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?
"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.
Discrimination wasn't the most prominent feature of Tancredo's youth, but he got to taste it every so often. When he was about to enter Northeastern Junior College in Sterling, "I went to see the dean to get a room assignment," he remembers. "He gets out this two-by-five card and says, 'Well, there's a problem. You're Catholic, and we have a quota on Catholics, Negroes and Jews in student housing, and we're already over.'" Consequently, Tancredo spent his two years at Northeastern living in a motel.
Of such experiences are liberals commonly made, but not when it came to Tancredo. He didn't inherit conservatism from his parents; his dad voted for Democrats because Franklin Roosevelt saved the country from the Depression, and his mom went with Republicans because Dwight Eisenhower ended the war in Korea. Other than that, "they were apolitical," Tancredo says. He was, too, until it suddenly dawned on him, while attending Holy Family Catholic High School in 1960, that the right wing was the best wing for him. The timing of this discovery was inconvenient, seeing as how Richard Nixon, a man who generally represented Tancredo's beliefs, was running for president against John F. Kennedy, a Catholic.
"We had a mock election, and the vote for Kennedy was 92-2," Tancredo remembers. After a laugh, he says, "I never found out who the other vote for Nixon was. Maybe he didn't want anyone else to know."
For Tancredo, masking his own values is anathema, and his outspokenness about immigration hasn't made him many chums south of the border. "The Mexican press is very aggressive," he notes. "They're always saying, 'How can you hate Mexico?' And I say, 'Look, I'm full-blooded Italian. And the fact is, you are like Italians in so many ways. You are a gregarious people, a bighearted people, hardworking people -- and you're short. I love you! I love this country!'"
His claims haven't won over the Mexican media, and their peers in Colorado have their doubts, too. In the wake of reports last summer about Jesus Apodaca, a Mexico-born honor student whose lack of documentation the congressman brought to the attention of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the Denver Post and the Rocky Mountain News began a blitz of mostly disapproving coverage; Tancredo says articles or columns about him appeared on "something like 38 out of 39 days. One day I called a friend of mine, and he said, 'Hang on just a minute. I have to get finished reading the Tancredo section.'"
True enough, News columnist Mike Littwin and Post counterpart Diane Carman got in lots of licks on Tancredo, and while new Post columnist Jim Spencer has been in Colorado for only a matter of months, he already understands that knocking Tancredo is good sport. As part of a column about parking enforcement, he jokingly proposed "Tancredo Day," on which "all native-born Americans (excluding actual Native Americans, of course) park for free.... Meanwhile, immigrants, including naturalized citizens, pay double. Folks with an ID card issued by any Spanish-speaking country get a Denver Boot no matter where they put their vehicles."
Still, these slaps can't compare with the invective from many Latino columnists, politicians and opinion-makers. Typical is a May column written for La Raza Newspapers by Sal Osio, president of HispanicVista.com, that bears the vivid headline "Rep. Tancredo: Patriot, Idiot or Just Plain Racist?" Osio picks the latter option: "If one examines the congressman's record, his statements and conduct, the only reasonable conclusion one reaches is that he is a lucid but fanatic racist."
Even Tancredo's supporters make it clear they don't agree with everything he says and does. Jon Caldara, who took over from Tancredo as head of the Independence Institute, a Golden think tank that's been influencing Colorado politics in noteworthy ways since the mid-'80s (see sidebar), thinks the world of the congressman, whom he refers to as "an absolutely remarkable man and a good personal friend." Yet when Tancredo announced last year that his decision to run for re-election in 2004 won't be predicated on his very public pledge to step down after three terms, Caldara weighed in against this declaration in a column for the Boulder Daily Camera.
KHOW talk-show host Peter Boyles, the rare Tancredo fan with a media platform, has often found himself in the same position. "I love him 100 percent of the time," Boyles says, "but probably 70 percent of the time, I don't agree with him."
This may seem like a healthy degree of skepticism, but it wasn't enough to prevent Boyles from being censured by Rocky broadcasting critic Dusty Saunders for the way he deals with Tancredo when both are behind the microphone. In June, Saunders wrote that this "you're-my-pal, on-air relationship" diminishes Boyles's "credibility on issues involving the controversial politician's stands on immigration."
As it turns out, the very conversation Saunders dismissed as "dull talk radio" actually contained a telling anecdote. Tancredo was ostensibly on Boyles's program in May to discuss what was then his latest contretemps, which bubbled up following a news conference intended to highlight his opposition to matricula cards -- IDs issued by the Mexican government that can be used by undocumented workers. The gathering backfired when reporters largely ignored the main issue and concentrated instead on a prop -- an oversized matricula reproduction featuring Mexican President Vicente Fox that some saw as disrespectful or worse.
