GRAND JUNCTION, Colo. - It is generally recognized that Democrats are a rare species in Mesa County. It's even rarer for a Mesa County Democrat to be honored as Volunteer of the Year by the state party.
This year, however, Rick Baer of Grand Junction will share that honor with two other Democratic Party volunteers from the Front Range. The awards will be given at the Colorado Dems largest event of the year - the 80th annual Jefferson-Jackson dinner in downtown Denver March 2.
Former Mesa County Democrats chairperson Martelle Daniels nominated Baer for the recognition.
"It's a huge honor to be the (state) Democrat's Volunteer of the Year," Daniels said. "I don't remember if, ever, there was someone from the West Slope honored.
"He's truly devoted to the principles he believes in, and he doesn't just work during elections. Rick works year-round. He makes phone calls, he writes letters, shows up at legislator's offices. He organizes rallies."
Baer, 67, began an apprenticeship with electrical union local 969 after moving to Mesa County from southwest Colorado in 1966. He supports the right of collective bargaining, he said.
"The National Labor Relations Act was the strongest anti-poverty program we ever had," Baer said. "Prior to that, we didn't have a middle class in this country."
Over the years Baer attended precinct caucuses and state conventions. He worked on George McGovern's presidential campaign in 1972.
He became more active in politics after he retired five years ago from the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, where he worked both as a union organizer and a construction organizer. He became involved with Obama for America. He remained active after the election, with Organizing for America, and later, Organizing for Action.
"I watched the middle class slide (and) wages stagnate," Baer said of his motivation to help elect President Barack Obama, first in 2008 and then in 2012. "The only hope of turning that around was getting progressive people in office."
"We never thought we would win in Mesa County, but we needed every vote. The votes count as much in Mesa County as Denver. Our goal was to get those electoral votes in Colorado."
Not everyone is as openly Democrat as Baer.
Many locals keep their political affiliation quiet for fear of discrimination at work, Baer said.
"There are a lot of closet Democrats in Mesa County," he said.
The 2008 presidential campaign was unique in the number of Democrats who came out to volunteer in the Grand Valley, he said.
"A lot of people expressed surprise there were that many Democrats," Baer said.
Baer volunteered as a Redlands-area team leader during the campaign. He worked to recruit other volunteers, registered voters, identified supporters, made phone calls, and knocked on doors urging people to vote.
"A lot of us were convinced that winning Colorado (a swing state) might be the key to winning the whole thing," Baer said.
One of the volunteers Baer recruited was Scott Beilfuss of Grand Junction. The two met at a February 2012 caucus meeting.
"I had never worked on a campaign before," Beilfuss said.
"Rick believes with all his heart in what he's doing. He inspires people that way. He's our hero with his work ethic and his passion."
Neighborhood leaders like Baer were crucial to the Obama for America grassroots campaign to re-elect the president, field organizer Clinton Thomas said.
"Our organization is built around volunteers. People like Rick spent hours every week contacting voters," Thomas said.
The Colorado Democratic Party will also recognize at the event Sen. Lucia Guzman of Denver as Democrat of the Year; former Denver Mayor Wellington Webb, with the Lifetime Achievement award; and Rep. Leroy Garcia of Pueblo as the Rising Star. The Chair's Award for Service will go to former U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar.