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Shall We Brunch? Ft. Collins Politics in Action

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Taking a snapshot of a movement sounds nonsensical, if not impossible. But if you're in Northern Colorado when Dan Shaner hosts one of his Sunday brunches for change, that's what you'll get -- along with some very fine local bluegrass and an equally tasty homemade meal.

Like a lot of reinvigorated Democrats, Shaner had a conversion experience during Barack Obama's run for President. He'd moved to Colorado from Montana in 1981 to be an engineer. Work and family took up a lot of his time after that. The Bush years stripped his hope.

In February of 2007, with his life ordered and his sense of possibility restored, he decided, "We wanted to do something more for Barack Obama than cheer."

In partnership with a neighbor, Mary Englund, Shaner started a Sunday "Barackfast" where like-minded -- and opposing -- thinkers could gather.

The first breakfast netted 8-10 people and sent $200 to Obama's campaign. The brunch hit a major peak in January 2008, providing office space (by way of a retiring bruncher), housing (by way of a landlord bruncher) and 500 calls made in a day (by way of just about everyone) for the candidate and his team.

Obama won the election. But by then Shaner's breakfast team had caught the political bug. Government "by and for the people?" Bring it on.

Since then, Dan Shaner estimates the Barackfasts have "mailed $15,000" to local campaigns and charities, including the North Larimer Tooth Fairy Fund for low-income adults.

The Tooth Fairy is non-partisan. Ft. Collins is more Colo-bi-partisan. It's is the electoral blueberry of Larimer County, which a bruncher described to me as a kind of geographical donut that trends redder closer to its circumference. Larimer is also a vital part of Colorado-the-bluer, voting for Obama/Biden in '08 by almost 10 points.

Democrats like U.S. Rep. Betsy Markey and State Rep. John Kefalis have dropped by Shaner's brunch. Obama campaign workers reborn as campaign aids to Gov. Bill Ritter have shown up, too. All of which is American politics as usual.

But what makes Dan Shaner's brunch Coloradoan is its relationship to the 2008 caucuses.

Before 2008, several guests at Dan Shaner's told me, their experience of caucusing -- of placing a live primary vote by raising your hand in front of your peers -- was to be part of a passionate crowd of one or three other people.

In 2008, hundreds of politically engaged neighbors showed up. It was like a happy family reunion. And at the risk of throwing a cheesy pop song into the midst of this piece: Reunited, well...you know how that feels.

Which brings us back to Shaner's brunch. This Sunday, as The Horsetooth Mountain Rangers played, Shaner's brunchers noshed and chatted about:

Health Care: A sign on the door advertised a "Mad Doctors' Rally." But the table-side conversation put a gentler, personal spin on the national debate.

A small-business owner said he'd helped his 10 staffers find more affordable, higher quality health care. His approach was homegrown -- a byproduct of desperation leading to inspiration. He had canceled the company plan, given his staffers a raise and helped each of them find better, more affordable plans. He was now enrolled in wife's health plan. So far, so okay, he said. As long as she doesn't retire ...

Civil Disagreements -- Was it too late to teach kids -- and adults -- the classic skills of rhetoric? Is there way to infuse a shared respect for fact into emotional debates?

Don Cox, another brunch organizer, stirred up his own passions as he fried up some bacon.

"I am so tired of chicken-shit partisanship," he said.

"Uh-oh. I think I'm going to need to balance this," Dan said, sotto voce, as he served up the eggs.

"It's not that 51% of the country are assholes and 49% are patriots," Cox continued. "I'd like to have substantive, bi-partisan dialogue. We cannot assume that because someone does not agree with us that they don't care about humanity and the country."

Outdoors by the band, first-time bruncher Diana Zweygardt was talking to Irma Woollen, a retired CSU-advisor turned political volunteer.

"A woman who buys eggs from me said, 'Why don't you come to this breakfast,'" Zweygardt said. "It didn't have anything to do with original politics. It had to with community.

"You get involved on a personal level because you met them and they asked you to help them."

Irma, a native Spanish speaker of Cherokee-Irish-Mexican-German descent ("I'm all-American!" she said, flashing a huge smile), agreed.

As a young mother, she recalled, she moved from Sacramento to an army base in South Carolina. There, she sat in the back of the bus so her kids could spread out on the same seat -- and discovered segregation, when the driver stopped the bus and demanded that she and her kids leave the "colored section" and move to their "correct" seats up front.

Irma says she loves Colorado compared to the South -- and to her home state of Texas.

"You're free to be -- Colorado has that feeling for me. It always has," she said.

At the end of Dan Shaner's latest Barackfast, no Big Thing happened. And Dan he was thrilled by that. Politics in Ft. Collins is a part of everyday life -- as opposed to apart from it.

"If I had a dream," Shaner says, "It would be one of those Iowa fish fries -- if you were a politician running for office in Northern Colorado, you would come here."

Until then, a civil bluegrass brunch is more than fine.

In the state that inspired the phrase, "purple mountains majesty", change is a process. Constant, upward effort is natural -- and ideally, rewarded.