Denver Democrats’ Edward M. Kennedy Dinner

By Jody Hope Strogoff

Denver Democrats, gathered for their first annual Edward M. Kennedy dinner last weekend, were witness to the announcement that the long-awaited historic — and contentious — health care reform bill championed by the late U.S. Senator from Massachusetts had narrowly passed the House of Representatives, 220-215. The news, delivered by dinner guest Lino Lipinsky, husband of Denver Congresswoman Diana DeGette who was still in Washington, D.C. for the weekend congressional session, elicited loud cheers from the attendees at the sold-out event, capping off an evening that honored several local party figures and also featured a stern warning from the guest speaker.

Former House Speaker Andrew Romanoff, now a candidate for the U.S. Senate, joked that he would resist asking Sen. Bennet to withdraw from the upcoming primary in 2010.
Photo by Jody Hope Strogoff/The Colorado Statesman

David Sirota, described by the New York Times as a “populist rabble rouser” who currently hosts a radio show on AM 760 and whose newspaper column appears locally as well as in syndication, told Democrats gathered at the Westin Hotel that the upcoming Democratic primary race between Sen. Michael Bennet and former state House Speaker Andrew Romanoff is actually beneficial to the party.

And on a national note, Sirota, now a Denver resident himself, warned that if Democrats don’t seize the moment, they should be prepared for voters to throw them out in 2010.

His sometimes controversial remarks may have rattled some of the guests, but their basis, Sirota explained, were actually part of Ted Kennedy’s legacy — mainly, that patience is not a virtue and people have a right to be angry about lack of progress on some fronts.

In fact, Sirota, who began his political involvement as an intern to a Congressman in Washington, D.C. in 1998, said that an attitude change — even among some Democrats — is badly needed.

“For a lot of the Democratic Party, the 2008 elections felt like yet another summer camp color war,” Sirota said. “(They) put on Barack Obama t-shirts, felt really excited, went to rallies and then went home filled with hope, thinking they had made change simply because Barack Obama became president.”

U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, left, and David Sirota, a “populist rabble-rouser” and nationally syndicated newspaper columnist based in Denver who was the keynote speaker last weekend at the Denver Democrats Edward M. Kennedy Annual Dinner.
Photo by Jody Hope Strogoff/The Colorado Statesman

Some of those partisans, Sirota added, continue to insist that any efforts to pressure President Obama or the Democratic Party are “supposedly disloyal or traitorous as if the entire objective in American democracy is to preserve the power of one or another party regardless of what that party is doing.”

What should be the goal, suggested Sirota, is turning people’s hope into change regardless of which party is in power.

“If passing a serious Wall Street reform bill means embarrassing every single one of Colorado’s congressional people — Democrat or Republican — to the point where their approval ratings are in the toilet, then that’s what we have to do.

“If passing a universal health care bill means humiliating our senators into taking a consistently strong stance — Republican or Democrat — then that’s what we have to do.”

And, Sirota said, if it means constantly pressuring Barack Obama, “it’s what we have to do.”

House Speaker Terrance Carroll, D-Denver and last year’s recipient of the Dale Tooley Democrat of the Year Award, presents this year’s Democrat of the Year award to Sen. Patrick Steadman.
Photo by Jody Hope Strogoff/The Colorado Statesman

Sirota said Kennedy, whose memory was being honored that night, lived his life by the principle that patience is not a virtue. Sirota characterized the trait as “the last refuge of (the) status quo and (the) rationale used by some of the most despicable forces in our the past.”

Change needs to occur in a timely manner, he urged, pointing to examples from history to bolster his point. The bulk of the New Deal, for instance, was passed in the first two years of President Roosevelt’s first term.

Most of Ronald Reagan’s transformative legislative agenda was enacted in his first year of office, Sirota pointed out, and at the time, Republicans only controlled one house in Congress.

Those are lessons that need to be remembered as Obama gets set to finish his first year in office.

“Good things do not come to those who wait,” Sirota stressed.

