Colorado Governors share memories and insights

Lamm, Romer & Owens: Policy wonks, not political foes

By Leslie Jorgensen

COLORADO SPRINGS — In an election year of fractional and bitter political differences, Colorado’s former Governors Dick Lamm and Roy Romer, both Democrats, and Bill Owens, a Republican, lauded each other’s leadership skills and assets during the “Governing Colorado: Former Governors Speak” forum on March 31 at Colorado College in Colorado Springs.

Former Governors Dick Lamm and Roy Romer recall their best achievements, and their regrets, during their terms in office at the “Governing Colorado” forum at Colorado College.
Photo by Tatianna Gruen/The Colorado Statesman

The unique forum was the idea of Tom Cronin, a CC political science professor, author, former president of Whitman College and Democratic candidate who challenged Republican 5th District Congressman Ken Kramer in 1982.

Cronin noted that the three governors’ experience in the state legislature and governorship totals 62 years — nearly half of the years since Colorado became a state on Aug. 1, 1876. That tenure doesn’t even count the years that Romer and Owens served as state Treasurer.

Lamm, who served from 1975–1987, was the first Colorado governor to serve three terms. Romer, who was also elected to three terms, held office from 1987–1999. Owens served from 1999 to 2007, but by then term limits had kicked in.

Anyone who thought that the forum would produce advice or a critique of Gov. Bill Ritter’s current leadership was mistaken. Lamm, Romer and Owens made it clear at the get go — they are supportive of each other and Ritter. These men share an unusual bond — having shouldered the burdens and enjoyed the benefits of having governed Colorado.

“Governing Colorado” moderator former Ohio Governor Dick Celeste, left, poses with panelists: former Colorado Governors Bill Owens, Dick Lamm and Roy Romer at the forum held in Colorado Springs.
Photo by Tatianna Gruen/The Colorado Statesman

Seated in wing chairs on the stage in CC’s Cornerstone Arts Center, the governors answered questions posed by Colorado College President Dick Celeste, who was governor of Ohio from 1983 to 1991. The format was not constricted by timed responses — it was a free flowing conversation punctuated with the audience’s laughter or applause.

One such moment occurred when Lamm answered a question about what was the biggest surprise he’d encountered early in his administration.

“The press — they didn’t recognize my genius,” said Lamm with a deadpan expression. “I went from a white knight legislator… and all of the sudden the press started judging me as a fumbling new governor — and I was.”

“But, I was shocked to go from a popular legislator to an unpopular governor!’ said Lamm with a grin.

Romer said he was surprised to learn “how stiff bureaucracy is and how difficult it is to move it.” He said the problem wasn’t the people working in government; it’s the system that’s stuck in old traditions, habits and patterns that impede progress and efficiency.

Colorado College students Rakhi Voria, left, and Angela Cobian, talked with former Colorado Gov. Roy Romer after the forum.
Photo by Tatianna Gruen/The Colorado Statesman

“I was surprised that we are so resistant to change,” he said.

Owens said he was totally caught off guard and unprepared for the tragedy at Columbine High School on April 20, 1999. Although the governor was rapidly informed of the shootings by the state Highway Patrol, Owens said he had been in office for less than 100 days.

“I was a brand new governor and I didn’t know what to do,” Owens said candidly. He recalled making two phone calls — one to Romer, who had put President Bill Clinton on the phone. The Democratic President gave advice to the new Republican governor. Next, Owens called Lamm.

“Dick said, ‘You’re the father of Colorado,’” recalled Owens. “In other words, I had to remember that I was the face of Colorado. It was great advice.”

Both former governors had helped Owens during the ensuring days of shock, grief and memorial services.

What factors helped make these men effective governors?

“In my case, it was overwhelming political genius,” said Lamm.

“And modesty, obviously,” interjected Owens.

Joyce and Steve Schuck, a Republican who ran for governor, join several hundred people at the “Governing Colorado” forum.
Photo by Tatianna Gruen/The Colorado Statesman

“Yes,” laughed Lamm, who added that it might also have helped to be a Democratic candidate during the Watergate hearings. More seriously, he credited Toastmasters where he learned to articulate his message and Colorado voters who seemed more forgiving of the young governor’s mistakes.

Lamm, who was 39 years old when he was elected governor, said, “I probably shouldn’t have voted for myself.”

Romer said his leadership assets included having followed Lamm, who had taken some “radical” positions. One, he noted, was Lamm’s stance against the 1976 Olympics being held in Colorado. The issue was placed on the ballot and Coloradans voted against hosting the games because of costs and potentially negative environmental impacts.

A challenge for Romer was working with a Republican-majority legislature. He said that being able to uphold his values but also listen and work with opposing views to find a middle ground were assets.

“It was important to not be false but to be true to the people and yourself,” said Romer, who recalled wearing his leather “bomber jacket” and mountain boots, telling folks, “I’m from Holly, Colorado,” and listening to people during his “Dome on the Range” community meetings around the state.

“The Achilles heel of most politicians or people in power is arrogance,” declared Romer. “Arrogance is what does us in.”

Colorado’s former First Ladies Bea Romer and Dottie Lamm are the subjects of memories shared by their husbands, former Governors Roy Romer and Dick Lamm.
Photo by Tatianna Gruen/The Colorado Statesman

Owens said his leadership asset was having “the ability to work with both sides of the aisle.” Tackling the obstacles of political partisanship, he said, existed then and now.

For example, Owens said that Republican President George W. Bush didn’t get any more cooperation from Democratic lawmakers during his tenure in the White House than Democratic President Barack Obama is getting now from Republicans in Congress.

“We need to disagree without being disagreeable,” said Owens. What was their most significant achievement as governors?

