Jerry Kopel, a “legislator’s legislator,” remembered fondly by his colleagues

The Colorado Statesman

Current and former state lawmakers took to the microphone in the House chambers on Wednesday to celebrate the life of the “legislator’s legislator.”

Former Rep. Jerry Kopel, a Democrat from Denver who served a remarkable 22 years in the Legislature, passed away at age 83 on Jan. 21. He was remembered Wednesday for not only his service as a state representative, but also for his service after he retired in 1992, volunteering more than 15 years of legislative insight, including meticulously reading through every word of every bill that made its way through the halls of the Gold Dome.

Kopel’s more than 600 columns for The Colorado Statesman over his many years of service to Colorado served as a policy compass for lawmakers who “religiously” read his opinions to help guide them in making informed decisions. As Westword editor Patricia Calhoun once put it, “Before there was Google, there was Kopel.”

Rep. Matt Jones, D-Louisville, agreed, attesting, “Jerry was a legislator’s legislator, he knew the rules inside out.” Jones ran a House memorial on Wednesday celebrating Kopel’s life, which naturally unanimously passed the House.

Kopel surpassed the expectations of a true statesman, honored for not only his service to the state, but also for his many gifts and talents, including a respected career in journalism, a notable run as an attorney and a passion for civil rights issues.

The elder statesman somehow even found the time for his nimble fingers to run the keys of a baby grand piano. And his appreciation for fine dining was often the envy of other lawmakers, as he sat down during long nights of debate for sirloin steak dinners served on a tray covered with a silver lid, while other lawmakers were begrudgingly accepting their Big Macs and French fries.

During his storied time at the Legislature, Kopel served as House Assistant Minority Leader, and he advocated tirelessly for civil rights issues, working with former Denver Mayor and Rep. Wellington Webb, D-Denver, on making the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. a state holiday.

For years he worked on legislation addressing the sunset review of state regulatory agencies, proving his commitment to bipartisan issues. Republicans had touted the issue, but Kopel crossed the aisle to address the needed reform.

Just this year, the Legislature took up the issue again, addressing procedures for reviewing proposals to regulate unregulated professions in Colorado. The governor signed the measure last week. Rep. Chris Holbert, R-Parker, who carried House Bill 1015 — which was an evolution of work he started last year as a freshman representative — said that when Gov. John Hickenlooper signed the bill, he felt like the governor was signing Kopel’s last bill.

“The evolution of my first was his last,” said a humbled Holbert.

Kopel’s son, David Kopel, research director of the libertarian Independence Institute, said he hopes bickering lawmakers pause from some of the gamesmanship that takes place at the Capitol to appreciate what it means to reach across the aisle.

“Perhaps it will have some good effect on the Legislature to see an example of a guy who was partisan and had strong ideological beliefs, but could work across the aisle,” David Kopel said following his father’s memorial.

It might seem odd that a son born to such a well-known Colorado Democrat would go on to lead some of the strongest libertarian efforts in the nation, but David Kopel said it was his father’s passion for policy and his commitment to bipartisanship that helped to drive him to the work that he does today.

“I grew up with it. It’s like Peyton Manning grew up with Archie Manning around playing football. It was our family sport, and it was constantly in the atmosphere,” said David Kopel.

Also attending the memorial from Kopel’s family was his surviving wife, Dolores Kopel, and grandchildren, Kathleen Kopel, Margaret Kopel and Andrew Kopel.

A who’s who of former state representatives — some slowly crawling to the well with oxygen tanks and stiff legs — fondly invoked the spirit of Kopel as they remembered his legacy. In addition to Webb, the list of sympathizers included former Congressman David Skaggs, former Senate Majority Leader Ken Gordon, former Gov. Bill Owens and Denver City Auditor Dennis Gallagher, to name a few — all of whom served with Kopel at the state Legislature.

Speaker Frank McNulty, R-Highlands Ranch, called a recess of the House to allow for rare speaking moments from Kopel’s former colleagues.

Webb said Kopel was “always consistent in his legislative foray,” telling a humorous anecdote of how Kopel was devoutly against gaming, except when it came to poker, which former lawmakers used to play in the House Speaker’s office.

When Webb once asked Kopel how he could be so against gaming, yet love the game of poker, Kopel responded, “Poker’s a game of skill; it’s not gaming.” Webb said that was a testament to both Kopel’s humor and his sharp personality, which made him a pleasure to work with to advance legislative agendas.

Owens remembered Kopel’s commitment during the 1980s to the fate of Jews and Christians who were being denied religious freedom and the right to emigrate from then-Soviet Union. Kopel spearheaded an organization to highlight the issue by focusing on three of the so-called “prisoners of conscience,” known because of Kopel as the “Leningrad Three.”

Owens used to visit the Soviet Union, and after meeting Kopel and becoming hooked into his “Leningrad Three” network, Owens began bringing parcels of supplies and resources to Leningrad, inspired by Kopel’s dedication to the issue. The former Republican governor said the example demonstrates that Kopel was always about the issue, not the politics.

“He was always reaching across the aisle working for what’s best for the state, regardless of which party one of us was in,” said Owens.

Skaggs, who once served as House Minority Leader, said he “could not have functioned without Jerry; without Rep. Kopel’s expertise, support and good humor.”

“Should there be a revise of a bill run in heaven, Jerry will be there dealing with the commas, the semicolons and the Ten Commandments,” he joked.

Peter@coloradostatesman.com