Yidi Xaio has one question for the political candidate at her door: “Are you a Democrat or a Republican?”
The candidate is Eric Rutherford. He’s a brawny guy with exactly the kind of haircut you’d expect on a 55-year-old commercial real estate broker. He is also, he admits, a Republican.
“I have to be honest,” replies Xaio, 46. “I hate Donald Trump.”
But Rutherford has another card to play before he trudges back into the mid-October snow. It’s about fracking.
This year, oil and gas issues are creating strange political crosswinds between the suburban oil fields of House District 33, where anti-drilling activism burns across party lines. Rutherford says he’s the only Republican candidate in Colorado who is campaigning for Proposition 112, which would multiply the mandatory distance between houses and drilling.
The Republican has made it the centerpiece of his campaign, pointing out that even the incumbent Democrat, Matt Gray, doesn’t support the restrictions on this year’s ballot. And it’s not just Rutherford: Libertarian Kim Tavendale also is endorsing Proposition 112, while conservative independent Jay Geyer has proposed his own variant.
“It’s kind of weird that it takes a 55-year-old white former Marine to say that,” quipped Rutherford, who also was a Drug Enforcement Agency special agent and the captain of the U.S. Naval Academy’s football team, in an interview. “It’s time for a change.”
In this neighborhood near a potential drilling site, that message is enough to get him invited inside.
The party lines
Except for Rutherford, Republican candidates are firmly united against the proposition, which will be decided by voters in the November election. The oil and gas industry sees it as an existential threat, spending tens of millions of dollars against the initiative.
The battle is so all-encompassing that Rutherford struggled to hire political consultants to distribute his campaign material. Conservative-leaning groups wouldn’t work with him because of his stance on 112, he said.
“That’s what I call soft power,” Rutherford said.
In supporting 2,500-foot setbacks, the Republican is going somewhere many Colorado Democrats haven’t. Congressman Jared Polis, the Democrat running for governor, says it’s too extreme.
There has been some division in Democratic ranks — House Majority Leader K.C. Becker supports the initiative, as does the state party itself — but the party’s candidates in several battleground state Senate races have remained neutral or quiet on the proposal.
“It really is a misalignment, from my view, between the constituency and the representatives,” said Anne Lee Foster, a core organizer for 112.
In House District 33, the issue is unavoidable for Democratic incumbent Gray. With permits for scores of new wells pending in Broomfield, he faces constant questions from his opponents and from homeowners about benzene, earthquakes and other fracking fears.
He agrees that suburban areas need more protection from drilling but says the proposition is the wrong answer.
Prop 112 would ban new wells within 2,500 feet of water sources and occupied buildings. That would rule out more than 80 percent of nonfederal land in Colorado, including the vast majority of acreage in rural and highly oil- and gas-productive Weld County, according to state figures.
“Right now, the rules are too suited to rural drilling, versus suburbanites who don’t want drilling,” said Gray, a public finance attorney by trade. “I think this would swing the pendulum too far in the other direction.”
Oil and gas issues were hardly a blip here during Gray’s 2016 run, but that changed immediately after the election as word of drilling plans spread. Spurred on by recovering oil prices, the industry was reaching south into the suburbs.
Communities such as Broomfield were suddenly on the frontier, with little power to stop drilling, and the friction stoked the fire that became Proposition 112.
The proposition may even feel like vengeance for some voters: “Let’s put the shoe on the other foot and let the companies feel what it’s like …,” Gray said, paraphrasing voters.
Still, the way the issue has transcended party politics in the House 33 race is unusual, the four candidates agree.
“It’s a bizarre path for that issue to have taken in this election,” said Geyer, the unaffiliated candidate. “I do think those party lines tend to get blurred when you live in a neighborhood that’s very close to oil and gas, and it becomes an immediate concern for you and your family.”
Both Geyer and Gray said they want to see a different solution that allows more flexibility.
Gray thinks Colorado should give local governments and property owners more power over drilling, rather than implementing a blanket rule. Geyer wants to create the setbacks but allow drilling to proceed if there aren’t objections from residents.
Either approach would allow Broomfield to push back drilling even as it continues in, say, Weld County. On the other hand, those options aren’t on the ballot.
Ultimately, incumbent Gray said, supporting Proposition 112 would undermine his ability to pass good laws on oil and gas in the House. He points to his legislative efforts, including a bipartisan bill that guarantees some rights for property owners who are forced to sell the oil beneath their land to drillers.
“The way that I got to passing the only real increase in protections that was actually seen over the last two years is talking about these issues the exact same way in front of oil and gas executives as I do in front of homeowners, and to do it honestly and to do it consistently,” he said.
Rutherford, though, dismisses those achievements as “participation trophies.” And Libertarian candidate Tavendale argued that the Democrat is afraid of the energy industry.
“I feel that Republicans and Democrats have to bow to that pressure. Matt is a great guy, I have a tremendous amount of respect and affection for him, but I think his hands are tied,” said Tavendale, who admits that her setback support runs counter to her party’s philosophy of government noninterference.
Foster, of Colorado Rising, said the initiative is a way to force change at the legislature. “They haven’t done it. They haven’t been able to get anything passed of any real consequence to protect their communities. So people have decided to take it into their own hands.”
If it passes, she pointed out, legislators will still have the power to change the new law.
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An open door
Rutherford found a hint of hope when he commissioned a Magellan Strategies survey of 300 voters in his district. It found that 71 percent supported Proposition 112, including majorities of both Democrats and Republicans. Colorado Rising found similar levels of support last year, Foster said.
If nothing else, voters’ anger gives Rutherford a talking point with Yidi Xaio, who at first was so ready to dismiss him. After inviting Rutherford inside, she and her husband quickly open up about their fears.
“Livingston Pad is affecting us,” says Brian Lu, 47, referring to a proposed nearby drilling site. “We don’t need that money. Because before, without this, there’s a zero percent chance that anything bad will happen.”
“We don’t want to move. We love our community,” Xaio adds.
By the end of the conversation, Rutherford has made a connection. But it doesn’t always work. Down the street, Ellen Hickernell, 63, said she is a supporter of Proposition 112, but she won’t be swayed from supporting the Democrat.
It’s voters like her whom anti-112 Democrats across Colorado are counting on.
Due to a reporter error, earlier versions of this story gave the wrong university where Eric Rutherford played football. In addition, the number of registered voters surveyed by Magellan Strategies was wrong earlier due to incorrect information received.