Speaker after speaker at the Colorado Democrats’ annual Jefferson Jackson dinner remarked that the program didn’t last much more than a half hour or so back in the late 1990s, when there was a distinct paucity of elected Democrats in the state. But Saturday’s event kept going and going, eventually lasting close to three hours, as speakers nearly ran out of breath thanking everyone who helped keep Colorado blue in the last election.
“Don’t forget, Colorado was officially the tipping-point state that tipped the election to President Obama,” said U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, who beamed in on giant video screens inside the packed Marriott ballroom in downtown Denver. Moments earlier, Colorado Democratic Party chairman Rick Palacio had termed the Obama operation “the best campaign in the history of Colorado,” and from the sound of things, the sold-out crowd of 1,100 didn’t disagree.
Introducing the recipient of the Chair’s Award for Service, Palacio noted that a decade ago, when he had just won a second term as attorney general, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar was the sole Democrat elected to statewide office in Colorado. Tracing Salazar’s career on to the U.S. Senate and then into the Obama cabinet, Palacio added, “From a remote ranch in Southern Colorado where he grew up with seven brothers and sisters, he learned that if you dare to dream big, if you’re willing to put your boots on and work hard for your community, nothing is impossible.”
Salazar, who is departing the cabinet post later this month, said he had discussed Obama’s 2012 win in Colorado with the president over lunch last week, drawing appreciative cheers.
Salazar asked prominent Democrats to stand, including dozens of elected officials along with progressive strategist Al Yates and philanthropist Tim Gill and his husband, Scott Miller. He then urged the crowd to applaud and declared, “We celebrate you all because, through your leadership, what you have done is you are at the point of the spear leading us to the American Dream all across America, because the way that Colorado goes, so goes the rest of the nation.”
Earlier that day, the state Democratic Central Committee elected Palacio to a second term as chair, Beverly Ryken to second term as 1st vice chair, and Carolyn Boller to another term as secretary, and newcomers Barbara Jones as 2nd vice chair and Christopher Ott as treasurer, all by acclamation. None of the seats were contested.
The evening’s keynote speaker was Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill, who last year defied predictions and won reelection handily while her state was otherwise voting mostly for Republicans, and she had some advice for the Colorado Democrats facing a similarly purple electorate.
She noted that just a year ago she had been deemed “the very weak incumbent” in a race that leaned Republican. Polling showed her running behind all three of her potential Republican opponents, and outside money was already pouring in against her “before my opponent became so famous,” she cracked, referring to eventual GOP nominee Todd Akin. (Akin gained renown for remarks suggesting that victims of “legitimate rape” don’t get pregnant because their bodies “shut that whole thing down,” a notion McCaskill attributed in her speech to supposedly “magic uteruses.”)
“How did I survive? Like Michael Bennet in 2010, I had a great team, loyal supporters and amazing volunteers. Also like Michael Bennet, I took advantage of the Republican civil war,” McCaskill said. “Whether it is Ken Buck vs. Jane Norton or whether it is Todd Akin vs. his primary opponents, we must be smart and strategic and realize that the very extreme base of the Republican Party allows us to stay on offense, not on defense.”
(In a move some at the dinner described as admirable, if audacious, McCaskill’s campaign put its thumb on the scale in the GOP primary, running ads that praised Akin as the principled conservative in the race, which helped him win against opponents who might have had broader appeal in a general election.)
“The agenda of the far right is our party’s best friend,” McCaskill said. “Their very strong, principled beliefs, their rigid ideology, is way out of step with most Americans (and) I guarantee you most Coloradans.”
Recent polling shows the public siding with Democrats on nearly every major issue, she said, and the GOP’s overall image stands at a low point in decades. “Thank you, Todd Akin,” McCaskill smiled. “That is, in fact, our wake-up call, that is what should make us feel energized and passionate — that when we hear them rant about ‘We the people’ and they vow to take their country back, that’s when we have to remind everyone that they don’t include all of the people in the group that needs to take the country back.”
Presenting the party’s Lifetime Achievement Award to former Denver Mayor Wellington Webb, Gov. John Hickenlooper recounted Webb’s numerous public and civic positions over four decades and added, “I would argue that there are few people in the state’s history who have had such an impact.”
Webb said he was particularly honored to receive the award this year following his boyhood friend former state Sen. Paul Sandoval’s posthumous receipt of the same award last year.
Webb called it one of Hickenlooper’s “greatest achievements” that the governor had appointed Webb to the legislative reapportionment commission in 2011, where he helped shape district lines that led to Democratic majorities in both houses.
“We’re stronger together, we’re not stronger when we’re separate. That is what this party has to understand, is that everybody has to be at the table a the same time,” Webb said, describing how he helped “color in the lines” after reapportionment mapping experts funded by Democratic interests had drawn them.
Webb ticked off a litany of bills he and his wife, former state Rep. Wilma Webb, had first introduced in the legislature in the 1970s, back when none of the proposals seemed destined to pass. But it was by continually pushing, he said, that Democrats achieve progress.
“We continue to fight for the civil rights of all people,” he said. “Civil unions is only one step toward equality for the GLBT community, because then we go to the next step… It has to be a full step, and that’s marriage equality.”
Webb, a former vice chairman of the Democratic National Committee, also lobbed some shots at national Republicans, addressing U.S. Sen. Mark Udall in a quip.
“Mark, it’s getting easier because they have (House Speaker) John Boehner and John Boehner’s proved once and for all — he has destroyed the myth of white supremacy, because he ain’t that smart,” Webb said with a twinkle as the crowd erupted in laughter.
Senate President John Morse, D-Colorado Springs, introduced his caucus and said it was a relief to stand in front of appreciative Democrats after a tough week at the Capitol, where Democratic-sponsored gun-control legislation has met with fierce resistance.
“I can’t tell you how much the work we have been doing in the state has really ginned up some folks who are opposed to us, and we’ve been getting a lot of ‘screw you’s and now it’s time to get some ‘thank you’s,” he said.
Promising “a great and productive” legislative session, House Speaker Mark Ferrandino, D-Denver, said he’d noted at last year’s dinner that House Democrats were tired because they’d been fighting “all the not-so-good bills” emanating from across the aisle. “This year,” he continued, “we’re tired. But we’re tired because we’re working hard to make sure Colorado’s moving forward. We’re going to fulfill some promises we made.”
Denver Mayor Michael Hancock presented one of three volunteer-of-the-year awards to Denver campaign worker Ellis McFadden, termed “a canvassing animal” for his work last year knocking on more than 4,000 doors across the metro area. U.S. Rep. Jared Polis presented the award to Mesa County’s Rick Baer, and U.S. Rep. Ed Perlmutter honored Jefferson County’s Liz Geisleman.
Awarded Colorado Democrat of the Year by U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette, fellow Denver Democrat state Sen. Lucia Guzman — who originally hails from Texas — said she was inspired to public service by the late liberal Texas icons U.S. Rep. Barbara Jordan, Gov. Ann Richards and columnist Molly Ivins, who she said urged her to “open the doors which have been closed for so many for so long.”
Guzman added that some have asked her whether Democratic lawmakers are moving too quickly on controversial issues this session. She said she replies, “This is why we are here, this is our time, and we need to use it to the best of our abilities.”