Newark Mayor Cory Booker brought down the house at the Colorado Democratic Party’s annual Jefferson Jackson dinner on Feb. 11, but not before a tribute to former sate Sen. Paul Sandoval moved the crowd to tears.
The state Democrats’ chief fundraising event drew nearly 1,200 donors to the basement of the downtown Sheraton for a banquet, plenty of awards bestowed on party faithfuls, and enough speechifying to stretch more than an hour over schedule, though by the evening’s rousing conclusion, hardly anyone was complaining.
State Democratic Party Chairman Rick Palacio began the awards by acknowledging all the members of the state Reapportionment Commission, tasked with drawing legislative districts, and then joked that he had wanted to present the Chairman’s Award to Republican commissioner Mario Nicolais “for his outstanding work on behalf of Democrats.”
But then, instead, he said he decided to recognize the person Republican House Speaker Frank McNulty credited for the Democrats’ winning strategy and brought attorney Scott Martinez to the stage.
“I’m proud to be a Democratic hack, as some of you may have heard,” quipped Martinez, who was recently appointed Denver’s deputy city attorney.
Presenting the Volunteer of the Year award to Denver County Vice Chair Susan Rogers, U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette, a co-chair of the Congressional Pro-Choice Caucus, began by saying that she was happy to have a debate about access to birth control during an election year.
“They’ve got money, but we’ve got shoe leather,” DeGette said, after listing myriad ways Rogers steps up to help Democrats raise money and turn out the vote.
“That’s all we have to do, is walk that extra block and make that extra phone call, so please join me in doing that,” Rogers said.
“I would like to be the first to congratulate Rick Santorum for winning the state of Colorado. And it allowed me to get a good night’s sleep that night, a very good night’s sleep,” said U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet before presenting the Democrat of the Year award to state Rep. Randy Fischer, D-Fort Collins.
U.S. Rep. Ed Perlmutter honored Commerce City Councilman and legislative candidate Dominick Moreno with the Rising Star award, noting that the young politician”is everywhere all the time.”
But the evening turned more somber when Interior Secretary Ken Salazar presented the party’s Lifetime Achievement Award to Sandoval, who was diagnosed nearly a year ago with advanced pancreatic cancer and couldn’t attend the dinner.
Salazar, whose political rise — from state attorney general to the U.S. Senate and into the Cabinet — was plotted on a napkin 15 years ago in a back room at La Casita, the tamale shop Sandoval has run in northwest Denver for decades, credited Sandoval with shepherding the political dreams of many of the state’s most powerful politicians. “He is a dream-maker, even tonight,” Salazar said. “For all of us here, it means we take that baton from Paul.”
“His spirit is indefatigable,” Salazar said, adding that he had visited Sandoval at his home the previous day. “He was still upbeat, he was still giving me advice, he was telling me what I should tell the President of the United States.”
Accepting the award, his wife, former state Sen. and former Denver City Councilwoman Paula Sandoval, said her husband has devoted his life to helping both everyday people and powerful politicians “with such pure joy, from the heart.”
She said that her husband’s last year has been spent “in the fight of his life,” and that even though he decided last month to suspend chemotherapy and go into hospice treatment, “He’s kept his spirits up through all of it. He is upbeat, he keeps trying.”
Booker was introduced by Gov. John Hickenlooper and Denver Mayor Michael Hancock, who bracket Booker,
in a sense: The Newark mayor looked to former Denver Mayor Hickenlooper for advice when he was first elected and, in turn, served as inspiration for Hancock when he was running for office a year ago.
Booker opened with an extended story about his travails trying to make a flight. At each successive hurdle, when someone standing in his way would tell him what he was trying to do was impossible, Booker said he had to put his hand on his hip and explain that his mama — and then his grandmother and his great-grandmother, known as “Big Mama” in the family — told him there was no such thing.
Booker said he traveled to Colorado because the Obama campaign had told him it was the critical state for the president’s reelection. The meat of his speech was long list of answers to administration skeptics, specifically the refrain first uttered by former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin: “‘How’s that hopey-and-changey stuff going for ya?’” Booker repeated. “Well, let me tell you what hope is, and what change is.” Then he launched into a sustained run that had the crowd shouting “Hope is —” again and again.
“Hope is,” he began, his voice rising, “that during the depth of the worst economy of our generation, when we’re losing hundreds of thousands of jobs a month — hope is believing that we can have a leader that will reverse that trend. And change,” he said, “is Barack Obama, who came in and reversed the terrible trend and has 23 straight months of job creation.”
Booker continued with a list of accomplishments he credited to Obama, including saving auto manufacturers, enforcing the Lilly Ledbetter Act to require equal pay for women, and bringing an end to the military’s Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy that excluded openly gay soldiers.
At the climax of his 35-minute speech — which had Democrats shouting, repeatedly leaping to their feet, and shaking their hands in the air — Booker concluded by answering critics with his mother’s adage when they cast doubt on Obama’s reelection chances.
“To all those people who say our quest is but a dream and our efforts are but impossible,” Booker roared, and then propped his hand on his hip and deadpanned, “my momma told me no such thing as impossible.”
Already whipped into a frenzy, Democrats nearly exploded with laughter and applause, rushing the stage seeing autographs and snapshots with Booker.
“Oh, my word,” said state Sen. Linda Newell, D-Littleton, fanning herself and looking like it was taking some effort to readjust to her surroundings moments after Booker had finished. “I have not heard that powerful of a speech in very many years,” she said, adding that she could envision Booker as a future presidential candidate.
Moreno had similar praise for Booker’s speech, which he dubbed “phenomenal.”
“He fired me up. I’m ready to reelect the president. I’m ready to win my own election and make sure Democrats up and down the ticket win their own elections,” he said. Then he chuckled and added: “Half way through my own speech, I got a little nervous because I looked at the first table and there was Cory Booker, and I thought, ‘Oh my God, I’m speaking before Cory Booker,’ but I didn’t let my nerves get the best of me, and I got through,” he added with a look of relief.