By Leslie Jorgensen
THE COLORADO STATESMAN
PUEBLO — Two annual barbecues kicked off the 2009 Colorado State Fair, and both served up fabulous steaks and sizzling political gossip to satisfy the appetites of Democrats and Republicans alike.
Several hundred legislators, lobbyists, corporate sponsors and candidates flocked to the annual Legislative BBQ sponsored by the Greater Pueblo Chamber of Commerce on Friday evening, Aug. 28. The following night, at least 100 Republicans attended the 15th annual steak dinner hosted by former Pueblo GOP Chairman Tom Ready.
Gov. Bill Ritter extolled the Legislative Barbecue as a wonderful bipartisan opportunity for Democrats and Republicans to socialize, savor barbecue and celebrate the State Fair.
Minutes earlier, the Democratic governor had been ambushed by state GOP Chair Dick Wadhams, who had stood at the entrance of the massive tent to await Ritter’s arrival for nearly an hour.
Wadhams then hogtied Ritter into posing with him for a bipartisan photo op for news media. Republican 6th District Congressman Mike Coffman, sporting a wry grin, couldn’t resist joining the duo for the “Kodak moment.”
Once Ritter entered the huge tent — which was draped with banners of bronco-busting rodeo riders and offered hay-bale seating and mechanical bulls — the governor joined a posse of western-wear-clad politicians lassoing support for various campaigns or legislative initiatives.
Spotted among the hundreds in line for the chuck-wagon fare were Democrats 3rd District Congressman John Salazar, of Manassa; urban cowboy House Speaker Terrance Carroll, of Denver, and Sen. Abel Tapia and Reps. Buffie McFadyen and Sal Pace, of Pueblo.
Rep. Marsha Looper, R-Calhan, and Kim O’Neil, a consul and trade commissioner at Denver’s Consulate General of Canada, flashed a “Wanted” poster of their faces offering a $1 million reward. No doubt Looper and O’Neil were guilty of having fun at the State Fair.
Spotted in the chow line for barbecued steak and chicken, baked potatoes, squash, tossed salad and rolls, were Republicans Attorney General John Suthers and state Rep. Larry Liston, both of Colorado Springs; Michael Britt, manager of Senate Minority Leader Josh Penry’s gubernatorial campaign, and state GOP Executive Director James Garcia.
Hotter than the barbecue sauce on the sizzling steaks were speculations about announced and unannounced candidates for the U.S. Senate seat now held by Ritter appointee Michael Bennet. The biggest buzz surrounded the names of former Colorado Speaker of the House Andrew Romanoff, a Democrat, and of Weld County District Attorney Ken Buck and former Colorado Lt. Governor Jane Norton, both Republicans.
Romanoff didn’t attend the Legislative barbecue, but his Democratic supporters and assorted Republicans excitedly discussed the prospect of a Democratic primary between him and Bennet, who also was not seen here.
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At both the legislative barbecue and Ready’s Saturday night steak soiree, steamed Republicans raged about reports that the Republican National Senatorial Committee had endorsed Norton’s candidacy, bamboozling Buck out of a place in the party’s U.S. Senate race.
The rumors had sparked a firestorm of e-mails, faxes and phone calls to state Republican Party headquarters and Buck’s campaign office.
Over the weekend, Wadhams repeatedly splashed water on the rumors — and finally doused them on Monday after a call to the RNSC.
“The RNSC has not in the past, does not now and will not in the future get involved in Colorado’s Republican U.S. Senate race. They will remain neutral until after a nominee is chosen,” Wadhams told The Colorado Statesman.
“That rumor picked up steam because of that domain name registration that was reported,” said Wadhams of the RNSC having registered Web site names for Norton. “I think they would have done that for anyone who asked.”
Kindling the fire, he said, was the erroneous report that Buck might quit the race.
“I don’t think the RSNC has any business telling Ken Buck to get out of the race or any other candidate. It’s not right,” declared GOP U.S. Senate contender Cleve Tidwell during dinner at Ready’s home in Pueblo West.
“I hope Ken Buck stays in the race,” said Tidwell, who whipped out his I-phone and began reading e-mails critical of the RSNC. “These things get started because of blogs based on blogs based on e-mails.”
In response to a call to Buck’s campaign, spokesman Owen Loftus said, “The RSNC has never told Ken Buck to drop out, and he’s not (going to)…. Ken believes he’s the guy to take back Washington, D.C.”
Unmoved by the uproar was another GOP candidate for the U.S. Senate, Aurora City Councilman Ryan Frazier, who, on Saturday, waved in the State Fair Parade before attending Ready’s Republican dinner.
Frazier said his campaign strategy is still developing, and that it doesn’t hinge on any decision yet to be made by Norton or former state Sen. Tom Wiens, R-Castle Rock, another U.S. Senate candidate.
Wiens already has tossed his 10-gallon hat into the race. His candidacy filing with the Federal Elections Commission was verified Monday in a statement to supporters.
On the first day of the State Fair each year, Ready hosts a steak dinner and auction to raise money for the Pueblo County GOP. The dentist and former Beulah rancher said the event has been attended by nearly every Republican member of either chamber of the U.S. Congress from Colorado over the past 15 years.
In addition to Frazier and Tidwell, GOP gubernatorial candidate Penry, of Grand Junction, and candidates for state treasurer J.J. Ament and Walker Stapleton savored the Ready-hosted dinner of steak, chicken and corn on the cob dripping with butter.
Guests included Pueblo Chieftain publisher Bob Rawlings; Pueblo County GOP Chair David Dill and his wife, Janet Rawlings, Bob Rawlings’ daughter and the Chieftain’s assistant publisher; and Chuck Green, the former Denver Post editorial page editor who recently won a seat on the Pueblo West Metropolitan District Board of Directors by a landslide.
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Also among the notable Republicans were Wadhams, who brought his friend, Wendy Evans, an Arapahoe County Republican who served as deputy regional representative of U.S. Department of Education during the most recent Bush administration; and Fremont County GOP Chair and Cañon City Councilman Kevin Grantham, a candidate to replace state Sen. Ken Kester, R-Las Animas, who is term limited next year.
As Republicans mingled in the beautifully landscaped backyard with a waterfall spilling into a pond, GOP gubernatorial candidate and former CD 3 U.S. Rep. Scott McInnis came up repeatedly in conversations that sounded like a “Where is Waldo?” contest.
McInnis didn’t attend Ready’s dinner or the Legislative BBQ in Pueblo.
“I think Scott has written off Pueblo County — it’s absurd,” said Ready, adding that McInnis hasn’t contacted him or the Pueblo County Party.
Ready and others also questioned the rationale in the McInnis campaign’s decision to bypass the state GOP dinner, candidates’ forum and straw poll in Keystone on Sept. 25.
In a letter sent to the state GOP, McInnis said the poll would promote party “infighting.” The campaign also complained that the poll results would be based on which candidate’s supporters bought the most votes.
“That just isn’t true,” said Wadhams, who clarified that the purchase of a dinner ticket included a vote in the each poll of candidates for U.S. Senate and governor.
During the festivities in Pueblo last Friday, the state GOP executive committee voted 16-1 to move forward with the forum and polls — bucking McInnis.