When Colorado became the 38th state in the Union, in 1876, a New York newspaper wrote, "There is something repulsive in the idea that a few handfuls of miners and reckless bushwackers should have the same representation in the Senate as Pennsylvania, Ohio and New York." On the eve of our second Democratic National Convention, with our electoral votes more critical to the presidency this year than those of New York, we look back at ten memorable moments from Colorado's political history.
Sand Creek Massacre: In 1864, Colonel John Chivington, keen to become Colorado's first representative when the territory appeared primed for statehood, led the Colorado Volunteers on an assault of the Sand Creek Cheyenne and Arapaho Indian colony with hopes of raising his military and political standing in Washington. But the resulting massacre of approximately 200 men, women and children scarred Colorado with an uncivilized image, delaying its entry into the Union for twelve more years.
Rails West: Colorado territorial governor John Evans, along with prominent businessmen and civic leaders whose names would soon adorn the city and state they were about to save (Walter Cheesman, David Moffat, William Byers) frantically formed the Denver Pacific Railroad and Telegraph Co. in 1867 and set about raising money from citizens to steer railroad lines into Denver. Without Evans's successful last-minute maneuverings in Congress that provided a 900,000-acre land grant, the major railroads would have bypassed Colorado in favor of Wyoming, leaving our dusty outpost to die a slow death. When the first trains passed through the city in 1870, Evans had made Denver, not Cheyenne, the capital of the Rocky Mountain West.
The 1908 Democratic Convention: The third presidential nomination of William Jennings Bryan, the "Free Silver" champion whose previous support for inflationary silver coinage found great support with Colorado's populists and powerful mining interests, was Denver's grand entrance onto the national political stage. Despite the differences of a hundred years — the 1908 convention featured only two black delegates, and temporary convention chairman Theodore Bell traveled part of the way to the city by arm-cranking himself on a train-track handcart — there are more than a few historical echoes. Local convention organizers asked for 8,000 tickets for the public and were given a quarter of that number; a surly former candidate (Alton B. Parker) demanded that his supporters and ideals be included in the party platform; the Democratic message denounced American imperialism in a foreign war (in the Philippines); and the convention credentials committee resolved a dispute by seating divided delegates with half a vote each. Sound familiar?
The Small Voice: Republican governor Ralph Carr, in office during the outbreak of World War II and the subsequent internment of Japanese citizens in the Amache camp in Colorado, was one of the first public officials to condemn the tactics of the War Relocation Authority. Encouraging Coloradans to welcome the displaced Japanese, Carr said, "If you harm them, you must harm me. I was brought up in a small town where I knew the shame and dishonor of race hatred. I grew to despise it because it threatened the happiness of you and you and you." His stand cost him his political career but earned him praise as "one voice, a small voice but a strong voice," and his name will adorn the new state judicial complex set to open in 2014.
White House West: Dwight Eisenhower, in the third year of his first term and after 27 holes at Cherry Hills Country Club, felt what he thought was indigestion. Later that night, he was rushed to Fitzsimons Army Medical Center, where he stayed for seven weeks in 1955, recovering from a serious heart attack; during that time, Denver became the "White House West" while the press corps took up residence here. Colorado's most congested pathway — the Eisenhower Tunnel — is a monument to the man whose congested pathways ultimately caused his death.
Abortion Advances: In 1967, two political heavyweights, state representative Dick Lamm and Governor John Love, successfully shepherded and signed a statute that made Colorado the first state to legalize abortions by focusing on three specific medical grounds to protect a mother's health. Citing research prepared by the American Lutheran Church and reading from historical papal documents, Lamm forged a moderate and groundbreaking compromise fully six years before the federal legalization of abortion in Roe v. Wade.
Freak Power: Shaving his head bald and referring to his buzz-shorn rival as "my long-haired opponent," gonzo journalist and Woody Creek resident Hunter S. Thompson ran for sheriff of Pitkin County in 1970 on the "Freak Power" ticket, a platform that included changing Aspen's name to "Fat City" to discourage development and ripping up asphalt in favor of grassy throughways. Pitting youthful, idealistic outsiders against more conservative high-country natives, Thompson's run epitomized Colorado's growing and increasingly diverse population of the '60s and '70s. He won Aspen but lost the county, even after promising that he wouldn't do mescaline while on duty.
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Thanks, But No Thanks: After Denver had already won the bid for the 1976 Winter Olympics, Dick Lamm led the charge to cut off public financing for the Games in a 1972 referendum that passed with 60 percent of the vote. Citing exponentially rising costs, environmental dangers and the potential for a massive population spike, Colorado voters remain the only hosts to ever reject a winning bid.
The Golden Boy: In the best and worst of times, Gary Hart was the first son of Colorado politics on the national stage. He helped run George McGovern's upstart campaign in 1972, won his Senate seat in 1974 and knocked at the door of the Democratic presidential nomination in 1984 before falling victim to the party's newly redesigned superdelegate system. But his infamous collapse on the 1988 presidential trail led back to the yacht Monkey Business and the reporters he had dared to follow him, proving once again that Coloradans are not ocean folk.
Amendment 2: In what became a protracted legal and political struggle that illustrated a growing cultural divide and dramatically colored our national image, 53 percent of Colorado voters approved a 1992 amendment sponsored by Colorado for Family Values that forbade all action at any level of state or local government that would protect citizens based on their "homosexual, lesbian or bisexual orientation, conduct, practices or relationships." Before the law could go into effect, an injunction was issued that was ultimately upheld by the Colorado and U.S. Supreme courts that declared the amendment fundamentally unconstitutional. U.S. Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing the majority opinion, said that Colorado "...cannot so deem a class of persons a stranger to its laws."