Carl Hilliard’s first cousin serves as the associate pastor of the Longmont United Methodist Church. She opened the storied journalist’s memorial service with the observation that it was indeed ironic this event was being held in a church — an institution for which Hilliard apparently harbored substantial skepticism. Born in 1937 in Gebo, Wyo., a transient oil drilling camp near Thermopolis, Carl attended the University of Montana before launching a journalism career that ended with 32 years as a reporter for the Associated Press covering the Colorado Legislature from 1968 through 1999. I was surprised to hear that Carl was actually a liberal Democrat. A testimony to his fairness as a reporter was the pew full of former Republican legislators that included Bob Kirscht, Paul Schauer, Frank DeFilippo and Kathy Spelts Arnold. Hilliard always found the politicians he covered far more interesting than their politics and reported accordingly.
His weekly summary of events at the Capitol appeared in local newspapers throughout the state and often included profiles of key rural legislators. Carl arrived in Denver long before the do-gooder enthusiasms of Common Cause cleaned up the process by stripping legislative leadership of its many undemocratic prerogatives. Committee Chairs could pocket veto bills, binding caucuses could lock freshmen legislators into supporting party positions and many hearings were closed to the public. Consequently, Carl learned to cultivate the powerful. This frequently included long sessions at nearby bars that would wind late into the night. It also meant he became the go-to source of accurate information for rookie lobbyists, cub reporters and backbench legislators.
In many ways he was something of a cowboy comic. With his sidekick John Sanko, he would draft and then mail phony letters to the pompous in hopes they would fail to see through this charade and publicly exhibit the foolishness of responding to these fakes — and many fell into their elaborate traps. He could also be kind and helpful with innocents. In 1979, the Colorado Legislature had consistently refused to adopt an open container law. Mothers Against Drunk Driving was not yet on the horizon and an informal alliance between the Cowboy Caucus and Front Range Democrats consistently killed this proposal. Rural legislators still resented the mandatory 55-mph federal speed limit imposed following the Arab oil embargo. They had long measured trips as either one or two six-pack drives. Urban Democrats figured it would just provide police with one more excuse to bust their kids. Usually no one bragged about their opposition, they simply voted to kill the bill in a swift and silent execution — libertarians and liberals arm in arm.
As a freshman from a safe Democratic District, I had been assigned the thankless whip responsibilities for this ritual murder. The bill would be heard first thing after lunch and I confirmed with Majority Leader John Hamlin that I had the votes he needed. Immediately after the bill was read across the desk, Nick Theos, a famously bombastic sheep rancher from Meeker walked to the microphone and started speaking against the legislation. He recounted his lifetime practice of keeping “toothache medicine” in his glove compartment and gave considerable evidence that perhaps he had been treating a severe toothache over the lunch hour. I was paralyzed in horror as his comic tale went on and on including a story about pulling his tooth with pliers.
I stumbled to the front of the Chamber and found myself standing next to the press desk. Carl Hilliard, whom I barely knew, pulled on my sleeve and said, “Hudson, if you don’t shut him up, you’re going to lose this vote.” Knowing it wasn’t my place to give Nick the hook, I cornered the Majority Leader and told him my votes were peeling away. John Hamlin already recognized the problem but was just as mesmerized as I had been. I actually had no idea if that was true, but if Carl thought it was happening I was inclined to believe him. Hamlin strode to the podium, thanked Nick for his remarks, and immediately moved the bill. Proponents squawked about not having been heard, but debate was cut off by majority vote and Colorado would go without an open container law until Congress linked its adoption to the receipt of federal highway dollars. Game over.
Carl personified the Western ethic of unwavering personal integrity. His word was his bond. He would protect the identity of his sources. But, most of all, he liked the people who were willing to serve in the Colorado Legislature, and he reported accordingly. His wife closed the service by telling us his sense of humor extended to their partnership. At their recent 45th anniversary, he offered two observations: that he had spent the best 20 years of his life with her and that they had done the world a great favor by getting married and thereby preventing two innocent strangers from making a terrible mistake. Sounds like a great guy to share a campfire with, while swapping lies (with an adult beverage, of course).
Columnist Miller Hudson served in the Legislature from 1979-83 as a representative from northwest Denver.