Public money and politics: Grand Lake considers pulling Constitution Week’s $5,000 grant
Grand Lake wants to know: Do locals think Constitution Week is too political for public funding?
The annual week of events has existed in Grand Lake for a decade now, returning every year in the late summer after President Dwight Eisenhower and the Daughters of the American Revolution first designated the week on Aug. 2, 1956.
In Grand Lake, organizers praise Constitution Week as a celebration of the document and the nation it framed. They herald the local rendition as the premiere, most in-depth Constitution Week in the country, and they tout its bipartisan, educational designs.
Constitution Week is also credited for drawing a significant number of visitors — and their business — to town, but the week has also come under increasing fire for its conservative speakers and presentations.
In many cases, Grand Lake US Constitution Week’s lineup is not controversial at all — trivia nights, barbecues, a parade, fireworks and talks led by policy wonks.
But some of the speakers and presentations — events with titles like “Socialism Rebranded?” — have led to criticism that Constitution Week is a poorly veiled Republican rally, not a celebration of the nation’s founding document.
To that, organizers might argue those people have failed to see Constitution Week for what it is, understand where it came from and appreciate everything that surrounds it.
“Being the founder of (Grand Lake US Constitution Week), I personally dislike politics,” Tom Goodfellow wrote in a response to the Sky-Hi News. “The intent of GLUSCW is designed to bring people together through education.”
A divisive speaker
Last year’s Constitution Week headliner, John Eastman, was especially polarizing.
The conservative constitutional law professor made national headlines prior to the 2020 election by writing an op-ed for Newsweek questioning Vice President Kamala Harris’ eligibility to hold the office.
Soon after its publication, Newsweek acknowledged that racist individuals and groups were widely praising Eastman’s work and apologized for the magazine’s role in it.
At Constitution Week in Grand Lake, the title of Eastman’s presentation was “Recalling our Nation’s Constitutional Founding in the Wake of Covid.” During it, he talked about the local and national authority to impose restrictions during a pandemic and pushed for a separation of powers.
Eastman’s remarks on the presidential race were limited, but his Grand Lake visit still sparked a series of letters to the editor in this newspaper focusing on Eastman’s op-ed — including one from him defending it — until the Sky-Hi News decided to stop publishing them.
After the 2020 election, Eastman spoke during the Jan. 6 rally in Washington, D.C., in which the crowd later stormed the halls of Congress. Later, Eastman welcomed it when his name was being tossed around as a potential defense attorney for President Donald Trump’s second impeachment trial.
Other speakers, like 2019 headliner Kevin Sorbo, also have held deeply conservative viewpoints and, along with a handful of events with titles like “Guarding the American Idea in an Age of Progressivism,“ have helped cast some opinions that Constitution Week largely features conservatives with little in the way of opposing voices.
Citing the economic benefits from Constitution Week, Grand Lake has supported the week with $5,000 annually over the last few years. However, Grand Lake recently shifted its process for awarding town-funded nonprofit grants to utilize the Grand Foundation. GLUSCW is a nonprofit organization.
With the Grand Foundation administering town-funded grants this year, the foundation flagged Constitution Week’s application as potentially problematic for the town and requested Grand Lake trustees’ guidance.
“The Grand Foundation and frankly town staff have received several comments from people who say Constitution Week is politically biased,” Town Manager John Crone told Grand Lake trustees as he framed the conversation for them on March 22.
“That’s a perception; that is not staff’s position or the town’s position,” Crone continued. “However, it is an issue that has been brought up. The Grand Foundation asked staff for feedback on whether we feel this is too political an issue for the town to make a donation.”
Crone said this decision was “way above” Grand Foundation’s and town staff’s pay grades.
“This is clearly a board decision,” he said. “We need feedback on this one.”
Goodfellow carries a creased paper listing all of the liberals and Democrats he’s invited to Constitution Week over the years. It’s deeply creased, he explained, because he carries it with him so frequently.
The list includes a long lineup of prominent Democrats, well known locals and progressive organizations in Grand County and beyond. Goodfellow put it together and included it in a letter he wrote to town officials for their March 22 meeting.
In the letter, Goodfellow explained that he carries the paper with him to refute claims that Constitution Week is politically biased.
“Obviously these allegations have reached the Grand Foundation,” Goodfellow wrote to trustees. “Apparently, they have believed what they have heard without any regard for asking questions or soliciting me to find out some information. Very disturbing. Shame on them for singling us out. Cancel culture.”
Goodfellow continued by saying that Democrats have not served the community well in Grand County in regards to Constitution Week.
“It’s sad that I had to make a log of my efforts to reach out,” he wrote. “I have not updated it for 2020. I can now add the Grand Foundation to a different list called, ‘hearsay & rumors list.’”
In his emailed response to the newspaper, Goodfellow also criticized the Sky-Hi News and the newspaper’s past coverage of Constitution Week as incomplete, haphazard and biased. He reiterated that GLUSCW no longer advertises in the Sky-Hi News, even though the newspaper’s request for comment made no mention of advertising in the newspaper.
A case for GLUSCW
Responding to questions from the Sky-Hi News about his reaction to the town considering Constitution Week’s funding and about the week’s economic impact on Grand Lake, Goodfellow responded with 1,000-plus words via email.
His response was divided into five sub-categories including a history, synopsis, speakership enlistment, economic benefits and development, and recent accomplishments of Constitution Week.
“I am going to try and keep this short because your request to describe a six-day event in mid-September, that has been going on for 10 years is a large request,” Goodfellow wrote, adding that Constitution Week cannot be understood in one news article.