“Education reform,” said Owens.

“I was following in the footsteps of Roy Romer in CSAP (Colorado Student Assessment Program), measuring accountability and standards, trying to improve … public education,” he said.

The first elements of CSAP tested reading and writing skills of fourth grade children in 1997, and gradually expanded to include math and science assessment exams and include students in grades 3–10 in public schools. The program requires 11th grade students to take the ACT (American College Test).

CSAP tests also assess public schools and that, Owens said, is a challenge.

“You have to ask the questions that sometimes our friends in public education don’t want asked. And that is, ‘What works and what doesn’t work? If it doesn’t work, how do we fix it?’” said Owens.

In addition to CSAP, Owens cited his accomplishments in establishing charter schools and the public schools of choice option for parents.

Lamm said his greatest accomplishment was putting together a savvy administration and cabinet.

“I think most importantly it’s the team you put together. It’s not a one-man band,” he said.

Romer said that he aimed to
“make government more accessible to people, more believable to people, and have integrity.”

What do the governors think of the current political environment?

“I opposed Bill Owens when he ran for governor. I didn’t agree with some of his policies — many of them,” admitted Romer. “But yet we never lost the ability to work together to make Colorado a better place.”

Romer said he’s observed in the current political climate a divisiveness that prevents civil discourse — and learning from those with different viewpoints.

“I confess that many mornings I get up and say, ‘I don’t fit in this system now,’” said Romer. “I don’t fit in that extreme argumentation on both sides — that failure to listen to your opponent and to take them seriously. I’m worried about this quite frankly.”

He said the debate over health care in recent months was an example of people not listening to each other.

Another concern, Romer said, is the new electronic media that is so competitive and fast-paced, that there isn’t an editor screening the content for accuracy and bias.

“The major news outlets used to have some responsibility to screen (reports) for accuracy and balance. Now that’s not there,” said Romer, who added that it’s even difficult to find a radio station that’s balanced and fair.

Romer and Owens encouraged the audience to listen to diverse news media, read newspapers and publications, and then, draw their own opinions of political events and issues.

The governors agreed that another challenge is dealing with federal mandates and being heard on Capitol Hill. Owens said it’s helpful when the state has senior senators — Colorado’s U.S. Senators Mark Udall and Michael Bennet are newbies. Lamm and Romer said there is also an aura of “arrogance” in Washington, D.C. that extends well beyond elected officials.

“There is an imbalance right now,” said Lamm, of the federal versus state powers. “If we can sort some of these functions of government and stop the duplication and overlap of jurisdictions, there has got to be a way where we can assign roles of government.”

And that, he said, would lead to a leaner, more efficient government.

Romer said that he’s concerned because the country is in a global economy where other countries are becoming increasingly more proficient in economics and more skilled educationally.

“I see the expectations of our populace not being met with the way history is unfolding,” he said.

“We need to have strong, dynamic, creative leadership in federal and state governments,” declared Romer. “The status quo ‘business as usual’ approach ain’t gonna cut it.”

He said that the job market, economic data and national debt are all indicators that the country is in trouble.

The debt is so high, Romer warned, “that we could become a South American nation or third world country.”

How did public life affect the governors’ families? Their answers give insight for Colorado’s current gubernatorial candidates, Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper, Democrat, and former Congressman Scott McInnis and Evergreen businessman Dan Maes, both Republicans.

Lamm recalled a family encounter during a break in his statewide walking campaign — a protest to the high cost of political campaigns — in 1974.

“I had two young kids and a very sarcastic wife,” said Lamm. “I came home one night and Heather, (then) age 4, said, ‘Daddy!’ And Dottie said, ‘Look at the brains on that young lady. She meets a man once and remembers his name!’”

The couple also tried to protect their children’s individualities. He recalled that Dottie Lamm told their 7-year-old son Scott, “You are Scott Lamm — not the governor’s son.”

The governor recalled a Christmas party when a gentleman approached young Scott and said, “You must be the governor’s son.” The boy replied, “That’s not what my Mother tells me.”

Dottie Lamm, who blushed and laughed during her husband’s tell-all tales, told The Colorado Statesman that it is easier to shield younger children than older children. When the couple’s children hit their teen years, it was much more difficult to have a normal life — and free from media scrutiny.

Owens said that his three children were told that as members of Colorado’s “First Family,” there would be good things, such as attending the Stanley Cup playoffs and meeting celebrities, and bad things. The worst, he said, was doing something wrong and having it reported by the news media.

“And that, from the standpoint of the family, was probably a good thing because it kept them from messing up,” he said.

Bill and Frances Owens were very protective of their children and even postponed moving their family into the Governor’s Mansion.

“Two of our kids were on the front page of the newspaper, but for really minor things. And two of yours were as well,” said Owens, smiling and looking at Romer.

“You didn’t have to tell them!” shot back Romer, who confessed that late one night he had received an urgent call from one of his sons, who remained nameless.

“I got a call from Vail — the jail in Vail,” he said. “I had a son who had been doing wheelies in a parking lot. He called and said, ‘Dad, I’m in jail.’ He told me what had happened and I said, ‘Well you’re going to stay there.’”

Romer said that the worst part for his son was being overwhelmed by television crews and news reporters — and seeing the story in the media.

“The constant TV replay, replay, replay!” exclaimed the Governor. “And that’s the peril you put your kids in. My gosh!”

Bea Romer, who listened to her husband tell this family story, told The Statesman that she was dispatched the following day to pick up the couple’s son — and navigate the media.

“I’m the one who had to go and bail him out,” she said with a laugh. “That’s what Moms do.”

This was the first time that three former Colorado governors had appeared together to discuss policies, accomplishments, families and politics.