PUEBLO, Colo.—Charles Perko gestured past a vine-covered chain link fence toward a hulking steel facility with massive mills and squat brick office buildings. The 140-year-old complex had forged the iron that built the West, and once was Colorado’s largest employer, with some 10,000 workers. Now, much of the complex sits in disrepair. Some of its cylindrical stoves are rusted and empty—a symbol of an industry that Perko, a fourth-generation steel worker and president of a local union, says is in need of government help.
Lauren Boebert, the controversial pro-gun, Covid-skeptical freshman congresswoman who represents Pueblo, has credited working-class voters for her improbable 2020 victory. But it’s not clear her version of “working-class” includes the steel workers here. Perko didn’t vote for her. And, based on her opposition to President Joe Biden’s $2 trillion infrastructure plan, which Perko sees as a lifeline for his struggling industry, he doesn’t think Boebert cares all that much about his union members. He has tried to schedule a meeting with her to discuss these issues, he says. But the door to her local office is often locked, and her staff doesn’t return his calls.
“One of the key parts of that [infrastructure] plan is Amtrak expansion. Ours is one of only three mills in the country that makes rail,” Perko said on a breezy afternoon in April, as he turned to face the manufacturing complex, now owned by the multinational company Evraz Group. “If we can get just that part of the infrastructure plan alone passed, that will be business that would keep us in jobs for many years.”
“From what I’ve seen on Twitter,” he added, “I don’t think Boebert’s a supporter.”
Since her election this past November, in a district that sprawls across a huge swath of the mountains and ranch lands that make up the western half of Colorado, Boebert, 34, has become known as one of Donald Trump’s most outspoken acolytes in Congress. A restaurant owner who had never run for office before she declared her candidacy in late 2019, Boebert tried to stop the certification of the 2020 presidential election and made a show of carrying a gun inside the Capitol in her early days in Congress. On Twitter, she frequently attacks Biden and other Democrats; during the January 6 insurrection, she tweeted out House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s location to her hundreds of thousands of followers.
Among voters in Pueblo—the largest and most politically unpredictable city in Boebert’s vast district—there is a growing sense of exasperation with the freshman representative not yet six months into her tenure.
Pueblo County, located on Colorado’s dusty, windswept plains two hours south of Denver, is the swingiest part of Boebert’s district—making it a key test of her staying power. The county is nothing like the conservative, government-skeptical towns west of the Continental Divide, where Boebert is from, or the glitzy, liberal ski areas in Aspen and Telluride, which she also represents. While Boebert’s district overall is purple—about 32 percent Republican, 26 percent Democratic and 40 percent unaffiliated, among registered voters—the Pueblo County electorate flips this dynamic, with about 36 percent of voters registered as Democrats, 25 percent as Republicans and 37 percent unaffiliated. Still, big-money donors here often give to candidates from opposing parties, independents regularly vote Republican, and blue-dog Democrats skew conservative. Boebert’s Democratic opponent in the 2020 race won the county by just 204 votes. Biden won by 1,520 votes in November, after Trump had claimed victory by 390 votes in 2016.
Pueblo’s demographic and economic character also sets it apart. The county is the most diverse part of Boebert’s district, home to the state’s highest concentration of Latinos. Almost 40 years after the steel market crashed, throwing thousands out of work, manufacturing makes up only 6 percent of the work force. Colorado’s “Steel City” is still trying to reinvent itself today, broadening its economic base with one of the nation’s largest marijuana grow facilities, wind and solar energy, and outdoor activities, thanks to the nearby mountains and lakes. But there’s no question the metropolitan area is struggling, saddled with the state’s highest unemployment rate and some of its highest violent crime and opioid addiction rates. One of every four Pueblo residents lives in poverty.
