Former Senate Majority Leader Ken Gordon is being remembered as the people’s politician, having traded the usual inner circle establishment politics for a legacy of grassroots mobilizing that continues to shape the landscape of Colorado politics.
Gordon died on Dec. 22. He was 63.
Those close to the Denver Democrat say his death was completely unexpected. They say he had been working out and trying to take care of himself. Doctors believe he suffered a heart attack, which in a sudden moment took him down. After driving himself to the hospital, Gordon collapsed and died at around 5:30 p.m.
He will be buried on Sunday at 10:30 a.m. at the Davidson/Hermelin Chapel at Clover Hill Park in Birmingham, Mich., where the family plot is located. A separate memorial service is set for Jan. 7 at 11 a.m. at Temple Emanuel in Denver.
The news is still sinking in across the Colorado political world. Most of his friends and colleagues say that the incident happened so quickly that they still need time to process the sudden loss.
An attorney by trade, Gordon was a public defender, known to take on controversial cases pro bono in order to help those who he felt deserved justice through democracy.
But his greatest legacy has proven to be his fight against special interest money. Gordon, serving most recently as the founder of Clean Slate Now, has for years been pressing candidates not to take special interest money, including money from political action committees, or PACs.
Perhaps most notable was his relationship with former Colorado House Speaker Andrew Romanoff. When Romanoff challenged U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet in a primary in 2010, he vehemently rejected PAC contributions.
Romanoff has said that he will continue to limit the contributions he accepts as he challenges U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Aurora, in 2014 in Congressional District 6.
The former House speaker remembers Gordon as not only a friend, but also as a mentor. Gordon’s insistence that political contributions should come from citizens, not PACs, has had a profound influence on Romanoff.
“He was one of my best friends,” said a shocked Romanoff on Monday.
Romanoff said he clearly remembers knocking on doors with Gordon around House District 6 in Denver, the district that both Gordon and Romanoff represented in the legislature. Gordon preceded him in that seat. Their relationship lasted 20 years.
“He was easily the most principled person I met in politics,” said Romanoff. “He had the courage of his convictions; walked the talk, literally walked around the state for what he believed in.”
Romanoff is referring to Gordon’s support of Referendum C in 2005, when he organized a 350-mile walk from the Wyoming border to the New Mexico border in order to rally support for the TABOR time-out, in which surplus revenue was directed towards education and health care.
“He was a mentor and a colleague, and a friend above all, and a good friend,” Romanoff continued. “In some ways, I wish I had spent more time with him.
“Sometimes you don’t realize how much somebody brightens your life until they’re gone,” he added. “Colorado is a little darker place today in his absence, I know my life is too.”
Romanoff didn’t want to dwell on whatever legacy Gordon may have left, offering, “I just think about him as a person today.”
Rep. Lois Court, D-Denver, also remembers Gordon as a principled man. She succeeded Romanoff in HD 6.
“Whenever something this sudden and shocking happens, it doesn’t settle in for a while,” said Court. “It’s not like we talked every day. I don’t miss him this second because I don’t feel aware of him being gone this second. I theoretically miss him at this point. It’s not all evident right yet.”
Court concurs that Gordon’s legacy has been shaped by his work on money in politics. She agreed with Gordon that the influence of money corrupts the ideal of democracy.
She believes his influence has had an impact. When Court first ran for her seat, she was the only Democrat to refuse PAC money in the primary.
“Now, anyone who wants to run in east Denver won’t be accepting PAC money because of Ken’s schooling, not of the candidates, but because of the constituency,” surmised Court. “He made them understand this concern.
“It isn’t, for him or for me, that PACs are made up of evil people, it’s that money has become way too important in politics,” she explained. “And a way to make a statement about that is to reject conglomerated money, and to only accept contributions from individuals.”
Court pointed out that the concept behind refusing PAC contributions is to force candidates to connect directly with their constituents.
“One of the best ways to connect with your constituency is to tell them that you are relying on them to fund your campaign,” said Court. “That’s what [Gordon’s] ideal of democracy was, the people speaking.”
One of Gordon’s closest friends was former Sen. Joyce Foster, D-Denver, who succeeded Gordon in Senate District 35, before it was redrawn. Foster, who also served on the Denver City Council, said she owes her entire political career to Gordon.
