Ritter's bad year

(Denver Post, Jan. 6) It was Monday, Dec. 10, and Bill Ritter had a choice to make. His secret trip to Iraq and Afghanistan would leave shortly, but Colorado was in shock. Five were dead and several others wounded in the state’s worst outbreak of mass violence since Columbine. Vicious bigotry was evident in the attacks on two religious centers. Jefferson County and El Paso County were reeling. Should the governor proceed to Baghdad as planned? Or should he stay home, help Coloradans grieve, work on making sense of the bloody Sunday, and begin to heal? Ritter flew off for what was essentially a photo op with the troops, peripheral to his job description. Youth With a Mission and New Life Church mourned without him.

Given the sacrifices our neighbors on active duty are making over there, this wasn’t an awful decision; but I believe it was a mistake. That week, amid that horror, the place governor was needed most was right here. It continued the disappointing pattern of Bill Ritter, Year One: his lack of a steady compass to show true north.

As a Republican, of course, a Beauprez supporter in 2006 and a candidate for governor myself in 1990, I’d predictably differ with many policies of this Democrat who became Colorado’s 41st chief executive last January. But it’s on leadership, not policy, that I give him low marks. Even granting the worthiness of Gov. Ritter’s goals, his freshman-year effectiveness in pursuing them has been unimpressive.

All of Ritter’s big headlines in 2007 were about the guy surprising people, and not pleasantly. That’s not how you cast a vision, keep a coalition together, and lead.

In office less than a month, he scared business by letting the labor-giveaway bill, HB-1072, reach his desk – then wrong-footed unions and the legislature by vetoing it. But late in the year he paid unions back with an email executive order decreeing collective bargaining (and higher costs, and potential strikes) for all 32,000 state employees.

His recent approval of energy drilling on the Roan Plateau, though welcome to some of us, was a nasty surprise to environmental groups who had believed his campaign promise of “Never.” His signature on a property-tax hike startled TABOR supporters, who are now suing him over it.

The only logic to Ritter’s zigzagging is pressure, not principle. Threats from James Hoffa Jr. extorted the “labor partnership” deal, after newspaper opposition and corporate outrage had peeled him away from signing HB-1072. Editorial pounding and higher-ed revenue appeals likewise forced his Roan surrender.

It does seem that this governor, for all his Boy Scout demeanor in the 2006 campaign, took office without a compass. Who knows which way he will veer next? The answer matters to our pocketbooks, because Easy Bill is now vacillating between four tax-increase options for the 2008 ballot: health care, transportation, K-12 education, and colleges.

Again, I disagree with taxing Colorado families more heavily for any of these misgoverned activities. But the Ritter stall, parking all of them with study groups for the past year, is another symptom of indecisiveness. Where Speaker Pelosi had the Hundred Hours and FDR had the Hundred Days, our governor has the hundred delays.

Yet people like Bill Ritter, wish him well, and seem pretty contented with the job he’s done so far. Approval ratings close to 70% in recent polls must have spelled happy holidays for him, no matter what this paper says. Thunderous warnings from the Post, back in November, that he might end up a one-term governor may be very premature.

President Bill Clinton also had a rocky first year, and a worse second year, before recovering to win easy reelection. President Jimmy Carter, on the other hand, had four directionless years and then goodbye. Will Ritter find true north before 2010?