Commentary

The Q-ish swamp in the middle of Colorado

Why is Douglas County such a hotbed of election lies and COVID denial?

November 5, 2021 9:06 am

Joe Oltmann, center with his hand to his chin, is seen during a hearing on Oct. 13, 2021, at Denver’s City and County Building. Attorneys for Donald Trump’s reelection campaign and other members in conservative media requested the dismissal of a defamation lawsuit by Dominion Voting Systems worker, Eric Coomer, who says he lost his job and reputation from being targeted through a false conspiracy to rig the 2020 election. (Olivia Sun/The Colorado Sun, pool)

Douglas County has long seemed intent on burnishing its reputation as a hotbed of conservative extremism.

COVID misinformation? In abundance. Election lies? No shortage. Critical race theory hysteria? Heaps.

But this week’s election firmly established the place as a swamp of political filth. A slate of four anti-mask, anti-equity candidates won election — and will assume a majority — in the Douglas County School Board races following debates that drew national attention and exemplified the contours, and absurdities, of community conflicts around the country.

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The conservatives’ school board sweep was the culmination of a long, sorry assault on truth and decency. In March, the school board proposed the district’s first equity policy, which a council of employees, parents, students and community members had thoughtfully formulated and which sought to address inequities in the district. Black students and staff in majority-white Douglas had reported instances of racism and other forms of systemic bias.

The response from opponents was fierce. They erroneously linked the policy to the controversial critical race theory, a largely academic framework for analyzing how racial disparities are ingrained in U.S. history and institutions. They implied the equity policy would push kids to identify as trans. They called it racist against white people. One person who submitted feedback noted that most of Douglas County is white and said the policy “should be focused on the equity of the majority who pay the bills for education.”

Anti-mask community members turned the school board meeting a week before the election into an unhinged display of immaturity. These COVID deniers, who put everyone in their vicinity at risk, called board members sociopaths and tyrants. “They are possessed with the spirit of tyranny,” a man in the audience said. Armed sheriff’s deputies were compelled to keep close watch on the proceedings. 

But such shameful behavior tracks with larger trends in Douglas.

The county is a QAnon stronghold. As recounted last year by former Parker resident Aída Chávez in The Intercept about her former hometown, “Childhood friends and old high school acquaintances began plastering my timeline with posts referring to a satanic cabal of pedophile elites, including hysterical, unfounded claims about the proliferation of child sex trafficking and cultural or political efforts to ‘normalize’ pedophilia.”

Parker mother Cynthia Abcug made national news last year after police accused her of plotting a raid with QAnon to kidnap her own child. The town’s mayor, Jeff Toborg, has links to QAnon and served on the board of FEC United, a COVID-denying, far-right group that is affiliated with the militia United American Defense Force.

In December 2020, the head of elections in Douglas County, Merlin Klotz, called for Vice President Mike Pence to overturn the results of the previous month’s election. A Facebook post he wrote is chilling to read in hindsight, given that we know an insurrection occurred: “Pence has plenary authority on January 6 and can declare AZ, GA, MI, NM, NV, WI and PA elections illegal, not following state and general election processes … Contact/encourage Pence.”

Republicans in red counties throughout the state have sometimes seemed engaged in a contest to see who can fail the worst in their duty to protect the public from the pandemic. The Douglas County commissioners have a strong claim to first place. Their names — because history should never forget their disgraceful service — are Abe Laydon, George Teal and Lora Thomas. In April, they voted unanimously to opt out of public health orders issued by Tri-County Health Department, and Laydon said he wanted Douglas “to be the first county in the state to say that this pandemic is over.”

Now, a little more than half a year later, the pandemic is rampaging across Colorado and the state’s hospital system is on the brink of collapse. But a COVID-19 resurgence did nothing to make the commissioners rethink their previous misstep. On the contrary, rejecting science-backed COVID protection measures, they voted unanimously to sever ties with the public health authority that the county had partnered with for more than 50 years.

One of the most infamous residents of Douglas County is Joe Oltmann. Oltmann originated the debunked claim, promoted by then-President Donald Trump, that Dominion Voting Systems and one of its executives were involved in rigging the 2020 election. It would be hard to find a more disreputable, dishonest person than Oltmann in the whole state, but at an event in October 2020, Toborg bestowed upon Oltmann the honorific “Parker’s favorite son.”

So what makes Douglas such a sinkhole of political inanity? It's not that complicated.

Douglas is populated by thousands of decent, science-trusting, truth-adhering residents who care about their neighbors and are willing to make personal sacrifices to protect their community. These include outgoing members of the local school board. They include parents who spoke publicly in favor of simple and effective school safety protocols. They include young people with the courage to speak out against injustice. The county favored Trump over President Joe Biden by only 7 percentage points, which hardly qualifies it as deep-red territory like Montrose or Mesa counties.

So what makes Douglas such a sinkhole of political inanity?

It’s not that complicated. Douglas is the richest county in the state. It’s bereft of diversity. It’s an exurb with little cultural connection to nearby metro Denver. These characteristics have allowed a privileged faction of white, entitled, conservative loudmouths, unworthy of the freedoms they so abuse, to elbow their way onto public platforms and shout down experienced professionals and honest public servants.

Kevin Leung, an incumbent Douglas school board member who lost his seat to one of the anti-maskers this week, is an immigrant from Hong Kong. Shortly before the election, he was confronted by a man who told him, “You are not qualified at all and you don’t even speak English.”

But Leung sidestepped the swamp. He exhibited magnanimity when, even in defeat, he told a reporter from Colorado Community Media, “I come from very humble beginnings, and for me to be able to have a chance for four years to serve, I feel very honored and I feel grateful for this great country.”

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