How Ritter got my vote

John's Denver Post column 7/19(Salida – Nov. 15, 2010) What a year it’s been. Who knew my fellow Republicans would be so unforgiving? Here I am, exiled from Denver’s red suburbs and hiding out in Ed Quillen’s attic, merely for having endorsed Gov. Bill Ritter in the recent election. Where’s the sin in that? It was an unusual move for unusual times. Since the fall of the economy and the rise of Obama, ours have been unusual indeed. Ritter “grew in office,” as they say, but he grew rightward and became that rarity, an irresistible Democrat. Smitten, I signed up. The family disowning me was harsh.

Our governor’s reinvention of himself began in late 2009. Democrats everywhere were getting panicky as the recession dragged on, prolonged by Obama’s clumsy mixture of taxes, regulations, bureaucracy, and bailouts. Republicans won the governor’s races in Virginia and New Jersey. Ritter’s poll numbers and fundraising were anemic. He fled the state, ostensibly for some golf at Hilton Head.

Then came the confessional press conference. Boy Scout Bill wasn’t vacationing in South Carolina after all. He had followed his heart to Chile. Stolen hours at the mansion with an old college econ book had nerved him for the secret weekend in Santiago, tutoring with Chicago-trained free marketeers. “My soul mate is Milton Friedman,” he gushed. The YouTube video got a million hits in 48 hours.

Statehouse reaction was mixed. Adam Schrager of 9News said Ritter’s rift with the White House made him the new Ralph Carr, a profile in courage. GOP chairman Dick Wadhams voiced suspicion, but admitted he’d prefer a Ritter roaming right to a Schwarzenegger lurching left. Speaker Terrance Carroll, an ordained minister, offered the governor pastoral counseling.

But as the 2010 session began, legislators had their hands full with what Ritter called his “New Democratic agenda on old Democratic principles.” He called for a zero corporate tax to attract jobs, a rollback of the unpopular 2009 vehicle fees, and a drilling-friendly rewrite of oil and gas rules. Dems should take their cue from the frugal Grover Cleveland, the tax-cutting JFK, and the deregulating Jimmy Carter, the governor said.

The ex-president was furious, however, when Ritter remarked on “Meet the Press” that Carter’s warning about “inordinate fear of communism” was off base. “My party’s much bigger problem, including the current president,” asserted Ritter, “has been inordinate fear of capitalism. I’m out to change that.” The Coloradan’s popularity shot up when the Georgian angrily counter-attacked.

“Our QB calls his own plays,” boasted a Ritter campaign ad after he rescinded the executive order for labor unions in state government, redirected money from Planned Parenthood to crisis pregnancy centers, and urged voters to toss four activist justices off the state Supreme Court. New York Mayor Robert Wagner, who once ran for another term on a reform platform against his own previous term, had nothing on our Bill.

Is it any wonder some of us Republicans decided this fearless troublemaker was worth reelecting, if only to bedevil Obama, Huey Long-style? Ritter was on a roll. He put Bill Owens and Hank Brown on an economic recovery board with Charlie Ergen and Norm Brownstein. He named Lt. Gov. Barbara O’Brien his school voucher czar and replaced her on the ticket with GOP Rep. Amy Stephens, whom he called “Sarah Palin South.”

Politically written off not long ago, the Democratic incumbent led as election day approached, bucking a national trend of revulsion against his party that looked to rival 1994. At the end, though, Ritter’s better-funded and more credibly conservative Republican challenger surged past him, and Colorado went red again.

Tough luck for our gamecock Guv, but no great heartbreak for me. This was one election where good ideas couldn’t lose. Can I come home now, honey?