By Ernest Luning
THE COLORADO STATESMAN
Celebrating the party’s recent success but warning against complacency in a difficult election year, Colorado Democrats gathered to toast one another and fatten the coffers at the annual Jefferson-Jackson Day Dinner on March 6 at the downtown Sheraton. Nearly 1,500 celebrants packed a ballroom to hear keynote speaker U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-New Hampshire, and the state’s top elected Democrats — except for Gov. Bill Ritter, who was recovering from a bicycle accident suffered earlier in the week.
Ritter was among three Democrats honored at the dinner. Colorado House Speaker Terrance Carroll was named Democrat of the Year and longtime Adams County party activist Ruth Campbell received the Lifetime Achievement Award.
“Clearly, something has happened in Colorado in the last five years,” Shaheen said, sounding a recurring theme at the state party’s largest fundraiser.
Speaker after speaker contrasted this year with the dismal days early in the decade when Democrats held just a single statewide office — Attorney General Ken Salazar, who went on to win a Senate seat before departing the state to head the Department of Interior — and counted only two of the seven members of the House delegation.
Following the 2008 election, which saw Colorado swing Democratic in the presidential race for the first time in 16 years, Democrats had almost exactly reversed the situation, claiming all but one statewide office, both senators, five of the seven House members, and majorities in both chambers of the state Legislature.
After praising Colorado’s two Democratic senators and getting in a jibe about New Hampshire having won “more Olympic medals per capita” than Colorado, Shaheen revealed a little-known connection with the state she was visiting. She got her start in politics, she said, managing former Sen. Gary Hart’s 1984 presidential primary campaign in New Hampshire along with former Denver City Councilwoman Sue Casey.
“Gary’s the one who inspired me to run for office,”Shaheen said, gesturing to Hart and his wife, Lee, who sat near the dais. “At the time of the ’84 campaign, all of the pundits and analysts told us the same thing — that there was no way Gary Hart could win New Hampshire. But with a lot of hard work, and belief in our cause, we proved them all wrong.”
She said the lesson of that campaign is worth repeating more than 25 years later: “When you believe in your cause, keep your shoulder to the wheel and ignore the naysayers.”
Shaheen, who holds the distinction of being the only woman elected both U.S. senator and governor, then unleashed a blistering attack on Republicans, branding the GOP minority “a lot of naysayers.”
Referencing the recent Conservative Political Action Conference, where Republicans and like-minded activists gathered in Washington to bash Democrats, Shaheen lamented the “over-all tone of anger or defeatism” among her party’s political rivals.
“Speaker after speaker mocked the notion of hope,” she said. “Do they want Americans to despair?”
Shaheen invoked a famously optimistic Republican icon to drive her point home.
“Thirty years ago,” Shaheen said, “Ronald Reagan told us it’s morning in America. Now, Republicans tell us it’s midnight in America. Maybe they think it’s midnight because they’ve got their eyes closed.”
Shaheen didn’t pull any punches in her talk.
“It seems like some Republicans would let America fail if that would improve their political prospects,” she said, before castigating GOP legislators for hypocrisy when it comes to budget deficits and for representing “the 21st Century version of the Flat Earth Society” by opposing legislation aimed at combating climate change.
“When Republicans aren’t trying to turn back the clock, they’re trying to run out the clock,” Shaheen said, blasting Kentucky Republican Sen. Jim Bunning, a favorite punching bag for Democrats last week, for using procedural maneuvers to block a vote on a budget bill.
“Listening to a lecture on deficit reduction from Jim Bunning is like listening to a lecture on international diplomacy from Dick Cheney,” Shaheen said, invoking another favorite target of Democrats. Saying Republicans have taken the use of the Senate filibuster to new heights, using the stalling mechanism 119 times this session, Shaheen endorsed proposals to change Senate rules to limit its use.
“Now is the time to restore majority rule to the United States Senate,” she said. “If (Republicans) want to sit on the sidelines, it’s time now to move without them.” She listed health care reform, job creation, reforming the financial system and crafting a “21st Century energy policy” as the top Democratic goals left unfinished.
U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette — who recalled meeting in an actual phone booth with U.S. Sen. Mark Udall earlier in the decade when the Boulder congressman was her only fellow Democrat in the Colorado delegation — bestowed the first award of the night, naming Carroll the state’s Democrat of the Year.
“I’m genetically bred to be longwinded,” began Carroll, who made history a year ago when he became the first African American to lead Colorado’s state House. “I’m a preacher, I’m a lawyer, and I’m a politician.” But he was brief, crediting his mother for inspiring him. When all is said and done, he said, he hoped “this award will be a blip on the radar screen,” and that he could say he lived a life of “grace, mercy and humility.”
After extolling her lengthy history of civic involvement and political activism, U.S. Rep. Jared Polis recalled how Adams County District Attorney Bob Grant once introduced Ruth Campbell as “the First Lady of Aurora” at an Adams County Democratic event.
“‘You’d better know Ruth Campbell,’” Polis recounted Grant saying, “‘if you want to run for political office and win in Adams County.’” Calling her a “tireless worker and advocate for Democrat values and Democratic candidates,” Polis said he was honored to hand the Lifetime Achievement Award to Campbell.
