Growing up in governor’s mansion has ups and downs

By Cindy Brovsky

Steve McNichols Jr. grew up part of a political dynasty.

His grandfather, William H. McNichols, was Denver’s auditor for 24 years; his uncle Bill was Denver’s mayor from 1968-1983; and his father, Stephen, was Colorado’s Democratic governor for six years after serving as lieutenant governor and state senator.

Heather Lamm, five, daughter of former Gov. Dick and Dottie Lamm, fools around for the camera while living in the mansion.
Photo courtesy of Heather Lamm

Yet, when he considered politics Steve knew he would never run for office when his children were young. His father — who loved to debate and joked that he inherited the “disease of politics” — also warned his oldest son of the pitfalls.

“I always like the part of politics where you can do a lot of things for a lot of people,” said Steve, 66, a California attorney. “I came to the conclusion if I still wanted to enter politics I would wait until my kids were out of college.”

His father, who lost his bid for re-election as governor in 1962 and a bid for the U.S. senate in 1968, bristled even then at the growing importance of fundraising.

“My father warned me that I would spend all of my time raising money and then the people who gave me money would want me to vote a certain way. I couldn’t do what I wanted,” Steve said.

Being the children of former governors gives McNichols and two of his siblings — along with Gov. Richard Lamm’s daughter, Heather — a deeper understanding of Gov. Bill Ritter’s decision not to seek a second term, they said.

Robert “Bob” McNichols, a realtor, was watching Ritter’s press conference on CNN in Phoenix when Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Connecticut, also announced he was retiring after 30 years in public office. Dodd opened his remarks with the comment: “Now, there’s nothing more pathetic, in my view, than a politician who announces they’re only leaving office to spend more time with their family.”

Heather Lamm’s son, Jasper, repeats history last summer.
Photo courtesy of Heather Lamm

Bob, 63, worked on his father’s campaigns and calls himself a political junkie.

“Dodd threw out that comment and it kind of landed on Ritter’s desk,” he said. “Clearly, Ritter is not the average politician. You have to take him at his word. He was not afraid of re-election, but the lifestyle of a politician was not the right thing for his family.”

Mary E. McNichols, 57, was 4 when her father accepted a donation of the governor’s mansion from the Boettcher Foundation in 1959 and moved his five children from their East Denver home. During a family reunion for a wedding last year, several generations of the McNichols clan toured the mansion.

Subsequent administrations’ families also lived at the mansion, although Gov. Bill Owens and his wife, Frances, moved their daughter and two sons back to their Aurora neighborhood during his term. They said it was better for the children.

Ritter and his wife, Jeannie, live in the mansion with two of their four children: Sam, 19, and Tally, 16, who attends East High School. They host events there and last year the first lady helped clean up toilet paper, which littered the trees and yard after someone TP’ed the mansion.

Mary McNichols, daughter of former Colorado Gov. Stephen McNichols.
Photo courtesy of
Mary McNichols

“I really respected Gov. Ritter for saying that he was doing this for his family,” said Mary McNichols, a Denver paralegal. “Not many people make family their center anymore. I’m sorry it had to be that way because I feel he was doing a good job as governor, but good for him for putting his family first.”

Heather Lamm also was 4 when she and her brother, Scott, moved into the mansion where they lived from 1975-1987. Lamm, now 39, reflects fondly on her father’s years in public office but also has empathy for the sacrifices the Ritter children face.

“Politics have changed so much from when my dad was in office,” said Lamm, a partner in a Denver software consulting firm. “It is now fundamentally more ugly and you need to spend so much more time raising money. My dad did not have to miss our activities because he had another fundraiser to attend. I absolutely have sympathy for Gov. Ritter because it is much uglier.”

Their mothers, first ladies Dottie Lamm and Marjory McNichols, worked hard to make sure their children’s lives were as normal as possible, the children recalled.

“I think it was drilled into our heads at a very young age that we weren’t special,” Mary McNichols said. “When people asked us what our father did we always said he was an attorney.”

Steve McNichols Jr., son of former Colorado Gov. Stephen McNichols.
Photo courtesy of
Steve McNichols Jr.

Even when President Eisenhower and First Lady Mamie visited the family, the kids weren’t star-struck.

“The Eisenhower visit was no big deal; we just cared if it was meatloaf night,” Mary said.

Family meals were a mainstay at both the Gov. Lamm and Gov. McNichols households, their daughters said.

“I remember very clearly that it was sacred we ate dinner together,” Heather said. “We didn’t particularly like it when we were teenagers and we thought it would be OK if dad was gone. I have a tremendous appreciation of it now.

“My parents are my closest friends and I don’t think that would be true if he didn’t spend enough time with me when I was young,” she said. “They came to our soccer games and we went skiing nearly every other weekend. And we always had one or two family vacations a year.”

Gov. McNichols and his wife also carved out time for their three sons’ sporting events and their two daughters’ activities, Mary said. He passed away in 1997 and the former first lady died in 2006.

“We remain a very close family today,” Mary said. “Dad’s job was dad’s job and sometimes he was gone. I don’t think it took a toll on us; if anything it showed us what a gift it was to be a public servant.”

Bob McNichols recalled that the governor’s mansion felt like a regular home to him because there was no security or locked gates, as is required now. His father accepted the donation of the mansion near downtown despite opposition from the Legislature. The gift came with a five-year endowment to pay for utilities and upkeep.

Alex Ooms (holding Jasper Lamm Ooms), Richard Lamm, Heather Lamm (holding Tobias Vennard Ooms), Dottie Lamm, Cindy Lamm (holding Kennon Hunter Lamm) and Scott Lamm.
Photo courtesy of Heather Lamm

“People respected the family’s privacy,” Bob said. “We would come and go as freely as when we were in our former home. Friends would carpool with us to Regis High School and drive straight up to the front door. Those times, it was easier for a governor’s family to be considered like everyone else.”

Another change is the civility among the Democratic and Republican parties, which has diminished in recent years, Bob and Steve said. Their father used to invite members of both parties to a large poker party after the legislative session ended, and he often played golf with Republicans.

“Dad loved to debate so he got a kick out of golfing with Republicans,” Steve said. “He also liked to come home with Republican money.”

Overall, Steve said he enjoyed his father’s stint in politics, which allowed him to meet presidents Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy and Carter. However, at times it was uncomfortable. Once, Steve was stopped for speeding and the officer accused him of wanting special treatment when Steve just expected and got a ticket. He moved to California to practice law after wondering if judges — appointed by his father — may not be totally objective.

He suspects it’s much harder for children of politicians today.

“There are a lot of personal attacks in the newspaper and by the opposition, especially at election time,” Steve said. “As a child, you get the feeling people are looking at you differently and you are conscious of not doing anything that could hurt your parents’ reputation.”

When Ritter leaves office next year, Steve expects the Ritter family to assimilate quickly into a non-public lifestyle.

“Once your dad’s name is not in the paper all the time, it’s no problem adjusting to being out of the governor’s mansion,” he said.