Boyles and Tancredo eventually got around to jawing about the matricula, but for whatever reason, they began by saluting John Wayne, who, predictably enough, is the congressman's celluloid hero. Tancredo revealed that he has a life-sized cardboard replica of the Duke and a poster saluting The Searchers, a 1956 Wayne classic he called his favorite, in his remodeled basement -- the most notorious room in his Governor's Ranch home, since, unbeknownst to him, illegal immigrants helped spruce up the space, according to an article published in the Post last year.
Granted, movie buffs of all stripes love The Searchers, but Tancredo's fondness for it is particularly intriguing given his anti-immigration jones. In the film, Wayne is Ethan Edwards, a man who overflows with prejudices. Ethan's niece Debbie, portrayed by Natalie Wood, has been captured by Indians, and Edwards sets off after the marauders in part because he wants to put the girl out of her misery; he figures she's gone native and would be better off dead than red. In the end, he resists the urge to kill Debbie, but only just.
So did Tancredo ever stop to think that his numero-uno Wayne flick finds the actor playing a protagonist whom some observers have called the same thing his enemies have labeled him: a racist? When asked, Tancredo says he never thought of it that way. What he likes about the movie is its darkness and realism compared to other films of the day, and he insists he never really identified with Wayne's often nasty, conflicted character.
"I've loved Westerns ever since I was a kid," Tancredo says. "But I always rooted for the Indians." Tancredo didn't just love Indians when they were getting hammered; a report he wrote as a student about Custer's Last Stand was penned from the perspective of the victorious tribes.
Guess Native Americans will get to park for free on Tancredo Day, too.
Pity poor Lara Kennedy. As Tancredo's spokeswoman, she spends most of her days being peppered by press inquiries, and since many of them have eventually blown up in the congressman's face, it's no wonder she treats each one like a potential pipe bomb. The Vicente Fox matricula-card fiasco certainly justifies such paranoia. The art was e-mailed to Tancredo's office by a person or persons unknown, but Kennedy was among those who thought that placing an oversized version of it behind the congressman during press conferences would be a clever idea -- which Tancredo, while taking ultimate responsibility for what he now concedes may not have been the most thoughtful judgment, will tell anyone who asks.
"I probably should pay a lot more attention to details than I do, and I know that's a shortcoming," he allows. "What happens, to a certain extent, is when you have great people, you begin to rely on them. That's a blessing, but it's also somewhat of a curse, because after a while, that's the way you do business."
Tancredo's predisposition toward openness only adds to Kennedy's burden. Last fall, Tancredo said he would communicate with Post reporter Michael Riley, who did much of the Apodaca reporting, in writing rather than speak to him directly -- a policy that led to one article suggesting that he'd decided to stop gabbing with any print reporter, followed by another setting the record straight and blaming the confusion on staff miscommunication. (Betcha Kennedy enjoyed that one, too.) For the most part, though, Tancredo will talk to anyone, anytime, with a casualness that's wholly unexpected given that his every utterance can and has made news. At his 2002 campaign victory party, for example, he said of the Democratic Party, "What does it present but mothball candidates, old retards...retreads that they bring back over and over again?" Tancredo says this statement constituted "a slip of the tongue," not a visit from Sigmund Freud, but it led to a Post headline anyhow.
It makes a certain kind of sense, then, that after Kennedy hears the discussion about The Searchers, she phones the reporter who posed it and asks in a worried tone if the feature he's writing will be about race. Now, profiling Tancredo without mentioning race would be a bit like a biography of Muhammad Ali that skipped the part about him being a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War -- and besides, Tancredo himself isn't averse to tackling the subject head-on. After admitting that he sometimes gets cards and e-mails from people "whose support I'd rather not have," he says, "I know who I am, and I have faith that if I'm not a racist, which I'm not, I don't have to defend being one. If you don't feel that way in your heart of hearts, you probably won't have to be in the position of having to defend something that indicates you really are."
Kennedy, for her part, would prefer to skip over race entirely -- but she's at least partly placated when she's told it won't be the only item on the menu. Neither does she get overly suspicious when asked for some photos of Tancredo as a boy and a young legislator. However, she seems taken aback by two other requests: to interview Tancredo's wife, Jackie, and to traipse through his basement. She wearily says she'll look into these possibilities, but her voice projects all the enthusiasm of a suburban-Chicago hazing victim facing another fistful of feces. She seems infinitely happier when she calls later to say the Jackie dialogue and the basement visit won't take place.
