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.

 

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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.

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