Colorado College fosters political careers
By Janet Simons
Although it has a student body no larger than a large high school’s, Colorado College has provided five graduates who have been appointed to high positions in the administration of President Barack Obama.
Ken Salazar, secretary of the Interior Department, is a 1977 graduate of Colorado College.
Photo by Jody Hope Strogoff
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Sen. Ken Salazar, class of 1977, serves as secretary of the Department of Interior; marine ecologist Jane Lubchenco, 1969, heads the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration; geophysicist Marcia McNutt, 1974, directs the U.S. Geological Survey; former director of Colorado’s Department of Natural Resources Harris Sherman, 1964, serves as Department of Agriculture undersecretary for natural resources and environment; and Lori Gardner, 1983, is deputy administrator of NASA.
Salazar was the first CC graduate selected by Obama, and is the only one in the cabinet.
When asked about Colorado College’s impact on his life, Salazar responded with the following e-mail message:
“Coming from the San Luis Valley, Colorado Springs and Colorado College were a new world for me. I was in the first generation of my family to go to college, so the opportunities and the people I met opened my eyes to new possibilities. I studied abroad while I was at CC, saw Latin America and discovered my interest in the law and public service. The faculty was tremendous, and I still stay in touch with people like David Finley, who was one of my first teachers at CC.”
The list of Obama appointees who graduated from the school is impressive, but it barely scratches the surface in terms of CC’s contribution to Colorado’s and America’s political and governmental life.
CC has been an unusually rich source of political leaders in the past 30 years, and, in many ways, that’s because of the late Fred Sondermann, who started teaching political science at CC in 1953, and who chaired the political science department in 1972 and 1973 and from 1976 until his death in 1978.
“CC has had a strong undergraduate political science department since the 1970s, and Fred Sondermann played a major role in that,” said CC political science professor Bob Loevy in a phone interview from his home in Colorado Springs.
Loevy notes that it was Sondermann who first brought CC political science professor Tom Cronin to the campus.
Sondermann tapped Cronin — an authority on the power of the presidency — to speak at the Colorado College Symposium in 1976, a presidential election year. Since then, any CC symposium held in a presidential election year is known as a Sondermann Symposium.
“Sondermann was not only an inspiring teacher, but also politically active,” said Loevy, who also came to CC under Sondermann’s auspices. “His influence on all his students was great.
“He was a factor in people getting involved in politics and making a career out of it,” said Loevy, who added that Sondermann had sparked an interest in politics for a number of his students, including Diana DeGette, who now represents Colorado’s 1st Congressional District.
DeGette, who graduated in 1978, readily acknowledges both Sondermann’s influence and CC’s overall contribution to her political career.
Fred Sondermann headed the political science department at Colorado College in the 1970s and ‘80s, influencing the political future of U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Denver, among many others.
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“Colorado College is a breeding ground for public officials because it is an excellent liberal arts college that puts a high premium on critical thinking and principled advocacy,” said DeGette. “My years at CC taught me to search for solutions to problems in a thorough way, to listen to all opinions and to be a forceful and articulate advocate for my positions.
“The political science department is one of the best in the country.”
The fact that CC continued to produce political activists when Sondermann was no longer on the scene has much to do with what he built. By running for — and winning — a seat on the Colorado Springs City Council in 1973, Sondermann set the stage for other professors to pursue office, which considerably raised the level of excitement about politics on the campus.
Perhaps the best spokesman for Sondermann’s legacy is his son, Denver political analyst Eric Sondermann, who attended CC but left before graduating.
“I grew up with politics as dinner-table conversation and, at a young age, I was the fortunate beneficiary of that narrow window when Democrats were ascendant in Colorado Springs,” Sondermann said.
He was a recent high school graduate in 1972, when he started working to bring El Paso County into the Democratic column for U.S. Senate candidate Floyd Haskell.
After succeeding in that, he took on management of his father’s successful 1973 City Council campaign. The elder Sondermann was elected to the council with Colorado College economics professor Mike Bird, a Republican, on a “sensible growth” ticket that sought control in development of the land immediately surrounding the Garden of the Gods.
Then, in 1974, the younger Sondermann delivered El Paso County for Richard Lamm, who won the governor’s office running on an anti-growth platform.
“At age 20, I had already run three campaigns in El Paso County, and I was three and oh, and I decided to stop while I was ahead and get out of Dodge,” Sondermann recalled.