Why not? When it comes to Jackie, Kennedy explains, access to the congressman doesn't extend to his family -- and Tancredo confesses that admission to the basement is something of a sore point with his spouse. After the uproar over the immigration status of his remodelers, the Rocky Mountain News did a quirky variation on a House Beautiful piece about the basement. Problem was, Tancredo didn't clear the idea with his wife before agreeing to the article and invited a reporter and photog to drop by when she was out of town. She would have hit the ceiling upon her return if it hadn't just been fixed up so nicely.
Since Jackie was inconveniently in town, another basement incursion would be problematic, but maybe not impossible. At his office in Centennial, Tancredo steps away from Kennedy, who's monitoring each word to make sure no other brushfires spark. Nodding conspiratorially, he says under his breath, "I'll get you in."
Tancredo's opponents may not be thrilled to hear it, but he doesn't exactly come across like a demon in person. He's funny in an intermittently dorky way, with a relaxed manner and a fondness for self-deprecation; in most cases, he'll ridicule himself before anyone else gets the chance. He can be excitable, waving his arms energetically when passion seizes him, but he typically exudes warmth and engagement, not intellectual chilliness. And he has a courtly, old-fashioned side. The vast majority of correspondence his office receives is positive, he maintains -- expressions of appreciation from the little folks, the usually silent majority, who know his immigration strategies are prudent measures designed to preserve and protect the American way of life, not disreputable proposals capable of warming the cockles of a Klansman's heart. Yet there are exceptions.
"Listen, you should hear some of the stuff that comes in on our recorder," he says. "And the letters! I've told Jackie, sometimes I wish we didn't have girls opening the mail, because of the language."
Truth be told, Tancredo has been known to unleash a profanity or two himself, but only after lowering his voice to make sure he's not corrupting anyone within earshot who has a delicate sensibility. At one point, he proclaims, "There are many good things about Congress, many enjoyable things about it. But there are also many" -- he whispers -- "shitty things about it, too."
Oh, yeah -- he makes a lot of comments that a more careful politician wouldn't, which opponents of Tancredo probably will be thrilled to hear. He admits that his actions can be deliberately provocative and invokes another John Wayne movie, 1959's Rio Bravo, to illustrate the process. During the film, either John Wayne or co-star Ricky Nelson (he can't remember which) plugs a bad guy, then turns to his opposite number and says, "That oughtta start something." He quotes this phrase to his staff whenever he's made a move calculated to get a reaction.
So, out of every ten times that something starts around Tancredo, how many of them are intentional?
After some silent computation, he says, "About five."
Once the CFRW members settle down and return to their seats, Tancredo begins his address with a story about his oldest grandchild, Thomas, whom he usually picks up on Friday afternoons at the Christian school the boy attends. One Halloween, he sneaked up behind Thomas and gave him a friendly scare, which the boy enjoyed so much that Tancredo now must hide from him each time. After exhausting pretty much every hiding place, he secreted himself behind the school's door as all the kids filed out. He was ready to pounce when he realized "that there were all these parents staring at me and thinking, 'Who is this guy? What is he doing hiding over there? Oh my goodness -- is that Congressman Tancredo?'"
The icebreaker out of the way, Tancredo begins his address by saying he has good news -- "If the election were held today, the president would win every state in the union, the U.S. House would be retained, and we'd probably pick up seats in the Senate" -- and bad: "The election isn't going to be held today." Next he offers his take on assorted hot topics. He hopes the elimination of the "death tax" and other congressional actions will get the economy going; he thinks finding weapons of mass destruction in Iraq is less important than capturing or killing Saddam Hussein and stopping the murders of allied soldiers in the region; and he says the Middle East crisis is a struggle between those who want peace and Islam. After a brief pause, he quickly amends "Islam" to "militant Islam." Don't want another "retard" flap, right?
Even so, what's most striking about this portion of Tancredo's speech is how rote it is. He's not fully engaged as he assays these matters, and the light behind his eyes seems switched off -- until, that is, he comes to illegal immigration. In a flash, his gestures are bigger, his delivery more forceful. This is what he really wants to talk about.
No one can say that Tancredo lacks a command of the facts that play into the immigration dilemma, and when he discusses how hospitals in certain rural areas may have to close because they've been overwhelmed by having to treat uninsured, undocumented workers, he does so in a way that his critics would have great difficulty dismissing out of hand. Yet these moments are interspersed with rhetoric sure to rev up those who consider him to be a simple xenophobe, including his gripes about what he calls "this cult of multiculturalism that permeates our society -- the idea that there's nothing unique about America, that there's nothing special about Western Civilization, nothing really worth fighting for. It's just a bunch of dead white guys..."
