The Flag-Bearer

Tom Tancredo is on a crusade to save America -- and he's looking for recruits.

On the first weekend of summer, more than twenty members of the Colorado Federation of Republican Women gather in a ballroom at the south-metro Embassy Suites for a day of fun and politics, conservative style.

Julie Lewis, the CFRW's District 6 director, is the jubilant mistress of ceremonies, as well as the living embodiment of the affair's Mardi Gras theme. Wearing a jester's hat, plastic beads, green tinsel earrings and oversized dots of rouge on each cheek, she revs up attendees awaiting the arrival of a special guest by leading her charges in a modified game of Survivor. Contestants win by locating everyday items such as lipstick and Kleenex and then hustling back to chairs at the front of the room -- quite a challenge considering the height of the heels several of them are wearing. No one breaks an ankle, but it's touch and go for a while.

The speaker is supposed to show up about the time the Survivor winner is awarded a gold coin redeemable for goods spread across a table set against one side of the room, including what Lewis calls "the coveted Federation cookbook." Unfortunately, he's running late, so Lewis launches into a trivia challenge that would have left Alex Trebek muttering in confusion. Sample questions: In what city was the first Republican women's club founded? What year? And when was the National Federation of Republican Women formed?

Congressman Tom Tancredo today.
John Johnston
Congressman Tom Tancredo today.
The early years: Tancredo at his most adorable.
The early years: Tancredo at his most adorable.

"For heaven's sake!" one woman declares.

After about a dozen brainteasers dominated by similar minutiae, Lewis announces, "Those were the easy ones." She's in the midst of proving this assertion when the ballroom's back doors swing open to reveal the man of the hour. He's of modest height, with bright eyes, a prominent sniffer, a grin with more than a hint of goofiness to it, and, on this day, a crimson shirt, casual slacks, a flushed complexion and matted hair courtesy of the black motorcycle helmet he carries in one hand.

Lewis hasn't provided any answers for her quiz yet, but no matter. "Without further ado," she says, "Congressman Tom Tancredo."

As Tancredo hurries to the lectern where Lewis is standing and gives her a hug, the other women, ranging in age from thirty-something to the-sky's-the-limit, don't just politely clap their hands. They eagerly offer a standing ovation, to which the congressman responds with a spontaneous "Oh!" of surprise.

Was Tancredo startled by this outpouring because he's more accustomed to dodging spitballs than basking in adulation? Or was he a bit embarrassed to be treated like a big shot when, in his view, he's just "a kid from North Denver," albeit one who, at age 57, has served in the Colorado Legislature and the federal government and is in his third term as congressman for Colorado's 6th District? Hard to say, but one thing is clear: Despite the hullabaloo that he regularly attracts, despite the anger that he stirs among those who regard him to be wrongheaded and mean-spirited, and despite all the terrible stuff that's been written and reported about him over the years, these women absolutely adore Tom Tancredo.

And he adores them back.


Others are less kindly disposed to Tancredo, thanks largely to his views about illegal immigration, which he sees as a scourge that's capable of sucking this great nation of ours straight into the sewer. How we deal with this situation "won't determine what kind of nation we are," he says. "It will determine if we are a nation."

He's tried many methods to get this message across -- even sarcasm. Speaking in the U.S. House of Representatives June 9, he delivered a special order on immigration reform that began with him urging his fellows to "bring a bill forward in this body that says we will repeal all laws regarding immigration. We will essentially erase our borders. We will eliminate the border patrol, close the stations, the ports of entry, because after all, we cannot control it. And if people want to come to the United States for the most benign or most wonderful reasons, the reasons that we can all applaud, let them come."

The pretend legislation won't be initiated by Tancredo, of course. He thinks uncontrolled immigration saps our resources, artificially lowers wages for American citizens, undermines the rule of law, and does a lot of other bad things he can elaborate upon in detail for anyone with a few hours to spare. Yet what bothers him just as much as these aspects of the immigration predicament is the willingness of too many politicians to ignore them. As he railed at his colleagues from the House floor: "I want to force this Congress, I want to force this nation, I want to force the President of the United States to look at this straight in the eye and say we are going to deal with it one way or the other."

Examining Tancredo's life in the same way exposes a slew of contradictions, not the least of which is his own background as a member of an immigrant group. In his June 9 speech, he mentioned the tough row his Italian grandparents had to hoe after coming to this country; he also notes that the circumstances under which he was raised in an ethnically rich neighborhood near 44th and Lowell were entirely free of silver spoons. His father worked at the local Armour meatpacking plant until it closed, then earned a paycheck driving trucks (an Alzheimer's sufferer at 93, he's cared for at a Wheat Ridge nursing home), and his mother toiled as a clerk at a Joslins department store for 45 years (she's 90 and lives in Arvada). Mama Tancredo risked her life to bring little Tommy into the world. She bore two sons, but a third child died, and doctors told her not to try again -- advice she ignored.

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