by Dante Chinni
LOS ALAMOS, NM - At an elevation of 7,300 feet, Los Alamos towers over much of America - and in more ways than one.
The median household income in this county, about $78,000, is more than twice the national county median of $36,935. More than 60 percent of those who live in the "atomic city" have at least a bachelor's degree - compared with less than 17 percent of people in an average US county.
That's because here the dominant employer is Los Alamos National Laboratory. The lab and the modern town came into being as a result of the Manhattan Project in the early 1940s. Robert Oppenheimer, the project's scientific director, chose the site because he thought its beauty would inspire the scientists who came there to work. The military agreed on the location because it was remote but reachable.
Since the burg brought the world the bomb, the lab has continued its weapons research and branched out into other areas. It remains a hub for physicists, chemists, and engineers.
The lab is the center of life in this town of 11,000. About two-thirds of town's adults work at the National Laboratory or at companies in the area that work closely with the lab, people here say. Many more commute daily to work at the facility.
Los Alamos hails itself as a place "where discoveries are made!" The bus system here is called Atomic City Transit. There's even an Oppenheimer Street.
"We are a one-horse economy. The lab dominates," says Kevin Holsapple, executive director of the Los Alamos Chamber of Commerce. But the lab brings people here who yearn to make a difference. It goes way beyond defense. People here are supportive of research development and education."
Ups and downs in the town
Like many other affluent suburbs, high income and education levels make Los Alamos a desirable community.
The K-12 schools in Los Alamos are among the nation's best - though most acknowledge it's because of the population of scientists here. The violent crime rate is extremely low. Community resources include a pool, an ice rink, and a transit system.
Even so, the lab has faced budget and staff cuts in recent years, and many residents say they want the lab's mission to expand.
"Most people here would probably like to see the lab diversified in a much more serious way," says Bill Enloe, chairman and CEO of the Los Alamos National Bank. There is ample talent at the lab already digging into areas like superconductivity, nanotechnologies, and hydrogen fuel, Mr. Enloe says, which many here say will lead to growth for the town and the lab.
Los Alamos - with only a small downtown on the mesa - lacks vitality, which often deters younger residents from staying. Both Los Alamos and Los Alamos County want to hold onto the dollars that flow into the bank accounts of its people and have plans to develop more retail space downtown in hopes of capturing more of those dollars. Much of the money earned here is spent south in nearby Santa Fe and its art galleries and coffee shops.
Despite the ubiquitous wealth, an unpretentious air permeates. Mansions and fancy cars are few and far between. Skiing and hiking are only minutes away. And most anywhere in town one can see a picture worthy of a postcard snapshot.
Moving away from the GOP
But that easygoing vibe can be deceiving. The people who come to Los Alamos are high-achievers, and their attitudes are present in most everything here - including politics.
"People come to conclusions based not on political party, but on where their intellectual examination leads them," says Ron Dolin, chairman of the Los Alamos Republican Party. Increasingly, Mr. Dolin says, that has led them away from the Republican Party.
Most do not take the "get tough" on immigration argument seriously, Dolin says. Anyone who looks at the situation can see those people are coming here for jobs, not because they want Social Security," he says, and if they are getting jobs, there must be jobs to be had."
Overall, the party registration here is fairly evenly split between Republicans and Democrats. Twenty percent are registered independents.
But some take note of the community's leftward drift since 2000. Jim Hall, chairman of the Los Alamos County Council, says people have become disenchanted with both President Bush and the Republican Party. "A lot of people here thought the war in Iraq was stupid. It just didn't look like it was necessary."
Mr. Bush carried this county by 15 percentage points in 2000. In 2004, Bush beat Sen. John Kerry here by just 6 points. In the 2008 presidential election, most folks here on the left and right say this town could go for the Democratic or Republican candidate.
This area has both conservative and liberal elements, making it possible for both parties' candidates to have a chance, residents say.
The Republican Party's emphasis on social values as well as its loose spending in Washington may have pushed some GOP voters to look for alternatives. The idea of the federal government focusing more on education and technology could help Democrats win some votes here. But a strong fiscal conservative streak and a focus on national defense could favor Republicans.
Some speculate that a race between Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama would be particularly close. "I think a lot of people are going to be torn," says Mr. Hall.