Why Is this Woman Smiling?

She's been heckled, threatened, and placed on Sarah Palin's hit list. Yet Democratic Congresswoman Betsy Markey is raking in campaign money and still thinks she can hold the traditionally conservative 4th District come November.

May 2010

It's a cloudless January morning in Wellington, a former railroad town that's now a smudge on the map between Denver and Cheyenne, Wyoming. The sun is shining, traffic is breezing along I-25, and the parking lot at the town's Ace Hardware store is buzzing with a group of Tea Partiers. A dozen or so protesters who have gathered here, 20 minutes south of the Wyoming border, are awaiting Betsy Markey, their first-term congresswoman, a Blue Dog Democrat—and to hear it from them, one of the Four Horsewomen of the looming socialist apocalypse. Signs ("Individual Liberty, Government Accountability"), Sarah Palin bumper stickers, and "Don't Tread on Me" hats abound. One guy stands near a car while tooting on a fife and wearing a tricornered Colonial hat while another man—with a black beard and dark Ray Charles sunglasses—sits in a chair and taps away on a Revolutionary War-style drum.

Inside the hardware store, one of Markey's young aides peeks out a window. "Oh, God," he says. "They're here." Markey arrives a few minutes late and makes a beeline for the protesters. "Glad you could make it!" the petite, 54-year-old blonde says, reaching out a hand. "We'll be starting soon. I hope to see you inside." She waves at the Ray Charles drummer. The Tea Partiers aren't quite sure what to make of the gesture.

Markey introduces herself to the store's owner and to several employees just off the main shopping area, which smells of lawn chemicals. One man is doing his best to look as unenthusiastic as possible when shaking the congresswoman's hand. Another man puts a hand on Markey's shoulder.

"I didn't vote for you," he says.

"Uh-huh," Markey says.

"I'm a conservative, and I appreciate you voting conservative sometimes."

Markey smiles, nods, then smoothes the creases out of her cardigan and walks to the front of the room. All 75 seats are taken, and the overflow crowd has to stand along the back wall, under metallic signs that read "A messy kitchen is a happy kitchen." There's an uneasy feeling at the hardware store, as there is at events like these—in times like these—across the state and the rest of the country. It's a feeling that's actually been put into writing on signs taped to the store's entrances: "It is our privilege to welcome Congresswoman Betsy Markey to Wellington. Please be respectful or you will be asked to leave."

Despite being pro-choice, environmentally friendly, and an advocate for consumer rights, Markey begins the meeting, as she often does with groups inclined to be skeptical of her political leanings, by highlighting her more conservative handiwork. She does so with a matter-of-factness that makes it seem as if her decisions were foregone conclusions because she's a moderate Democrat: There was her vote against the House's original health-care bill this past fall; her vote against increasing the public debt; and her role pushing a small property-rights bill to fight a faulty Forest Service survey in Crystal Lakes. "I want to help the government work for you," she assures the men and women seated in front of her. There's muffled grumbling in the back of the store.

Markey solicits questions from the audience. Instead, people want to offer their comments, like this one: "We are taxed to death." Or this one: "Quit trying to regulate us. Get out of our lives." Or this one: "We have a president taking the same path Hitler did."

Markey ignores this comment. After about 45 minutes, she points to a man in the second row, signaling that it's his turn to ask a question. He has graying, slicked-back hair and wears a black, leather jacket. He stands.

"You are spending way too much money," the man says, wagging an index finger. His voice is rising. "You will stand before God. You all will."

"We all will," Markey interrupts.

"Well, you're not obeying the Constitution, and we're getting sick of it," the man says. "One day there's going to be blood on the streets."

Some of the people are staring at the floor, arms crossed. It's difficult to say if they're too embarrassed to look at this man, or at Markey—or both—or if they're simply taking in the words. Others are shooting wide-eyed, this-can't-be-good looks at one another. Markey stands still, hands at her sides.

"There were 1.3 million people in Washington, D.C., at a September protest," the man continues. "Maybe next time we'll just bring our guns."

Now people are no longer staring at the floor; they are out of their seats. Fingers are pointing, hands are waving, voices are rising.

"Sit down!" Markey yells at the man. "Sit down!"

"Why don't you calm down!" one man says.

"That's just stupid!" another says.

The gray-haired man shrinks in his chair, as if he knows he's said something he shouldn't have said. He apologizes later, but Markey turns away. "Now, where were we?" she asks, sharply.

Forty minutes later, the event is over. Markey shakes a few more hands before an aide grabs her by the elbow and points her toward the door. The gun comment is on Markey's mind. "Par for the course," she says as she heads toward the sunlight. She shakes her head. "I don't know why people have to get so crazy."