In this vein, Tancredo mentions a June New York Times article about the relocation of a museum paying tribute to late singing cowboy Roy Rogers from Victorville, California, to Branson, Missouri. What alarmed him wasn't the move itself, but a quote from "a Hispanic lady in a bar" (identified in the piece as Rosalina Sondoval-Marin) explaining why Victorville had lost interest in the old movie icon: "Roy Rogers? He doesn't mean anything. There's a revolution going on, and it don't include no Roy Rogers or Bob Hope."
Why this opinion would alarm Tancredo may not seem terribly obvious to anyone but him. There are millions of people born and raised in this country who couldn't tell Roy Rogers from Roy Jones Jr. And come on -- weren't you a little frightened by the most recent photos of Bob Hope that surfaced around the time of his 100th birthday? If so, does that make you a revolutionary? Finally, there's no reason to believe that an obscure patron at a local watering hole is a legitimate spokesperson for societal upheaval -- unless, that is, happy hour is actually a nefarious plot to replace the red, white and blue with Pabst Blue Ribbon.
Then again, Tancredo appears to be on to something, judging by the reactions of the CFRW attendees. When he recites the Sondoval-Marin observation, bad grammar and all, many of them gasp with incredulity. If it weren't for Tom Tancredo, they seem to realize, it could be happy trails, America.
The lobby of Tancredo's local office has a lot in common with a teenage girl's bedroom, except the decorations celebrate Ronald Reagan and the first George Bush, not Ruben Studdard and Clay Aiken.
Okay, that's a bit of an exaggeration. The first thing one sees after entering the office is a mammoth portrait of Tom and Jackie with their sons, Ray and Randy, respective spouses, and grandchildren Thomas, 7, William, 3, and Gabriel, still at the crawling age. Carol, Tancredo's chipper office manager, also points out a fish-eye-lens photo of the most recent congressional class and, in a variation on "Where's Waldo?," encourages the visitor to find Tancredo. Hint: He's near the front and is the only member to risk a citation from the fashion police by wearing a cream-colored suit.
Nevertheless, there are plenty of nods to the 40th and 41st presidents. Two exhibits show off White House Christmas cards from 1981 to 1992 and draw attention to invitations to Reagan's 1985 inaugural and Bush's 1989 followup. There's also a six-foot-tall cardboard standup of Reagan guarding the front counter and a poster on one wall of the Gipper wearing a cowboy hat under the slogan "America: Reagan Country."
The office itself is jammed with assorted patriotic accoutrements (a framed copy of the Declaration of Independence, American-flag throw pillows), and Tancredo's desk is heaped with books bearing titles like Immigration and the End of Self-Government and America Extinguished: Mass Immigration and the Disintegration of American Culture. "I think all those came from the same place," Tancredo says. "People send me things like that all the time." There are also more celebrity chatchkes -- a rifle enclosed in a glass case from Charlton Heston, and a framed picture of a screaming eagle inscribed "To Tom Tancredo: For your dedication to God, home, country" and signed by feminism backlasher Phyllis Schlafly.
Across the room is a considerably more unlikely display: a collection of political cartoons by artists such as the Rocky Mountain News's Ed Stein and Westword's Kenny Be, none of which are Tancredo valentines. One sketch, from the Colorado Statesman, portrays him as a medieval prison guard clad in a hood and packing a torture device as he looms over a peasant labeled "Social Programs." Tancredo uses this gallery of abuse to defend himself against those who were upset over the Vicente Fox matricula card.
"It's supposedly insulting, but it wasn't even a cartoon; it was a photograph," he says. "Look at all the different ways I've been drawn, and it doesn't bother me."
Author Eric Schlosser doesn't know Tom Tancredo, but he knows what he thinks of the congressman's immigration policies: not much.
Schlosser made his reputation by writing Fast Food Nation, an acclaimed dissection of the populist end of the restaurant industry. Some of the main settings for the tome were meatpacking plants in Greeley that he depicted as terribly dangerous and largely filled with recent immigrants -- some legal, some not -- who were taken advantage of as a matter of course. His most recent book, Reefer Madness, is an exploration of the underground economy, and in it, he expands on some of Fast Food's touchstones in a section devoted to migrant strawberry-pickers in California. Schlosser considers them to be thoroughly admirable people who are only trying to make a better life for themselves and their families, so it frustrates him when officials blame them for immigration problems.
"It's very effective politically to scapegoat Mexican-Americans," Schlosser says. "But at the same time they're being scapegoated, they're the backbone of a lot of the economy. In California, the anti-immigrant movement was spearheaded by [former] Governor Pete Wilson, and simultaneously, he was accepting checks from and was hugely supported by the growers in California. On the one hand, he was able to make political capital by calling migrant workers welfare cheats coming to America just to live off the system, but he was fine with having the whole industry being dependent on these workers.