It’s this reality that makes voters like Perko frustrated with a U.S. representative they see as more focused on her own celebrity than her constituents. “I work for the people of Pueblo, not the people of Paris,” Boebert tweeted in January, a dig at the Paris climate accords. But several dozen Puebloans I’ve spoken with in recent weeks, including some who cast ballots for Boebert, say they’re angry that she appears to have spent more time headlining GOP fundraisers than hosting public meetings to listen to their needs. Boebert—whose office did not respond to multiple requests for comment—also has failed to push for policies that would help the community, these Pueblo residents say. While she supports much more scaled back infrastructure spending, she voted against the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, which ensured stimulus checks and additional unemployment payments for Perko’s steel workers, scores of whom lost their jobs a year ago when oil prices hit historic lows. Other voters here decried a fundraising appeal of Boebert’s exclaiming that Pelosi and Biden “want to take our guns,” which was e-mailed to supporters hours after a shooting at a Boulder grocery store left 10 people dead.
“People here feel Boebert doesn’t represent their values,” says Colorado state Senate President Leroy Garcia, a Pueblo Democrat who is popular with voters in both parties. “There is a lot of passion around seeing her removed.”
The sense of discontent in a region with a friendly, small-town feel, where residents congregate at chili festivals, Colorado State University Pueblo athletic events and the state fair held nearby, has led to hope that she’s a fluke candidate vulnerable in the next election. The congresswoman already faces more Democratic challengers than usual in the months before the 2022 midterm campaign heats up: Nine Democrats have filed papers to run (a 10th dropped out of the race after several months), and they raised more money in the first quarter of the year than Democratic candidates in a similar period in 2019. The Pueblo region is home to three of those candidates, as well as to a political action committee that is hoping to defeat Boebert. Recently, the local newspaper editorialized that the state’s independent redistricting commission should remove Pueblo County from Boebert’s district altogether. “Pueblo needs better representation,” the article read. “No more horse and pony shows from the west.”
At the same time, Colorado’s Republican Party has only moved more in Boebert’s direction since her election, and the national GOP has embraced her and her campaign. All of which has perhaps given Pueblo a new political identity amid its day-to-day struggles: as the heart of the Lauren Boebert resistance.
Bri Buentello is an educator and former Democratic state legislator who lost her seat, which includes parts of Pueblo County, last November. Like many Puebloans, Buentello owns several guns, calls members of both parties friends and is a devout Catholic. She is also among Boebert’s most vocal critics in the district.
In January, Buentello sued the congresswoman in U.S. District Court, claiming that Boebert had violated Buentello’s First Amendment rights by blocking her on Twitter, which Boebert did in response to a tweet calling for her recall after January 6.
More recently, Buentello has channeled her energies toward defeating Boebert in 2022. Earlier this year, she became co-chair of Rural Colorado United, a super PAC created in 2020 for the sole purpose of defeating Boebert and promoting her then-opponent, former state Sen. Diane Mitsch Bush. The PAC collected $314,490 from donors large and small, and some 2,000 volunteers joined in the effort, which included posting billboards that featured Boebert’s mugshot and highlighted the multiple arrests and warrants she faced before entering politics. The effort was unsuccessful; the neophyte Boebert beat Mitsch Bush by 6 points. But, under Buentello, Rural Colorado United has begun building out a 2022 door-knocking campaign to mobilize Democrats in ski towns and independent voters all across the Western Slope, the huge but lightly populated mountain and high desert region that covers most of her district.
“We were sounding the alarm a full-blown year ago that Boebert was an imminent threat to our way of life,” Buentello, who is also the government affairs director for an education nonprofit, said recently, as she sat outside Squawk, her favorite independent coffee shop in Pueblo. “As far as I can tell, we are paying her $180,000 a year for her to tweet and go on Fox News. The job she’s doing is fundamentally disconnected from [the district] and our needs.”
