Longform

MR. CLEAN

part 1 of 2
Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Tom Strickland has an image problem. And it seems he's not above using a little fiction to help fix it.

To win the Senate seat he's running for in 1996, Strickland has to convince voters he's not some slick 17th Street attorney or political lobbyist--even though he is an attorney who lobbies for a big firm whose office just happens to be on 17th Street. So, to compensate, the candidate is drawing on his Texas roots to craft an image as a commoner from the hardscrabble plains--a place as far from Washington's back rooms as you can get.

The biography now being circulated by Strickland's campaign paints a picture of the poor South. "Tom Strickland...understands the challenges and problems facing real people in Colorado--because he's been there," reads the handout. "His father worked nights as a janitor so he could earn a college degree and make a better life for his family. His grandfather was a sharecropper."

It is a touching vignette, and the stuff TV sound bites are made of. The only problem is, it's not completely true. Just ask the "janitor" himself.

"What?" W.C. Strickland exclaims when his son's version of his work history is read to him over the phone. A retired civil engineer who lives in the Western Slope retirement community of Battlement Mesa, W.C. is clearly flummoxed by the claim that he toiled into the wee hours to help Tom and his brother and two sisters get a leg up in the world.

According to W.C., it was the mid-1930s, nearly twenty years before any of his children were born, when he worked his way through college. He didn't work nights. And he wouldn't really call what he did being a "janitor."

"I was going to a junior college in Arlington, Texas, a branch of Texas A&M back then, and it was the Depression," the elder Strickland says in an easy drawl. "The dean of the college loaned me $100, and the deal was, I was to sweep out the library every morning before school. For that I got $15 a month, and because I was living at home and didn't have much expenses, I paid him back right quick the first year."

There's no disputing that W.C. Strickland worked hard once he got out of college. But providing a better life for his children was hardly the uphill struggle described in his son's campaign literature. By the time his children were born, the elder Strickland held a degree in civil engineering and was well-established in his trade. In fact, when Tom was a toddler, his father took the entire family to Spain for two years while he worked on an airbase project there. Later, W.C. would travel the U.S., lending his expertise to nuclear-power and petrochemical-plant projects. Tom and the rest of the family stayed put in their home in a quiet Houston subdivision.

It's hard to tell what's true about Tom Strickland. There's his Old Yeller biography; and then there's the middle-class suburban upbringing his father describes. There are the testimonials from local environmentalists about his fervent conservation efforts; and then there's the case he handled as an attorney for a developer doing battle with the Sierra Club. There's the "down-to-earth" guy described by his friends and supporters; and then there's the wealthy insider who lives in a $500,000 house on Denver's posh Seventh Avenue Parkway, sends his children to the exclusive Graland Country Day School, and is such an avid political operative that in the last four years he has given more than $10,000 of his own money to candidates for office across the country.

The most glaring contradiction for Strickland, though, may be the one between the idealist who wants to "make a better Colorado for his children" and the shareholder and name partner in Brownstein Hyatt Farber & Strickland, Denver's most controversial law and lobbying firm. According to Federal Election Commission records examined by Westword, Brownstein Hyatt and its staff have collectively pumped more than $150,000 into political campaigns nationwide since 1991. What's more, the firm, whose power-broker reputation precedes it in the halls of local and state government, has close links to two of the worst national scandals of the past decade: the S&L crisis and the junk-bond fiasco.

Strickland, a former offensive tackle for the Louisiana State University football team, sidesteps questions about the Brownstein firm as deftly as he fudges the details about his father's past employment. But his association with what local political observers sardonically refer to as "The Firm" is a source of concern even to fellow Democrats. No matter how hard Strickland tries, it's baggage that will take more than just a broad-shouldered shrug to cast off.

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Michelle Johnston