In addition to being the Colorado Democratic Party’s largest fundraiser, the Jefferson-Jackson Day Dinner on March 5 at the Colorado Convention Center in Denver was also a swan song for outgoing state party chairwoman Pat Waak, but she had Sandhill Cranes on her mind.
After logging an estimated 165,000 miles on her car during her six years running the Democrats — and that’s not including airplane miles and travel in rental cars — Waak told The Colorado Statesman she looks forward to an upcoming trip with her husband, Ken Strom, to Nebraska’s Platte River Valley to view the majestic birds’ annual migration.
More than 1,000 Democrats gathered for the banquet, silent auction and plenty of speeches, including a rousing call to action from Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick.
“I like winners, and I’m with winners tonight,” said Patrick, capping an evening filled with nearly continuous tributes to Waak and presentation of awards to the party’s top achievers.
During her three terms — the most served by any Colorado Democratic chair in more than 50 years — Waak’s party elected two senators and two governors, helped steer Colorado’s electoral votes to President Obama and hosted the 2008 Democratic National Convention. Despite losing control of the state House, two congressional seats and two statewide offices in the last election, Democrats cheered the party for holding the line against a national Republican tide by electing Gov. John Hickenlooper and U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet.
U.S. Sen. Mark Udall presented the Democrat of the Year award to longtime aide Alan Salazar, who moved over to work as chief of strategic operations, legislative, policy and communications for Hickenlooper earlier this year. Before that, Salazar had worked for nearly all the Democrats elected statewide in recent decades, starting as an intern for Gov. Dick Lamm and then working for U.S. Sens. Gary Hart and Tim Wirth before taking a job with Gov. Roy Romer.
“Given his accomplishments of the last 30 years and his overall brilliance he should be named Democrat of the Year for the next 10 years or just maybe for the rest of his life,” Udall told The Statesman.
“The Colorado Democratic Party owes you a real debt of gratitude,” Udall said, embracing Salazar as Democrats applauded.
Noting that 2010 was a “challenging year” for Democrats, Salazar likened his award to being named cavalry member of the year at Little Big Horn. “I am very grateful for the opportunity to work with all of you, with so many friends on behalf of the political party I believe in and on behalf of the state that I love,” he said.
Bennet bestowed a posthumous Lifetime Achievement award on Daniel Candelaria, who died recently. Candelaria believed “democracy wasn’t a hobby,” Bennet said, and “believed everyone, regardless of who they are or where they live, had the ability to make a difference in the life of this country.” His wife, Diane, accepted the award.
The Rising Star award went to rookie state Rep. Rhonda Fields, D-Aurora. After recounting Fields’ compelling personal story and legacy of civic accomplishment even before winning a seat in the Legislature, where she confesses she’s been “knocked around” a few times during this session, U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette said, “I’m here to tell you, if there’s anybody who can survive those hard times and thrive, it’s Rhonda.”
“The backbone and strength of a party is in its volunteers, and I’ve got to tell you, I had one of the best volunteers anywhere in the country working on any campaigns for Congress, and her name is Cindy Avram,” said U.S. Rep. Ed Perlmutter, introducing the winner of the Volunteer of the Year award. “There’s never a door she’s afraid to knock on or a number she won’t call,” he said, adding with a chuckle that Avram was so highly esteemed that Bennet’s campaign attempted to poach her away last fall.
Patrick’s visit to Denver was the first leg of a two-week trip on a trade mission to Israel and the United Kingdom. Before leaving Boston, Patrick ducked feisty reporters by saying, “I have to get a plane.” Two time zones away from his Boston critics, Patrick delivered a relaxed and impassioned keynote address to Colorado Democrats, saying that his own rise from poverty enacted the American dream but warning that tough economic times have put that dream “up for grabs.”
Elected to a second term last fall, during Patrick’s first term he led a move to raise the state sales tax and steered Massachusetts to a win in the federal Race to the Top contest for education funding — both potential sore spots in Colorado, whose new governor, Hickenlooper, has said he doesn’t believe taxpayers have “an appetite” for rate hikes, and whose Race to the Top applications came up short twice in a scramble for federal funds. Patrick didn’t exactly rub it in, but he didn’t fail to crow a bit about his home state’s triumphs.
When his commonwealth hit rocky shoals, Patrick said, “We chose to invest in education, in health care and in job creation. We all know that educating our kids, having health care you can depend on and a good job is the path to a better future.”
Noting that the turn in Democrats’ fortune last year appeared to start with Republican Scott Brown’s win in the special election for Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat, Patrick suggested Democrats rolled over too easily.
“The loss of the House in the election last fall was as much about a loss of confidence as it was a loss of votes,” he said. “My friends, it’s time for Democrats to grow a backbone.”