Denver Knows ‘Hart-Ache’

Posted August 5, 2008 at 10:27am

Twenty years ago, the city of Denver thought it might produce a president. As the 1988 White House contest dawned, former Colorado Sen. Gary Hart was the Democratic frontrunner. He had the brains and the brawn and movie-star good looks. He may have seemed a little stiff, but he had been around the block, having been the runner-up for the Democratic nomination in 1984. And after eight years of Ronald Reagan, he was, without a doubt, something different.

But a funny thing happened on Hart’s march to the White House. A boat called Monkey Business, a beauty named Donna Rice, a dime-dropper named Lynn Armandt and a prying news media, and — poof! — just like that, Hart was gone.

“Follow me around,” Hart once taunted reporters. Though he had been the object of many rumors about womanizing and marital infidelity, little did he imagine that they actually would.

But even with Hart out of the race, Denver’s presidential hopes for 1988 didn’t diminish. The city’s Congresswoman, Patricia Schroeder (D), decided to test the White House waters after Hart exited the pool. Unlike Shirley Chisholm before her, or Hillary Rodham Clinton, who followed, Schroeder didn’t even make it to a primary. And some critics contend that her tearful withdrawal set back the cause of feminism about 20 years.

Late in the game, long after his supporters, donors and staffers had scattered among the other candidates, Hart got back in.

“Let the people decide,” the man who had put together George McGovern’s guerrilla army in 1972 confidently declared. “I’m back in the race!”

But he should have said, “I’m in the back of the pack.” The people did decide, and after dismal showings in Iowa and New Hampshire, Hart was, once again, gone. Gone but not forgotten.

So yes, Denver will nominate a man with a very good chance of becoming the next president of the United States when Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) accepts the Democratic nomination Aug. 28 at the place they used to call Mile High Stadium.

But it won’t be the same for Coloradans as seeing a favorite son (or daughter) grab the glory. For that, Colorado will have to wait a little longer. But they’re used to that in the Centennial State.

Through history, not a single major party presidential or vice presidential nominee has hailed from Colorado — if you don’t include Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), who was born in a Denver military hospital. Oh, they’ve had a secretary of Transportation here (14th in line in succession to the presidency) and a secretary of the Interior there (eighth in line), but that’s about it.

Not that Colorado isn’t relevant to this year’s White House contest — quite the contrary, it’s a battleground like never before.

Democrats and Republicans have both enjoyed success in Colorado over the years. Yet the GOP has held sway in presidential elections, losing only once, in 1992, since Lyndon Johnson’s landslide of 1964.

But it’s safe to say that Democrats have been ascendant in the past few election cycles. On the backs of the Salazar brothers, Ken and John, they picked up a Senate seat and a House seat in 2004. Two years later, they won back the governorship, seized control of the Legislature and picked up another Congressional seat. This year, the state’s other Senate seat could flip, and Democrats are making a serious bid to oust Rep. Marilyn Musgrave (R).

If Democrats can go beyond just nominating a president in Colorado and actually elect one, then the state’s political transformation will be just about complete.

And don’t feel too bad for Gary Hart. Remember, when he was on the verge of dropping out of the 1988 presidential contest for the first time, he reportedly told his wife, “Babe, you know I never wanted to be president.”