Guest Columns

SMITH: AN EXAMPLE OF POLITICAL COURAGE

Mike Strang — Legislator, cowboy and friend

The Colorado Statesman

What do you think about that House district I carved out for you?” Mike Strang asked. It was the spring of 1972 and he was in the Aspen hospital, recovering from surgery.

Some people plan their futures with meticulous care; others function more on chance encounters. I guess I’m in the latter category. That’s why former State Representative and Congressman Strang played such a huge role in my life. My wife Julie and I were visiting my father in Aspen when he happened to mention that Mike was in the hospital recovering from back surgery. We went to check on him and he immediately asked this question. He was stretched out flat on his back in an uncomfortable looking bed but, as always, was in good humor and insisted that I get focused on this legislative race.

We weren’t even in the same political party and I hadn’t been following the reapportionment process that had been taking place in the legislature. However, an open district, House District 31, had been created where we lived in Adams County. Within days, however, Julie and I had gotten organized and, launched by Mike’s pep talk, were in the race for that house seat.

This photo shows the many sides of Mike Strang, a rural but sophisticated man who would pair a cowboy hat and tennis shoes and choose a license plate that says “COWS” for an old Mercedes rather than a pickup truck.
Photo by Morgan Smith

Mike and I only served together for one term – 1973-74. He was heavily involved in land-use legislation, a huge issue in those years as Coloradans struggled to deal with rapid growth. He was an articulate, witty and highly intelligent legislator who brought a special flair to every debate. Very sophisticated about urban land-use concerns, he was, most of all, a great advocate for rural Colorado, for agriculture, the livestock industry and rural values. That might seem surprising, knowing that he was born in Buck’s County, Penn., home-schooled and then educated at Princeton University. He even did graduate work at the University of Geneva in Switzerland and then served as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army. But he was truly a westerner, a rancher and an advocate for the Western Slope of Colorado, where he has spent most of his life.

Perhaps the most courageous act I can remember in my years in politics was when Mike introduced a bill to legalize marijuana in 1974. The bill came completely out of the blue; I don’t remember him discussing it with anyone. Yet — many years ahead of his time — he felt that this issue needed to be discussed and, in his typical fashion, decided to raise it, despite the potential consequences. Taking it on all alone seemed like political suicide, so several of us in what we felt were safe districts offered to be co-sponsors.

Mike said, “No.” He wouldn’t allow any co-sponsors; he wasn’t going to get anyone else in trouble.

The bill died quickly, of course, and Mike didn’t run for re-election to his House seat. Nonetheless, he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1984, so in the end the issue wasn’t that damaging politically. But, other than the very courageous legislators who tackled gun control in the last session, I don’t know of anyone in office in the many years since then who has had the courage to take on such a contentious issue alone. In fact, it took Colorado voters — not the political establishment — to finally come to grips with the marijuana issue.

The photograph of Mike on this page shows the many sides of the rural but basically sophisticated man. The cowboy hat and the tennis shoes. The license plate that says “COWS” on an old Mercedes rather than a pickup truck. Did he know back then that the surging demand for drugs would create havoc world-wide? In Colorado we have some 18,000 people in prison, compared to about 2,000 when Mike and I were in the legislature. To our south, tens of thousands of Mexicans have died as drug lords fight pitched battles with the most sophisticated weapons and the corruption of drug money reaches into all levels of government, largely because of a demand for drugs here.

Maybe Mike Strang saw this coming way back in 1974. Maybe that’s why he introduced that bill out of the blue. I owe him a debt for getting me into political life and for showing me what political courage was all about.

My best wishes to him and his wife Kit.

Morgan Smith is a former state representative and commissioner of agriculture. He can be reached at Morgan-smith@comcast.net.