After 50 years in public life, Denver City Auditor Dennis Gallagher has come full circle. He’s leaving politics the same way he got in: Tilting against windmills.
Indeed it’s the same windmill: Interstate 70.
It’s an impossible dream and a battle he’ll probably lose — again.
Gallagher , 75, is finishing his third and last term as city auditor. He previously served four years in the state House and 20 in the state Senate. Never far from public office, he then served two terms as a Denver city councilman prior to being elected auditor in 2003.
Back in the late 1950s and early 1960s, when he was in college and graduate school, Gallagher and allies fought valiantly but futilely against locating Interstate 70 through north Denver. They preferred an alternate route through what was then a very rural Adams County.
Gallagher still gets mad when talking about the damage that I-70 construction, especially the elevated portion, did to the Globeville, Swansea and Elyria neighborhoods. He talks of the demolition of an ice cream shop and a bakery as well as many homes; asthmatic school children suffering from auto exhaust; the destruction of manicured lawns “better than the putting greens on the [Willis] Case Golf Course.” The accompanying industrialization left a “gaping wound,” he says.
Theories abound as to why I-70 went where it did: Veteran Democratic activist Miller Hudson has offered one of the more colorful ones. Mike Pomponio, the north Denver Democratic boss in those days, teamed up with allies in Boulder, Adams and Pueblo counties to deliver Colorado’s delegation to the Democratic national convention in 1960 to John F. Kennedy instead of the favored Lyndon Johnson. A few years later he got his reward: The current I-70 route through Denver. And why did he want it? Pomponio owned the DX gas station at Pecos Street, where there would be an exit.
Gallagher doesn’t buy that theory. He thinks it has more to do with Democratic Gov. Ed Johnson and Will Nicholson, the Republican mayor of Denver. (Yes, kiddies, there used to be Republicans in Denver and some of them even got elected to office).
Those two also managed to get I-70 all the way through the state into Utah. The original plans had it dead-ending in Denver. After all, to the west of the city were those impassable mountains. But George V. Kelly, author of The Old Gray Mayors of Denver, tells the story of how Johnson and Nicholson managed to convince Congress to extend the route.
The two paid a visit to President Dwight Eisenhower in the spring of 1956 to present him with Colorado Fishing License No. 1. Ike of course was a regular summer visitor who fly-fished in the Fraser area. But they also had with them a wrapped presentation on how the highway could be extended 275 miles to the Utah line by tunneling through the Continental Divide. From there it would go to Cove Fort, Utah, to join Interstate 15.
After Ike was given the license he asked what was in the package. They let him tear it open and explained that they needed quick action in Congress because the final vote on the interstate highway system, the greatest public works program in the nation’s history, was about to be taken.
They asked Ike to put in a word with congressional leaders and he did. The extension was added.
It was “a fair exchange for a fishing license and a folksy house call on the President by two of the state’s top government officials,” wrote Kelly.
Now the state’s transportation department wants to knock down the elevated portion of I-70 east of the Mousetrap, bury much of it below ground level, and widen it to 10 lanes from the current six.
The plan has stirred Gallagher’s old passions. He has established a Web site, stop10.org, and blogs constantly on the issue.
“I am adamantly opposed to this plan,” he wrote. “We have to rally the community to oppose this proposal as well. We mistreated the neighborhoods when I-70 was first built in Denver and now CDOT wants to compound the issue by making the highway even larger and more disruptive to the community.”
A few days ago he also testified at a CDOT-sponsored community meeting on the issue. Each witness was given only two minutes to testify.
“I can’t even say hello in two minutes,” mourned Gallagher, echoing what his friends already know. But terser allies came to his support and he claimed that during the 90-minute meeting only one person supported CDOT’s plans.
Gallagher has supported an alternate plan that involves a “boulevard” and a bypass that would take truck traffic up to I-270 — which also would have to be widened. CDOT has dismissed this as preposterously expensive.
CDOT usually gets what it wants, and Gallagher’s opposition isn’t likely to stop it. But it has given him new life. “To paraphrase Winston Churchill [very badly], we will fight on the beaches of the South Platte River till we achieve victory over this proposal,” he wrote.
The battle will probably continue long after he leaves office next summer. “I am not going gently into that dark night,” he said.
Longtime Rocky Mountain News political columnist Peter Blake now writes Thursdays for CompleteColorado.com. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org You may re-publish his work at no charge and without further permission; please give full credit to Peter Blake and www.CompleteColorado.com.