According to Goodfellow, he actually dislikes politics and founded Grand Lake U.S. Constitution Week to bring people together through education.
He also offers some proof of bipartisan designs, as he points to the week’s more than 35 speakers over nine years and their wide diversity of backgrounds. They’ve been from all different races, religions and ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds.
The speakers have worked as radio hosts and columnists, won the Pulitzer Prize and made careers for themselves as respected authors, scholars and academics. Many are conservative, but there are also progressives, libertarians, and Democrats in there, too.
Decorated and dedicated
Goodfellow also highlighted the GLUSCW committee receiving a “Proud to be an American Award” from the American Legion in 2014 and finishing second in the 2017 Best of Grand awards for Best Community Event.
“This award was organic in nature,” Goodfellow added. “We did not know we were even nominated. We were also awarded a $10,000 grant in 2019,” in which the Constitution Week committee used all of that money to promote its events, the town and Grand County.
Despite the pandemic last year, the week still managed to pull off the events.
“We worked through the COVID-19 requirements while other organizations chose not to,” Goodfellow said. “We had great attendance and improved on our program.”
The committee also secured a military jet fly-over for the first year and dedicated it to first-responders.
“We just got approved for a flyover again this year,” Goodfellow wrote, adding that Constitution Week has also started its first Kids Corner.
“This does not even come close to all that has been accomplished over the years by our volunteers,” Goodfellow wrote. “The naysayers do not have a clue.”
Dems pull plug
Susan Newcomer, chair of the Grand County Democratic Party, recalled that local Dems were once optimistic about Constitution Week.
She even remembered an “unofficial Democrat representative” working on planning a few years ago — before he quit.
Newcomer also helped secure Constitution Week’s keynote speaker in 2018 by inviting her ex-husband, David Garrow, a retired, liberal constitutional law professor and Pulitzer-prize winning biographer.
“The D’s in the county were optimistic about the future,” Newcomer said via email. “We were hopeful about getting Democratic issues out to a traditionally more conservative population in the county, and to help with community support. At least we felt we were not going to be frozen out.”
But then came Eastman, his letter to the editor and his efforts to work his way onto Trump’s defense team.
“That did it for the Democrats and Constitution Week,” Newcomer concluded.
Weighing the decision
Where trustees fall on this could be interesting. Crone said they hadn’t received much feedback as of Wednesday, and event organizers have told the town they want to know where their grant application stands.
During discussions, Trustee Ernie Bjorkman wondered aloud what would happen if another nonprofit group, like Black Lives Matter, wanted to hold a week of events in Grand Lake and asked for $5,000 of public money.
“Are we being fair?” Bjorkman said. “I don’t know. That’s my concern, would other organizations on whatever side ask for the same amount of money to hold a week of festivities?”
Mayor Pro Tem Jonah Landy said that with all the political turmoil in the state and country, he didn’t feel comfortable approving Constitution Week’s application for grant funding again. Based on the economic benefits, other trustees disagreed and said they would support awarding the grant.
Mayor Steve Kudron cautioned against trying to judge individual events too much on politics, and he added that local lodging sees a nice increase from Constitution Week, though Kudron also expressed his concerns about casting the town in a negative light.
Other trustees were torn and interested in hearing more about efforts to include all voices in the events and what Grand Lake constituents would like them to do prior to making a decision.
With that, trustees tabled the grant’s discussion until their last meeting in April.
“I’ve always been very supportive of Constitution Week. I think it’s been good for the offseason business,” Trustee Cindy Southway said. “A lot of people in the community really enjoy attending the events … but sometimes the divisiveness that happens during Constitution Week, I’m unconformable with, and I think this year it could be even worse.”
Being that it’s a volunteer organization, Goodfellow didn’t have any figures regarding the economic impact from the week. He said that being a business owner in town for 22 years has kept him busy, but based on his observations and the testimony of his fellow business owners, he can make some easy assessments.
“Car counts peaked and restaurants told me of record days, running out of food, (being) slammed, etc.,” Goodfellow replied. “The town of Grand Lake trustees voted unanimously for eight straight years to provide GLUSCW grant money. This should suffice your info/figures question, I believe. It was considered common and obvious knowledge in Grand Lake, as well as Grand County.”
He added that the week has been featured in radio ads locally, in the Denver area and across western Colorado.
“We have promoted the hell out of Grand Lake,” Goodfellow wrote.
One last thought
For what it’s worth, Garrow, the liberal who headlined Grand Lake’s Constitution Week, took a moment to talk about Eastman and his appearance in Grand Lake.
Admitting that he hasn’t studied Eastman’s work, Garrow did say over the phone that up until at least two years ago, Eastman had a “credible” reputation in many constitutional law circles.
Garrow said that Eastman undoubtedly swung conservative, but “Eastman’s trajectory the last 18 months might not have been wholly predictable.”
The way Garrow described what he knew of opinions of Eastman before the op-ed and riot at the Capitol, Eastman would have been a strong booking for Grand Lake’s Constitution Week.
During his time with Goodfellow and Constitution Week, Garrow said that he wasn’t ever made to feel uneasy and Goodfellow was “excellent.”
During his talk at Constitution Week, Garrow spoke about the Chevron Deference and state administrative law. He also participated in the parade and other events, and he had a great time.
“It’s sad what we’ve seen … and I gather that Eastman is quite an example of this, where people go down these partisan rabbit holes and they’re unable to see complexity,” Garrow said.
In his experience, it was not just conservative holsters at Grand Lake US Constitution Week. It was “a wonderful event” in “a grand town.”
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