Fred Sondermann’s political career stopped at the city council level, but Bird went on to the Statehouse, winning his Colorado Springs House district in 1982 and 1984 before moving on to two terms in the Colorado Senate, winning in 1986 and 1990.
Then, in 1994, he ran for the Republican nomination for governor.
“Three of us were going for the nomination, and I got top line at the convention,” said Bird in a phone interview from his home in Sun Lakes, Ariz.
Political affairs consultant Eric Sondermann, pictured here about 30 years ago, attended Colorado College, where his father, Fred Sondermann, taught.
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“Then Bruce Benson petitioned on to the ballot and outspent me about 10 to one in the primary, and he won the nomination, then lost in the general election.”
Bird served as a member of the Joint Budget Committee when he was in the Legislature. As co-sponsor of the recently repealed Arveschoug-Bird Spending Limit, he is considered a hero among Colorado’s fiscally conservative Republicans.
But that’s not the way he sees himself.
“By today’s standards, I’m a moderate,” he said. “I considered myself a tough but fair-minded member of the JBC, but I never believed that all government is bad.”
Yet another CC professor took a stab at elective politics — Tom Cronin, who served as the Colorado Democratic Party’s sacrificial lamb when Republican Ken Kramer ran for re-election to the 5th Congressional District in 1982.
That effort made a big impression on one student who graduated that year, and who served as an intern on Cronin’s campaign — Vincent Bzdek, author of “The Kennedy Legacy: Jack, Bobby and Ted and a Family Dream Fulfilled” (Palgrave MacMillan, 2009).
Such passion for politics fueled a generation of graduates who chose political careers.
Eric Sondermann also believes CC’s block plan played a role. Under the plan, students study only one subject at a time, rather than moving from physics class to 19th century literature within the span of two hours.
“It’s about engagement,” Sondermann said. “By virtue of CC’s position in Colorado and its block plan, it became a Petri dish for political prominence.
“And it’s great that this prominence isn’t limited to the left or the right. When you look at the leadership of both parties, you see they’re both full of CC connections.”
Sondermann, by the way, isn’t the only Denver-based political consultant with a CC connection. Katy Atkinson, of Katy Atkinson & Associates, graduated from CC in 1978.
“The skill I got was learning how to learn — how to understand, how to get to the meat of issues,” said Atkinson. “When you graduate from CC, you’re not just an engineer. You learn how to attack an issue, to read everything you can. You learn to get your facts from reliable, primary sources and to look at the raw data. When you can look at the raw data, it’s much easier to understand all the polling and FEC filings.
Members of the CC family include the following graduates, listed in chronological order.
• 1960s: Lynne Cheney, novelist, conservative scholar, former talk-show host and former U.S. Second Lady, ’63; Harris Sherman, ’64; William J. Hybl, former Republican State Rep and El Pomar Foundation president, ’64; James Heckman, winner of the 2000 Nobel Prize in Economics, ’65; John Schiffer, Republican and immediate past president of the Wyoming Senate, ’67; Jeff Bauer, national health care expert and unsuccessful 1996 Democratic candidate against Marilyn Musgrave in House District 10, ’69; Jane Lubchenco, ’69; Marilyn Moon, Medicare expert and vice president of the American Institute for Research, ’69.
• 1970s: Marcia McNutt, ’74; Ken Salazar, ’77; Katy Atkinson, ’78; Tom Blickensderfer, Republican former Colorado Senate Majority Leader, ’79; Diana DeGette, ’79; Timothy Tymkovich, federal judge, U.S. Court of Appeals, 10th Circuit, ’79.
• 1980s: Colin Simpson, Republican and immediate past speaker of the Wyoming House, ’82; Lori Gardner, ’83; Laura Hershey, national advocate for disabled rights, ’83; Phillip Perry, general counsel for the Department of Homeland Security under President George W. Bush and husband of Elizabeth Cheney, ’86; Elizabeth Cheney, Republican activist, political commentator, State Department official under President George W. Bush and daughter of former Vice President Richard Cheney, ’88.
• 1990s: Mary Cheney, writer, former Conifer resident and public relations liaison for the Colorado Rockies and Coors Brewing, ’91; Rick O’Donnell, former unsuccessful Republican challenger to 7th Congressional District U.S. Rep. Ed Perlmutter, ’92.
• 2000s: Ethan Axelrod, Huffington Post Denver editor, ’09.