A longhair stirs up politics in Colorado
Art Goodtimes is driving my car, and he’s making me a little nervous. Not that he’s a bad driver. But he’s talking Colorado politics, and he’s warming up to the subject. He starts gesturing, and soon he’s taking both hands off the wheel when he particularly wants to make a point. I realize my car’s alignment is in much worse shape than I’d thought.
We’re driving to Unaweap Canyon on the Colorado-Utah border, where Goodtimes and his family are expected to join friends at a sweat lodge on this Sunday afternoon. While his wife Mary, daughters Iris and Sarah, and baby son Gregorio follow behind in their Subaru, Goodtimes drives and answers questions and I take notes. I get the feeling that this is how Goodtimes, who’s been a county commissioner in southwestern Colorado for the past three years, operates most of the time: He tries to squeeze work, and play, into every available moment.
Even a quick look at Goodtimes’s ramshackle place outside the tiny town of Norwood, where he’s lived for the last 16 years, will tell you that he’s not a typical county commissioner. Not by a long shot. The yard is hung with handpainted prayer flags, and a collection of skulls, rocks, road signs, and license plates decorates the property. A polka-dotted pickup truck is plastered with bumper stickers from long-ago elections.
Norwood is a conservative town. Once supported by ranching and uranium mining, it’s now mostly dependent on service jobs in the upscale ski town of Telluride, about an hour’s drive to the east. It’s definitely not the sort of place you’d expect to be represented by a poetry-spouting member of the Green Party. Somehow, though, Goodtimes has gained support from many of his neighbors.
“When I got elected, a lot of people really felt like I wasn’t going to represent this part of the county,” he says. “They really were worried. But I’ve gone out of my way to back the issues here. That made all the difference. It was like, ‘OK, this guy’s weird, he looks funny … but he’s a nice enough guy, he’s not mean, and he actually represents us. We may not like him, but at least we’re not mad at him.'”
A Buddy in Contrasts
The contrast between Goodtimes and many of the people he represents doesn’t faze him much, probably because he’s dealt with odd contrasts all his life. A seventh-generation Californian, he grew up in San Francisco with what he calls “a working-class background and an upper-class education.” His brother joined the Hell’s Angels, while Goodtimes went in the opposite direction: He spent nearly seven years training for the Catholic priesthood and getting a classical seminary education.
After leaving the seminary, Goodtimes threw himself into political activism, getting involved in left-wing organizing in San Francisco and eventually becoming a VISTA volunteer on the Crow reservation near Billings, Mont. As soon as he returned to San Francisco, he started thinking about leaving the city. “I’d lost my urban tolerance,” he says.
He got a job at the Telluride film festival in 1979, then decided to stay in the area. He worked as a journalist for the Telluride newspapers — he still writes regular columns for several local papers — and he edited the poetry page for the Earth First! Journal for nearly a decade. He was also active with Sheep Mountain Alliance, a local environmental group that watchdogs public-lands issues in the county.
Telluride was too pricey for Goodtimes, so he eventually moved down the road to Norwood. Although he’d finished his time in what he calls the urban “halfway house” of the Telluride community, he says, “I still had a lot of fixed ideas about right and wrong.” The house he bought in Norwood — the one that’s now decorated with prayer flags — was the former home of Raymond Snyder, a Republican county commissioner, who Goodtimes soon befriended.
“I liked Raymond’s attitude — he was very honest,” says Goodtimes. “He had strong opinions, but was always willing to talk, always polite. I realized it was important to respect one’s elders in rural areas, even if you don’t agree with their politics. They really know and understand the land.”
Goodtimes was, and still is, an admirer of the poet Gary Snyder, one of the early proponents of bioregionalism and Deep Ecology. He found that people in communities like Norwood already knew more about these principles than he did, and he soon realized that they’d been putting them into practice for years.
“When I moved [to Norwood], I realized that the joint extension [agencies], the joint 4-H clubs, were really unlike the rigid county lines I was used to in California,” he says. “They realized that we all lived in one watershed. After that, I began to really pay attention to what people here said.”
His acceptance into the community wasn’t completely smooth, though. “I’m a little guy with a big mouth, which can be a bad combination here,” he says. “But what I like about this community is that it’s up-front, in your face. You’re forced to be face-to-face with people who think very differently than you do.”
After a short time in Norwood, Earth First! tactics no longer seemed like the best approach to Goodtimes. He started working within the system, and with the encouragement of friends in Telluride, he decided to try to take his activism to the county commissioners’ office. He ran on the Democratic ticket and got barely a quarter of Norwood’s votes, but he won overwhelmingly in Telluride. He joined the county’s three-person commission in 1996.
It hasn’t been easy. Goodtimes recently supported a gravel pit — an unlikely position for a former Earth First!er — because it had the backing of most people on the western side of the county. Although stands like this aren’t always comfortable for him, he says, they’re usually the exception. “I find I’m the ally of a lot of people on the Western Slope,” he says. “I’m opposed to trans-basin [water] diversions, and I’m a supporter of local control.
“I get along with people, I’m not mean. I respect them,” he says. “I try to give them the same kind of respect I got from most people when I was a long-haired hippie outsider.”
His approach seems to have worked; at least, he hasn’t felt the need to get a haircut yet. At a wilderness hearing in Grand Junction last June, when Republican politicians gathered to hear public testimony on Bureau of Land Management wilderness issues, Goodtimes’ speech in support of wilderness got cheers and loud applause.
Gary Gives the Green Light
As we arrive at his destination in Unaweap Canyon, Goodtimes is putting in a plug for the Green Party, which he joined partway through his term. “I met Gary [Snyder] at a philosophy conference a while back, and I said ‘What are we going to do?'” Goodtimes recalls. “He said ‘Greens,’ and I said ‘Oh, okay.’ I really respect Gary’s vision. So now, not only am I a weirdo, long-haired hippie, but I’m a Green!”
It might not be the best strategy for reelection. But this “little guy with a big mouth” is making sure that county politics in western Colorado are nothing if not interesting. He seems to be willing to listen to nearly anybody, and he’s gutsy enough to break ranks with his past when he hears a good argument. Not to say that he’s forgotten, or abandoned, his past lives as a seminary student, a radical activist, and a journalist. All the parts of his crazy-quilt background come into play in his current career.
And he’s not going to stop adding careers anytime soon. Maybe, he says, he’ll teach Latin at private school in Telluride in the fall when he’s not at the county commissioners’ office. “I’m not the greatest Latin teacher in the world,” he says, “but I know something of it.” Why am I not surprised?
Get Grist in your inbox