“It’s been a pleasure all the work I’ve done,” Campbell said, accepting the award after receiving a standing ovation and sustained applause. “I’ve thoroughly enjoyed it.”
Democratic Party Chairwoman Pat Waak said a couple awards usually given at the Jefferson-Jackson Dinner — Volunteer of the Year and the Rising Star Award — would instead be handed out at the state assembly, set for May 22 in Broomfield. But before wrapping up the awards, she introduced State Treasurer Cary Kennedy to announce a special recognition award — called the Special Recognition Award — for Gov. Bill Ritter.
“We honor (Gov. Ritter) for his vision of the Colorado Promise, his great belief in the promise of our state and of every person who lives here,” Kennedy said. “We honor him for his unwavering effort to help those who are most in need, we honor him for making our state stronger. And most importantly, we honor him for who he is: a man who puts others before himself, a man who stays true to his beliefs and his convictions, and a man who truly appreciates the great gifts he himself has been given, especially his wonderful wife and children.”
“You know how much he’d like to be here with his friends tonight, and how honored he is you are recognizing his devotion to the state,” O’Brien said, promising to get the award to the governor as soon as she could.
It wasn’t all sweetness and harmony in the face of Republicans.
Both before the dinner, in the lobby, and during festivities, on the edges of the ballroom and in conversations, the looming primary between U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet and former Colorado House Speaker Andrew Romanoff — which first stirred a year ago at the 2009 Jefferson-Jackson dinner, when supporters organized a “Draft Romanoff” table — was the subtext to much of the night’s proceedings.
As revelers mingled before sitting down to eat, rival groups from both campaigns waved signs and shouted slogans at the foot of the escalators. During the dinner, Bennet sat up front and briefly addressed the crowd, introducing Democrats on the State Board
of Education, while Romanoff spent most of the two-hour event on his feet, hobnobbing with Democrats and barely sitting to eat.
The event came just over a week before precinct caucuses, when Democrats statewide will gather and begin the nomination process. Both Romanoff and Bennet are expected to make the Aug. 10 primary ballot, where one will emerge to face the Republican nominee. GOP candidates include former Lt. Gov. Jane Norton, Weld County District Attorney Ken Buck, former state Sen. Tom Wiens, businessman Cleve Tidwell and patent attorney Steve Barton.
Although a few of the speakers offered endorsements for one or the other of the Democratic primary candidates, Salazar called out the intra-party rivalry and urged Democrats to refrain from damaging the party’s chances at keeping the Senate seat he took from Republicans in 2004.
“Here in this state, we have great progress that we celebrate,” said Salazar, after listing Democratic office-holders and initiatives. “We also have a United States Senate race that we will be voting on in a few months this November. We have a great senator and a great candidate in Michael Bennet,” Salazar said to scattered applause. “We also have a great leader, and someone who has done a lot, by the name of Andrew Romanoff,” Salazar said — and here the crowd went wild with cheers and clapping.
Giving the rivals’ supporters another chance to cheer for each (with Romanoff’s cheering section again making the most noise), Salazar turned a stern eye on the crowd.
“Whether you support Michael Bennet, or you support Andrew Romanoff, let us make a covenant tonight,” Salazar said, “as spoken by Ronald Reagan, that thou shall not speak ill of another Democrat.”
Reagan issued his famous “11th Commandment” to avoid self-inflicted Republican wounds and keep the focus on beating Democrats.
Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper — a late entrant into the governor’s race after Ritter announced in January he wouldn’t seek a second term — sounded like he doesn’t plan to speak ill at all about anyone.
“The challenges we face are too great for the traditional Punch and Judy Show,” he said, pointing to his own record running positive campaigns.
“When I ran for mayor, we never did a negative ad,” Hickenlooper said. The two-term mayor compared the gubernatorial campaign to a job interview. “You wouldn’t trash the other guy trying to get the job,” he said, without naming the other guy, former U.S. Rep. Scott McInnis, the Republican who also wants the job.
Hickenlooper was a last-minute replacement for White House Deputy Chief of Staff Jim Messina, who had been scheduled to speak at the dinner but cancelled shortly before the dinner.
Pointing to the election of U.S. Rep. Betsy Markey — and the ouster of her Republican predecessor, Marilyn Musgrave — as an example of their work making a difference, U.S. Rep. Ed Perlmutter pumped his fist and sounded the alarm. He urged the assembled Democratic officials, candidates, volunteers and donors to take this year’s election challenges seriously.
“This is not going to be an easy year,” he said. “It really is person-by-person, house-by-house, block-by-block. That’s how we’re going to win this election, because our values and principles are better than the other guys’, so let’s go get ‘em, right now!”
State party officials declined to say how much the dinner and accompanying silent auction raised. Ticket prices ranged from $125 for a ticket to the banquet all the way up to the “Jeffersonian” $10,000 donation for a 10-seat table up front, entrée to a VIP reception, and a full-page ad in the program. (The “Jacksonian” level of support only cost half as much, but yielded fewer tickets to the exclusive reception and more distant seating for its table of 10.)
Party luminaries offered for bid an assortment of items, including a brewery tour with Markey, a “lunchtime walk” with O’Brien, and a day of fly fishing with Ritter.
Colorado Republicans don’t hold a statewide fundraising dinner like the Jefferson-Jackson event, instead raising money at annual Lincoln Day dinners held in every county.