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City's identity hasn't changed


This is the time of year for family weddings, and one last weekend took us for a quick trip to Arkansas.

You can imagine the weather in Little Rock 90-plus degrees and humid, every day. You can sweat more there in one afternoon than in a month here.

As long as we were going to the place that gave us Bill and Hillary Clinton, followed by Mike Huckabee, it seemed logical to gauge the sentiment in Arkansas at this stage in the election year on both sides of the political fence.

Most of the conversations were predictable. One definitely wasn't.

First, the big stuff. As one might guess, it wasn't difficult to find Arkansans who had supported Sen. Clinton for president. Not that she was hugely popular during her years living there, because she actually wasn't. (One reason was because she called herself Hillary Rodham when Bill first was serving in state offices, refusing to go by the Clinton name until later. Down in the Bible Belt, that didn't go over so well.)

But this year, for this election, many people in Arkansas still wanted her to be their next president, and they definitely weren't ready to embrace Sen. Barack Obama that quickly after he wrapped up the Democratic nomination last week. Most of my discussions were with people who might be classified as in the middle, and those who had supported Clinton seemed to prefer putting off their decision between Obama and Sen. John McCain, perhaps until they pick their running mates.

As one person said bluntly, "As far as we've all come in dealing with racism in the South, it's still hard to imagine a lot of people in this part of the world voting for a black man to be president."

Others were even more blunt, but not as eloquent. It reminded me of living in the Florida Panhandle, specifically Fort Walton Beach, from 2001 to 2003. Just a short drive from the newspaper, on one of the main thoroughfares in that tourist-friendly metro area of about 100,000 people, was a Christian church with the Confederate battle flag, arguably the most enduring symbol of racism, flying above it.

Those chats left me thinking Obama will have to pick his spots in the South, unless his running mate is someone who could attract plenty of white voters.

Another conversation, however, was much more disarming. It was actually about Colorado Springs.

I was visiting with a middle-aged woman, an attorney from New York City. She made it clear she was a Democrat, and she had been a loyal Hillary Clinton backer. She'll probably come around to Obama, but not just yet. Hillary's defeat is still too fresh and painful.

Then I mentioned being from here and about my work. She looked aghast.

"Aren't you concerned, even just going out in public there?" she asked, sincerely, and that instantly told me Colorado Springs still has a long way to go in overcoming its image to untold numbers of educated and informed people across America.

This person was very surprised to hear my response, that Colorado Springs isn't completely dominated by fervent, anti-gay, anti-abortion, gun-toting evangelicals. She couldn't believe that we have a few Democratic state legislators from the area, and more than 70,000 registered Democrats in the county (plus many Independents who could vote either way). She didn't know we have a Democratic governor, and she was equally stunned to hear that Obama might carry Colorado over McCain.

It made me realize that the damage has been real from the negative publicity about this city and state during the past two decades. If not for our talking about it, she would have continued having the wrong ideas.

Always before, I've heard about those misconceptions in the context of companies trying to decide whether to relocate to the Springs. The difference this time was hearing it from somebody with absolutely no connection or interest in living here. She was simply going by what she had read and heard.

She went back to New York with new information, and perhaps now she might even consider a family trip here sometime.

But it still strikes me that if one very-aware attorney from the Big Apple was that uninformed about Colorado Springs, she surely wasn't alone.

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