Guest Columns


Freda Poundstone played her politics as a full contact sport — rugby not badminton


When I was sworn into the Colorado Legislature in January 1979, whether one loved her or feared her, everyone at the State Capitol knew Freda Poundstone. As a Denver Democrat, I arrived abundantly aware that she was particularly reviled for her Poundstone Amendment to the Colorado constitution. She had, nearly single-handedly, applied the brakes to Denver’s long running annexation binges of the ‘50s and ‘60s. Freda’s critics liked to portray her as a bigot, viscerally opposed to the court ordered school busing imposed on Denver’s public schools. Denver had been sweeping in more and more students as neighborhoods were dragooned into the Denver Public School District through municipal annexation. I had little reason to question this estimate of her motives. Certainly, she had proven more than willing to fan fears of busing among suburban voters. Yet, even Denver residents had recently elected an anti-busing majority to its School Board.

Whatever legerdemain she was capable of exercising at the ballot box, Freda was an even more powerful presence as a Statehouse lobbyist. In just a few years she had transformed herself from an angry suburban Mom into a Republican campaign operative sufficiently powerful that she could frequently command House and Senate majorities among legislators directly beholden to her for their election success. Few Republicans entered primaries without first genuflecting at Freda’s throne. Without her blessing, it was difficult to raise money, find delegates or be taken seriously by Republican voters. And, for those who conducted business at the Capitol, it proved smart to hire Freda. Even when she struggled to muster a majority, she always possessed the muscle required to kill your bill. For several decades she boasted more clients and greater income than any other solo lobbyist. She was a legislative force that had to be reckoned with.

Freda was the reputed architect of the Republican caucus revolt that dumped Ron Strahle as House Speaker in favor of ‘Good Old’ Bob Burford. The self-named House Crazies were in control and filled committee chairmanships that had previously belonged to long serving careerists. The Republican Legislature was afire with youthful zeal and Freda seemed able to place her finger on the scales wherever and whenever she pleased.

I soon discovered that Poundstone was no cookie cutter, conservative ideologue. Yes, she believed Government was too big and spent far too much money — she was a committed fiscal hawk and early Reagan supporter, but she was also politically flexible and usually willing to accept a policy compromise. Freda had a sense of politics that viewed legislation as a contest of wills where sometimes you won, sometimes you lost and sometimes you were just happy to walk away with half a loaf. Perhaps even more surprising, I found she was wary of the rising evangelical tide that was beginning to swamp the Colorado Republican party. Freda had no illusions that God wasted time monitoring election results. I recall a conversation following one of her frequent trips to Washington. Apparently she’d met with Colorado Senator Bill Armstrong, best remembered for distributing Bibles out of his federal offices, and she shook her head in disbelief when she confided to me, “You know Miller, Bill thinks God wants him serving in the United States Senate!” While she may have felt God had better things to worry about, as long as Armstrong was the Republican candidate Freda labored tirelessly to re-elect him.

As a lobbyist, her tastes proved more eclectic. Much like a criminal lawyer who argues that every defendant deserves the very best lawyer they can afford, Freda accepted pretty much any client willing to pay her fee. Consequently, she lobbied for the union drivers at Yellow Cab, defending them against the competition that would follow from market entry by new cab companies. Who better to resist the de-regulatory zeal of free market legislators than a powerful Republican? Similarly, she pestered those of us on the Business Affairs and Labor Committee to legislatively forbid the “blind bidding” of new Hollywood movies. In this case she was seeking government regulation to protect her movie theater clients against paying exorbitant fees for the screening rights to ‘star vehicle’ turkeys. She was good humored enough to accept my objection that there was absolutely no upside for a Democrat taking sides between greedy little bastards and greedy big ones. John Travolta’s Saturday Night Fever had been shown to her distributors in 1977, and not one of them had been willing to pay a premium for exclusive screening rights, although the film went on to become one of the year’s larger moneymakers and the Bee Gees soundtrack remains the biggest seller of all time.

It was rumored that plastic surgery had ratcheted up Freda’s sex appeal. For a mother with half a century of wear and tear, it’s fair to say she was considerably perkier than you would expect. She seemed to be a feminist confident in her femininity and more than ready to flaunt her after market assets. She knew when to be a tease if that might help persuade a wayward legislator. Freda left no stone unturned, and no one worked harder, to produce results. She knew when to have a drink, when to repeat a dirty joke, when to share gossip and when to keep a secret. Like most effective politicians, Freda’s real enemies were other Republicans. Democrats were merely her adversaries. I don’t know enough about the intra-mural bruisings she administered to take sides, but I’m willing to suspect many of them were well deserved. Freda played her politics as a full contact sport — rugby not badminton.

