Red State, Blue State, Old State, New State: ‘Northern Colorado’ Tries to Secede

A new secession movement driven by political tension in Colorado probably won’t work, but the idea, which has a long history in the United States, isn't so far-fetched

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Helen H. Richardson / Denver Post / Getty Images

Colorado State Capitol seen in 2012.

Weld County, Colorado has had enough of liberal transplants pouring into nearby Denver, turning their once-red state a blueish shade of purple. They’re tired of gun control legislation, tired of energy policies they think are unfair, and more than anything, they’re tired of having their agenda overshadowed in the state legislature. So they want out. And they’re serious about it.

“I’m a third generation Coloradoan,” says Weld County Commissioner Sean Conway. “But I will tell you, the state I grew up in, the state that I’ve come to love, is slowly and surely slipping away to something I don’t recognize. I think that is what’s fueling this movement.”

In northeastern Colorado, eight counties are moving forward with a ballot initiative to secede and create a new state called Northern Colorado. The movement began at the end of Colorado’s latest legislative session, when the Democratically controlled legislature passed bills unpopular in the more rural eastern part of the state. None was more divisive than Senate Bill 252, which required electric co-ops to double the amount of energy they get from renewable resources by 2020. Republicans vigorously opposed the bill, arguing it would raise rural electricity rates, hurting farmers and ranchers. The bill passed the state senate by one vote and became law earlier this year.

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“We found ourselves down at the capital, quite frankly, being ignored,” Conway says. “We said, we need to figure out a way to send a message to Denver, because they’re not listening.” That message came from a group of citizens who brought the idea of secession to the Weld County Commission. “I’ll admit, the first time you hear this, you think that’s a little far out there,” Conway says. “But as you look into it, as you research it, as we as a board took time to do, you find out that five existing states went through this same process.”

Article IV, Section 3 of the U.S. Constitution says “no new State shall be formed or erected within the Jurisdiction of any other state; nor any State be formed by the Junction of two or more States, or Parts of States, without the Consent of the Legislatures of the States concerned as well and that of the Congress.” Basically, if northern Colorado wanted to form its own state, it would have to persuade the state legislature and then the U.S. Congress. There is practically no chance of that happening.  Adding a new state to the Union would mean adding two new senators, and neither party wants to tip the balance in Washington.

“I just don’t see it in the cards,” says John Straayer, professor of Political Science at Colorado State University. “I can’t for the life of me see why this legislature would pass a resolution petitioning the Congress to create another state.” But it is possible, and in the past it has happened, as Conway pointed out. Maine was once part of Massachusetts and Kentucky came from Virginia. The state of West Virginia also broke away from Virginia 150 years ago during the Civil War. It was the last state to successfully secede from another.

“It’s easy to write it off as a silly story, because we all intuitively know that the politics are an extreme long shot,” says Michael Trinklein, the author of Lost States, a book about near misses in the history of state secessions. “In reality, most of American history we’ve spent changing the map, adding new territory, deciding how to slice it up, deciding what territories to keep and not keep.”

The list of “lost states” is longer than you might think. In 1896, a year and a half before Brooklyn would become part of New York City, a group of Long Island businessmen proposed to secede and create the “State of Long Island.” Sugar magnate Adolph Mollenhauer, one of the biggest advocates for Long Island’s separate statehood, argued that the island had plenty of territory and a larger population than Connecticut, Delaware or Rhode Island. But size had little to do with the movement–it was all about politics. “People up the State cannot legislate for us any better than we can legislate for ourselves,” Molenhauer told the New York Times.”We’re tired of bosses and bossism.”

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The fight against bossism (a term that sadly failed to remain in the political lexicon) continues. Every few years, someone on Long Island calls for secession, and in 2009, the Suffolk County Legislature voted through such a referendum that went nowhere with New York State. Different parts of California have tried to break away from the Golden State, usually with bad timing. Southern California came close to seceding in 1859, even passing the required state referendum, but with the Southern secession crisis broiling in Washington, admission of Southern California never came up for a congressional vote. In the 20th Century, parts of northern California and Oregon tried to create the state of Jefferson, but the movement died with the attack on Pearl Harbor and the U.S. entry into World War II.

Secession proposals aren’t limited to states either; dozens of cities and counties across the country have tried to create new municipalities. As if New York City didn’t have enough to worry about with the State of Long Island trying to steal Brooklyn and Queens, Staten Island regularly tries to secede from the city. Ten years ago, the ski town of Killington voted to secede from Vermont and join New Hampshire, despite the fact that the town lies 25 miles away from the border. Parts of Los Angeles, Philadelphia and Chicago have tried, and failed, to secede. One of the few towns to make it was Carolina Shores, which left the town of Calabash, North Carolina, in 1998. The two towns had a bitter split, but now share a fire department.

When it comes to states, tensions arise because many are poorly designed. Several western states were drawn to link population centers on one side with rural areas on the other so that the two sides could support each other. But populations and politics shift. Over the past decade, nearly nine tenths of new residents in Colorado moved to one of the metropolitan counties, and a legislature that was once dominated by Republicans now has a Democratic edge.

Rural-urban divides have fueled other secession efforts. In the early 1990s, a dozen counties tried to break away and create the state of West Kansas to protest property tax hikes and a school funding formula that drew money away from rural schools in the southwest part of the state. The movement ended with concessions from the state government; today Kansas is intact. Conway says the Weld County Commission studied the Kansas secession movement. “That may be a similar model here,” he says.

At the very least, the would-be residents of Northern Colorado have drawn attention to their concerns. “I imagine there will be a lot of conversation and some study of this in the next legislative session,” Straayer says. “Whether or not it’s going to dramatically impact policy I have my doubts.”

For the time being, it appears states and would-be states are probably stuck with each other. “It’s sort of like once you pick someone to marry. It’s possible to change that, but it’s tough,” Trinklein says. “It’s the same thing with statehood. Once these pieces of territory have been connected it’s hard to separate them.”

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