group always meets in Lincoln or Omaha?

How would you feel if you couldn't get Nebraska's biggest TV stations, or radio stations, or for that matter this newspaper? (Pssssst, western Nebraska. Check out Omaha.com.)

How would you feel if it seemed as if the entire state tilted east toward the Missouri River, and you were a half-day trip from the centers of political and financial power?

I can tell you how you'd feel. After a lifetime of snubs, real and perceived, you would feel a little peeved.

“How many people who live east of Kearney can even say they spent time in the Panhandle?” Gary asks. "When we actually do have (a state meeting) out here, 80 percent of the people don't show up, and the other 20 percent say, 'Oh, my God, it's a long ways out here.'"

The Colorado secession debate also contains a political element largely absent in Nebraska. This year, Colorado legislators responded to the Aurora movie theater mass shooting by passing two gun-control laws, including one that bans high-capacity ammunition magazines that hold more than 15 rounds. And an unlikely coalition of left-leaners and libertarians voted to amend the state constitution and legalize the recreational use of marijuana.

The largely conservative residents of rural northeast Colorado love guns, evidently including those that can quickly fire more than 15 rounds.

They do not love pot.

And so they have decided to fight back by ... taking their ball and leaving the state?

That last move is where western Nebraskans start to lose sympathy for their Colorado neighbors who work at Cabela's in Sidney and shop at the Walmart just south of town.

Gary, after all, jumps in his car seven or eight times a year and drives to Lincoln to participate in the democratic process, to make sure that the voices from his western Nebraska city are heard.

OWH Columnists
Columnists Michael Kelly, Erin Grace and Matthew Hansen write about people, places and events around Omaha. Read more of their work here.

Wendall says he has worn out two cars on Interstate 80.

In fact, when I got hold of Gary, he was in a car driving toward a League of Nebraska Municipalities meeting. A meeting being held in La Vista, which is 391 miles from his front door.

“Ignoring the facts or just complaining isn't going to get the job done,” Gary says. “I don't like that mindset, western Nebraskans who are quick to whine without trying to find solutions, find common bonds. You have to be a part of the process to make a difference.”

As you may remember, western Nebraska has a little experience trying to leave a state.

Frustration fueled by high property taxes led residents of the Panhandle to seriously discuss leaving Nebraska for Wyoming in the 1980s.

A newspaper survey found that 85 percent of Scottsbluff residents wanted to ditch the Cornhusker State for the Cowboy State. At one point, a Wyoming legislator actually introduced a bill to accept the Panhandle into Wyoming should it exit Nebraska.

Except that bill went absolutely nowhere. And eventually the talk ended.

Which is why Gary laughs when I bring up the fact that some Coloradans for secession have proposed an alternative exit strategy of joining Wyoming.

“They are gonna find out the same thing that western Nebraska found out,” Gary says. “Which is Wyoming doesn't want to have anything to do with this.”

Wendall Gaston's name was spelled incorrectly in an earlier version of this column.

Contact the writer: Matthew Hansen

matthew.hansen@owh.com    |   402-444-1064    |  

Matthew Hansen is a metro columnist who writes roughly three columns a week focusing on all things Omaha.

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