Energized Republicans honored former U.S. Sen. Hank Brown as a “leader’s leader” and a “gentleman’s gentleman,” bestowing him with a bust of Abraham Lincoln, whose birthday he shares, at the state GOP’s annual Centennial Dinner on Friday in Greenwood Village.
“When people say, ‘What’s it like to know Hank Brown in Colorado politics,’ it’s sort of like breathing oxygen — it’s something you’ve always done and always known,” said Secretary of State Scott Gessler.
Numerous prominent Republicans extolled the veteran Colorado politician as someone who seems to have transcended politics into the realm of a statesman, though Brown himself took some pointed jabs at Democratic tactics and intentions when he spoke.
About 250 Republicans packed a ballroom at the Doubletree by Hilton Hotel Denver Tech Center as the state party prepared to meet for its biennial reorganization the next morning. A video tribute produced by veteran Republican strategist Walt Klein played while dinner was served, featuring testimonials and archival footage of Brown through the decades.
Several speakers made cracks about the federal government’s sequester, which had taken effect that day — one joked that he’d been reading the Book of Revelation to prepare for the calamity — drawing cheers and laughter from the crowd at the prospect of cutting federal spending, though a few headliners were also delayed by air traffic slowdowns they attributed to the budget impasse.
But the focus was on Brown, a decorated Vietnam veteran and two-term state senator, who served five terms in the U.S. House of Representatives before his election to the U.S. Senate in 1990, where he served one term. After leaving Congress, Brown was president of the University of Northern Colorado for four years and later was interim president of the University of Colorado for three years. He is senior counsel at the Denver-based law firm Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck.
“Hank is a scholar, a statesman, a skilled chief executive, a veteran and a revered community leader,” said Senate Minority Leader Bill Cadman, R-Colorado Springs.
Like many who addressed the GOP fundraiser, Cadman recalled when he first met Brown, nearly two decades ago at a town meeting in Parker. “I’m really somewhat, frankly, somewhat blown away that I have the chance to stand up here and say, ‘Thank you for your service,’” he said.
Cadman also praised Brown’s work ethic — already possessing a law degree, Brown acquired an accounting degree and became a CPA while serving in Congress — by noting that Hank and Nan Brown were married more than 30 years before they took their first vacation.
House Minority Leader Mark Waller, R-Colorado Springs, also remembered first meeting Brown when he was running for office the first time.
“How cool is this,” Waller said. “I get to talk to a former United States senator, and he’s actually listening to me.” It was Brown’s undivided attention that struck Waller and has continued to inspire him.
“As elected officials, it’s incredibly important to understand and know and listen to each person, and that’s exactly the message I got from Sen. Brown the first day I met him,” he said.
Three current and a pair of former members of Congress took the stage to praise Brown — U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn was unable to attend and sent a letter praising Brown’s principled stances and notorious frugality — including U.S. Rep. Cory Gardner, who holds Brown’s old congressional seat and U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, who arrived near the end of the dinner because of flight delays.
“Have any of you ever seen Hank Brown when he seemed the least bit flustered, anxious, nervous?” asked former U.S. Rep. Bob Beauprez, prais-ing Brown’s “remarkable composure.”
U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman, an Army and Marine Corps veteran, chided Brown for his service in the Navy. Brown, Coffman deadpanned, had wanted to be a Marine but had failed to meet the entrance requirements. “Apparently, his parents knew each other, he had no significant criminal past, and his test scores were simply too high,” he said as the crowd roared with laughter.
Introducing Brown, former U.S. Sen. Wayne Allard — his successor, both in the northern Colorado congressional seat and in the Senate — recalled the unadorned brown paper bags that Brown had used as a memorable campaign prop during an ultimately unsuccessful campaign for lieutenant governor.
“Everybody knew what it meant,” Allard laughed. “He kind of set a standard for politicians all over the state of Colorado at that time about how you could be successful running an inexpensive campaign.”
Allard described what he called “a golden era for Republicans in Colorado” in the 1980s, when Ronald Reagan was president, Bill Armstrong was senator and Brown served in Congress. During the next decade, he said, Brown had been instrumental in persuading Democratic U.S. Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell to switch over to the Republican Party.
When Brown spoke, he began by paying tribute to his wife for handling day-to-day chores while he served in Congress. “I have been blessed and could not have served without Nan, and without her love and her carrying the burden all those years,” he said.
As for nudging Campbell into the GOP, Brown credited Clinton-era Democrats for pushing him out of the party.
“It wasn’t that Ben changed, it was that the Democratic Party was in the process of changing,” Brown said.
“In the long discussions we had before he changed, Ben made an interesting observation,” Brown said. Campbell told him that he’d grown uncomfortable going to Democratic meetings “‘because the people who come are there to get something — they’re there for a grant, they’re there to get on the payroll, they’re there for a job, they’re there for a handout. I’m much more comfortable around people who work for a living.’”
Shaking his head, Brown lit into the Democrats, saying that the party’s leadership has moved to the far left.
“You have a flock of people who work for a living and pay taxes, knowing that they have to become Republicans in order to survive. And on the other side, you have a flock of people who intend to live off of others and not work,” he said. “The reality is, the Democratic Party is changing, they’ve become the party of those who take. And the Republican Party is becoming the party of those who give.”
Then, with a nod toward the Lincoln bust that sat in front of him, Brown ramped up the criticism, saying that when Democrats call welfare a right it betrays their intentions.
When welfare is no longer a product of human compassion but is viewed as “a forced obligation required by the state and enforced by the police powers of government,” he said, “literally the fruits of labor of one group of people is to be taken from them by the powers of the state and become the property of those who chose not work. Taking a property right for some at the expense of the others forces them to serve others involuntarily. It was a Republican Party 150 years ago that ended involuntary
servitude, and we don’t intend to allow it to come back.”
Brown concluded by attacking Democrats for their “shameless smear tactics” and singled out Larimer County heiress Pat Stryker “and her tens of millions of dollars (that) have been used to vilify Republicans in this state. But her tens of millions of dollars are no substitute for good ideas,” he said. “We stand for freedom — individual freedom — and the ability to run our own lives. Our country needs us now like it never has.”