Dottie Lamm, currently a candidate for the U.S. Senate, is known throughout Colorado because of her husband. That may be her biggest blessing--or her biggest curse.
The frontrunner for the Democratic nomination, Dottie Lamm seems likely to face incumbent Republican senator (and turncoat Democrat) Ben Nighthorse Campbell in November. That would be a tight contest, pitting two lively, offbeat personalities against each other.
But lurking in the shadows is one more offbeat personality: Dick Lamm, former three-term governor of Colorado and full-time crank. And that personality threatens to overshadow any campaign waged by Dottie, a former flight attendant and social worker who's spent almost three decades as a political wife. Any story about Dottie inevitably drags in Dick.
During his colorful career, Dick Lamm has managed to antagonize the elderly (when he said "We have a duty to die," many older people took his instructions personally); minorities (he insisted that immigration is ruining the country); doctors (he claimed that medical technology is wasted on people who will die anyway); lawyers (whom he characterized as leeches on the republic); and assorted other groups. All of this seems to have made Dick Lamm unelectable in Colorado--when he ran for Senate in 1992, he lost to Campbell in a primary--and in 1996, he chose to leave the Democratic Party in order to launch an unsuccessful effort to win the Reform Party nomination from Ross Perot.
And so, as Dottie Lamm runs for the Senate, she must run away from her husband.
Since her entire public career has heretofore been as a self-described "second banana" (the title of a book she published in 1983), Lamm must show Colorado that she loves her husband but is no ideological clone.
Is Dick telling her what her positions should be?
"The answer to that is no," she replies, adding that the only advice he's given her is on how to run a campaign. The issues she cares about are the same ones she's worked on since the 1960s: education, the environment, health care. Although Dick Lamm has called for cutbacks in Social Security and Medicare benefits, Dottie Lamm insists she's still committed to these programs, the heart of the Democratic Party's legacy. "Most Democrats are coming to the conclusion that we have to have new ideas on Social Security and Medicare," she says. "We have to make minor changes for these programs to last."
Dottie Lamm says she was motivated to run because she was unimpressed by the other candidates and by the incumbent, whom she regards as a less-than-hardworking senator. "I'm running because I feel there's a lack of leadership at the senatorial level in Colorado," she says. "I have my eyes on the future."
Dottie's past includes a comfortable childhood in Palo Alto, California, where she was the daughter of a civil engineer; her active family played tennis, climbed mountains and went skiing. She attended Occidental College in Los Angeles, then signed on as a stewardess for United Airlines. It was that job that brought her to Denver in 1959, and she says she fell in love with Colorado almost from the first moment she stepped off the plane.
She fell in love with Dick Lamm, then a lawyer/accountant, soon after. After marrying him in 1963 at the First Unitarian Church, Dottie became a psychiatric social worker, working with single mothers and families of emotionally disturbed children. She shared her husband's interest in politics, however, and joined in his campaigns for the state legislature and against the 1976 Winter Olympics.
But it wasn't until Dick Lamm was elected governor in 1974 that the spotlight really landed on Dottie Lamm. While Dick Lamm quickly became one of Colorado's more controversial governors, the public took a liking to his engaging wife and their two small children. Twelve years later, after the family finally left the Governor's Mansion, they did some traveling and enjoyed private life.
But now Dottie Lamm is running for public office. She'll be challenged in the Democratic primary by state representative Gil Romero. The Pueblo lawmaker can count on strong support from Hispanic groups, who were angered by Dick Lamm's attacks on immigrants and his criticism of bilingual education. Romero describes himself as the underdog against a much better-known and better-funded opponent: "I'm not even sure I'm on her radar screen," he admits. But he also says Lamm's lack of a history in elective office makes her vulnerable to the charge that she's simply standing in for her husband.
"Dick Lamm is an issue," Romero insists. "Especially when you don't have a record. I don't think you can run for the U.S. Senate anymore without ever having cast a vote on a city council or school board."
But Dottie insists that voters actually like the fact that she hasn't been in office. "I feel my not being encumbered by incumbency is a good thing," she says. "People like to think they'll get fresh ideas."
The former first lady does have a track record of sorts, though, and some of her supporters fear it could cause her problems. For seventeen years she wrote a column for the Denver Post, where she took strong stands in favor of abortion rights, family planning and other feminist issues. She also wrote of her successful battle with breast cancer and the difficulty of raising a family inside the Governor's Mansion.
Reading the older columns--filled with stories of frightened housewives taking their first jobs and politically active women trying to work up the courage to speak at public meetings--is a reminder of how dramatically the status of women has changed over the past two decades. But it's the columns on hot-button topics like abortion and birth control that her friends fear will be used against her.
"They'll paint her as something from another planet," says Dottie's longtime friend and fellow Post columnist Trisha Flynn. "They'll depict her as the ultimate feminist, pinko, commie lesbian freak."
While Flynn doubts that Campbell will attack Dottie personally, she predicts the right wing of the Republican Party will do the dirty work, down to sponsoring attack ads complete with quotes from Dottie's columns taken out of context.
"Campbell's right-wing flank will handle it for him," suggests Flynn. "They'll say she wants women in combat, and it will be feminists taking over the world."
All of which may be heady stuff for a woman who wrote in Second Banana about her resentment of the pressures of public office and about how at times she would quietly weep in frustation over the toll public life had taken on her family.
But Flynn says Dottie Lamm is a different woman from the self-doubting first lady who felt uncomfortable being in the public eye. Her brush with cancer in the early 1980s changed Dottie's outlook on life, adds Flynn, and helped prepare her for the sometimes savage world of the political campaign.
"She went to the scariest place you can go," says Flynn. "She's already faced the worst and survived it. That changes everything about how you think. You know how precious life is and that you owe something and you can do it."
With her children grown and her husband ensconced in a relatively uncontroversial aca-demic post at the University of Denver, Dottie Lamm says it's finally her turn. She insists her experience in numerous political campaigns has prepared her for whatever Campbell throws her way, and she's ready to play in the big leagues.
"The pressure trains you for being in office," she says. "The things I did as a first lady, like traveling the state, was very good preparation for the Senate. I still say the fact I've never run [for office] is an advantage.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Denver, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.