"It's interesting how these politicians like to go down to the border for photo ops and like to direct their ire at illegal immigrants, when they really should go over to Swift and Company in Greeley and make it clear to these executives that there are going to be serious punishments for hiring -- and mistreating -- illegal immigrants," Schlosser goes on. "The focus of enforcement is on the people who don't deserve it. These are some of the most hardworking, decent, religious people you'll ever meet, and they embody all these great American ideals. And yet no one is really punishing their exploiters, which is why the system is allowed to continue."
When these remarks are paraphrased for him, Tancredo, who's had his snapshot taken on the border so often that he deserves a photo-processing facility to be built there in his honor, does something few of his detractors would anticipate; he agrees with much of what Schlosser says. He insists that he wants more attention showered upon employers whose businesses are predicated on the procurement of undocumented workers, since illegal immigration is "a supply-and-demand issue, and you can't deal with one without dealing with the other." He was cheered by the federal government's decision to indict Tyson Foods and several of its managers for allegedly arranging to bring in immigrants from Latin American countries to work at its poultry plants. (In March, a grand jury acquitted Tyson and its executives of these charges.)
At the same time, Tancredo feels Schlosser is politically naive to think there isn't just as much political muscle protecting immigrant workers as there is shielding companies that employ them. For every official who would never support get-tough legislation against corporations because it would endanger the flow of campaign contributions, he says, there's another who won't act because he doesn't want to turn off Latinos, whose votes he covets. Among this latter group, he lumps President George W. Bush, whose assorted pre-9/11 amnesty propositions for illegal immigrants living in the United States were, in Tancredo's opinion, little more than ploys to gain Hispanic support at the ballot box. Perhaps that's why memorabilia linked to Bush the Younger is conspicuously absent from his office.
"I could probably pass something -- because we've made so much noise, frankly -- if it wasn't for the president," Tancredo says. "Put it this way: My bills for guest workers or secure borders will never get heard because the White House talks to the leadership of the House, the leadership talks to the chairman of the Judiciary committee, and that's the way it goes. Nothing the president doesn't want gets heard, because the last thing he wants is to be embarrassed by his own party passing something he doesn't want, will veto, or will have to sign and hates."
So great an impediment is Bush that Tancredo has begun exploring the prospect of promoting "a constitutional amendment" to tighten up immigration -- "going state by state, taking the battle to the statehouses, forcing it that way. I've seen polls that show 70 percent of people agree with us, and if they do, that's the place we ought to go. Because how else do you get around the government?"
The first big obstacle Tancredo had to overcome was his own chemistry. He was sixteen when he suffered a panic attack in a Holy Family classroom. His parents took him to a pediatrician, but that didn't prevent him from sinking into a depression -- or from suffering more attacks that no amount of conversations with doctors or school counselors could alleviate. Somehow he managed to move forward with his life; he attended the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley after completing coursework at Northeastern, emerging with a teaching degree that helped him land a job at Arvada's Drake Junior High. But it wasn't until he belatedly entered therapy that he truly got a handle on his condition. Although Tancredo's mood swings have been under control for ages now, his dark memories of this period remain. "I never go to any class reunions or anything like that," he says. "I don't like being reminded of that aspect of my life."
Be that as it may, Tancredo didn't complain upon being categorized as one of the so-called "House Crazies" after being elected in 1976 to the Colorado Legislature. (He ran after Drake students he'd lectured about civic responsibility urged him to put up or shut up, and credits his victory largely to his mother's lasagna recipe, which he pushed on voters like the proud son of Chef Boyardee.) Some of the radical ideas he brought to the Capitol, including school vouchers, are mainstream notions today, but others would still be considered loopy by most folks -- like arguing to eliminate the University of Colorado presidency under the theory that the various chancellors could run everything just fine. He was such a nettlesome presence that then-governor Richard Lamm (unsuccessfully) campaigned door-to-door against him -- and Lamm, currently the executive director of the Center for Public Policy and Contemporary Issues at the University of Denver, says, "I'd do it again. He spent much of his time in the legislature making my life miserable.
"The House Crazies were the fringe of the Republican party," Lamm continues. "What distinguished them from the moderate Republicans in my mind was that it wasn't a matter of making government work better. They had an animus against all government. They wanted to throw sand in the machinery of government, and took delight in trying to weaken the governorship any way they could."
Over the years, Lamm's view of Tancredo hasn't changed much, with one notable exception. "Ironically, we've ended up on the same side of the immigration issue. I think immigration is one of the great issues facing America, and this country needs to wake up to the fact that we're heading toward a billion Americans because of our immigration policy. So I admire his guts on immigration. I think he's saying important things."