Foster’s husband, Rabbi Steven Foster, will lead the memorial service for Gordon in Denver on Jan. 7.
The Fosters learned of Gordon’s passing while on a family cruise. Joyce Foster called The Colorado Statesman from “somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic” on Thursday — during her wedding anniversary — to share some of her memories of Gordon.
“He was my true, absolute mentor, and a very, very close friend,” described Foster.
“He was a man filled with total integrity; his word was gold and he set the bar very, very high for elected officials…” she added. “He expected and demanded the best, and that’s who he was, and that’s what he did all of the time. He cared about his constituents.”
Foster described Gordon as someone who knocked on doors in his district even when it was an off year. She also said he continuously called constituents for their opinions on issues.
“He didn’t just dial for dollars, he dialed for information,” said Foster. “He dialed for what they wanted him to know, and he asked questions and he listened… He was the most sincere, most authentic person I knew.
“He was like my little brother. Even though he looked a little older than me, he was a good six years younger than me,” she laughed.
U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Denver, was also shocked and saddened to hear the news. She had worked closely with Gordon both as a lawmaker and as an attorney. DeGette and her husband, Lino Lipinsky, said they felt like they lost a member of their family.
“I had the wonderful opportunity to work with Ken as a young lawyer, and serve with him in the Colorado legislature,” said DeGette. “We also watched his children grow up over the years. Ken’s passion and strong beliefs challenged us all to seek the greater good.”
Former Interior Secretary and U.S. Sen. Ken Salazar, a Democrat, also remembered Gordon for his principles.
“Ken Gordon has left an indelible mark on Colorado as a true servant of the people,” said Salazar, suggesting that people should celebrate Gordon’s life. “He will be missed.”
Rick Palacio, chairman of the Colorado Democratic Party, remembered Gordon as a public servant and as a champion for good government.
“Ken worked hard to ensure our democratic process was one of transparency and accountability,” said Palacio.
“Whether it was during his tenure in the Colorado Public Defender’s Office or in the Colorado State Legislature, Ken has left a legacy of fighting for those that cannot fight for themselves,” said Palacio.
Democrats weren’t the only ones to remember Gordon. While he was a true liberal, Gordon was known for being able to work in a bipartisan fashion for the greater good.
In 2004, he suggested allowing Republicans to serve as vice chairs of Senate committees, despite Democrats having won control of both chambers. The proposal was not a hit with his fellow Democrats, but Gordon felt it was a necessary move for democracy.
“I admire his devotion to public service and the respect he earned among the members of the state legislature with whom he served,” House Minority Leader Brian DelGrosso of Loveland said in a statement.
Senate Minority Leader Bill Cadman of Colorado Springs added, “Ken’s sudden passing is a loss for all of Colorado.
“Ken was a man of integrity who consistently fought for his beliefs,” added Cadman. “While we disagreed on policy, he served the Senate admirably, respecting the process and the members.”
Conservative blogger Ari Armstrong debated Gordon in 2012 over Amendment 65. The initiative directed the Colorado congressional delegation to support amending the U.S. Constitution to overturn Citizens United, a U.S. Supreme Court decision that opened the floodgates to corporate and union money in politics.
Gordon argued for the initiative, while Armstrong said it had no teeth. Armstrong also backed corporate money in politics as being a necessity to facilitate free speech. While the two disagreed, Armstrong still had warm words about Gordon shortly after his death.
“Ken Gordon was always baffling to me — how could such an intelligent man be wrong about practically everything?” Armstrong joked in his blog on Monday. “Gordon was one of my favorite Democrats despite our frequent disagreements.”
He goes on to highlight the spirited debates he and Gordon had over the years, adding, “I was always pleased when I helped beat Ken in his political battles and always sorry when he beat me. But I was honored to trade barbs with him, and I’ll miss the opportunity to do so again.”
Gordon is survived by his two children, Ben, who recently graduated from New York University, and Windy, a local teacher. His longtime companion, Betty Lehman, also survives him, as does his ex-wife, Helen Shreves.
The family asks that donations be made in lieu of flowers to Gordon’s organization, CleanSlateNow.org, which works to limit money in politics.