In addition to Buentello’s efforts, several Democrats have launched campaigns to challenge Boebert. The three in Pueblo are Democratic state Rep. Donald Valdez, whose district includes part of Pueblo County; Sol Sandoval, a Pueblo-based community activist with deep ties to the city’s nonprofits; and Susan Martinez, a certified nurse’s assistant. Boebert’s most formidable challenger so far is Democratic state Sen. Kerry Donovan, who lives in the mountains in Vail—considerably closer to Boebert’s hometown of Rifle—and who raised nearly $644,000 in two months after declaring her candidacy in February. Collectively, Democratic candidates raised $832,842 in the first quarter of the year—shy of Boebert’s $846,000.
For candidates running to defeat Boebert in 2022, winning over Pueblo’s voters is key to outweighing support in Republican strongholds on the state’s Western Slope, and Democrats are already campaigning here. At a recent listening session on a sunlit brewery patio bordering a weedy lot with an abandoned factory, Sandoval urged representatives from the city’s churches, universities, school systems, and Native American and Latino communities to help her raise money and awareness about her campaign.
“From the moment I was born, I already didn’t have the same opportunities as children who were born into a wealthier neighborhood,” Sandoval said, after 15 or so attendees had told her they needed funds to curb opioid addiction, serve transgender youth and aid immigrants. “And now I’m watching my children attend a school that is underfunded. We need to change this.”
In an earlier interview, Sandoval said that while she’s running out of a sense of commitment to public service, her candidacy is also in reaction to Boebert. “When I think of Lauren Boebert, I think of that expression ‘all hat and no cattle,’” Sandoval said. “When she had the opportunity to support stimulus funding, she chose Trump over us. It’s very frustrating.”
At least one person at Sandoval’s listening session who voted for Boebert said he had been disappointed by her, and plans to help Sandoval’s campaign. “I thought Lauren would be a great representative for small business owners because she owns a small business, and she came from a humble lifestyle,” said Gus Garcia, a political independent who also voted for Biden.
“But she has been so terribly disappointing,” continued Garcia, who owns a textile recycling firm. “I am humiliated and embarrassed when she speaks on the House floor. She screams all the time, and she seems to have affiliated herself with white supremacists.”
At the same time that Democratic opposition to Boebert has grown, she will have the advantages of incumbency in 2022 and, almost certainly, support from Trump once again.
She’ll also have more support from the institutional Republican Party. Boebert, who owns a gun-themed restaurant called Shooters Grill in Rifle, upset five-term incumbent Scott Tipton in the Republican primary last year and won the general election with scant experience, money and national support. But Trump backed her general election campaign. And Boebert now has the support of Take Back the House 2022, organized in January to collect contributions for Republican candidates, which has donated about $71,078 to her campaign; the House Freedom Fund, which supports conservative grassroots candidates, has donated $20,657. Meanwhile, the Colorado Republican Party recently elected as its chair Kristi Burton Brown, who worked on Boebert’s campaign as a policy adviser and has questioned the legitimacy of Biden’s election.
Boebert’s message of government overreach during the pandemic, which was a major theme of her 2020 campaign, also still reverberates in Colorado’s libertarian corners, including parts of Pueblo. After enduring its fourth outbreak in the spring, Pueblo County lifted capacity restrictions for all businesses on May 17, when case counts had improved.
“My insurance business was cut tremendously because I couldn’t go into peoples’ houses, and I couldn’t get help because I’m self-employed,” said Todd Rogers, chair of the Pueblo County Republican Party, who hosted Boebert at the group’s Lincoln Day dinner on May 1.
“She stands up for the Constitution, and she’s fiscally conservative,” he added. “Do I think she’s going to a have a tough reelection? Yes, but she will have more backing and more support because of people like me in all 29 of her counties.”
In an April poll conducted and paid for by three Democratic-leaning firms, 42 percent of Coloradans interviewed in her district said they had a favorable view of the representative, while 45 percent reported a negative view. (The results were based on a sample of 528 online surveys.) So far, Boebert has one announced Republican challenger, Marina Zimmerman, a crane operator who bills herself as a “genuine blue-collar candidate.”
