Jerry Kopel

The "Romer Legacy" and "Romer Stories" will fill the newspapers sometime after the special legislative session in September, and certainly after the November elections. So I'm getting there first with an approach I doubt will be copied elsewhere.

My first recollection of Roy Romer was before the 1958 election. He was running for the first time for the Colorado House. We were on a downtown street. Roy was walking towards me, his face clouded with a frown. "Roy" I asked, "what's wrong?" Romer paused and said "I've just come from a meeting with the Hispanic leaders, and all they wanted to know is why I changed my name to Romer from Romero." True story.

Obviously, Romer has always been Romer, not Romero. But no other governor has ever done as much to promote Hispanic participation in leadership positions in the executive and judicial branches. If Coloradans of Hispanic background continue to become major players in the state's power structure, it's because Roy Romer opened the door.

When Romer ran for governor, he was NOT the Democratic front runner. It was Ray Kogovsek. Even Hal Haddon was making a try, with a letter of recommendation from then Arkansas Governor William Clinton. When Kogovsek dropped out, Romer became the candidate. And there were many political journalists who believe Romer did not WIN the election; Adams County Republican Ted Strickland LOST it.

At one time in September, 1986, Republican candidate Strickland was leading Romer by 25 points (in unpublished Democratic polls). But near the end of that campaign, a Strickland ad "tied Romer to support of the 1960s radical Angela Davis. It backfired, and the backlash helped to sweep Romer into the Governor's mansion" wrote Tim McGovern in a 1988 Governing magazine story.

According to McGovern, Strickland's huge early lead was "followed by an embarrassing series of contradictory positions on issues, followed by denial that contradictions existed, followed by denial of the original statement, followed by a vitriolic fight with the press, followed by a political defensiveness that the public read as weak, petty and mean."

Romer was sworn in as governor Jan. 13, 1987. On Jan. 15, he addressed a joint session of the House and Senate in the first of 12 annual State of the State messages. What Romer said in the address is important, and probably reveals more about what kind of governor he would be than any of the other legislative addresses he would give.

The speech began with the usual blather every new governor in every state promises and then forgets: I will be listening to what you have to say; I'm not going to be threatening you; I am not going to be dogmatic.

Romer actually did begin by listening to some legislators. We met with him one on one and made suggestions about government revisions and about bills for 1987. But the concept of Romer sitting quietly and "listening" soon changed.

In 1987 and 1988, I was part of the House Democratic leadership. We, and the Senate Democratic leadership would meet once a week with Romer. It was an open meeting where the press could attend. Richard Lamm began this process when he became governor in 1975.

All of us had concerns we wanted to voice to the governor about legislation. But after five minutes (in almost every meeting) Romer got up from the conference table, moved to a large easel holding white sheets of paper. Standing there, he began to lecture us, writing on the paper to demonstrate his views. We sat there mute, looking at each other. Week after week went by. We all knew it was a waste of time, but no one had the courage to say "Romer, shut up! We want a chance to talk."

The major theme of Romer's first State of the State was growth, called "Economic Development". "I intend to spend a significant portion of my time promoting Colorado," said Romer, "and improving its economy. This will involve marketing Colorado both nationally and internationally. It will involve extensive time spent cultivating new business for Colorado." (All of which he did.)

"As Governor," he continued "I refuse to accept the pendulum effect of growth versus environment. That is, in periods when we stress economic growth, the quality of life must suffer, and vice versa. I am absolutely committed to improving Colorado's quality of life while at the same time we accelerate economic growth."

Growth is the major legacy for Romer. And he has to accept it also as the major downside of his tenure. He glorified in growth (which delighted Republicans eager to assist), provided tax breaks for it, culminating in a now-fraudulent enterprise zone law which was passed before he was elected but which was expanded under his administration.

Government statistics show Colorado's population July 1,1987 at 3,263,000, a mere 20,000 more than the previous fiscal year. Eleven years later, July l,1998, Colorado's population is 4,016,000. The 753,000 increase means for every 100 people living in Colorado in 1987, there are now 123. And most of the latest residents are to be found along 1-70 and 1-25.

Some of that population growth would have occurred regardless of who was governor and it took almost all of Romer's first term to jump start the state's economy. While the governor tried to retain the "quality of life" that he enjoyed while growing up in Colorado, he didn't succeed, at least on the front range where 3.24 million residents now live.

Chuck Green, Denver Post columnist, wrote it clearly on July 22d: "The people moving into those new homes haven't paid for our highway interchanges, our schools, our water systems, our utility network, our parks, our recreation centers. But we will, over the years, help pay for theirs....As the area grows, we all will pay for the cost of growth, in longer lines, more congested highways, power blackouts, and crowded parks." And, I would add, 80,000 to 90,000 acres of open land each year lost to development.

In a Denver Post "Snapshot of Colorado" supplement in April, Gov. Romer is quoted: "Colorado's growth isn't going to stop. That worries me. I like it the way it is."

For those of us who came to Colorado in the 1940's and 50's, without the enticement of tax giveaways or inducement by a tourism board: We liked it the way it WAS.

Next week, Romer as CEO, as anti-gambling, and lots more.


Jerry Kopel writes a column for the Statesman based on 22 years past experience as a state legislator.

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