Guest Columns


‘Tillie’ Bishop: A true statesman for the ages

By Morgan Smith

“We had our arguments but then we were always able to put our arms around each other and move on.” — Tillman “Tillie” Bishop, Sept. 10, 2010

That’s Tillie, an extraordinary public servant whose focus has always been on his constituents and his state and who has never let personal animosity or ideology stand in the way of his work.

Tillie is dealing with some very tough health issues now. “Some rough spots to go through,” as he put it in our phone conversation. However, he’s someone I always think of as we near another election, an election that is usually more expensive, more personal and less about the needs of our state and country than the one before.

Of all the legislators I had the opportunity to work with both in my time on the Joint Budget Committee and later at the Department of Local Affairs, Tillie was the most effective as well as the most persistent. The insectary in Grand Junction, the removal of the uranium mill tailings and, of course, Mesa College — those are just a few of the projects that Tillie worked on.

Tillman “Tillie” Bishop served 28 years in the state legislature and commanded respect from both sides of the aisle.

Tillie wasn’t, however, always successful. Here is one of his efforts as reported by him in a book I did on Joe Shoemaker several years ago.

“Senator Shoemaker (presiding over the Senate Republican Long Bill caucus in 1976) explained… that there was $5 million in the budget that wasn’t absolutely necessary and could be taken out if a simple majority supported the motion.

“When it came my turn to speak, I was successful in identifying where the $5 million was located. So I made a motion to remove the dollars and it passed. This set the stage to move money into projects and programs of my choice (mostly located in Western Colorado, where I lived). It seemed like I made a zillion motions trying to get money to these “pet” programs but Joe, with his stylish, fast-speaking ability and convincing skills, got the caucus to vote every one down. He was also successful in defeating other caucus members’ efforts to spend the money where they desired. This left the $5 million intact ... The dollars were still up for grabs.

“Now, where did the $5 million end up getting spent? I have nothing to verify this, but I suspect some or all of it ended up funding the South Platte Riverfront Project in Denver.”

Sometimes it seemed that Tillie had better luck with Democrats like me than members of his own party. For example, he came to Local Affairs near the end of one of our grant making sessions and told me that he needed support for removing the mill tailings. I agreed to make a grant with the understanding that this would be his only request. Just a few days later, however, something popped up about the college.

“Tillie!” I said. “We had a deal. No more requests.”

“Well, this is important,” he answered. Of course, he got the money but, more important, we knew that it would be put to good use.

Tillie’s interests have ranged far beyond Mesa County, however. In 1980, he and Representative Jerry Kopel from Denver co-chaired The Committee to Free the Leningrad Three on behalf of three Soviet “prisoners of conscience,” Iosif Mendelevich, Yuri Federov and Aleksie Murzhenko, all of whom were eventually released in part because of the relentless political pressure of this committee. In October 2009, he and Kopel received the Russian Jewish Community Foundation Soviet Jewry Freedom Award in Massachusetts for their efforts. He has always been a believer in fairness, justice and human rights.

As we near the end of another increasingly bitter campaign season, I think of Tillie, who served 28 years in the Colorado Legislature, as a Mesa County Commissioner and now as a Regent of the University of Colorado. It’s an extraordinary record of public service and a model of fairness and decency for those candidates who are running today. My best wishes to Tillie and his wife, Pat, with the “rough spots” they’re facing.

Morgan Smith served in the Colorado House of Representatives from 1973 to 1978 and was the Chairman of the JBC in 1976. He served as Executive Director of the Colorado Department of Local Affairs from 1983 to 1986.