My father’s political career

The family also wins and loses.

  • The Conklin family in 1956 (far left): Charles, Jorie, Marty and Leslie. Near left, Speaker Charles Conklin at Paonia's Cherry Days celebration, 1959, with the Pan American Seed Company's Charlie Weddle and Rep. Jim French of Las Animas.

 

The gray November morning was framed by the rectangular windows in my parents' bedroom. They were still in bed -- it must've been early -- and they cut short my eager question: Did Daddy win?

No. Daddy lost. People voted for the other guy -- the Republican.

I was 5 years old, shocked and crushed by the defeat. It was the first of several painful losses -- not only for my father, but also for my mother, my younger sister and me. My father's dream of becoming a Colorado state representative -- and then, who knows, perhaps governor, even president -- was shared by the entire family, whether we liked it or not.

Despite his lofty ambitions, Daddy's political career unfolded almost entirely in his hometown of Delta, a forgettable little burg near the western edge of the state. My great-grandfather was one of the town's founders, but my immediate family was considered weird: We had a wall of books, listened to jazz instead of country and ate a lot of green salads. My father had liberal politics and a Harvard diploma.

All of us tried hard to fit in, to become good campaigners. Despite her solitary bent, my mother played the loyal, accomplished political wife almost flawlessly. My sister and I learned to smile and wave like beauty queens, which -- with our home-sewn dresses, bad haircuts and various dental problems -- we most certainly were not.

Over 14 years and seven elections, we were portrayed in campaign brochures and trotted out for special events. It was initially flattering, then embarrassing, and finally, annoying. By my teens, I resented the façade I had to adopt -- not only during election season, but year-round. We had a reputation to uphold.

In 1952, when my father first ran for state office, Delta County was profoundly Republican -- as it still is. But he thought his third-generation status and love for the land would trump his political affiliation. He wasn't a natural campaigner, though: Often lost in thought, he failed to greet people on the street, and could come across as cold and formal, even to us.

By the next election, in 1954, my father had adopted a folksier approach and worked to become better known. This time he won, by about 1,000 votes -- the same as his margin of defeat just two years earlier.

Despite being in the minority party, he loved his new job as a state representative, and he made friends and a name for himself. When he was returned to his post in 1956, the Legislature was controlled by Democrats for the first time since 1937, and my father, a dark horse, was elected speaker at the age of 36. After Daddy gaveled the House to order for the first time, he introduced my sister and me and we waved from the dais to clapping legislators. I basked in the applause, even though I realized that the glory was reflected from my father.

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