Jerry Kopel



"You've heard of the three ages of man: youth, aged, and 'you're looking wonderful.'" Francis Joseph, Cardinal Spellman.

State Rep. Ben Clarke, D-Denver, has decided to call it quits after the year 2000. When he finishes his term in January 2001, he will be 72.

Clarke is not the oldest member of the state legislature. That honor belongs to Rep. Bill Sinclair, R-Colorado Springs, who was born Dec. 27, 1924. Rep. Sinclair is nine days older then Sen. Dottie Wham, R-Denver. The other elder stateswoman is Sen. Dorothy Rupert, D-Boulder, who turned 73 during the month of October.

I admire anyone who can put in a full days work at the Colorado legislature in their 60's and 70's. For me, age 64 and 22 years of service was enough. I have no doubt my health would have sharply deteriorated (beyond my heart attack at age 65) if I had served another term.

There are presently 28 legislators age 60 and older. Eighteen are Republicans and ten are Democrats. That makes sense. If you are in the majority, the strain of age is lessened by not having to fight as hard to win your battles. And gender? Sixteen men and 12 women. I would have expected the opposite.

In 2001, assuming he runs again and wins, only Rep. Sinclair and holdover Sen. David Owens, R-Greeley, will be over the age of seventy and still in the legislature. Owens will turn seventy June 9, 2001. Sens. Rupert, Wham and Ray Powers, R-Colorado Springs, age 70, are term-limited. While someone older than 69 might well seek a first term in 2001, it is doubtful. Only Rep. Sinclair of the five 70's did that.

Except in the court system, not too many statewide candidates or even legislative candidates run after age 70. Gov. Roy Romer, who left office in January, 1999 at age 70 and two months, was the state's third oldest governor in office. Oldest was Gov. Ed Johnson who left office at age 73, and Gov. Billy Adams left office at age 70 years, 10 months and five days.

Homer Bedford was elected to statewide office 14 times, as state treasurer eight times and state auditor (when that was an elected position) six times. He was last elected state auditor at age 80.

Attorney General Duke Dunbar died in office at age 78 on Dec.8, 1972.

In the words of the immortal Casey Stengel:

"I'll never make the mistake of bein' seventy again!"

* * *

Chances are slim that a constitutional amendment removing the office of Lieutenant Governor (Lt. Gov.) as an elected position will pass the legislature in 2000 despite the recent turmoil between Lt. Gov. Joe Rogers and Gov. Bill Owens. The state office has been in effect beginning with the 1876 constitution, although the Lt. Gov. ran separately from the governor until 1970 and the winner was sometimes from the "other" political party, by choice of the voters.

Before 1975, the Lt. Gov. had a responsible job, governing the Senate. He (there was never a "she" in those days) was president of the Senate and in charge of assigning bills to committee. In the event of a tie in a recorded Senate vote, the Lt. Gov. could vote and break a tie.

The official job of Lt. Gov. beginning in 1975 was literally to wait in the wings in the event the governor died or took another job. Four lieutenant governors have become governor during the governor's term of office.

There was Walter Johnson who replaced William Knous when Knous was appointed a federal district court judge. John Vanderhoof replaced John Love when Love was appointed U.S. Secretary of Energy. And there was Ray Talbot who served nine days as governor in 1937 when Ed Johnson went to the U.S. Senate.

The most interesting was Jesse McDonald in 1905. You will find this true story in the Journal of the Joint Session of the 15th General Assembly. Colorado has just gone through a bitter election for governor. Both Republican and Democratic cemeteries had been voted. Democrat Alva Adams began serving as governor, but the House and Senate met jointly to decide who was really elected. After many days of testimony and debate, this was their decision (part in the Journal and part in the smoke-filled back rooms.):

Alva Adams, the Democrat who had served 66 days was ousted. His opponent James Peabody, Republican, was sworn in. Peabody had already served one term (two years) as governor before "losing" to Alva Adams. Peabody served one day, resigned, and Jesse McDonald, the Republican lieutenant governor, served the rest of the term. So in a space of 25 hours, Colorado had three governors and Colorado made it into Ripley's Believe It or Not feature.

If the majority of legislators really want to abolish the office of Lt. Gov., the SMART way to proceed is to place a referendum on the November 2000 ballot, asking voters "Should the office of Lieutenant Governor be abolished?" This approach requires only a majority vote in each house and by-passes the governor's office.

If electors vote "yes", then the House and Senate will have the momentum to garner a two-thirds vote to place a constitutional amendment on the 2002 ballot to abolish the office, remove all references to the Lt. Gov. and have the abolition take effect in January of 2003 on the last day of the effective term of the prior Lt. Gov. and prior to the swearing in of a new Lt. Gov.

That means the President of the Senate, the Speaker of the House, the Senate minority leader, or the House minority leader (depending on which party is in power) would then be next in line if the governor dies or leaves office before the term expires. Is that what voters would want?

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

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