Life's Little Lessons

What congressman Tom Tancredo learned from Columbine.

Tom Tancredo is back from Washington, back home in Colorado after his first year as a freshman representative, wondering if the snow now smothering D.C. will somehow prevent him from attending the State of the Union address. Could he be so lucky? So far, the conservative congressman from Colorado's Sixth District hasn't been in the same room as Bill Clinton -- and Tancredo's not sure it's time to start.

Clinton's impeachment was just one of the surprises awaiting Tancredo when he landed in Washington last January, the victor of a bruising primary fight and an even uglier general election, when rumors flew not just about his past as a House Crazy, one of the colorful legislators who livened up Colorado's Statehouse twenty years ago, but as a young man who missed the draft because he was, well, really crazy ("Crazy for You," December 3, 1998). But Tancredo faced up to the attacks and fessed up to the voters about his history of clinical depression. And now he's recognizing an even more startling truth: He's not the right-wing radical he once was. Just whose fault is that, anyway?

The man who authored the first school-voucher bill in 1979 -- when he couldn't even get it out of committee -- on Tuesday attended a federal hearing where people were marveling that the superintendent of Denver Public Schools is now pushing for charter schools. "I was either a lousy legislator or way ahead of my time," Tancredo says.

A former schoolteacher, Tancredo has always been addicted to education: His wife was a teacher, his in-laws are teachers, and he continued teaching through his first few years in the Colorado Legislature, which he left for a federal education post under first Ronald Reagan, then George Bush. In 1993 Tancredo moved to the Independence Institute -- the Golden-based think tank that introduced report cards for schools well in advance of Governor Bill Owens's recent directive -- before running for Congress.

And there he's gotten a real education. "The greatest thing about being a congressman is you learn so much," he says. "You have to learn so much about so much stuff."

But he never planned for the lesson delivered last April 20, when two students at Columbine High School -- smack-dab in his district -- killed a teacher and twelve classmates before turning their guns on themselves. After that, Tancredo studied some of his hard-fought beliefs and realized he needed to change his absolutist pro-gun position. In fact, he ended up voting in favor of an expansion of the Brady Bill. "I've thought about it a million times," he says now. "If the tragedy had never occurred and I'd looked at the same type of legislation, I would have been a 'no' vote. Maybe I was knee-jerk. My thoughts about the Second Amendment were theoretical, not practical."

Columbine forced him to get practical. "I'm not proud that I'm telling you that I hadn't thought about it enough," Tancredo says. "But if I'd thought about it for even twenty seconds, I would have seen that there are reasonable restrictions to the Second Amendment." Mind you, Tancredo will never be mistaken for the sort of tree-hugging, tofu-eating pacifist who might get elected from Colorado's Second District (like fellow freshman Mark Udall, who once caught Tancredo stretched across three seats on a red-eye back from D.C., snoozing away). He still owns numerous guns, including two pistols, a rifle and shotguns, and he loves to hunt. "I'm not anti-gun," he says, "but I'm a little more reasonable." And he's willing to put his money where his mouth is: He's rejected contributions from the National Rifle Association, a former supporter that now pickets his public appearances. His stand has earned him lots of hate mail -- he estimates it runs ten to one against his current gun position -- as well as charges of opportunism from his eager opponent, well-funded Democrat Ken Toltz ("Suddenly I see Dependable Cleaners everywhere I look," says Tancredo, referring to the Toltz family business) and a fair amount of notoriety in the national press.

Naturally, given that notoriety, when a woman recently recognized him at a local restaurant, Tancredo began chatting about life in Washington. "Oh, you're in Congress?" she finally broke in. "I remember you from when you were my teacher 29 years ago."

Since the Broncos won't be anywhere near this Sunday's Super Bowl, chances are good that the streets of LoDo will be safe from marauding fans, the sort that loot athletic-gear shops in celebration and just beg cops to blast them with Mace left over from the CU-CSU game. And so Mayor Wellington Webb and his press secretary, Andrew Hudson, felt free to head east to press the flesh in frigid D.C., where the U.S. Conference of Mayors (of which Webb is the head) is meeting.

Meanwhile, back in Loserville, the city has extended the deadline for its major millennium project, the Celebrate 2000 E-Time Capsule, from January 31 all the way to December 31, 2000 -- the actual turn of the next century ("Things to Do in Denver When It's Dead," January 6). According to city officials, the cutoff date was pushed back because of the "growing popularity" of "Denver's interactive archive of memories and predictions" (the site, however, still lists the deadline as the end of this month) -- but the few dozen memories currently posted at are hardly the world-class selection Denver hopes to share with the world.

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