Former Sen. Dave Wattenberg was remembered by the Colorado legislature on April 25 for being a “cowboy’s cowboy” — a lawmaker with a wonderful sense of humor who believed that policy fights should end on the chamber floor to make way for a stiff drink and a few laughs with colleagues from both sides of the aisle.
Wattenberg died on Jan. 20, 2014. He was 73 years old.
A Colorado native and Republican, Wattenberg served Senate District 8 for 16 years after being elected in 1984, making his mark in the Cowboy Caucus. The caucus consisted of a group of rugged outlying lawmakers who banded together to wield clout on rural issues. With the population explosion along the Front Range, suburban lawmakers quickly outnumbered members of the Cowboy Caucus.
Current and former lawmakers pointed to a different time in the legislature when Wattenberg served. It was a time when lunch included a few drinks, practical jokes were considered a breath of levity, and lawmakers from both sides of the aisle played well with each other.
Wattenberg often went to great lengths to pull off a practical joke, including dressing in a brightly colored silk shirt and skin-tight saddle pants to pop out of a large gift-wrapped box placed in the well of the House floor to surprise a fellow legislator on her birthday.
He also appeared on the Senate floor as “Mildred,” a properly attired woman complete with hat, gloves, stockings and makeup, to play an April Fools’ Day joke on a fellow senator.
“He said most everybody got along really well,” remembered Sen. Randy Baumgardner, R-Hot Sulphur Springs, who sponsored the memorial in the Senate. “You might differ philosophically and fight all day, but you got together and you’d have a drink that night. You were friends… you might need their vote. It seems now things are pretty much split down party lines.”
Sen. Pat Steadman, D-Denver, said he was honored to receive a campaign contribution from Wattenberg. Even though Steadman aligned with a different party, he knew that Wattenberg could see through the fog of politics to get to the heart of an issue.
“You’d see him here laughing with anyone…” Steadman recalled watching Wattenberg from the lobby or the gallery before he himself was a lawmaker. “I received a phone call from Sen. Wattenberg two or three times during session… Dave would call and tell me, ‘You’re doing the right thing… you keep working…’ He truly was a wonderful senator, a wonderful man and he had a great life…”
Sen. Lois Tochtrop, D-Thornton, also knew Wattenberg when she lobbied in the building before becoming a lawmaker. She longs for the days before gift bans when lobbyists were allowed to throw happy hours that often saw both sides of the aisle come together in a personal setting.
“It’s unfortunate now that the General Assembly doesn’t do that because that’s where you got to get to know people,” she said.
U.S. Rep. Ed Perlmutter, D-Golden, also attended the memorial on Friday, offering brief remarks in the Senate chamber. Perlmutter had served with Wattenberg. When he ran for Congress in 2006, Wattenberg changed his voter registration to Democrat so he could vote for Perlmutter in the primary. He later switched back to Republican.
“He was truly a friend of all of us. He was a friend of this state; he was a friend of this institution,” said Perlmutter. “He made this institution work.”
Former Sen. Don Ament, a Republican, said he visited Wattenberg during some of his last days on earth. Ament said Wattenberg kept his sense of humor even then, as they reminisced over the good old days.
Ament remembered one story in particular when at Ament’s confirmation hearing as agricultural commissioner under former Gov. Bill Owens, a Republican, Wattenberg dressed the Senate Agriculture Committee members in judges’ robes for the “last public hanging.” Wattenberg, the chairman of the committee, wore a barrister wig for the mock hanging.
Ament also recalled that Wattenberg once showed up at the state insectarium with a can of Raid.
“He was a great human being in the fact that he knew how to pull people together…” explained Ament. “He was able, through humor, to bring together a lot of groups of people.”
Former Sen. Ken Chlouber had similar memories serving with Wattenberg. Chlouber wore a black cowboy hat and held the hangman’s rope for the “last public hanging” stunt.
“Sen. Wattenberg was a cowboy’s cowboy…” Chlouber said with a thick Western accent. “Regardless of party affiliation, he said, ‘That’s my friend. I’m not going to back up from him now.’”
Former Sen. Dottie Wham of Denver, who became one of Wattenberg’s closest political allies, sat beside Wattenberg for about 13 years in the Senate chamber.
“I know that you serving here, you may not realize how much it’s going to mean to you as you think about it later, how much the people will mean to you — as you have worked toward a common goal, you bond and you learn what people have a sense of humor and who doesn’t…” Wham addressed the current Senate body. “You learn who will keep commitments and who won’t.
“Dave’s commitment was gold,” she continued. “He would stay with you, even if it were for Denver Water, and that was pretty far.”