Colorado Democrats ponder electability vs. purity

  Tom Strickland and Gene Nichol are two 40-something former Texans who have used their law degrees to help the Sierra Club. They live 35 miles apart on Colorado's Front Range, and they're applying for the same job - Democratic replacement for retiring Republican Sen. Hank Brown.


Most similarities end there. Strickland is a partner with Brownstein Hyatt Farber & Strickland, an influential law firm known for its fund-raising prowess. In the first quarter of 1996, Strickland raised more money than any Republican candidate and more than his four Democratic rivals combined. Supporters Gov. Roy Romer and former Sen. Tim Wirth commend his environmental achievements, such as spearheading the drive to give lottery funds to parks. However, he has represented several real estate developers; one of them backs a controversial ski expansion near Steamboat Springs, Colo. He received an endorsement from the Colorado Education Association (an organization of public school educators) although his kids attend private school.


In contrast, Nichol quit his job as an attorney in Alaska during the late 1980s when his firm required him to defend polluters. In 1988, he became dean of the University of Colorado law school, the youngest person to become dean of a U.S. law school. He refuses PAC money. He sends his kids to public schools.


But many environmentalists are convinced that Strickland has the best shot at gaining the Senate seat, and after being burned in 1994, they seem more interested in electability than in purity. That became obvious last month when the Bureau of Reclamation released its latest environmental study of Animas-La Plata, the $2 billion scheme to divert water from the Animas River and then pump it in two directions to irrigate arid southwestern Colorado.


The Environmental Protection Agency says the newest study of the beleaguered project is flawed; the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund recently sued the Bureau for not negotiating payments with local taxpayers; and environmentalists have renewed pleas to Congress to find a less damaging way to fulfill the Ute Indians' water rights, to which the project owes its political life.


Strickland still says he supports the dam; Nichol opposes it. But green faith in Strickland continues.


"His environmental platform is proven," says long-time Animas-La Plata opponent, Sierra Club leader and Strickland supporter Mark Pearson. And around the same time that the Colorado River Alliance rated the Animas River the state's most endangered because of the specter of the dam, a national water group, Clean Water Action, endorsed Strickland.


"We went through a pretty meticulous endorsement process with a 14-page questionnaire and interviews," says Clean Water Action's Carmie McLean. "Strickland had a greater depth of knowledge." One issue they didn't ask about was the water project.


Nichol did well at county assemblies, winning 1,162 delegates to the June 5 state convention to Strickland's 1,353. But Strickland's manager expects him to win the August 15 primary, when deep pockets and wide publicity are essential.


Whoever gains the nomination will face a tough opponent this fall. Both leading Republican candidates have proposed handing federal lands over to the states and compensating landowners for environmental "takings." There is no clear frontrunner, but the richest is Colo. Rep. Wayne Allard, who chairs a House Agriculture subcommittee. Half of his campaign coffers have been filled by the agriculture industry and other PACs. His primary opponent, state Attorney General Gale Norton, formerly worked for Interior Secretary James Watt. She has received donations from the WISH list, an organization that contributes to the campaigns of GOP women who favor abortion rights.


* Heather Abel,


HCN researcher/reporter