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Road Warriors

Boon or boondoggle, Bill Owens's highway plan has to get past Douglas Bruce before it goes anywhere.

In the wake of TABOR, he says, state officials have sought to chip away at the citizen's right to put proposals on the ballot. "It used to be they'd nail you after you turned in your petitions," he says. "Then they used the single-subject rule to stop you from even starting to collect signatures. Now they've made it so you can't even file a petition." (Last week, one of Bruce's petitions finally made it, without protest, past the title board.)

Petitions have been the mainstay of Bruce's arsenal since he burst onto the political stage like a precocious but unpopular understudy more than a decade ago. A disillusioned California attorney turned Colorado real-estate investor, Bruce spent several years and $100,000 of his own money crusading for tax reform. Two of his ballot proposals had already been defeated when he knocked the political establishment on its rear in 1992 with the bruising, successful TABOR campaign, during which he blasted various elected officials as pimps, liars and crooks and described judges as "politicians in Halloween costumes."

TABOR made all tax increases subject to voter approval and established strict limits on revenues and spending, the growth of which cannot exceed inflation and local population growth -- forcing the state to disgorge hundreds of millions of dollars in tax refunds in recent years. The measure also made Douglas Bruce a household name in Colorado.

Debt and taxes: Bruce debates the highway plan with TRANS campaign manager Dick Wadhams (left) for a television program hosted by Jon Caldara (center).
Brett Amole
Debt and taxes: Bruce debates the highway plan with TRANS campaign manager Dick Wadhams (left) for a television program hosted by Jon Caldara (center).

Since 1992, Bruce has sought to extend his taxpayer revolt into areas such as campaign financing reform, with limited success. He's also devoted countless hours to defending TABOR when local governments have sought exemptions from the spending cap; he contends that many of the "de-Brucing" efforts are illegal and disregard constitutional restrictions on such exemptions. "They're acting like this was just a temporary victory and they can dismantle it one election at a time at the local level," he says.

His relentless, in-your-face campaigning has earned Bruce a dual image as crusader and crank. He's been portrayed as a loudmouthed bully and as a misunderstood idealist, as a tight-fisted misfit who appeals to the selfishness of the comfortable middle class ("Vote no, it's your dough") and as a Jeffersonian defender of the common man. When he's railing about the dishonest bureaucrats who are trying to thwart his simple two-sentence amendment, he sounds like an insufferable character out of Tennessee Williams: Big Daddy Bruce hollering, "Mendacity! Mendacity!" But reducing all those pesky taxes on phone service, auto registration and the like by trimming them by $25 a year would actually benefit lower-income consumers far more than the idle rich.

The conflicting views of Bruce are particularly apparent in his long-running battle with the City of Denver over the dilapidated condition of his rental properties. The city has pursued Bruce for code violations on several occasions, branding him as a slumlord. Bruce claims the city has been pursuing a vendetta against him because of his activism. His side of the story didn't get much play, though, until this past summer, when Denver police found a small bag of cocaine on the patio of one of his apartment houses and arrested the property's handyman. The city attorney's office then filed a complaint under Denver's controversial public-nuisance law, which allows the city to close or seize property in a civil forfeiture without having to prove any criminal action on the part of the owner.

Bruce's response was to fling a baggie of cornstarch on the lawn of Assistant City Attorney Kurt Stiegelmeier's home and take a photo of it, to demonstrate how easy it would be to set up a property owner for confiscation. Stiegelmeier obtained a restraining order against Bruce and the handyman; Bruce and the handyman's attorney countered by asking Denver County Judge Robert Crew to remove the city attorney from the case. The entire matter is now under appeal, but Bruce managed to obtain a police memo that suggested the public-nuisance law was invoked because the property was identified as "a Douglas Bruce property" -- giving new credence to Bruce's conspiracy claims. Soon civil libertarians, including old foes such as former Democratic legislator Jerry Kopel, were defending Bruce and denouncing the city's actions.

Bruce says he'd rather talk about TRANS than the battles over his properties. Even though he believes his political and business tribulations are related, he says he doesn't want to be involved in a "pity piece." He does, however, express a certain indignation that the city attorney's office went to the trouble of seeking a restraining order against him.

"The prosecutor overreacted because he's a hysterical fascist," Bruce says. "It just exposes what vicious bastards they are. They've been doing this to me for years."


Another day, another faceoff between Douglas Bruce and a group of rabbit-eyed legislators. This time it's an interim committee on fiscal policy, convening to discuss the feasibility of a new study of Colorado's tax system. Wearing blue jeans and a short-sleeved shirt, Bruce is easy to spot; he's the only male speaker not attired in coat and tie.

Bruce leads with a pun. "Hi, Ron," he says, nodding at Senator Ron Teck, the committee's chair. "I say that to establish that this is a 'high-tech' committee."

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