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Know the West

My father’s political career

The family also wins and loses.


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.

He ran unopposed in 1958 and was returned as speaker, but two years later, reapportionment had enlarged his district to include neighboring counties, and his seat was targeted by the Republicans. It was the year John F. Kennedy slipped into the presidency with a .1 percent margin nationwide. Colorado went Republican for the third election in a row, and my father's political career skidded to a halt due to a mere 80 votes.

This loss was far worse than his first one. He had been seen as a rising star, a respected politician, considered a possible candidate for lieutenant governor. His success made us all feel important, and so we all suffered from his ignominious defeat. My father spent the next six years trying to regain his seat. In 1962, he lost; in 1964, he won; in 1966, he lost. Each time, we were there with him. My mother doggedly continued to play her supporting role, and my sister physically embodied our pain, becoming ill each time he lost.

Even though he himself hesitated to run the last three times, no one in my family dreamed of suggesting he quit. During his 1964 run, a high school friend and I performed a campaign song I'd written:

Now all of us think it's a great Western Slope
If you think Denver knows it,
the answer is nope
We're not represented, it must be confessed
Charles Conklin, Charles Conklin
will serve you the best

After the 1966 loss, one of his political mentors, Congressman Wayne Aspinall, offered him a job in Washington, D.C. My father directed the staff of the House Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs while my mother taught first grade, and they eagerly soaked up the culture and excitement of the cosmopolitan city.

But his dream of statesmanship had to die. He never blamed the other party for his thwarted political career. He blamed himself -- his ego, his failure to connect. The rest of us were less charitable. (My mother's ladylike revenge was to mute all the Republicans whenever she watched C-Span.)

My father worked on Capitol Hill for 15 years before he retired to Hawaii. In later years, he made a few trips back to Delta, hobnobbing with old friends and walking the familiar streets. Despite everything, he never lost his affection for his hometown. He and my mother both died near Waikiki.

Our family gathered a few years ago at the Delta Cemetery, overlooking the valley, to commemorate my parents: My son-in-law had engraved their names on either side of a piece of marble, and the stone was placed in the Conklin family plot, where we eulogized them on the grassy lawn under the big cottonwoods. On my mother's side of the stone there's a line of poetry. On my father's side it says, simply, Speaker of the Colorado House of Representatives, 1957-60.

The author is an HCN assistant editor.