Most people just go along to get along. But every once in a while a hellacious disagreement -- about principle, turf, money, or who cut the cheese -- makes for an old-fashioned Western display of rootin'-tootin' feudin' and cussedness.
The most memorable Colorado showdowns of the past ten years involved a stubborn crew of unstoppable forces, immovable objects, moral crusaders, political opportunists, loudmouthed demagogues, wily predators, oversized egos and bitter rivals. And when the dust cleared, undisputed winners were hard to find.
10. Bill Owens vs. Barbara Walters It's not often that a Colorado governor goes on Good Morning America to tell the host that she's a crappy journalist, but the constant throb of publicity surrounding the unsolved murder of JonBenét Ramsey made a lot of officials punchy, including Owens. Sharply critical of the six-year-old beauty queen's parents for their perceived lack of cooperation with police, Owens was particularly incensed at the softball interview Walters conducted with John and Patsy in 2000, calling it "easy journalism." Walters was gravely offended, and Owens hasn't been invited back -- not even to The View.
9. United vs. Frontier vs. Southwest Hold a babe-off between Betty and Veronica, and who would figure the trophy would go to ... Miss Grundy? In this hair-pulling tussle, United was Veronica, of course -- rich, distracted, pampered, eager to hog prime terminal space but not so keen on spreading around jobs or discount fares. Frontier (Betty) was the hometown fave, the hard-working gal next door pushing cookies and those cute animals on the tails. But the general tailspin in the industry sent Frontier to bankruptcy court for a makeover and made ever-practical, unadorned Southwest (Grundy), with all its quirks and absence of annoying add-on fees, a bit more attractive. No raving beauty, okay, but she'll do.
8. American Indian Movement vs. Sons of Italy Take a bunch of Italian-Americans determined to celebrate their heritage, add an ensemble of Native American and revisionist protesters who consider the traditional Columbus Day parade a form of hate speech, and what do you get? An annual throwdown over free speech and genocide, with occasional tear gas, fake blood and howls of police overkill. The parades and anti-parades have been relatively uneventful lately, as key players have been occupied with other squabbles (see "Ward Churchill vs. Reality," below). But it wasn't so long ago that Mayor John Hickenlooper pleaded with both sides to settle down, saying that he was "sick and tired of this entire costly, frustrating and potentially dangerous situation" -- and was told to pound sand.
7. Steve Horner vs. Fun The unsinkable, un-mutable Steve Horner has a thing about Ladies' Night. Not fair to offer special promotions to lure women into clubs, he fumes, even if it's to draw lonely dudes out of their bitterness and onto a barstool. In 2006 Horner brought this singular crusade to Colorado. He took on bars that held Ladies' Nights and newspapers (like this one) that ran ads for such events; when he suffered reversals in court, he compared himself to Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. He offered to settle one case for seven grand, or make it twenty and he won't teach others how to file -- an ingenious approach to social justice that somehow eluded Dr. King. Horner's complaints march on, through mind-numbing hearings and appeals, but the Ladies' Night Martyr is now back in Minnesota, stewing over the dread suspicion that someone, somewhere, might be having fun.
6. Mike Zinna vs. Jefferson County Board of Commissioners Of all the sludge-slinging litigation that bumbling public officials seem to get stuck in, no court battles have been more enduring -- or more costly -- than Jeffco's brawl with developer-turned-muckraker Zinna, now in its seventh year. Maybe it started out as a tiff over a failed airport deal or Zinna's relentless public-record requests, but it soon escalated into a series of dirty tricks and retaliatory efforts against the gadfly, including the hiring of a private investigator to follow Zinna around at taxpayers' expense. A recent federal verdict of $1791 against former commissioner Jim Congrove for violating Zinna's constitutional rights may be small potatoes, but the jury's still out on how much more time and money the county will have to spend to get free of this tar baby.
