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THE BARTENDER AS CONTENDER

If you thought Paul Weissmann, the 31-year-old bartender candidate for U.S. Senate, was just another "Mr. Smith" trying to go to Washington, it's probably time to take another look. Jimmy Stewart may have ended up in Washington as a stooge-turned-crusader in the 1939 film, but Weissmann is nobody's fool. He knows exactly what it's going to take to make it on the ballot as a Democratic candidate: just under a third of the 3,000 votes at his party's state convention.

Most casual observers know Weissmann as the upstart bartender who refuses to don a coat and tie for the state senate seat he holds, fights to hold down the cost of beer at Coors Field and looks more like a college kid than a politico. What isn't common knowledge are Weissmann's years of experience as a caucus-support organizer for presidential candidate Gary Hart in the Eighties. And those months on the road in fifteen states have given Weissmann confidence that he's more than just a hopeful; he's a contender.

In the living room of his white coal miner's bungalow on Louisville's LaFarge Avenue, Weissmann works the phone with finesse, scheduling meetings with precinct captains, former Democratic caucus attendees--anyone who's likely to be a caucus voter. On the wall hang half a dozen sheets of copy paper with inspirational epigrams written in marker: "To win with dignity"; "63 counties by Thanksgiving"; "Just say no to opposition research"; and finally, "Three words: Jerry Brown Won."

While Weissmann makes his calls, pausing now and then to check one of the maps that fill the wall between his motivational snippets, campaign volunteers Kathy Allen and Tony Schwartz busy themselves with computerized mailing lists and the candidate's schedule. There are no orders being barked out, no high-priced consultants calling the shots. Schwartz, although he's 26, looks barely old enough to vote. It's Weissmann himself who proudly displays a new half-bath that he's installed next to the kitchen so that volunteers and visitors don't have to troop through his bedroom to relieve themselves.

"It didn't cost very much at all," Weissmann says, grinning a goofy grin that pulls his eyes shut and makes it easy for people to underestimate him. "There's plumbing for my [bedroom] bath just on the other side of the wall."

Plumbing lesson over, Weissmann gets back to the phone, scheduling a Durango meeting for the next morning--a move that means he'll have to start the drive sometime around 3 a.m. "I've put a lot of miles on the Jeep," he says, pointing out the window to his blue Cherokee. "That's what this is all about."

The way Weissmann figures it, he needs to convince 14,000 caucus participants that he's a better representative for the issues he thinks they care about--campaign finance reform, workers' comp, health care--than the "other guys," including the well-financed, consultant-backed leader of the pack, Tom Strickland. "Fourteen thousand," says Weissmann. "That's one-at-a-time-able." Of those 14,000, about 3,000 go to the convention. Weissmann needs 30 percent of those 3,000 to get on the ballot. Before June 8, the date of the caucus, the Louisville bartender plans to meet each and every one of the people who will decide his fate.

He has the background for the task. First, there's his experience in the Hart campaign, which taught him whom he has to talk to and how long it's going to take. In 1983, during Hart's first presidential campaign, Weissmann went from Iowa to Oklahoma to Arkansas to Texas to Nebraska to South Dakota ("where we organized the western part of the state and took 87 percent of the votes," Weissmann says proudly), back to Iowa and Texas, then on to San Francisco for the national convention. The campaign gave him a gas credit card and a new set of tires for his car.

In 1986 Weissmann did much the same thing for what was going to be Hart's second presidential campaign, until the bottom dropped out. Then he went to work for another presidential candidate, Bruce Babbitt, until Hart got back in the race in '87. Then he was back with Hart. "I'm loyal if I'm nothing else," Weissmann says, again with that grin. Hart's late re-entry meant the campaign had limited time, so Weissmann and three friends threw themselves first into South Dakota, then Illinois. "We got him on the ballot in five days," Weissmann says nostalgically--as if rounding up caucus votes were as much fun as a game of pick-up basketball.

After Illinois, he headed east to get his man on the ballot in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, but by that time it was March 1988 and he got the call to come home. It was over. Hart was out.

And Weissmann went back to tending bar. He took some classes at the University of Colorado. He ran for state senate and won. Now he's upping the ante by taking a stab at the retiring Hank Brown's seat in '96.

