It has been among the great pleasures of my career to have been befriended by Dick Lamm.
Out of all the elected officials I have known, Lamm has been the most unique.
Perhaps it comes downs to this. I have never met a political leader more open to challenging his own political premises than Dick Lamm.
Because of that I have never known a political leader more willing to challenge his own base of supporters. Usually this is a death sentence in politics. For him it never seemed even a consideration.
I was a kid when he became governor. I never would have thought someday he’d regularly invite me to speak at his University of Denver classes. He’d say to me, “Jon, I am a fanatic about having ideological balance in my class.” This was of course his kind way of saying he asked me to speak to his kids because I was so politically wrong.
So modest in character, his young students never had an idea what an important force he was in state and national politics. I found this very telling about his personality. It was never about him. It was always about ideas and policy.
So maybe the phrase I’ve been looking for is, I have never known a political leader who was so opposite on policy from me — whom I’ve ever respected so much.
We are living in a Colorado that Dick Lamm greatly influenced.
As a state legislator, Lamm carried and passed Colorado’s bill to legalize abortion. This was back in an age when political parties weren’t at each other’s throats. The bill was signed by a Republican governor.
Even today’s traffic jams have something to do with his policies. Lamm didn’t want large population growth in Colorado. He believed in a policy of “if you don’t build it, they won’t come.” Denver is the only metro area of its size without at least one beltway around it today since he kept killing the idea of C-470, putting his famed “silver spike” through it.
Sadly, they came anyway.
His most famed “if you don’t build it” action was the one that catapulted him into the governorship. As the U.S. Olympic Committee, the world, and of course Colorado’s business community planned the 1976 winter games to be hosted in Colorado, Lamm led a citizens’ initiative to deny them that privilege. Seeing how many states are left holding the financial bag after the circus leaves town, he may have been right.
When the Colorado Olympic idea resurfaced just a few years ago, just the comment from him that he might oppose it again forced them to drop the idea.
He was keen on keeping Colorado, well, Colorado — by keeping the transplants out, both the legal and illegal ones. Warning against the “press one for English” culture that would be costly, he joined Republican icon Tom Tancredo in sounding the alarm over unchecked illegal immigration, something few liberals had the courage to do.
Lamm made decisions he later regretted. Beyond some judicial picks I believe he most regretted his decision to “de-institutionalize” people with severe mental health issues. The idea of mainstreaming these people was seen as a compassionate way to deal with cruelty of institutions. Unfortunately, many of the people weren’t ready for the real world, as we see in the homeless issue today.
Dick was one of the few Democrats who could do math. This led him to worry about the obscene debt spending to which the nation is addicted. Thus, his obsession with health-care costs and his comment about a “duty to die.” He left the world as he preached.
The last time I saw Dick was at the funeral of a mutual friend. He had retired from teaching. I got the strong sense he regretted that. “Think hard before you retire Jon,” he told me.
From a state of pioneers goes one of the great political pioneers, and just a damn good man.
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