Powers helped save ALEC

Colorado has lost one of our toughest old Reaganauts. Ray Powers of Colorado Springs, who died Friday at 79, was the last in an unbroken string of Republican Senate Presidents from 1975 to 2001. Profiles ran this weekend in the Rocky and the Post. Sen. Powers was just taking over the gavel from Tom Norton when I arrived as a Senate freshman in 1999. Ray was a steady hand as a leader, consensus-builder, and legislative point man for newly-inaugurated Gov. Bill Owens. We didn't always agree on the issues, but he was unfailingly kind, fair, and helpful to me. I've never known a finer gentleman in politics.

Three memories of Sen. Powers stand out to me. First, his loyalty and skill in helping pass the Owens agenda. For the first time in a quarter-century, we had a GOP chief executive to propose conservative reforms and sign them into law when steered through the state House and Senate. Ray's fidelity to the Reagan worldview was critical in pushing through Gov. Owens' early successes on tax cuts, school accountability, and transportation, given that liberal Republican Russ George was Speaker of the House. Had the even more liberal Sen. Dottie Wham won her bid for President against Ray in November 1998, much of that might not have occurred.

Second, I was personally grateful for Powers' advice and backing when we narrowly passed the Defense of Marriage Act during the 2000 session. This statutory protection for traditional marriage (since superseded by a voter-approved constitutional amendment to the same effect) started as a Senate bill sponsored by Marilyn Musgrave, was killed in our chamber, then amended onto a different bill of mine in the House and sent back to us for concurrence. Though Ray was less zealous for pro-life and pro-family positions than I am, he stood strong with me while we steered DOMA through the shoals of antagonistic Democrats led by Ed Perlmutter and unconvinced Republicans such as Elsie Lacy. That's leadership; that's integrity.

And for context on both of the above points, I should point out that the 20-15 numerical majority our GOP caucus enjoyed during President Powers' tenure was functionally no greater than the bare minimum of 18 at any time -- and sometimes his "easy" vote count stopped at 14, with baling wire (familiar to Ray as a dairyman) necessary to pass the bill from there. To start with, Wham of Denver and Dave Wattenberg of Walden were mavericks with a McCain-style indifference to voting with their party.

Lacy of Aurora and the late Bryan Sullivant of Breckenridge, who came over from the House after Tony Grampsas' death a month into the 1999 session, weren't easy to corral either. Norma Anderson of Lakewood was constantly playing games across the aisle, and Ken Chlouber of Leadville, though a faithful team player, tended to shy from labor and social issues. On a bad day that left Ray and Majority Leader Tom Blickensderfer six down in the caucus and four down for a working majority. So their winning pattern was that much more impressive.

My final enduring memory of Ray Powers, and his greatest contribution as a conservative not just for Colorado but nationally, dates from the mid-1990s before he became Senate President. Ray was serving as board chairman of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which came on the scene in 1976 as a membership organization for legislators in the 50 states who shared Ronald Reagan's limited-government beliefs. ALEC had thrived for two decades as a vital counterforce in state capitals against the liberal-leaning, Denver-based National Conference of State Legislators.

But during Sen. Powers' chairmanship, mismanagement by the CEO drove the organization to the edge of bankruptcy. He stepped in as acting CEO despite severe health challenges he happened to be facing just then, stabilized the situation, obtained emergency funding, and recruited new management. ALEC wouldn't be here today, playing the hugely constructive role it does on issues from energy to health care, taxes to tort reform, if it hadn't been for Ray Powers' heroic leadership in its turnaround a dozen years ago.

It's not the kind of thing they erect statues for, but some of us on the right will never forget. At least there's an important thoroughfare on the east side of Colorado Springs, Powers Boulevard, named for him -- and I'll never drive it without a little prayer of gratitude for the man's quiet strength and undaunted courage.