PUEBLO — It wasn’t exactly a political convention per se, but from the looks of this very large get together on Aug. 22, it could have been. Several hundred current, former and potentially future elected officials, lobbyists and well-connected (and hungry) guests packed into a large white tent at this annual event signifying the official start-up of the summer’s 11-day showcase for the agricultural engines that drive the state’s rural economy — the Colorado State Fair in Pueblo.
Since soon after the Second World War, the Pueblo Chamber of Commerce has co-hosted the Legislative Barbecue for state politicians on opening night. At 5 p.m. the sky was threatening and spitting rain, hard enough to keep you under cover but not so hard that you didn’t consider sprinting from one shelter tent to the next. Fortunately, a golf cart surrey appeared and ferried guests to the over-sized tent set up for a thousand diners. The skies soon cleared, the sun popped out and a cool evening breeze provided relief at an event often plagued by hundred degree temperatures and sweat stained cowboy shirts. Several members of the State Fair Board Commission, including president Art Bosworth of Denver, were peppered throughout the crowd. Bill Hybl of El Pomar renown has only been a State Fair official for about six months, but he seemed to know everyone and fit in comfortably.
These barbecues used to be almost exclusively Democratic affairs, dominated by Pueblo’s unions and partisan elected officials. During the past two decades, however, occasional Republicans have begun to win office up and down the Arkansas Valley from Cañon City to Lamar. Colorado’s first and so far only female House Speaker, Lola Spradley, represented nearby Beulah. Republican and former Pueblo cop George Rivera grabbed the state Senate seat lost last year in the recall election of Angela Giron. When introduced, a modest but noticeable ripple of applause seemed to indicate that Democrats might find it more difficult to retake that seat in November than party flacks would like you to believe.
Part of the tradition is that elected officials and candidates are only introduced, but no one gets to speak — except, of course, the Guv. For the others, it is strictly a glad handing opportunity for candidates to schmooze their way through a lubricated crowd at whatever speed suits them. If you attend in hopes of cornering a specific pol, it pays to arrive early. There is ample competition for their attention, particularly the statewide candidates. On the Democratic side U.S. Senators Michael Bennet and Mark Udall, as well as Hickenlooper and State Treasurer nominee Betsy Markey, worked the tables. On the Republican team were gubernatorial nominee Bob Beauprez, Secretary of State aspirant Wayne Williams and CD 4 candidates Ken Buck (and Democratic standard-bearer Vic Meyers) as well as incumbent Republican Rep. Scott Tipton cheerfully pressing the flesh. Even though he will soon be termed out, Attorney General John Suthers and wife Janet were on hand to greet people. Rod Skyloff, president of the Greater Pueblo Chamber of Commerce, did most of he officiating at the mike, with a few minutes allowed for short thank yous from the event sponsors.
Statehouse lobbyists were there in abundance. This is an event where it pays to be noticed and remembered. 5280 Strategies’ Mike Beasley and his crew from Xcel Energy encamped next to the bar, snagging legislators as they set forth, drinks in hand. Long timers Kathy Oatis and Greg Kolomitz hovered nearby, as did telcom enthusiast Pete Kirchof and Denver’s Ted Trimpa together with Flo and Fofi Mendez, the mother (and former chief lobbyist) and daughter, (current lobbyist) team. Also spotted were lobbyist Tracee Bentley from the Governor’s office, Corrections chief Rick Raemisch and policy guru John Swartout. Sponsor Waste Management’s Scott Hutchens was likewise on hand. Also represented were Tri-State Generation & Transmission and several of the rural electric associations. As the goodies were divvied up following statehood, Pueblo landed the Fair, the state hospital and the territorial prison for nearby Cañon City. In recent years municipal leaders have tried to ensure that at least one member of the Joint Budget Committee is looking out for the care and feeding of these institutions.
There didn’t appear to be any vegan options in the buffet line — just sides of sautéed Colorado squash, mashed potatoes from the San Luis Valley and simmered pinto beans. Entrees featured three-inch thick slabs of ranch fed beef and chicken breasts for the less adventurous.
By the time individual legislators were introduced the crowd noise drowned out any applause and the introductions became little more than a pro forma roll call: Legislators Bill Cadman, Frank McNulty, Larry Crowder, Jerry Sonnenberg, Owen Hill, Perry Buck, Lois Landgraf and Mark Waller, batting for the Republicans. Lois Tochtrop, Pat Steadman, Abel Tapia, Jeanne Labuda, Ed Vigil and Leroy Garcia filled out the Democratic roster. Former U.S. Rep. Ray Kogovsek, who served three terms in Congress from the Pueblo area, and legendary lobbyist Wally Stealey, also of Pueblo, were fêted like royalty while Hickenlooper appointees John Salazar, the Commissioner of Agriculture, state Personnel Director Kathy Nesbitt and Sue Birch, the director of Health Care Policy and Finance fielded inquiries. (Former Ag Commish Don Ament was also there.) Udall campaign manager Adam Dunstone and his wife Jennifer discreetly listened in on rank and file opinion while field-testing soon to be campaign messages. At 7:15 p.m. those with tickets for the Clay Walker concert began to leave and by 7:30 p.m. the tent was nearly emptied out — messages exchanged, promises extended and support secured. Departing through the carnival rides it looked like “Little Liz,” the 29-inch world’s smallest lady, was drawing a waiting line following her peremptory “Heave, Ho!” by the esthetes at the Boulder County Fair.
See the August 22 print edition for full photo coverage.