How does Lamm explain Tancredo's wisdom in this instance? As he puts it, "Even a stopped clock is right twice a day."
After the late Joseph Coors helped elect Ronald Reagan, he figuratively reached out to Tom Tancredo.
Coors donated at least $2,500 to Tancredo's war chest in the early years, but his big money went to fund the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank that wound up with the responsibility of finding true believers to fill government posts after Reagan took charge. Tancredo was soon offered a job with the Department of Education, since he had an active interest in such matters, but there was a rub. It seems that Tancredo had long wanted to abolish the Department of Education, so the thought of becoming an employee struck him as a bit antithetical. The Reaganites felt otherwise, recognizing that Tancredo was uniquely qualified to shrink an agency that they didn't much like, either. He was named a DOE regional director, with a home base in Denver and supervision over six western states. Among his first actions was to slash the department's staff from 222 to 55.
Joining Tancredo in the Reagan administration were three other House Crazies: Anne Gorsuch, who was put in charge of the Environmental Protection Agency; Steve Durham, who was handed a regional EPA office; and John McElderry, who became a regional director for the Health and Human Services department. Within about two years, Gorsuch, Durham and McElderry were gone, resigning under pressure from a potpourri of critics, but Tancredo stuck around, in spite of actions that were anything but low-key. Once, he even took on network television. In 1983, ABC produced a TV-movie entitled The Day After, which purported to show how residents of Lawrence, Kansas, survived -- or didn't -- following a nuclear blast. On the surface (and below it), the flick didn't have a heck of a lot to do with Tancredo's job. This little inconvenience didn't stop him from firing off a letter to 1,000 parents that characterized The Day After as a slur against our nation's nuclear program.
"Can you believe it?" Tancredo asks, cackling at the memory. "I was always picking fights. That was definitely one of my 'That oughtta start somethings.'"
Such shenanigans attracted consistent fire from People for the American Way, a liberal advocacy group founded by All in the Family producer Norman Lear, and Colorado congresswoman Patricia Schroeder, a rock-ribbed progressive. They habitually called for Tancredo's head, and he's grateful. Were it not for adversaries like these, he doubts he could have survived for twelve years at the Department of Education -- eight years under Reagan, four under the elder George Bush.
"Pat Schroeder and Norman Lear were the best things I had going for me," he says, "because if the department tried to get rid of me, it would have looked like they were kowtowing to them."
Not that there weren't some other bumps along the way, including a run-in with the chief of staff for ex-Secretary of Education William Bennett. Tancredo says the staffer waved a letter co-signed by Schroeder and Montana representative Pat Williams at him and announced, "One more letter like this and you're history."
In response, Tancredo says, "I told him, 'If you want letters, I'll give you a hundred letters that are positive to each one that's negative. The difference is, the people who write me vote for us, and the people who wrote that one never will.' But the real problem was how much attention I was getting. He said, 'You don't make the headlines. Secretary Bennett makes the headlines.' [Bennett] was an egomaniac."
Years later, Tancredo heard Bennett give a speech in which he told about Reagan going into a cabinet meeting with a folder packed with brutal Bennett articles -- but instead of grousing, he said, "Look at all of these. What's the matter with the rest of you?" To Tancredo, this marked Bennett as a hypocrite in his eyes as surely as the news that this author of The Book of Virtues had lost about $8 million gambling had convinced others. (The scoop was uncovered by longtime Westword contributor Josh Green, writing for the Washington Monthly and Newsweek.)
"I didn't think the gambling was a big deal," Tancredo says. "If I had time, I'd still go to Vegas. But in my heart of hearts, I couldn't help thinking, 'Well...'" And he smiles.
The 1992 election of Bill Clinton finished Tancredo's career at the Department of Education, but after a five-year stint at the Independence Institute, where his change from education overhauler to immigration reformer took place, he became a congressman in one of the most conservative sections of the state. "There are safer Republican districts in the U.S.," says the institute's Caldara, "but not in Colorado."
Perhaps Tancredo shouldn't get too comfortable. He hasn't announced his intention to seek a fourth term in Congress, but when he turned his back on his term-limits pledge last year because of the fear that he might leave his immigration work unfinished, he didn't just tick off media types like the Rocky's Vincent Carroll, who wrote so vitriolic a Tancredo-spanking editorial that the congressman is dumbstruck by it to this day. More important, he incensed Republicans like ex-senator Bill Armstrong, who's regarded by many as the conscience of his party.
"I was very disappointed," Armstrong says. "When you make a promise, that's an important issue, particularly when it's a promise that was pivotal to his first campaign for Congress. I think it's the reason he got nominated, and when you break your word on something like that, it's a serious matter."
