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Lighting a Fire

Jon Caldara has been unmatched at using the media during this election season. He couldn't be prouder.

"The liberal media." The phrase is so stale that it's practically fossilized -- not that this condition has prevented politicians of a certain stripe from regularly trotting it out in advance of next week's balloting. But while it might be true that a sizable percentage of reporters, editors, news directors and producers (though seldom owners) tilt leftward in ways that may or may not color their work, another press bias is probably more important in determining what you, the average citizen, see and read: a prejudice against dullness. Simply put, newspapers and broadcast stations have an enormous amount of time and space to fill every day, and if an intriguing option presents itself, decision-makers will grab it, regardless of ideology. You can be left-wing, or you can be right-wing. Just don't be boring.

Although this truism presents opportunities for savvy operators on every side of the political spectrum to make their opinions heard, relatively few of them do so because of one little problem: Try as they might to be compelling, they just aren't. But for those whose very existence doesn't induce unconsciousness, the prospects are practically unlimited. All that's left to do is to take advantage of them.

Enter Jon Caldara, president of the conservative, not-for-profit think tank the Independence Institute, who has become one of the most recognizable voices and faces in Colorado politics, despite holding views that any media liberal worth his Green Party affiliation would despise. While he's actively hated in many circles, Caldara is seen and heard in many more. In the weeks and months leading up to Election 2000, he has regularly appeared on area television newscasts and in both the news and op-ed sections of the Denver dailies in connection with his battle against Amendment 23, which would divert millions in state surplus monies, now winding up in the pockets of taxpayers, to education. In addition, he mans the microphones at KOA, the state's most powerful AM talk outlet, Saturdays from 9 p.m. to 1 a.m. and Sundays from 10 p.m. to 1 a.m.. "I'm the perfect guy for invalids and people who are completely dateless," he jokes. "If you have nothing to do on weekend nights, I'm your man." Caldara also substitutes in other slots at KOA and KHOW whenever he gets the chance -- plus he's the host and producer of Independent Thinking, a public-affairs show screened at 8:30 p.m. Fridays on Channel 12, a station that's widely viewed to be among the leftiest in the entire Public Broadcasting System.

Love him or hate him, Jon Caldara is better at using the media than any other unelected politico in Colorado -- a statement to which the usually cantankerous yakker responds with an uncharacteristically humble "Thank you." Yet he's plenty open about sharing the secret of his success: "I'm not worried about offending people," he says, "and I'm not afraid to use humor. That's one of the great losses in this age of political correctness. You can't have fun anymore because you're going to offend someone. But if we can get our point across, that's a price we're willing to pay."

Nothing illustrates this better than a recent attention-getter he staged for the collection of anti-Amendment 23 crusaders who've cleverly dubbed themselves Children First! On October 4, Caldara stood on the steps of the State Capitol and burned three dollar bills to symbolize the $3,000 per couple that he claims Coloradans will be kissing goodbye if the amendment passes.

In the grand scheme of things, the stunt was mighty modest but stunningly cost-effective. Indeed, the amount of coverage it garnered demonstrates just how unimaginative and media-dense most of this year's campaigns have been. Not only did Caldara make every TV newscast that day and several the next, but he prompted an unintentionally hilarious piece in the Denver Post by writer Pippa Jack, who devoted several inches to information about a federal statute that makes torching U.S. currency illegal. (Oh, how Caldara would have loved to have been led away in handcuffs for that heinous crime.) And the fact that the Post accompanied an October 26 story about poll figures by publishing another photo of Caldara and his blazing bankroll speaks volumes about the dearth of memorable images associated with this year's vote .

(By the way, all the data collected in the aforementioned poll, which was co-sponsored by the Post, Channel 9 and KOA, was divulged at roughly the same time, not parceled out over several days, as yours truly recently needled the parties in question for doing last month on this page ["Survey Says," October 19]. Glad to know you're reading, my friends.)

According to Caldara, his hot-and-bothered gimmick was necessitated by the actions of Jared Polis, the twenty-something multimillionaire who's spending more dough to be elected to the state Board of Education than nearly anyone can believe and is also spreading lucre around in support of Amendment 23. "He's poured $450,000 into this race; that's a lot of coin coming from one kid," says Caldara, who likes to refer to Polis with purposefully insulting diminutives. "So how do you fight that? You can't ask every taxpayer for $20; there's not enough time to do that. So if I can stand on the Capitol steps and burn some dollar bills, and if that gets the point across -- then that's what I'll do."

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