 

But it takes more than a new set of tires and a good map to get a candidate on the ballot. Caucus organizing is about one-on-one conversation, about looking people in the eye and answering whatever questions they come up with. It's a skill Weissmann seems to have down pat.

And you know why the minute you walk into the Blue Parrot, the Colacci family's Italian restaurant that has been a fixture in Louisville for 75 years. It's three minutes after four on a Thursday, and Weissmann has swapped shifts so that he can be in Durango the next day. He punches a time clock, apologizes about the three minutes to his boss of nearly seven years, Joan Riggins, and then gets down to work: pouring, wiping, seating, ringing up and, of course, talking--with every customer that comes through the door. The Blue Parrot is the quintessential family restaurant; all but a handful of the customers who walk through the door are with kids. The orders are as varied as the faces: Bud Light, Bartles & Jaymes, Jim Beam and coffee, house red. Weissmann has most of the drinks mixed and waiting before the customers shed their coats. And before a quarter of an hour is up, Weissmann is standing in front of what must be the longest-running town meeting in history.

"I'm having a hell of a time with the metropolitan district," one regular starts in, lamenting her ongoing local tax troubles. She finishes her beer and orders another. "I may have to pay District 2 fees [on property] even though I'm in District 1..."

"Sell it," Weissmann jokes easily, emptying an ashtray and replacing it with another in one quick move. The silly mile-wide smile is back, and the crowd is loving it.

As the hours go by, Weissmann never stops moving--or schmoozing. Even when he's mixing drinks or ringing the register, he's either listening or talking. Bar mats are cut, counters are wiped, glasses are washed, and the state senator who has his eye on Congress is doing a bang-up job on constituent affairs. Basically because the bar is the only thing standing between him and the guy who orders a draft and tomato juice.

"It's called a poor man's bloody Mary," Weissmann explains to a visitor as he sends the drink, with a push, down several seats to a man in a quilted jacket.

"Want ice in that cabernet?" he asks. "We always serve it iced unless the customer says otherwise." He pauses to spin a napkin into place before thumping down the stemmed glass. "Around here, when the miners got off work, the last thing they wanted to drink was something room temperature."

The waitresses come and go, slapping large bills on the bar to be cashed, ordering soft drinks, beers, a cranberry and Stoly. By 6:30 the restaurant is in full swing. Now the door opens, and a breeze, a family, and two middle-aged men waft in. Weissmann seats the family, then tends to the men who have taken a seat at the bar. He is unfazed that one of them is Denver Post columnist Chuck Green. He had known Green was coming, presumably to get a read on the bartender candidate. Green is drinking a vodka tonic, with a shotglass of water for his ever-present parakeet, Reggie. Weissmann fills the order without hesitation. You'd think he'd seen a grown man put a bird on his bar a thousand times before.

"Look at this, it's the funniest thing"--Green's companion waves Weissmann over to see. "When he stamps on the floor, the thing shits."

"What?" Weissmann bends closer to observe.
"He shits," Green replies. "Watch." The Post columnist walks behind the bar, places the bird on the floor and stomps next to it--slowly at first, then faster when it is clear the bird is not going to comply. Joan Riggins walks by, shaking her head at the scene. Green finally gives up, picks up the bird, stuffs him back in his jacket and retreats to the bathroom.

Weissmann just smiles and pours.
There are some Democratic insiders who don't think Weissmann should be running for U.S. Senate now. They say he hasn't paid his dues. It is a fair challenge, and Weissmann is quick to answer it.

"I don't believe in the farm-team approach to politics," he says, making a cherry Coke and a Shirley Temple for some of the younger drinkers. "It doesn't work; it never has. Look who we have now." The way he sees it, people who wait their turn "get stuck in ruts, they get beholden." He also points out that, in the Democratic field, only two candidates (Weissmann and Ramona Martinez) have ever run and won elections. He figures he's done his time.

 

"If I were to run for re-election now," Weissmann says, "I'd be doing it for all the wrong reasons." Merely going for another term in the state senate, he says, would be the safe thing to do.

One of the hardest issues Weissmann has had to address in this candidacy is just what he will do if Gary Hart gets into the race. "I've thought a lot about it," he says. "And the closest I can come is an analogy to a professional athlete who becomes a coach and then has to play his new team against his old coach's team. He taught me what I know. That doesn't mean I'm not playing.


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