'Easy Bill' learns on the job

(Andrews in Denver Post, Mar. 18) Big Labor is furious at the Colorado law making it hard for union bosses to collect dues from workers unwilling to join. A bill to remove that protection flew through the legislature, only to die on Gov. Bill Ritter’s desk. Now the AFL-CIO threatens to run the Democratic convention out of Denver unless their pickpocket proposal is revived. Ritter says he won’t be bullied, but stay tuned. Remember that our new chief executive, Kerry-style, was for the labor bill before he was against it. The battle for the governor’s soul, on this and many other issues, has barely begun.

Bill Ritter has the great political gift of not seeming like a politician. Yet unlike his predecessors – from Republicans John Love and John Vanderhoof, through fellow Democrats Dick Lamm and Roy Romer and down to the recently departed Bill Owens – this governor has skillfully marketed himself with a slogan, Kennedy-style: the Colorado Promise. Nice work for a rookie.

The trouble with a slogan is that it will stick you if you don’t stick to it. Ritter’s honeymoon ended when two inconvenient truths came out. First it transpired, to the dismay of business, the press, and the public, that the candidate had given his union allies a quiet pledge to support the controversial bill. Then it was labor’s turn for an unpleasant surprise, as Ritter yielded to the outcry, broke his word, and cast a veto. Gov. Promise was damaged goods overnight.

According to KOA’s Mike Rosen, we who labeled this a rookie mistake should lose our pundit licenses. He calls the veto a masterstroke, demonstrating Ritter’s integrity and positioning him as a bipartisan triangulator, Clinton-style. I don’t buy that. The governor narrowly escaped a trap of his own making. Blaming the mess on inexperience is generous, if anything. Maybe it reveals an artful dodger behind the disarming smile – again, think Bill Clinton.

As with any betrayal in love or war, trust took a beating in this episode, and it won’t soon be restored. The saber-rattling by labor over DNC 2008 proves that. Business does not signal its displeasure by threats of kneecapping, but you know the chamber types are equally suspicious and sore at Ritter. When the big fella from Credibility Gap starts in with his “promise” rhetoric, eyes now roll on both sides of the aisle.

Somewhere in all this melodrama, a nickname waits our nimble-footed governor. “Switch Ritter” was the inspired suggestion of my radio partners, Krista Kafer and Joshua Sharf. Another we might try for size is “Easy Bill.” Think of all the ways that one applies.

Labor found Bill agreeable to a whispered signature promise, business equally so to a loudly demanded veto. He had an easy path to nomination last summer and to election last fall; only this winter did the price of insufficient vetting come due. The campaign did reveal that back in his prosecutor days, Easy Bill was quick with a plea bargain – and frequently even gentle with illegal-alien felonies. But how he eased his way home from Africa after that driving fatality, was never much discussed.

An easier life for Coloradans is foreseen in Ritter’s policy promises, if you share his preference for government solutions at the expense of personal responsibility and free markets. For a lot of us, though, Easy Bill’s premise invalidates his promise. Increased command and control over energy, health care, education, and transportation may not lead to a better future after all.

Our state will see between now and 2011, because that’s the Ritter route, the path the voters chose. We’ll also see whether or not his inaugural words, “The Colorado Promise is… about finding the strength in all of us,” bespeak an inner core of strength and principle in Easy Bill himself.