Getting down to the grassroots
On the campaign trail with Michael Rendon

Michael Rendon promotes his cause by placing a
campaign sign in a downtown Durango yard.
/Photo by Todd Newcomer.

Grassroots (gras/roots) pl.n 1. People or society at a local level rather than at the center of major political activity. 2. The groundwork or source of something.


I hop on my bike and speed towards the County Courthouse. My dress – worn somewhat prematurely on the last day of February – flaps every which way. A small crowd of Durango liberals has gathered and I catch my breath, give a few hugs and steady my bike against the fierce wind as Michael begins to speak. Wearing the tan wool sweater and well worn denim jacket that will characterize him throughout the rest of the election, he announces his candidacy for Durango city council. He laughs at the crowd’s reaction to this proclamation – all energy, excitement and noise – in his familiar relaxed way: bright eyes compressed under dark, heavy brows.

While the wind whips and roars and mothers pull their children close, Michael talks about creating a model community where homes are built with non-toxic and sustainable materials, where edible landscapes replace Kentucky bluegrass and where every Durangoan can afford to own a home. For the first time in local politics, I feel wholly represented. Last time I saw Michael was over margaritas at Gazpacho, where he and 20 others won $100 for 1st prize in the Snowdown outhouse-stuffing contest.


Michael’s motley campaign team has its first meeting Sunday in Michael’s living room, where walls are bright red and trim yellow. We have gray-haired lesbians, a 19-year-old with a platinum bob and a silver ball piercing in her chin, a retired Fort Lewis College teacher, representatives from the Green Party, Democratic Party, Colorado Wild, Southwest Peace and Justice Coalition and grassroots hippie homeowners who simply love this place and believe in Michael’s vision for the city.

We drink tea from mason jars in the red living room, lighted by one spiral fluorescent bulb in the ceiling fixture. Thrift-store couches, a dentist’s chair (with functional elevating foot lever) and several upright wooden logs as stools serve as furniture. I recall a potluck party at Michael’s with no disposable plates or cups. Because Michael didn’t have service for 30, when one person was done eating, their plate was rinsed and passed to someone else. People ate from cups then reused them for beer.

The team discusses Michael’s flyer and its photo. “You’re not really smiling Michael,” complains John Whitney, who worked on Virginia Castro’s successful city council campaign two years ago. “Could you show some teeth? And you need to think about appearing professional. You might want to wear a tie.” Michael bristles, like a cat confronted by dogs, but says nothing. Jeff Berman, director of Colorado Wild, suggests Michael clarify one of his flyer’s platforms, “What does this mean: water for present and future use? Sounds like you want to build a bunch of dams.” This wording is debated and tossed around, dissected and concluded before Michael says quietly but resolutely, “I don’t think I’m going to wear a tie.”


We brainstorm potential questions for the upcoming debate, sponsored by the League of Women Voters, such as the dark skies ordinance, affordable housing and River Trails Ranch. That last topic hangs in the air like the stale smell of cigarettes. Daniel Money speaks of the travesty of so much land benefiting so few, if 67 mansions are built. He lives near Park Elementary, where working folks are getting priced out of traditionally cheaper neighborhoods. “Look on a map – the public land dwarfs the city!”he cries.

Jeff Berman counters: “But a lot of that land is totally unbuildable; they’d develop it if they could. The Animas River Valley is a unique and fragile ecosystem.”

Michael listens carefully to everyone, wanting to understand the diverse positions that exist even within his progressive constituency. His stance holds: he’d rather see no building in the valley, but if building must take place he wants the city to have the opportunity to negotiate with the developers, use transferable development rights to get the numbers down to 150 new homes, with the promise that some are affordable. This project should be done with the most benefit to locals and the least harm to the wildlife and environment, and 67 starter castles are out.

We move onto tactics: door to door campaigning, phone banking registered Democrats, TV spots and ads in the Herald and Telegraph. Michael tells of a recent Herald interview. “It went really well, we talked about my personal background and he took some nice photos of me overlooking town from the FLC chapel.”

“Did you smile for that one?” Whitney asks.

A Michael Rendon campaign flyer sits in the handle of a screen door. /Photo by Todd Newcomer.


The Herald story runs and my husband says it makes Michael sound like a fruit loop. Rather than focus on or even mention his platform, it highlights his unusual life: juggling in India, riding his motorcycle across the U.S. and teaching Catholic preschool with a Mohawk. Michael is upset with the headline “Rendon Ready for Next Adventure” – it belies his seriousness about his candidacy. I get an e-mail from Michael saying that he’s ready for the upcoming debate and is looking for some nice clothes to wear.


