Thirty years ago, after I departed the Legislature, I allowed myself to be recruited as a candidate for Democratic Party Chair of Denver County. This didn’t have so much to do with my intimate involvement in party politics, but because two young candidates and personal friends, Wellington Webb and Federico Peña, were running for Mayor. The party machinery had been in the grip of Tooley or McNichols supporters for nearly two decades and both insurgent candidates were interested in a dispassionate and neutral hand at the helm of Democratic Party affairs. Aside from my own district captains, I didn’t know most of the captains from across the city well. One of them was a young Ken Gordon from Southeast Denver. He would prove a huge thorn in my side — and burr under my saddle — for the next two years.
Party leadership jobs are the most thankless of any in politics. Not only must you referee nasty intramural brawls, but also you are responsible for keeping everyone in the boat pulling their oars in the same direction. This is not an easy task. You would think an intervention should earn the support of one side in a dispute, even if the other detests your decision. To the contrary, at least half the time both parties wind up loathing you for interfering in their fisticuffs. And then there were the ideological purists like Ken Gordon. Ken subscribed to a righteous morality that did not view the Ten Commandments as merely suggestions. “Thou shalt not kill,” included everyone — especially the government. Not only did he volunteer pro bono as an attorney for Colorado’s condemned, but he believed the Democratic Party platform should oppose capital punishment.
Capital punishment was only one of several issues that enjoyed his vigorous support. For many incumbents, a party platform is something that can be used against them by their opponents but rarely attracts new voters to a campaign. Consequently, both parties make it hard to even find a copy of their resolutions much less place them out front and center. Only the most energized and not infrequently fanatical delegates remain following nominations for the endless hours of debate that shape party platforms. In 1984, Ken Gordon remained until late in the afternoon stuffing the Denver platform with liberal shibboleths that were sure to make our candidates cringe. I had tweaked the rules, to Ken’s considerable consternation, to make his task as difficult as possible, but he persevered. Debating with Ken in those years did not involve ‘give and take’ as he was certain he could eventually persuade you to see things his way. Prickly only captures his behavior in the sense that the difference between a cactus and a caucus is that the pricks on a cactus are found on the outside.
Several years later when Ken decided to run for the Legislature, I was doubtful he had the stuff it would take to win an election. What I underestimated was his work ethic. A young British student, active in the Liberal Party, was interested in observing an American campaign. He lived with me and walked with Ken. Truth be told, I rarely saw the young man for four months. Departing at dawn and returning after midnight, this pair eventually introduced themselves to virtually every voter in their Republican leaning District. As a legislator, Gordon proved far more accommodating and capable of compromise than anyone would have guessed. But his greatest strength was his perseverance on behalf of the principles he adhered to. For eight years he introduced legislation requiring that homebuilders disclose to purchasers if their water would be supplied by a closed aquifer that would eventually run dry. And, for eight years, the realtors, mortgage brokers and homebuilders crushed his bills. Finally, with Democratic majorities in both Houses, his consumer protection passed.
Just as with the telephone no-call list this was a reform that probably enjoyed 85 percent public support irrespective of party affiliation. Ken Gordon was the kind of politician who earned your respect, if not your affection. He was a terrific mentor, and I have referred several young Democrats to intern with him over the years. They were all grateful for the experience. As he mellowed, it became possible to poke fun at his fierce earnestness and get a grumbling grin in response. Yet, when Ken latched onto what he viewed as a structural wrong that infringes on justice — the past few years that included the need for election finance reform, particularly a prohibition on PAC contributions — he was utterly relentless. His pleas on behalf of the better angels of our nature will be sorely missed at the Capitol.
Miller Hudson, a public affairs consultant, served two terms in the Colorado Legislature, 1979-83.