Isabella Allen, right, received the Frank Sullivan Lifetime Achievement Award from the namesake and 2008 recipient of the award, Frank Sullivan.
Photo by Jody Hope Strogoff/The Colorado Statesman

“This is Carpe Diem time. If Democrats don’t seize the moment they’d better be prepared for voters to throw them out,” he said. “This is not a game and patience is not a virtue.”

Sirota talked about meeting Ted Kennedy for the second time in 2006, after a press conference calling for the end of the Iraq War. Sirota remembered telling Kennedy that he had come to appreciate him as one of only a few people in government to take tough controversial stances, who knew the difference between right and wrong. Sirota told Kennedy he was concerned that there may not be so many brave Democratic leaders in the future.

But Kennedy responded by predicting that there would, indeed, be Democratic Party leaders making a difference in both the short term and the future, long after he was gone.

“I’d sincerely like to believe him, that (Kennedy) was right about future torch bearers and leaders,” Sirota told his captive audience.

U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, Laurie Romer, Susan Daggett and state Sen. Chris Romer at the reception before the dinner.
Photo by Jody Hope Strogoff/The Colorado Statesman

“But I’m not yet sure yet sure because when you look honestly at what’s going on in our government right now, it’s not clear yet that the idea of change was anything more than a campaign slogan and colorful t-shirt.”

As evidence he pointed to the Wall Street “reform bill” which Sirota said is being gutted by lobbyists, with some distrustful Democratic lawmakers even helping them.

The Senate votes for the rights of millionaires with a banking bill to protect their mansions, yet bars middle class folks from declaring bankruptcy to protect their bungalows, Sirota said.

“The health care reform bill may end up enriching the health insurance industry... two wars have cost the country billions of dollars, and when you hear a president say we can’t afford $80 billion a year in deficit spending to make sure every American has health care while simultaneously pushing for a $1 trillion bank bill and $580 billion in deficit spending for the largest Pentagon budget since World War II, (you) start to wonder and get angry.”

Travis Leiker, co-chair of the Edward M. Kennedy dinner committee, and committee members David Proper and Julie DeSisto.
Photo by Jody Hope Strogoff/The Colorado Statesman

The American public no longer has the luxury of “jokes about George W. Bush’s speaking inflection, or John Kerry’s para-sailing hobby and Larry Craig’s bathroom habits,” Sirota said. With 45,000 Americans dying from a lack of health care and many thousands losing their homes due to foreclosures, he said, the time to act is now.

“It is not a game when casualties are mounting in Afghanistan and Iraq and when soldier suicide rates are skyrocketing inside a military under severe combat stress.”

To those who may think of him as “radical and a crackpot, who believe people have all got to be a little more patient, that Obama’s in his first year in office, that Colorado’s only been Democratic for a few years, that things take time,” Sirota concluded this part of his remarks with what he said was firm precedent: “Let me close with one last principle which Ted Kennedy seemed to live his life by. Patience is not a virtue.”

Repeat after me: Primaries are good!

Turning to local politics — specifically the primary contest between Sen. Michael Bennet and fellow Democrat Andrew Romanoff — Sirota didn’t mince words when he stated clearly that primaries help political parties and that this primary, in particular, is good for Colorado.

Dick Peterson and Lew Gaiter, Jr. chat during the reception.
Photo by Jody Hope Strogoff/The Colorado Statesman

The notion that a primary is a terrible, bad thing is “ridiculous,” he said.

“Primaries make candidates stronger and it is particularly true here in Colorado where neither senate Democratic candidate has ever run for statewide office.”

Even more important than candidate vetting is the issue pressure that primaries create, Sirota said.

“Where as Republican primaries tend to create competition between candidates seeking to show who is a more freakishly extremist conservative, Democratic primaries tend to create competition between candidates seeking to show who is more in touch with the concerns of average voters.

“In order to win the Democratic nomination, candidates have to show who’s more committed to universal health care, to Wall Street reform, environmental protection and ending adventurous wars, to show who is more committed to issues more widely popular among both Democratic primary and general electorate voters.”

Sirota said that whether big money donors, organized interest groups or cynical political power brokers seek to stop this primary or others, their actions represent the same status quo “that drove this country into a ditch, a status quo that sees democracy as a threat rather than a cure.”