Jerry Kopel

Attention, District One candidates for Congress. Here is free advice on do's and don'ts for 1996, backed by 44 years involvement in Denver politics.

I. Don't clone Pat Schroeder: Whiffs of themes are already rising from congressional candidates, potential or announced. Some themes emphasize "I'll be carrying on in the tradition of Pat Schroeder" or "Pat Schroeder's priorities are also my priorities."

This may not be a wise approach. Pat Schroeder was and is unique. Denver was fortunate to have a political personality who combined her intellect and wit with a talent for debating, and an ability to make understandable and memorable quotes in achieving national prominence.

If Pat had run in 1996, she would have won, but only by about 52 to 48 percent, in spite of a heavy Denver Democratic majority.

Even as influential as she was, Pat Schroeder was never an insider. And when you lose 24 years seniority, you had better find a replacement who will work his or her way up the power structure ladder in a manner similar to Rep. Skagg's game plan.

My advice? Every candidate will do better being an original and not an imitator. Pat Schroeder never said, when running for her first term "Elect me and I'll be your Byron Rogers." (For those under 30 years of age, Rogers was the Denver Democrat who served 20 years in Congress until defeated in 1970.)

2. Should you go the County Assembly or petition route? If the upcoming primary was a two-candidate battle, both would be wise to seek caucus and county assembly approval, similar to the Schroeder-Decker primary of 1972. But this is going to be at least a five-person race between, in alphabetical order: DeGette, Franklin, Friednash, Lyle, and Sandos. There may even be more.

The caucus/county assembly route is further complicated by using the U.S. Senate race as the delegate decider. Congressional candidates are required to have thirty percent approval from delegates at the assembly to make the primary ballot, and if you don't obtain at least ten percent approval, you cannot then go the petition route.

In contrast, getting the necessary petition signatures is rather easy, and in a five person or more candidate race, it really doesn't matter on which line your name appears.

What about support from the county assembly generated by your going the time-honored route? At one time, before Denver was divided into House and Senate districts, the county party was all-powerful. Not any more.

A good example has been the Denver Democratic Party "support" for candidates running for election commissioner. While the position of election commissioner is "non-partisan", the party support is supposed to boost the chosen candidates (there are two elected) to success. And this is especially so when there are as many as nine candidates running.

In 1995 the actual result was the opposite. The two candidates endorsed by the party finished with 8.1 and 10.8 percent of the total votes cast. The "non-endorsed" winners received 15.6 and 21.2 percent of the total votes cast, nearly double the two party-picks. How many Denver Democratic party preferences for election commissioner have actually won? I can only recall one in the past twelve years.

My advice? If you definitely have more than fifty percent of the delegates backing you, seek county assembly approval. You do get top line. Anyone else who goes that route takes the chance of being frozen out and not able to then get on the ballot by petition.

3. Have the Denver party save the experience. This is going to be tough and the following advice may anger some of the potential candidates for the Colorado House from Denver, but I don't want to see the House lose three experienced legislators: DeGette, Friednash, and Lyle. One or two of the three may well decide the congressional race can't be won. By then it may be too late to try for re-nomination to the House.

The Republicans know how to handle this. When Ken Chlouber lost in his assembly bid for governor, he was able to go into another room and be nominated again for state representative. The Democratic Denver County Assembly should consider holding the congressional assembly a few days earlier than the assembly vote on legislative candidates, allow candidates to seek nominations for more than one elected position, and thus enable several present legislators to consider a return to the House.

4. This primary calls for "quality" not "quantity". Remember a plurality, not a majority, constitutes victory. If Denver elected a mayor the same way candidates for Congress win a primary, Mary DeGroot would be mayor. Fortunately, Denver decided a mayor needed to win by a majority vote.

But whoever wins a plurality in the Democratic Denver primary is, by the best odds, going to be elected to Congress. That's because reapportionment put as many Democrats as possible into Pat Schroeder's district, making the other congressional seats harder for Democrats to win.

With five candidates in the race, it is mathematically possible to win the primary with 25-30 percent of the votes cast. Each of the five candidates starts with a home base and will build on that. Each candidate will be wise to get that basic vote locked up and then pick up additional outside votes ten or twenty at a time. Unless a candidate has a lot of money and time to squander, both can be wasted trying to tear committed voters away from the home base candidate.

I'm sure Republican candidate Joe Rogers is a very pleasant person, but it is the state Democratic party's hope that Republicans will empty their coffers to help Mr. Rogers. He should remember there is always a bright side to everything. Even though he tilted at windmills, Don Quixote De La Mancha managed to be the source of a famous musical.


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

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