Candidates first debate at City Hall. First time I’ve seen all the candidates in person after being briefed by John Whitney on who’s who. I arrive full of fire, ready for a good match and am surprised to see the candidates mingling peaceably. The thrift store has been good to Michael and he looks dapper in suspenders and slacks.

The debate format entails each candidate answering questions from the audience, with two minutes each to speak. Michael is the wild card, the dark horse: tie-less and young, promoting bioremediation of sewage by mushrooms and referring to Gary Snyder’s ideas on committing oneself to a place as inspiration to run for city council. When asked his views on transportation, he says you shouldn’t have to own a car to live in Durango. “I gave up my car when I moved to town and now I walk everywhere except to violin lessons at the mall, where I ride my bike.” My friend Paige and I look at each other and smile. Weird but sincere.


Morning is dark and sweet with rain smashing on our metal roof. Currents of water flow down the street. Today is my first day going door to door in the neighborhood. I fuel up with coffee and open the Herald. In the front section is an ad paid for by the Friends of the Animas Valley encouraging voters to save the Animas Valley for elk and open space. They endorse two candidates. Neither of them is Michael. I call John and Sue for a pep talk, though they need cheering up as much as I do.

The sky is pouring and suddenly it’s all daunting: the chilly moisture, going door to door, the thought that a grassroots hippie could run against Durango’s elite. I call Michael, who’s fairly cheerful and encourages me to talk to people about the Friends of the Animas endorsement. “The FOA are ‘single-issue folks’ who won’t endorse me because I won’t come out against city annexation of the valley land. Without annexation the land stays in the county for developers to build 67 mansions with septic tanks and wells and all their requisite environmental damage with no benefit to locals interested in purchasing homes.”

I’m slightly recharged and set out with clipboard, flyers, pen and semi-functioning umbrella. Most people aren’t home and I slip a flyer into their doors, sometimes above or below another candidate’s flyer. The rain is pounding the last bit of life out of my old umbrella when I run into Judy and Krista from the Green Party, also going door to door for Michael. We debate going to houses that sport yard signs for other candidates, split the rest of the precinct up into thirds and commiserate on the conservative leanings of the Crestview neighborhood.

At one house I’m welcomed in before I say a word. When my fogged-up glasses finally clear I see six women soaking their feet in tubs of sudsy water. “We’re having an Avon party!” I give my schpiel while they drink red wine and evaluate nail polish colors. I peg them as non-voters, though they surprise me by asking about Michael’s stance on water conservation.

At another house a woman pulls me inside because everyone in the house is sick and they’re trying to keep the cold out. The temperature is 80 degrees and her contagious kids are rolling across the living room while a Disney movie plays and I immediately feel I’m coming down with something. The mom hasn’t heard of any of the candidates and pretends to listen to me chatter on about Michael’s wish to create recycling for plastic, while hissing, “Settle down kids, you’re sick.”

I begin to judge houses by their cars. Older model Toyotas and Subarus good, brand-new SUVs bad. After two hours my energy is washed out with the rain and I knock at a front door that is wide open. A voice shouts from down the hall, “Who is it?”

“Um, I’m campaigning for Michael Rendon.”

“We love Michael!” the voice calls back. “Tell him Kiara and Ruby say go!” I never see the woman’s face and figure I’ll end right there on a good note.

We have a campaign meeting and Michael tells us he did a television spot that can be aired for $5 a pop on regular TV. Michael reads the list of potential stations to a group of people who mostly don’t own televisions. “A&E, MSNBC, CNN, HLN, C-SPAN, E, CNBC, TNT, TNN, MTV, TBS and VH1.” We fall apart laughing and ask him to read it again. In a very professional voice Michael rattles off the letters that seem more appropriate for a preschool lesson on the alphabet than anything we can comprehend. The consensus is to air it during all the commercials for the Simpsons.


I arrive early with other volunteers to set up for the fundraiser. The lighting is dim and space is limited but the Summit staff graciously offers their foosball table as a surface for bake-sale goods. The silent auction table is eclectic and creative as everything else in this campaign has been: a fruiting tomatillo plant bends over gift certificates for meals at Carvers and the Buzz House, while a 12-pack of homemade tamales oozes juices in a Ziploc alongside a local’s offer for a free oil change on any vehicle. The bake sale items start arriving by the box, mostly good hippie treats like “Crispy Carob Rendon bars,” or two beautiful raw apple pies from Turtle Lake Refuge.

