The delicate delegate selection process of Colorado Dems has changed over the years
Author: Miller Hudson - August 24, 2012 - Updated: August 24, 2012
I moved to Denver in October of 1972, too late to attend my Democratic caucus or even to cast a vote. I was therefore unaware that a McGovern juggernaut engineered by Gary Hart had swept an entire generation from party leadership in Colorado. My precinct committeeman in North Denver was one of the few holdovers who managed to survive. Joe Vinnola was the ‘starter’ at the dog track in Commerce City and a staunch supporter of Mike Pomponio’s Denver machine. Pomponio, the long time Democratic Captain on the north side and a master of proxy warfare, had been among the first to fall.
It had been his command of the caucus process that delivered the Colorado delegation to John F. Kennedy over Lyndon Baines Johnson at the 1960 Democratic convention. Irish and Italian Catholics in Denver closed ranks with like-minded allies in Pueblo, Boulder and Adams County to deny Johnson a state he should reasonably have been expected to carry. Pomponio personally filled the Colorado delegation with a slate of Kennedy loyalists. He was rewarded several years later when the federal highway administration cut I-70 through miles of north Denver neighborhoods, uprooting nearly a thousand families, just so that Pomponio’s DX gas station at Pecos would be located at an Interstate exit. And, people argue politics don’t matter?
Few tears were shed upon Mike’s political demise. His enemies far outnumbered his friends. Prior to the civil rights legislation of the ‘60s, Denver legislators were required to run as at-large candidates on party slates. This handed tremendous power to party bosses whose approval had to be sought by each aspirant. Likewise, Democratic delegates to national conventions were uniformly party loyalists — worker bees who won their stripes by accepting orders and executing them faithfully. The McGovern selection reforms stripped both party leaders and elected officials of their influence over this process. Going forward, delegates had to arise out of a grassroots process that reflected both caucus preferences and a demographic relationship to the voting population, including 50 percent female delegates.
Joe Vinnola realized his days in the sun were over, so he unexpectedly nominated me for precinct committeeman at our 1974 caucus. The vote was unanimous. A few years later when I attended a Legislators Night at the dog track he “marked” my betting sheet. Out of twelve races, he picked nine winners, one place and one show, with just a single miss. I’m not sure how you can fix a dog race, but Joe’s insights won me several hundred dollars. It struck me that he could make a lot more money betting the dogs, than starting them. In 1982, when Gail Klapper was the Democratic candidate for Attorney General against then Republican Duane Woodard, later a Democrat and then once again a Republican, Joe asked me, “Do you think our little girl can do that job?” Despite my assurances I believed she could, I suspected her candidacy was doomed if she couldn’t convince a yellow-dog Democrat like Joe to support her.
During the ‘70s and ‘80s, minority candidates learned to guilt county assemblies, demanding adequate representation for their ethnic faction, resulting in Democratic convention delegations that were frequently majority minority and wholly unrepresentative of Colorado’s actual demographic make-up. Elected officials were routinely scorned as candidates — which resulted in the creation of “super delegates” as a way of guaranteeing that Governors, members of Congress and major city Mayors could attend Democratic conventions with their state delegations. By 2008 these super-delegates had grown so numerous there was fear Hillary Clinton might snatch the nomination without winning a single major primary.
During the intervening years, more and more Democratic state legislators have begun to seek convention delegate slots in Colorado. As party regulars lose their clout in the ebb and surge of support for particular presidential campaigns, these candidacies have proven surprisingly successful. So much for the grassroots! Most presidential campaigns haven’t bothered to insist on sending their most ardent Colorado supporters to national conventions, accepting whoever happens to prevail at Democratic assemblies. If an actual floor fight for the nomination were ever to threaten, this would probably change. Complaints reached their most ludicrous in 2008 when Obama supporters who had never bothered to register as Democrats raised a ruckus in Denver because they were ruled ineligible to serve as delegates. The party’s failure to acknowledge the purity of their enthusiasm was attacked as an unfair and unjust institutional bias. Because we’re Democrats, we actually debated their claim.
The foregoing abbreviated history of Democratic delegate selection is punctuated by the relative calm of re-nominating Barack Obama this year for re-election. Win or lose in November, 2016 may well rewrite the rules once again.
Former state Rep. Miller Hudson will be attending this year’s Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina — not as a delegate but as a columnist for The Colorado Statesman.