Insiders have speculated that Armstrong might encourage a candidate to oppose Tancredo in the 2004 Republican primary, with state treasurer Mike Coffman, a rising star in the party, being the person mentioned most often to take on this chore. Both men refute these rumors.
Armstrong says he's taken no steps to oust Tancredo: "Any citizen has a chance to influence the outcome of an election, and to that extent, I've got some opportunity to do that. But I've taken no action to do so, made no decision to do so, and don't know if it will happen."
Coffman, too, was unhappy with the broken pledge and is hardly a big Tancredo enthusiast; in March, he left a pro-war rally because Tancredo, who received a Vietnam War draft deferment due to his psychiatric past, was present. But Coffman says that he won't run against Tancredo in 2004. He adds that anyone who does will be hard-pressed to undermine the incumbent. "A lot of people didn't like what he did, but I think his core supporters didn't care. They think what he's doing on immigration is far more important than his word and that losing Tom Tancredo would be losing their champion on that issue.
"He's a little bit out there sometimes," Coffman says. "He's definitely on the fringes, but I think that's part of his charm to a lot of people."
As Tancredo's speech to the CFRW winds down, two men who appear to be of Central American descent enter the room with the day's lunch. Neither of them wallops Tancredo with a serving platter, so perhaps they aren't listening to what he's saying -- or maybe they agree with him. Tancredo often mentions that he regularly gets letters of support from Hispanics, including immigrants who "entered the country the right way" and aren't thrilled with those who shrug off the rules they had to follow.
Afterward, several of the attendees swarm around Tancredo to express their gratitude for his appearance, including Deborah Gamec, who, on top of being an active CFRW member, is the author of a picture book titled This Is Russell: Russell Is a Republican. (Russell, by the way, is a cat. Some of his friends call him a "fat cat," the book says, but "that is because they are jealous.") Gamec follows Tancredo outside to take a photo of the congressman on his Suzuki motorcycle to give to her boss; he's a Tancredo booster even though he's a Democrat. Tancredo is a little embarrassed about a bike he considers to be a toy in comparison with the choppers Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell rides, but, he says, "This is all I can afford."
The next stop is supposed to be the congressman's office, but once the posing is through and Gamec has returned to the ballroom, Tancredo says, "I'm supposed to get you a couple of old photos. We could go by the house to get them."
No, Tancredo hasn't gotten Jackie's permission to invite another reporter and photographer to his house, and he warns that if she's displeased, everyone may be restricted to the porch. Then he leads the caravan to his place. En route, he mostly sticks to the slow lane, and at each stoplight, he adjusts his slacks, tugging them up to reveal bunched-up gray socks as he shifts from one foot to another. No one's apt to mistake him for a Hell's Angel.
Luckily, Jackie's not around when Tancredo and company arrive; the only living thing present is Tancredo's fifteen-year-old dog, Chelsea (a name he insists was chosen long before he knew about the existence of Chelsea Clinton). As the photographer sets up outside, Tancredo asks the reporter, "Do you want to see the basement?"
Their immigration status aside, the workers who remodeled the basement did good work. The room is long and narrow -- ideal for a home theater, with enough space left over at the far end for a pool table. A comfortable seating area, most recently occupied by grandchildren who've left a Bob the Builder pillow and blanket behind, faces a wall-sized screen, as does the John Wayne standup. Next to it is the Searchers souvenir, one of many placards in the basement and along the staircase that leads to it; the films commemorated include Star Wars, E.T. , Pearl Harbor, Chicago and, naturally, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. As for the grabbiest poster, it features a doctored photo of Tancredo wearing a suit of armor and reads:
"NOW SHOWING IN THE FAMOUS TANCREDO BASEMENT
MUCH ADO ABOUT NUTHIN'
A SIMPLE STORY ABOUT AN ITALIAN BOY AND HIS REMODELED BASEMENT, WITH A TOUCH OF SHAKESPEARE. ONE PART COMEDY, ONE PART TRAGEDY!!
STARRING MIKE LITTWIN AS THE FOOL.
DIANE CARMAN IN HER FAMILIAR ROLE OF BLEEDING-HEART LIBERAL.
GAIL SCHOETTLER IN HER RETURN TO THE SILVER SCREEN AS THE GOVERNESS.
MOVIE SAVED BY THE APPEARANCE OF MIKE ROSEN AND AL KNIGHT AS THE TRUTH SQUAD.
THE EDITORS OF THE DENVER POST ACTED BY THE LYNCH MOB PLAYERS.
THE MATRICULA CARD LINE DANCE PERFORMED BY A CAST OF THOUSANDS.