5. Jay Cutler vs. Josh McDaniels You could see the collision coming: The rookie head coach, eager to put his own stamp on the Denver Broncos, and the putative franchise quarterback with a rocket arm and an oh-so-delicate psyche. Coach McDaniels, who likes to operate on a need-to-know basis, immediately stepped in it by making backdoor inquiries about acquiring his own alleged franchise QB, Matt Cassel. Cutler, accustomed to a daily ego rubdown, got pouty and refused to return phone calls -- even from owner Pat Bowlen. In the end, Cassel wound up with the hapless Chiefs while McDaniels demonstrated that it was possible to win games with a lunch-bucket quarterback, provided you can also field a top defense. And Cutler went on to challenge franchise records in interceptions and futility in Chicago.
4. Wildlife vs. Humans The most lopsided contest on the list. When one truck can take out 16 elk -- as a semi did last January on I-70 a few miles west of Denver -- imagine what a single subdivision can do. Still, the underdog (and even the prairie dog) manages an upset once in a while. The Preble's meadow jumping mouse has been kicking ass on developers up and down the Front Range, and bears continue to make an occasional meal of back-country interlopers. But perhaps the ugliest flashpoint in this duel has been Greenwood Village, where coyotes feasting on housecats and wiener dogs have prompted a campaign to haze them with paintballs -- or kill them with real bullets. And we thought people moved to the burbs to get closer to nature.
3. Carol Chambers vs. David Lane Arapahoe County District Attorney Chambers has tussled with cops, judges, the criminal defense bar and even an attorney disciplinary panel. But her most intriguing battle has been with public defenders and pugnacious private attorney Lane over the largely moribund death-penalty in Colorado. Lane has accused Chambers of trying to turn capital cases into a "big moneymaker" by billing the state for the costs of prosecuting defendants accused of murders inside prisons; Chambers has fired back that Lane and other anti-death-penalty activists have made such cases far more expensive than they need to be. Lane and public defenders have also raised issues about alleged conflicts of interest and discovery misconduct in two prison murders prosecuted by Chambers' office. Recently, Chambers' office complained that Lane was accusing prosecutors of trying to kill his client, when they were merely seeking "the imposition of death as the appropriate penalty." In this war of words, it's a battle to the death -- which can be quite an imposition.
2. Ward Churchill vs. Reality Watching the excruciatingly slow process of dislodging Professor Churchill from his ethnic studies roost at the University of Colorado was a lot like observing the lancing of a boil in some slo-mo Bizarro universe, where seconds take years. One can argue, as his attorney David Lane did, that the charges of plagiarism and research misconduct would never have been formally raised (or resulted in his termination) if Churchill hadn't chosen to exercise his right to inane speech by calling World Trade Center victims "little Eichmanns." But that doesn't make Churchill the anarchist martyr he wants to be. His entire delusional career has been built on excursions down the rabbit hole, whether he's denouncing CIA-infused conspiracies or claiming to be an ex-paratrooper or three-sixteenths Cherokee or an original thinker. In this world, a jury valued Churchill's damages at exactly one dollar -- and last summer a judge ruled that even that assessment was too generous.
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1. Brian Rohrbough vs. Jefferson County Sheriff's Office Sometimes a parent's wrath can be a more effective engine of truth than all the blue-ribbon commissions a government can devise. Suspicious from the start of the official version of the 1999 Columbine shootings, including the account of how his son Danny died, Rohrbough emerged as the most visible -- and dreaded -- spokesman for a courageous group of victims' families that refused to be assuaged, bought off and rushed to "closure." More than any journalist or law enforcement official, Rohrbough and the true Columbine rebels -- including Randy and Judy Brown, Dawn Anna, the Petrones, and a dozen others -- were responsible for prying loose the documents that showed that Jeffco officials had lied about previous investigations of Eric Harris, the timeline and extent of their rescue efforts and the stonewalling that followed. If there are lessons to be learned from Columbine, they have emerged from the burning desire of Rohrbough and other grieving parents to know the truth about the tragedy and demand accountability from public officials.