National party cedes Invesco stage to local Dems

Coloradans tell their dreams to the world

By John Schroyer
THE COLORADO STATESMAN

In what appeared to be a gesture of thanks to the host state, Democratic National Convention organizers gave Colorado Democrats center stage for a good bit of the convention’s final day at Invesco Field, in the hours before Barack Obama took the stage.

Although each of the half-dozen Colorado Democrats touted the importance of the West in the coming election, they all took slightly different tacks in their criticism of John McCain.

Gov. Bill Ritter painted broad strokes and spoke of “the American promise” in lofty rhetoric. Three Democratic members of Colorado’s congressional delegation, on the other hand, offered more pointed views.

U.S. Rep. Ed Perlmutter, whose 7th Congressional District is home to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, blasted McCain over energy policy and demeaned the Republican plan as nothing more than continued tax breaks for oil companies.

“Some people tell us to ‘Drill here, drill now,’ and that’s all. I say that’s not enough. I say, ‘Solar here, solar now, wind here, wind now!’” Perlmutter shouted into the microphone.

Congressman John Salazar, of the Western Slope’s 3rd CD, attacked McCain for failing to support the annual farm bill, which he said was vital to farming communities.

Salazar, who described himself as a “lifelong farmer,” said from the podium that he felt like he was looking out on a “silo of hope.”

“We need a president who understands the contributions and values of rural America,” Salazar said. “We need a president who understands the men and women who are up at 5 a.m. to make sure there is food on the table.”

Diana DeGette, who represents Denver’s CD 1, said she was “honored” to host the entire convention in her home district, then launched into a scathing critique of Republican health care policy. DeGette has long been a leader on health care policy, and twice sponsored a bipartisan bill to restore federal funding for stem cell research. Both bills were vetoed by the president.

“My friends, during eight years of George W. Bush, we haven’t seen much justice rolling out of Washington,” DeGette said.

She added, “We need to stop paying lip service to health care reform and just pass it.”

The first Coloradan to take the podium, however, was neither a member of Congress nor a Democratic party official. She doesn’t currently hold elected office, either.

But if it hadn’t been for Elbra Wedgeworth, Invesco Field probably would have been empty that Thursday afternoon. Bringing the convention to Denver had been the brainchild of the former member of the Denver City Council who greeted delegates and visitors from throughout America and the world that sunny day.

Wedgeworth joked that she felt “a mile high,” assured the crowd that Denver and Colorado would help deliver the presidency to Obama.

Ritter, who was hoarse from campaigning, reiterated a longtime Democratic theme, that “This year, the road to the White House cuts straight through the heart of the American West.”

“What we are doing in the American West is previewing what Barack Obama is talking about in believing in change,” Ritter croaked, referring to Democratic gains throughout the West and the policy changes that have accompanied them.

He equated his campaign slogan of the “Colorado Promise” with the American Dream, and said, “Really, it is the American Promise. It is the vision of a country where ‘what we can be’ becomes ‘what is.’… This vision only becomes a reality when we have a true partner in the White House, a partner like Barack Obama. For the last eight years, we have not had that partner. We will not have that partner in John McCain. Only if we elect a bold new president, in Barack Obama, can we get America back on track.”

The final Coloradan to take the stage was the only one facing a serious electoral challenge this year — 2nd Congressional District Rep. Mark Udall, who’s running for Colorado’s open Senate seat against Republican Bob Schaffer. But rather than slam Republicans or even talk about his campaign, Udall delivered a message of Western unity and innovation.

“We look to the grit and determination of those who came before us. We know by their example that there’s no problem we can’t solve when we stick together,” Udall said, referring to Western pioneers and trailblazers.

“This election is not about Barack Obama, Joe Biden, or me. It’s about you… In the spirit of the West, we can move forward by putting our partisan differences behind us and putting the best interests of America first.”

Udall concluded his fairly short speech with a quip about the mountainous backdrop of the convention, and said, “Here at the foot of the Rocky Mountains, we have found leaders to match our mountains.”

The five-term congressman called the experience “uplifting,” and joked afterward that he never thought he’d be speaking in front of a national audience like that.

“Who would have imagined that my warm-up act would have been Sheryl Crow?” Udall said with a laugh. Crow, a Grammy-winning rock artist, had performed just before Udall spoke.

The convention organizers didn’t leave out the Democratic senator from Colorado, however. U.S. Sen. Ken Salazar was given a few minutes on Wednesday, during the official nominating procedure, and he seconded the nomination for Obama.

As his older brother did the following day, Salazar preached about the importance of rural America and the America Dream.

“For Barack Obama, that dream runs deep in his soul,” he said.

Colorado’s junior senator ruffled a few feathers, however, when he insisted on wearing his cowboy hat during his remarks. Apparently, some organizers were concerned that the hat’s brim would shadow Salazar’s face, causing lighting problems.

But Salazar put his foot down. He said the hat was a symbol of the importance of rural communities in the West and that it represents his goal of “making sure that the next administration is going to have that in their heart and soul.”

Speaking less than an hour before Sen. Hillary Clinton made her motion for a nomination by acclamation for Obama, Salazar added, “The party is unified. Senator Clinton and Senator Obama are one. There are not two candidates or two campaigns. We have merged.”

Delegate Bob Kihm, a 53-year-old public accountant from Centennial, said that although he had considered holding the convention’s finale at Invesco Field to be “high risk vs. high reward,” the reward had been great: “tens of thousands of Coloradans who will leave here fired up.”

“I am so proud of our state,” gushed delegate Shawn Coleman, a 30-year-old automotive sales manager from Boulder.

Coleman said he believes the convention being held in Denver also will aid Colorado Democrats this year at the ballot box, and predicted that the convention will even help re-elect Ritter in 2010.

That sentiment echoed throughout the Colorado delegation, and delegate Jayne Bilberry, 50, commented, “We’re stronger Democrats for having (the convention) here.”

Bilberry, chair of the Montrose County Democratic Party, called the entire week “surreal,” and said she thinks Democrats are far more excited this time around than four years ago, when Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry was the nominee.

“Kerry was fine, but nothing tops this,” Bilberry said.

Delegate Dunbar Watson, a 48-year-old college admissions executive, pointed out that Colorado went for Bush in 2004 by only a few percentage points, and said, “(The convention) definitely will help. We just lost by a very slim margin last time, and I think it’ll give us a big boost. There’s no way you can sit through a week of this and not be fired up.”

Perhaps the sloganeering hat of delegate Paul Anderson said it best. Anderson, a 64-year-old video producer from Fort Collins, had been changing a small placard each day that he had attached to a baseball cap. One day, it read “Seven houses=elitist,” referring to the number of homes McCain reportedly owns. Some days, Anderson went through multiple statements, such as “Colorado=purple mountains going blue,” and “Michelle=my belle.” The latter referred to Obama’s wife, Michelle.

On Thursday evening, Anderson’s hat read, “Top this, Repubs.”