Longform

This State for Sale: A Special Report

The night belonged to the captains of industry.
They arrived in all their fin de siecle glory, disgorged from stretch limos and sleek foreign sedans, each with a freshly pressed tuxedo on his back and an elaborately coiffed spouse on one arm. They made their way to the Plaza Ballroom of the Adam's Mark Hotel with leisurely dignity. They admired the centerpieces of white tulips and purple irises, nodded at golf partners across the room, gawked at the famous quarterback. And when the time came, they cheered and applauded the new governor of Colorado--a politician of exceptional blandness, still shedding the tags from his new tux as he made his grand entrance.

They had cause to cheer. After a quarter-century of dreary Democratic rule, the state was theirs again.

Well, maybe it wasn't theirs exclusively. There were, after all, close to 2,500 people at the inaugural ball for Governor Bill Owens last January, including a healthy contingent of Democrats--so many people that dozens of tables had to be assembled in the foyer of the ballroom to handle the overflow. The captains were only a couple of hundred well-fed bellies in a crowd of cummerbunds; but they had contributed more money to the event than all the rabble surrounding them, and their place was assured. They would not be sitting out in the hall. Many of them, those whose companies had written checks for $25,000 (or, in one case, $50,000) to become a "Corporate Gold Sponsor" of the ball, had already enjoyed some face time with Owens at a private reception at the Governor's Mansion.

So they sat at the favored tables and feasted on beef and salmon. Dessert was a miniature chocolate replica of the State Capitol. They cracked the golden dome and spooned out white mousse. It was, by all accounts, delicious.

Sadly, several of the governor's longtime associates were unable to join in this symbolic devouring of the state. The demand for invitations had been so strong, the acceptance rate so much higher than anticipated, that the planners had to contact some would-be attendees and tell them not to come--even though they'd already shelled out money for tickets (at $150 a pop, rather than the sky-high corporate seats). Among those left in the lurch were ex-legislators and lobbyists whose ties to Owens stretched back a decade or more.

"My wife and I talked about going over to the Adam's Mark and pressing our noses up against the glass," says one former lawmaker. "They oversold it, and some of us were stuck with $300 tickets and rented tuxedos and pissed-off wives."

The Owens inaugural ball was a stunning contrast to Roy Romer's downscale wingdings, where anyone with a ten-dollar admission fee could come meet the guv. The affair raised $1.2 million, almost as much in one night as Owens's gubernatorial campaign had collected through months of gladhanding and grubbery. Planners stressed that the net proceeds would be used primarily to renovate the Governor's Mansion and that thousands of people had participated in other Owens inaugural events around the state that charged as little as ten dollars.

But all of the man-of-the-people hype couldn't hide the fact that two-thirds of the money poured into the celebration came from a few dozen corporations and special-interest groups. The top fifty donors--from US West ($50,000) and Kaiser Hill ($40,000) to Coors ($25,000), Texaco ($15,000), PacifiCare ($12,500) and so on--chipped in a total of $715,000.

The ball neatly spotlighted the cozy relationship between Owens and his biggest campaign contributors. It was also a sign of things to come. The Owens administration is shaping up like an elegant party--one that gives the impression that all are welcome, but a privileged few are definitely more welcome than others. In fact, some of those who thought they were invited turn out to be not welcome at all.

Four months into his governorship, Owens has managed to confound critics and supporters alike. He has proceeded with caution and sweet talk, as befits a man who squeaked to victory in one of the closest gubernatorial races in state history. He has tapped a surprising range of people for his cabinet, including a few Democrats and ex-rival Tom Norton. And he has been widely praised within battle-weary Republican circles for pursuing an agenda--roads, tax cuts, downsizing the bureaucracy--that seems more pragmatic than ideological. Owens may not be the anti-abortion terror that his worst critics feared he would be; in the one litmus test to date of his commitment to the Christian Coalition, he declined to veto funding for family-planning clinics because one of the clinics also performed abortions.

"He's a Reagan Republican," declares ex-legislator Sam Zakhem, who lost a bruising race for the state party chairmanship to the contentious Steve Curtis two years ago. "He believes in the big tent. For too long, our leadership has ostracized the Republicans who didn't agree with them on issues such as abortion."

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast