Colorado: Environment wielded like a hammer in tight Senate race

  To hear the candidates tell it, the U.S. Senate race in Colorado is between two guys named "Strickland-the-Lobbyist" and "Allard-Gingrich."


"Allard-Gingrich" votes with the Republican congressional leadership 92 percent of the time, generally to dehydrate rivers, clear-cut forests and sell public lands to private developers. "Strickland-the-Lobbyist" talks pretty green, but has been paid quite well to represent polluters like Louisiana-Pacific, as well as a medical-waste incinerator in Denver and a ski-resort developer intent on destroying wetlands.


Their environmental jabs and punches fill Colorado airwaves as both major parties pour resources into Colorado this year. Colorado is getting all this national attention because the Senate seat is open. Hank Brown, generally a moderate Republican, is stepping down after one term.


Although Colorado can often be as Republican as a country club or a bank's loan committee, Bill Clinton did carry the state in 1992, Democrats have held the governor's seat since 1975, and Colorado voters seem to like to send one from each party to the U.S. Senate, ideological consistency be damned.


During the "80s, for instance, Colorado's senators were liberal Democrat Gary Hart, who got caught cheating on his wife, and conservative Republican Bill Armstrong, who, among other things, tried to ban sales of Playboy on military bases.


This trend has persisted into the 1990s, with Brown replacing Armstrong as the Republican in 1990, and Ben Nighthorse Campbell as the Democrat in 1992, replacing Tim Wirth who replaced Gary Hart in 1986. But then "Benedict Nightmare" Campbell - as some Democrats dubbed him - switched parties in 1995, giving Colorado two Republicans, an unusual state for the state.


Why the propensity for one of each? One theory is that Colorado wants to make sure that both parties have a Coloradan advocating important state issues like grazing subsidies, timber subsidies, mining subsidies, tourism promotion, highway subsidies, bigger Denver airports, water-project subsidies, military-base preservation, etc.


Another theory is that Colorado, with its relatively small population, contains only one person of senatorial caliber in either party. In that respect, things look promising for Tom Strickland, a 43-year-old downtown Denver lawyer making his first run for public office.


Strickland, who earned $555,536 in 1994 as a partner in the Democratic powerhouse law firm of Brownstein Hyatt Farber & Strickland, says his main priority is improving the lot of Colorado's working families.


Although, like Allard, he supports the controversial Animas-La Plata water project near Durango (HCN, 5/27/96), Strickland is campaigning hard on environmental issues. Strickland stresses his volunteer work with the Environmental Defense Fund and his leadership in the 1992 drive to guarantee that state lottery money would go to parks and open space, not prisons. He points to his endorsement by the Sierra Club and the League of Conservation Voters, as contrasted to his opponent's low rankings on environmental scorecards, such as 8 out of a possible 100 from the League of Conservation Voters.


Wayne Allard is a 52-year-old veterinarian from Loveland. His political career began in 1982 in the state Legislature. Along the way he managed Hank Brown's campaigns for representative and then senator. He was elected to Brown's House seat in 1990, and now he's running for Brown's Senate seat.


Earlier this year, Allard came under fire from environmental groups, which ran full-page newspaper ads of rock-strewn dry streambeds, portraying Allard as a heartless fish-killer errand boy for Newt Gingrich.


At issue were several reservoir sites in Roosevelt National Forest, leased by Front Range cities. As the old leases expired, the Forest Service tried to get provisions in the new leases to guarantee that enough water would be released from the reservoirs to maintain minimum stream flows.


"Wayne fought this as a federal intrusion into Colorado water policy," explained his campaign manager, Dick Wadhams. "He wasn't trying to dry up any new streams, but only to preserve the current status." The matter is now under review by a commission which is supposed to make recommendations sometime next year.


Wadhams also said it's unfair to portray Allard as uncaring about environmental issues. He said the congressman has worked to maintain the old Rocky Mountain Arsenal site on the north side of Denver as a wildlife preserve and to prohibit development along North St. Vrain Creek on the east side of Rocky Mountain National Park.


Allard "believes in working on the local level to build support and consensus," Wadhams added, "rather than establishing policy by fiat from Washington."


Aside from the environment, Allard is running the standard Republican campaign - economy in government, balancing the budget, more local control.


The latest polls show them neck and neck as they try to define themselves and each other. As for Colorado's newcomers, they arguably come to the state for its down-home charm - a factor that could favor Allard. If they care about the environment, and do some homework on the issues, it's more likely they'll turn to Strickland.


* Ed Quillen





Ed Quillen writes from Salida, Colorado.