CORTEZ, Colo.—It was the middle of Mike Lavey’s first term as mayor when he jotted down a resignation letter and tucked it away in a leather-bound folder. He said he could no longer stomach the divisions that were tearing apart this rural, southwest Colorado town.

Over the past year, Mr. Lavey had watched as this community of 8,700 became racked by tensions over politics, race and Covid-19. The clash in Cortez mirrored similar conflicts across the country, from other small towns to Washington, D.C.

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