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The Party Line

Was it good for you?
A year ago, Colorado was barely a blip on the political map, a handy way station where national candidates could drop in to stuff their pockets on cross-country junkets, a state more notable for Monkey Business than real money business.

But that was before Colorado became 1997's party central. Before Governor Roy Romer was offered the chairmanship of the Democratic National Committee as a reward for all his hard work on behalf of the party--and as a consolation prize for the fact that, since Federico Pena would be staying in the Clinton cabinet (shifting his Hispanic presence from Transportation to Energy), there was no more room at the top.

Romer didn't know that his prestigious appointment would turn out to be a booby prize, but Clinton did. According to December 31, 1996, notes from Janis Kearney, the president's Oval Office records manager, "despite the triumph in holding on to the White House, President Clinton has failed to enlist his first choice to be chairman of the Democratic National Committee and is now casting a wide net for someone to lead a party organization beset with debt, recriminations and investigations into its fund-raising."

Enter Roy Romer, already in his third and final term as governor of Colorado.

Romer didn't get to enjoy his solo turn in the spotlight for long. Last January, fellow Coloradan Jim Nicholson became the chair of the Republican National Committee, a compromise choice (and not even the Colorado delegation's first pick) after several hours of tense balloting. Before his upset election, Nicholson's major credential was his work developing Parker over the past fourteen years, an act recently rewarded with the town's first Cornerstone Award. "We wanted to call this 'The Jim Nicholson Award,'" said the town's economic-development director, "because without Jim's leadership, Parker, Colorado, wouldn't be the city it is."

Thanks a lot, Jim.
By the end of January 1997, Romer and Nicholson were sitting side by side on Meet the Press, cloaking barbs in aw-shucks Westernisms. They politely pounded each other for months over such campaign-finance fiascos as Lincoln sleepovers, generous Buddhist nuns and Arlington Cemetery plots. But the gloves were off by November, when Romer accused the Republicans of "a concerted strategy on the part of the investigatory committees in the House and Senate just to use our resources up so that we would not be competitive in the election process."

A few weeks later, Romer rescinded the restriction on donations he'd instituted ten months earlier, once again allowing individuals to donate $100,000--hell, $100,000,000--if they wanted to. After all, he explained, the Republicans weren't cooperating on donor limits or regarding "soft money." And then Romer announced that the DNC wouldn't be cooperating either and would "resist automatic compliance" with congressional subpoenas. Said Colorado's sometime governor, "It would just be irresponsible for us to continue to let them use these hearings...to keep us off the playing field in '98."

It wasn't until mid-December, though, that Nicholson and Romer finally faced off on their home field, in front of a local luncheon hosted by the Colorado Public Expenditure Council. (How appropriate: Have any expenditures been a bigger public embarrassment than campaign donations?)

Nicholson, who won the coin toss and spoke first, told the assembled suits that he had a thing or two in common with Roy.

Both men were from small rural towns. Both used to practice law. Both used to be developers. At one point, their kids attended the same schools--and their wives carpooled together.

And now both men were chairmen of political parties.
As a result, Nicholson noted: "I've moved to Washington. So's Roy. The only difference is, I occasionally come back to Colorado."

The yuk stopped there.
The amount of time and energy Romer has spent on his national duties is a matter of some debate, as well as the subject of a lawsuit filed by one-time Republican gubernatorial candidate Dick Sargent. But it's not easy to get a complete accounting from the governor's office. Romer's 1997 schedule, requested by Westword, was hardly worth the several weeks it took to emerge; it resembled nothing so much as a procrastinating taxpayer's attempt to fudge travel expenses at the end of the year for the IRS. Although Romer's January 26, 1997, appearance on Meet the Press rated a line, most days simply had notations like "Colorado Events/Mtgs" and "DNC Events/Mtgs"--all adding up to a careful balance of Romer's time. A November 1 fundraiser in Florida, where fifty Democratic faithful anted up $3 million, is indicated by "Florida DNC Events/Mtgs"; the November 22 Clinton fundraiser in Denver isn't even listed. But then, that event pulled in only a measly $650,000.

If you want to track Romer's travels over the past year, it's easier to read the news accounts--of how he forgot his wallet and had to panhandle his way off a flight in Los Angeles, of how he discovered his passport was expired just before he was to hop a plane in New York for Turkey, of how he sat next to Martha Stewart at a dinner in Washington, D.C., and asked her what she did for a living. (When Romer takes care of Colorado's business, though, he does it in a big way: meeting the October blizzard crisis by flying from D.C. to Salt Lake City, hopping a plane to Grand Junction, then driving on into Denver--because, as we all know, even if Denver International Airport was allegedly open, Pena Boulevard was not.)

When Romer accepted the DNC position, he vowed, "You're still going to have more than a full-time governor in Colorado. This is my primary job."

But with Colorado boasting a million bucks in surplus for every day Romer has spent out of state this year, maybe he should stay away more often.

For all Romer's efforts, the Democrats are more in debt than when he took the DNC job, adding more than $11 million in legal and copying bills and losing $3 million in tainted donations that were returned to sender.

Meanwhile, Nicholson keeps whittling down the Republican's $10 million debt and taking bites out of Romer's hide. "There have been very, very serious campaign scandals," he told the Denver luncheon. "The Democrats have sullied many traditions and national treasures."

But if the campaign-finance system is "broken," as Romer says, the two party chairs don't have to look far to find the cause. It was another Colorado campaign--this one back in 1986, the year Romer first ran for governor--that busted things wide open. The Colorado Republicans spent $15,000 on radio ads attacking Tim Wirth, an act that the U. S. Supreme Court determined ten years later was an "independent" expenditure protected by the right to free speech. That decision gave the Clinton campaign the means of funneling soft money--lots of soft money--to state parties in 1996, legally avoiding voluntary spending limits.

Romer ended his Denver speech by challenging Nicholson to shake his hand right there and to agree to quit accepting soft money. Nicholson refused--as Romer knew he would.

And in 1998, both parties still have their hands out.

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