The fundraiser starts at 7 p.m., and by 7:30 the only people there are the same folks who’ve attended the campaign meetings every Sunday night. John Whitney has ousted the Summit’s doorman. “People know me,” John explains. “They’re going to feel guilty if they just give me a buck.”

By 9 p.m. the bar is packed, Michael’s passing out campaign buttons and it seems everyone in the Summit has one affixed to a piece of clothing. The sounds of Goodfoot are pulsing through the bar. Courtney, who’s been helping me plan the fundraiser, is whipping her long, dark hair all over the dance floor. Jeff Berman and Melanie Rose are salsa dancing. My husband, not really understanding the finer details of a silent auction, outbids me on the pork tamales.

Bolstered by the dazzling energy in the room and maybe a few stouts, Michael gives an impassioned speech, the one he tells me later, he has wanted to give this whole election. In his trademark wool sweater and jean jacket, updated with new button, he talks about the impending war and the abnormal feelings people may be having due to fear, confusion and anger. “I encourage you to talk about what’s going on. Seek out friends, family, a counselor if needed.” He asks us to look around at the people standing next to us, “Say hi, smile, shake hands.”

“This,” he announces with a 100-watt grin, “is true democracy of the people.” People cheer and whistle. “In the past three weeks I’ve spoken to over 30 different organizations in Durango. I’ve told them about the needs for recycling, affordable housing and homes built with sustainable materials. I shared my ideas about landscaping with native and edible plants with people who never would have heard me otherwise. And so even if I lose, we’ve already won!” The room reverberates with applause. “And even better, we’ve won the war on imagination! And finally, in the words of Jesse Jackson, ‘America needs you, keep hope alive!’”

Someone shouts, “Rendon 2004!”

The music continues with Catalyst’s lead singer belting out funky, sultry sounds. By 10 p.m. most people entering the bar have no idea who Michael is, but John is still working it, passing out flyers and buttons and educating people on Michael’s campaign when all they really want is a beer.


I wear my Michael Rendon button everywhere, in sweats around the house and to a vintage ski-wear costume party on top of my glittery gold tank top. My roommate David Smith reports seeing Rendon yard signs all along his walk to the rec center. “Even on some real nice, big houses.”

Another roommate, Dave Kasper keeps asking me when the smear campaign is going to start, saying, “You gotta start some good rumors.”


Our last campaign meeting and attendance is low. Nine more days until elections and it’s going to be a close race, no telling who’ll come out on top. “It’s going to be a dog fight for votes,” John Whitney is fond of saying.

“So I’ve been thinking,” Michael starts, “how can I contribute my talents to this campaign? And I thought, I could go downtown on stilts and pass out flyers. I’ve got these Superman pants...” We cringe, but we’re all secretly proud of Michael for being unapologetically himself.

Tom Riesing salutes the idea in the name of lightheartedness and fun. I warn against the image the public may have of him of not taking politics seriously after the “fruit loop” article.

Jeannie comes up with “stilts with a message – maybe you could be juggling balls that are labeled growth, affordable housing, open space, water, showing the public that you seek to create a balance between all these issues.” We like this and even grant him the Superman pants.


Night of the showdown. Michael’s supporters meet at Carvers at 7 p.m. – when city hall takes its last ballot – and pack the back room. Michael’s mom is there in FLC Environmental Center T-shirt and Rendon button, small, dark and stout like her son. The first three precincts numbers come in quickly via television, and Michael is in third place. The results of the last precinct are painfully slow to arrive, and there’s nothing to do but drink more beer. The numbers don’t look good, though someone suggests that the final precinct is Old Animas City, known to be a liberal section of town, and hope rises again.

Finally the fourth precinct numbers are posted by a woman recording scores live on a chalkboard. Everyone is holding their breath, doing calculations in their heads, hearts pounding. The room is silent. And then the woman moves, exposing the totals, and again Michael is in third place. It is over.

Michael opens a bottle of well-shaken champagne and it gives a good spray around the room. We smile through our sadness. Jeannie Costello stands up and says what a pleasure it has been to support a candidate that she feels represented her so well. Jeff Berman suggests running again in two years. Michael looks weary and gives a final speech about this community being what keeps him here, then we all trade hugs and slowly file out.

As the sting of losing wears off, I see that Michael’s words at the Summit are true: despite losing the seat, we’ve won a voice in this city. I’m awed by the people, the generosity, and the incredible momentum that spurred Michael forward like a tremendous gust of wind – a tornado really – speaking for so many of us in his dirt-smeared boots and ubiquitous denim jacket: something amazing has happened.







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