RATED "RM" (RADICAL MULTI-CULTURALISM). SOME CONTENT DEEMED INAPPROPRIATE FOR DEMOCRATS.
"TWO THUMBS UP!": THE MEXICAN CONSUL.
"My staff made that for me," Tancredo says, beaming. "Talk about too much time on their hands. I guess that's what happens when it isn't that close an election," which he won over weak, underfunded opponents with a measly 67 percent of the vote. "We printed up fifty or a hundred of them and sold them for $50 apiece."
Around that time, Tancredo is called upstairs to pose for a photo -- and within moments, he announces, "We've been busted!" Jackie, it seems, was down the street at a yard sale, trying to talk a neighbor into giving up a little red wagon that wasn't part of the designated merchandise. When she failed, she returned to find that her home had been invaded.
After aiming some comically dirty looks at Tancredo, Jackie resists the urge to send everyone packing. A no-nonsense sort with a wry sense of humor (a nice attribute to have, considering her husband), she welcomes the intruders and even takes one on a mini-tour of the house, which is lined with photos of grandchildren. Then she sits down over a glass of iced tea to discuss the way she met Tancredo -- she was a language teacher at Drake Junior High when he was on staff -- and their many trips to Russia with groups of schoolchildren. The conditions during the old Soviet era were deplorable, so they often smuggled over goods (jeans, perfume, etc.) that Jewish residents and others suffering from discrimination and ostracism could use as barter.
"The students came back absolutely adoring America," Jackie says. "Each trip, when we would take off for home, they would always start applauding."
A few minutes later, Jackie returns to what she'd been doing before her beloved decided to throw Lara Kennedy's caution to the wind. Tancredo stays on the porch, cigar clenched between his teeth, a look of satisfaction on his face. "I'm not much for planning," he says, "but everything usually works out."
Breaking the rules may work at home, but not necessarily at the House of Representatives. Thus far, Tancredo hasn't been able to parlay his notoriety into much genuine political clout. "I'm not a chairman of a committee," he points out. "I'm not a powerful member of Congress. I'm a third-term congressman, and that's all. People ask me, 'Where are you on the totem pole?' And I say, 'On the totem pole? What do you mean on?' All I've got is my vote and my voice."
Since that voice is often amplified by Fox News -- he's practically a regular contributor -- Tancredo isn't quite as inconsequential as he indicates. He's the man behind the Immigration Reform Caucus, which now includes more than sixty members of Congress (two of them Democrats), and receives invitations to speak from across the country. At such gatherings, he'll often be introduced like so: "If your dinner came late, or if it's cold, you can blame this guy. When he came in, we lost half the waitstaff and all the kitchen help." Tancredo thinks this is very funny, and he's just as amused that the California Coalition for Immigration Reform is selling "Tancredo for President" bumper stickers for two dollars a pop on its Web site, http:/ /ccir.net/products.html. "It's not a realistic thing, but it's a conversation starter," he says. "After people ask, 'Who the hell is Tom Tancredo?' you can tell them what's going on with immigration."
He could be doing a lot more to endear himself to Republican leaders, but he's never really played that game. When he was first elected to Congress, he asked to join the Africa subcommittee of the International Relations committee because years earlier, he'd seen a presentation about Sudan at Cherry Hills Community Church, which he attends, and promised himself he would do something to improve the situation there. "I'd never had anything like that happen to me before," says Tancredo, who became an evangelical Presbyterian about fifteen years ago. "I mean, God doesn't talk to me." Subsequently, current House majority leader Tom DeLay "came to me and said, 'I need you to go on a different committee because of this, that and the other. We need a Western vote.' And I said, 'Which one would I have to give up?' And he said, 'International Relations. That's no good, anyway. You can't raise a dime on International Relations.' And I said, 'I have to tell you a story...'"
In the end, Tancredo stayed on the International Relations committee, and last year, the usually uncooperative President Bush signed into law a bill authored by Tancredo that promotes peace in Sudan, which has suffered through civil war and every other imaginable kind of strife in recent years.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
Tancredo sees this as a huge accomplishment -- arguably his biggest since he's been in Congress -- and for it, he's received not one-tenth of the notice he routinely gets for his immigration pronouncements. That's okay with him, though. He's on a crusade, and he vows not to stop whether he's in Congress or not.
"Honestly, if I lost, or if I saw another, better way to press this issue even more effectively, I'd take it," he says. "I'm not popular with the Democrats, and there are some places in the Republican party where it's pretty dicey, too, but I can't let that stop me. I'm just trying to do what's right, and I think there are a lot of people out there who feel the same way I do."
The politicians don't know, but the Colorado Federation of Republican Women understand.