The question is whether voters will continue to see Boebert, a politician who professes to “work for the people of Pueblo,” as truly fighting for their interests, including local needs in Pueblo.
Mayor Nick Gradisar sent Colorado’s congressional delegation a letter asking them to consider a number of local projects as part of Biden’s infrastructure proposal—including $350 million for freeway and interchange reconstruction, $62 million for a new transit facility, $30 million for new fire stations and apparatuses, $25 million to replace a bridge that connects downtown to south Pueblo, and $2.5 million to modernize the local airport terminal and repair parking lots and airfield surfaces.
Gradisar and state House Majority Leader Daneya Esgar, who represents Pueblo, were disappointed when Boebert signed on to a letter opposing the reintroduction of earmarks, which allow members to append projects in their districts to funding bills. Gradisar said he understood her concerns, but added that if earmarks do become an option, it doesn’t make sense for Boebert to oppose them at the expense of communities in her district.
“If it’s going to be done anyway, you wouldn’t want to say, ‘It’s not OK with me,” and punish your constituents,” says Gradisar, a Democrat, who says he initially wanted to “give [Boebert] the benefit of the doubt and the ability to represent Pueblo.”
Boebert supports infrastructure spending generally but has criticized the Biden plan for overreach. In early May, she introduced an infrastructure bill of her own that proposed allocating $650 billion in what she called “unspent Covid funds” to pay for roads, bridges, airports and ports. In a press release announcing the measure, she derided Biden’s plan, saying “only 6% of his $2.3 trillion so-called infrastructure plan goes to roads and bridges. The rest goes to climate change, increasing government bureaucracy, and unrelated liberal wish-list items.”
Across the parking lot from Gradisar’s office in City Hall on Pueblo’s Arkansas Riverwalk, sits the office of attorney Donald Banner, who donated to Boebert’s 2020 campaign and approves of the job she’s doing in “standing up against special interests and standing up against party.” Still, he acknowledges the almost century-old Union Street bridge, less than a mile down the street, is dilapidated. Recent assessments designated it “structurally deficient.”
“I know we need it repaired,” said Banner, a civil law practitioner who recently sent a letter to Boebert’s office asking her to consider funding for the region’s small water districts, which supply water to customers in rural areas, in the infrastructure bill.
To the east, city officials that operate the Pueblo Municipal Airport and its tenants said the facility needs to be modernized to attract businesses. “There is a lot of ‘want to’ in this town,” said Greg Pedroza, the airport’s acting director. “A lot of dreams seem to die and not see follow-through.”
Back in town, nestled among stately old homes on large lots interspersed with working-class neighborhoods, Perko, the steel worker, unlocked a lilac-colored door to his union chapter’s century-old hall, its yellow paint peeling off the exterior. “The foundation is slipping,” said Perko, who, along with scores of his colleagues, has been back at work since April, after being furloughed for 11 months.
Inside the hall, he swept his hand across a conference table-sized, sepia-colored picture of the steel complex in its heyday, explaining how Evraz plans to retain and grow the community’s steel-making business by building a new $480 million facility to better compete with overseas markets. It’s a promising sign, but Perko doesn’t have much confidence that the steel workers will get more help from their representative in Congress. In addition to her opposition to Biden’s infrastructure plan, Boebert’s name was not among the 51 federal lawmakers who signed a bipartisan letter circulated by the American Iron and Steel Institute, encouraging the White House to maintain tariffs enacted under President Trump.
For now, Perko says he calls Democratic Reps. Jason Crow or Joe Neguse, who represent districts that include parts of Denver and Boulder, respectively, when he needs help from Congress. And the union, which endorsed Boebert’s opponent last year, plans to closely review her record when it comes time to choosing who it will endorse next year, he says.
“The mill is still one of the highest-paying employers in town. Many people make $20 an hour, at least $6 over the average minimum wage,” he added. “This mill means everything to this community.”