Guest Columns

SMITH: LESSONS TAUGHT, LESSONS LEARNED

Jerry Kopel, the Legislator’s Legislator

GUEST COLUMNIST

Bam! The committee room slams open and a man in a black tuxedo jacket appears. He pushes a little cart slowly into the room. We go silent, we raucous and punch drunk members of the House Democratic Caucus. It is our second or third day of debating the 1976 Long Bill and exhaustion has set in. Now we see that this strange man is a waiter and he is bringing dinner to one of our members. Someone who is not satisfied with the Big Macs and French fries the rest of us are consuming voraciously.

Soon the waiter reaches Jerry Kopel who is watching calmly but with anticipation. The waiter lifts the neatly pressed white tablecloth off the tray. Underneath is a plate covered carefully with a silver lid. With the whole caucus spellbound, the waiter then slowly lifts the silver lid to reveal a beautiful sirloin steak. Jerry arranges his place setting. Nice silverware. A carefully folded napkin. Without a word to the rest of us, without offering any of us even a tiny bite, he calmly carves into the steak.

This was the Jerry Kopel I served with. An island of calm amidst a frenzied wave of legislation. A man of reason amidst a caucus of wheelerdealers. (Or so we thought.) After all, we were only in the majority for two years. Then the Republicans took over the House again and held a majority for thirty years. I saw the handwriting on the wall and bailed out in 1978 but Jerry ended up serving 22 years, spanning four decades. During that time period, he carried 110 bills as chief sponsor. What I remember most from our years together was that he was a craftsman, focused on the details of his legislation and committed to the accuracy and precision of the language he was using. Words count. Far too often, sloppy language leads to some unintended consequence. In Jerry’s case, that simply didn’t happen.

Dolores Kopel, Congresswoman Diana DeGette and Jerry Kopel on the occasion of his 80th birthday in 2008.
Photo courtesy of Morgan Smith

Just as important, after leaving the House, Jerry has continued to write about legislative issues and has published more than 600 articles in The Colorado Statesman and other publications. This is an astonishing encyclopedia of legislative history. He has also given his legislative papers (the Gerald Kopel Papers) to the Western History Collection at the Denver Public Library, “the most extensive archive of the public career of any American state legislator from the 20th century,” as Congresswoman Diana DeGette stated at Jerry’s 80th birthday celebration in 2008.

Too often, the Colorado General Assembly is viewed as simply a steppingstone to some higher office. This is probably true of state legislatures across the country. It’s Jerry Kopel, perhaps more than anyone in America, who has put the importance of state legislatures in the perspective they deserve.

On August 25, Jerry and Dolores met me at the Denver Public Library and showed me the Refuseniks exhibit, an exhibit about the efforts of Colorado legislators — principally Jerry and Tillie Bishop from Grand Junction — to help free three Russians who had been sentenced to prison in late 1970. Jerry formed this committee. He and Tillie recruited the support of dozens of legislators and the three Russians were released in the 1980s. I mention this as another example of his persistence and tenacity.

Former state Rep. Jerry Kopel calmly carves into his steak during debate of the Long Bill back in 1976.
Photo by Morgan Smith

It has been many years since the evening when the waiter rolled that beautiful steak into our caucus but I’ve always tried to abide by the lessons Jerry taught me. Persistence, attention to detail and commitment to the institutions that you represent. I have always been grateful to have had him as a mentor.

Morgan Smith served in the Colorado House of Representatives from 1973 to 1978.