By 1980 Freda was prepared to run Poundstone II, another Constitutional amendment, placing the same handcuffs she had fashioned for Denver on all local governments in Colorado — no further annexations without the majority consent of the annexed. Suburban municipalities had taken off on an annexation bender once she had frozen Denver dead in its tracks. Freda viewed these incursions on an unsuspecting populace as an abuse of fairness and voter rights. Her objection had nothing to do with busing. Placing initiatives on the ballot was played by different rules thirty years ago than it is today. Any eligible voter could sign a petition, but signature circulators could not be paid for their work. They were legally required to be volunteers. And, you had to collect a far larger number of signatures. Unless a cause was popular, this could prove very difficult to accomplish.

I had become embroiled in the appalling governance blunders at the Regional Transportation District. RTD Directors, who were appointed by each county’s governing body, had been chartering jets, hiring private detectives, tapping phones and accepting financial favors from contractors to list just a few of their more egregious malfeasances. There was also a widespread perception that bus service sucked. Public contempt had reached a boiling point. Together with Jack McCroskey, Michael Henry, Clarke Watson and others, we announced our intention to ask voters to approve the replacement of the appointed Directors with an elected Board. The usual suspects were opposed to this effort — the Chamber of Commerce, both major newspapers, movers and shakers on 17th Street and the punditocracy all expressed their outrage. RTD transportation policy was judged to be too complicated, too technical to allow voters to participate in these decisions. This same bunch was no happier with Poundstone II.

We quickly realized we had an immensely popular cause. There was no trouble finding volunteers to circulate our petitions. Instead of persuading people to sign, voters would walk over to our petitioners and ask them whether they were carrying the RTD petition. They wanted to sign. Since RTD had been created by the Legislature, we were required to run a statewide initiative. Our organizing group was Denver-centric and we had little or no experience undertaking such a campaign. And, our time was short. Freda, on the other hand, was an acknowledged master at petitioning, but she had a less popular, harder to explain initiative. So, we teamed up. There was no reason for a Denver resident not to extend the restrictions in Poundstone I to everyone else, and Freda’s petitioners benefited from the popularity of the RTD proposal. A bigger plus was the fact that Freda helped train our petitioners. When she was on your side in a fight, you couldn’t have a better ally.

I’ve always remembered her advice on how to deal with a reluctant voter. “Tell them they can make up their mind on the merits later, they can even vote against it in November if they wish, but ask if they will help you put the question on the ballot so voters can decide the matter for themselves.” I learned this appeal worked almost every time. Today’s paid circulators use it as their ‘closer.’ Unfortunately, they can also clutter the ballot with proposals that would never cross the threshold if they were forced to find volunteers to circulate their petitions. Eventually, we submitted 150,000 signatures for each measure and they both went on to win approval from Colorado voters in November. It was an educational experience. I held spliffs at Red Rocks while Willie Nelson fans signed my petitions, and we collected 5,000 signatures a day in the line snaking from the Denver Art Museum during the Muppets show.

Freda was working feverishly for Ronald Reagan’s presidential campaign during the fall. Reagan would reward her for her help by appointing Freda to the U. S. Military Cemetery Advisory Board. It was a boondoggle that allowed Freda to travel all over the globe inspecting the condition of our overseas memorials — Omaha Beach, Okinawa, the Philippines. If someone had to do it, there was no reason it shouldn’t have been Freda. One morning, as I returned to my office from a House committee hearing, I found Freda sobbing and distraught near the Capitol elevators. I learned from her, to my shock, that an unknown assailant had just shot the President. I felt the same sinking feeling I had experienced in the ‘60s when it seemed our leaders were being assassinated on a regular basis. I tried to comfort her, as best I could, and was pleased for her when Reagan survived the attack.

There are very few politicians who manage to be successful both as elected officials, party leaders and lobbyists. When Freda was elected Mayor of Greenwood Village, she launched an annexation strategy that pulled much of the south I-25 commercial development into the city’s property tax base. Ultimately and ironically, this aggressive expansionism, which was carried forward by her successors, led to the creation of Centennial as a defense against a metastasizing Greenwood Village. In 1992 she carried petitions for limited stakes gaming in Colorado’s historic mining towns. And, as usual and somewhat unexpectedly, Freda was successful. In many ways, both large and small, Freda Poundstone profoundly shaped Colorado for nearly half a century.

In recent years I lost touch with her, although we continued to exchange Christmas cards. I was surprised when it became apparent that Freda had circulated, or organized the circulation of petitions, for Doug Bruce. The three tax measures he slipped onto the ballot in 2008 struck me as rather extreme propositions for the woman I remembered and, frankly, admired. Nor, had she ever seemed much of a fan of Doug’s. Perhaps her opinions shifted in recent years, but I would prefer to believe she took the job for a nice fat fee. Freda was nothing, if not a believer in the process. She had long since made the shift to paid petitioning. She was good at it. Freda understood that those who show up shape government. In that sense she was the best of citizens — a small ‘d’ democrat who would fight for her point of view even when she had to kick your ass around the block to do so.

My advice to St. Peter would be to keep Freda away from the clipboards. Together with Steve Jobs, she just might win majority approval for a re-jiggering of the rules governing the Elysian Fields.

Miller Hudson has been involved in Colorado politics — as a legislator, lobbyist and observer — during pretty much all of Freda’s storied career.