Colorado Dems celebrate — and anticipate

The Colorado Statesman

A decade after launching a nearly unbroken string of success at the ballot box, Colorado Democrats have plenty to celebrate but are facing a demanding election year that could determine whether the blue-leaning state reverses course, party and elected officials told more than 1,000 supporters at the annual Jefferson Jackson Dinner fundraiser on Saturday in Denver.

“This is going to be the hardest campaign that most of us have ever seen,” Gov. John Hickenlooper told the crowd at the Sheraton Denver Downtown Hotel. “It’s going to be a very difficult year for Democrats.”

In the face of challenging electoral forces — Republicans typically turn out better in midterm elections, and the party in power nationally tends to lose steam by the sixth year of a presidency — Hickenlooper pointed to rankings he said should make Democratic office-holders feel proud and bolster arguments to voters: since he took office four years ago, the state has gone from 40th to 4th best in the country in job creation, the number of jobs in the state have grown for 28 consecutive months, and four of the top 10 communities for business start-ups are in Colorado. And that’s while there have been 13 federally declared disasters in the state, more than any other state in the nation’s history.

Former Interior Secretary and U.S. Sen. Ken Salazar hugs Dr. Al Yates as he presents the Colorado Democratic Party’s Lifetime Achievement Award to Yates at the Jefferson Jackson Dinner on April 12 at the Sheraton Denver Downtown Hotel.

“But not every part of Colorado is doing as well as it can,” he said, noting that in one of the first political speeches he ever heard, then-Gov. Roy Romer made the point that quality of life starts with a good job. “We should not rest until we are No. 1 in job creation in the United States,” Hickenlooper said, reminding Democrats that he was out of work for two years between losing his job as a geologist and founding the Wynkoop Brewing Company, so he understands that being out of work long-term changes the way people approach everything in their lives.

Colorado Democratic Party Volunteer of the Year Joyce Fischer is flanked by U.S. Sen. Mark Udall, state Rep. Mike Foote, D-Lafayette, U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet and U.S. Rep. Jared Polis at the Colorado Democratic Party’s Jefferson Jackson Dinner at the Sheraton Denver Downtown Hotel.

“We’re going to make sure that we are a state that’s defined more by our future than by our past,” Hickenlooper said.

Abel Tapia tells delegates he’s the one to unseat U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton in CD 3 this year during a speech on April 12.

Hitting similar themes in his keynote speech, U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro, a Texas Democrat — his twin brother, San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro delivered the keynote address at the last Democratic National Convention — said that core Democratic values were the foundation of “an infrastructure of opportunity that enables each of us to get to where we want to go in life.”

U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro of San Antonio poses for a snapshot with Sheila Leider on April 12 at the Sheraton Denver Downtown Hotel.

Recounting his grandmother’s emigration from Mexico and his family’s journey, Castro said, “That is the story of what has made America strong, the fact that together we have come together to create a better society, a society where people from all over the world have wanted to come.” The reason people want to come to America wasn’t, he said, because of lower taxes and less regulation, as Republicans argue. “People come here because the United States of America is the society of opportunity in the world. And we, as Democrats, as Americans, have to make sure that that is still true, not only today but a generation from now.”

Democratic congressional candidate Vic Meyers of Trinidad addresses the Jefferson Jackson Dinner on April 12 at the Sheraton Denver Downtown Hotel.

Castro told Democrats that it was important to note that today’s GOP wasn’t the party of Ronald Reagan or Abraham Lincoln, but was, instead, the party of Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh.

Democratic congressional candidate Irv Halter, a retired Air Force general, blasts incumbent Republican U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn during a speech at the Jefferson Jackson Dinner.

After promising celebrants that the dinner wouldn’t go as late as last year’s — when keynoter U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri didn’t begin speaking until after 10 p.m., although Castro took to the microphone at about the same time — Colorado Democratic Party Chairman Rick Palacio said he wanted to share with the crowd “the only smart thing Newt Gingrich ever said.” After the laughter subsided, he quoted: “Perseverance is the hard work you do after you get tired of the hard work you’ve already done.” Palacio added, “When the state turns from deep red to swing-state blue, it’s not magic — you did that. You made the calls, you knocked on doors, you got out the votes, you organized.”

“Impatience is a virtue,” says state Sen. Jessie Ullibari, D-Commerce City, accepting one of the Colorado Democratic Party’s Rising Star awards, as U.S. Rep. Jared Polis applauds, at the Jefferson Jackson Dinner on April 12.

This year, with the state again considered a toss-up, he said, Democrats were going to need to draw on their reserves to keep their party in control of Mark Udall’s U.S. Senate seat, the governor’s mansion and the Legislature, in addition to other offices up and down the ticket.

State Rep. Dan Pabon, D-Denver, chats with U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette at the Colorado Democratic Party’s annual Jefferson Jackson Dinner.
Photos by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

“All of these Republicans are falling all over themselves to reward their millionaire and billionaire sponsors — and we can call them sponsored, they may as well have their logo printed on their jackets. They want to reward them with windfall tax breaks, cash that folks like the Koch Brothers will use to turn the people’s vote into just another commodity for sale to the highest bidder.” Democrats must “send them a message” this year, Palacio said: “Colorado is not for sale.”

It was an alarm also sounded by the party’s Lifetime Achievement Award winner, Dr. Al Yates, the architect of the so-called Colorado Model, which focused the donations of wealthy backers to elect Democrats beginning in 2004. (U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, one of the four millionaires and billionaires who originally funded the effort, cracked that Yates “has done more for our party than you will ever officially know,” while presenting another award.)

“Al Yates is the father of the 21st Century Democratic Party of the State of Colorado,” said former Interior Secretary and U.S. Sen. Ken Salazar, who credited the former Colorado State University president with creating the infrastructure that was responsible for so many Democratic office-holders. “Al Yates is our father,” Salazar said. “Al Yates is my father. Without Al Yates, I would not have done what I have done.”

Although Yates opened by saying that his greatest accomplishment was not winning elections but raising his daughters — “It’s why we do what we do” — he recalled sitting in the Brown Palace Hotel in 2003 with Salazar, then the attorney general and the only Democrat elected statewide. The two said to one another, “We must do more than wring our hands,” spurring the operation that would lead to Democratic dominance at the polls.

“There is not a single person in this room who likes winning more than I do,” Yates said. “It’s what I do. My job, really, is to win elections. My job is to elect Democrats, it’s to gain leverage, it’s to find advantage.”

But despite what he called demographic trends favoring Democrats, the party’s electoral advantage is threatened this year, he warned. “Suppress the vote, unleash the power of money — that is the Republican strategy,” he said.

He criticized the Supreme Court for having “eviscerated” the Voting Rights Act “and just in recent days given us the latest installment of Citizens United” by lifting caps on donations to candidates and political parties by individuals. Then Yates read a poem written by his daughter Sadie that warned against a growing plutocracy that threatens democracy.

Udall presented Joyce Fischer with the party’s Volunteer of the Year Award. The party honored two Rising Stars: Westminster Mayor Pro Tem and state House candidate Faith Winter, who was introduced by U.S. Rep. Ed Perlmutter, and state Sen. Jessie Ullibari, D-Commerce City, who was lauded by Polis. U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette handed the Democrat of the Year Award to Sen. Pat Steadman, D-Denver.

See the April 18 print edition for full photo coverage.