When we took the majority in the 1974 elections because of the Watergate scandal, there never was any doubt but that Ruben Valdez would be our leader and Colorado’s first Hispanic Speaker of the House. He had a quiet charisma, a sense of determination, an innate sense of politics and a calm self-assurance. I was honored to have had the opportunity to nominate him.
His major legislative accomplishment that first session (1975) was House Bill 1295, the Bilingual and Bicultural Education Act. Everyone knew that its passage would be very difficult, so he had gathered 45 co-sponsors in the House. Ten were Republicans including Ron Strahle from Ft. Collins who would become Speaker in 1977. In the Senate, he had 17 co-sponsors, seven of whom were Republicans, including Joe Shoemaker from Denver, who was the Chairman of the Joint Budget Committee. Other legislators like Representative Leo Lucero from Pueblo who was the prime sponsor in the House, Senator Roger Cisneros from Denver who was the prime sponsor in the Senate, and freshman Senator Paul Sandoval also from Denver, were critical to the bill’s passage; but, behind the scenes, it was Ruben Valdez who laid the groundwork. In particular, he was able to garner the support of Education Commissioner Cal Frazier and the Chairwoman of the State Board of Education, Robin Johnston. As Denver Post staff writer Jane Earle stated in a June 29, 1975 column, “Generally acknowledged as the most effective legislator in the just ended session, Valdez from the start wore the speaker’s mantle as though it had been tailored for his solid frame. His presence was never obvious, his utterances rarely from a platform, but within a matter of a few weeks everyone knew that Valdez was the power to reckon with in the House.”
Good things don’t last forever, however, and we lost that majority in 1976. Bob Kirscht from Pueblo who was the Majority Leader remembers that sad election night and Ruben asking Bill Purcell, our Sergeant at Arms, to get some beer. The quick-witted Purcell replied, “Go get your own beer. You are no longer Speaker.” I wasn’t there but I bet that Bill then gave Ruben a hug and went to get the beer.
In 1977, he faced perhaps an even greater challenge. A bill aimed at cutting back bilingual education passed the Senate and seemed to be heading for passage in the House where the Republicans had regained a majority that they would maintain for the next 30 years. Ruben, then the Minority Leader, put together a set of amendments and tried to generate support among Republicans in the House. The only leverage he had was his personality and reputation. To quote from a Fred Brown Denver Post article of May 29, 1977, “Valdez asked House Speaker Ron Strahle, R-Fort Collins to let the majority Republicans consider the amendments ‘with an open mind’ and that is exactly what Strahle told the House GOP caucus to do. He also told the Republicans that Valdez was a gentleman. ‘He’s being all right about this thing,’ Strahle said. ‘I just want you to know this guy’s OK…’ Several other representatives heaped praise on Valdez and said they liked his amendments, at which point things got a little thick for Caucus Chairman Frank Traylor, R-Wheat Ridge. ‘I don’t think Valdez gets this much praise in the Democratic caucus,’ Traylor chuckled.”
(In talking to Frank Traylor a few days ago, he recalled a conversation between Ruben and Representative Ken Kramer, R-Colorado Springs, about a bill of Kramer’s that was due to come up on Second Reading when Ruben was Speaker. “Do you want to get rolled today or wait until tomorrow?” Ruben asked.)
“I’m glad I treated Strahle the way I did,” Ruben said when we met recently. Ruben was the first Speaker to allow the Minority Leader to appoint his own committee members, which certainly helped.
Later Ruben left to become the regional director of the US Department of Transportation in the Carter administration and then worked in the Lamm administration as the executive director of the Department of Social Services, then executive director of the Department of Labor and Employment, and during Governor Lamm’s last 18 months, as executive director of both departments. With that quiet authority of his, he got things done. There was never bad press about his agencies because he was always in charge.
He then formed Ruben Valdez and Associates and has built a career advising a variety of clients on legislative issues, basing his success on his credibility and reputation. About eight years ago, his granddaughter Amber contacted him from CSU. She was considering going to law school after graduation and needed to do an internship at the legislature. Instead of interning with a legislator, he encouraged her to work with him. That has led to their highly successful partnership, one that’s based on his ongoing theme of trust and credibility.
Now Ruben is about to receive the Ronald E. Montoya Lifetime Achievement Award from the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Metro Denver and is being recognized for long-term business success in the Denver metro area, strong involvement in the Hispanic community, adaptability in a changing business world, participation with the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Metro Denver and making a difference in the Hispanic community. I wish that I could be there because he was such a strong mentor to so many of us. One example is David Gaon who was elected to the House two years after Ruben. David said recently, “I still remember J.D. MacFarlane telling me to just stay close to Ruben because he was my natural ally. Well, I took that literally. I was underfoot all the time. I’m sure Ruben thought he had another member of the family. He used to joke with all of us in the caucus that if we didn’t support him, he’d come campaign for us. We’d laugh but the truth was that all of us were proud of him and everything he wanted to accomplish.”
Ruben, congratulations and best wishes. We are all proud of you.
Morgan Smith is a former member of the Colorado House of Representatives and Commissioner of Agriculture. He writes frequently about legislators and elected officials who served with him in the 1970s. He can be reached at Morganfirstname.lastname@example.org.