Legislators and state officials kept piling into Denver’s largest synagogue – Governor John Hickenlooper, Congresswoman Diana DeGette, former CO Senator John Morse, Senator Irene Aguilar, and many more. Before long, the enormous sanctuary which seats more than one thousand guests was full, with some well-wishers standing in the back. Two weeks after his death, and the day before the CO State legislature reconvened for the 2014 regular session, Colorado politics stood still to honor one of its’ heroes, former state representative and senator, attorney, college professor, campaign expert and ideological giant, Ken Gordon.
Speakers included Rabbi Emeritus Dr. Steven Foster, a 35 year friend of Gordon’s and spouse of Senator Joyce Foster, Senior Rabbi Joseph Black, Cantor Regina Heit, CO Governor John Hickenlooper, Speaker of the House and Candidate for Congress Andrew Romanoff, Campaign Manager Ken Smith, and University of Michigan college buddies Marc Van Der Hout and Joe Goldenson. Governor Hickenlooper spoke about Gordon’s reputation as a campaign advisor whom he called many times while he ran for Mayor of Denver, as well as for Governor. Governor Hickenlooper stated what many others felt, “Even when we disagreed, Ken could disagree elegantly.”
Speaker after speaker extolled Ken’s virtues as being intelligent, well-read, humble, stubborn, humorous and loyal. They told of his work to pass constitutional changes to fund higher education, health care and transportation, and a publicity stunt involving walking 300 miles across the state to get it done. Ken was passionate about the environment and frequently spent time outdoors in CO – a hobby that resulted in funny stories about how he and his friends were half-frozen and unprepared in the CO wilderness.
A particularly humorous moment was when, after a number of long speeches and an hour into the memorial service, Governor Hickenlooper attempted to sneak out of the service without drawing attention to himself. Rabbi Foster pointed out the hunched over, exiting Governor, and with a “shooing” motion told him, “Go, go, go. You have a state to run.” (Only the 40-year Rabbi of Denver’s largest synagogue could say that with such humor and affection and get away with it!)
Longtime close friend Andrew Romanoff told a number of funny stories about Ken – including one from the early days of their friendship when a rumpled Gordon arrived to a Jewish holiday celebration in Romanoff’s home and started rummaging through the refrigerator. “Don’t worry, Mom, that's just our State Representative”, he remembered telling her.
Ken Smith, Gordon’s campaign manager, was often referred to by Gordon as his “best student” – the one who wrote a paper about campaign finance reform which would ignite a passion in Ken that would define the rest of his years in public service. Upon reading a paper written by Smith, Ken researched publically financed campaigns and was inspired to found the organization, CleanSlateNow.org. Clean Slate Now works with a number of candidates all over the country to strategize successful elections based on representing individual constituents, rather than corporate interests.
I couldn’t help but wonder in amazement how far Ken’s passion for populist, democratic politics had reached, and how many people it had touched, as scores of Colorado politicos wiped their eyes, nodded their heads, and laughed at loving jabs about Ken’s love for books, impatience with social graces, and stubborn attachment to his ideals. Why was Ken Gordon so important to all of these people?
I did not know Ken as well, or as long as many of the other attendees, but I knew him. He and I argued a number of times during the Senate Primary race of 2010, where Ken made it very clear to me I was helping the wrong side (Senator Bennet). Despite his frustration, Ken remained polite, friendly, and kind to me, hoping someday I would see the “Anti-PAC light”. Like many other Democrats, my disagreement with Ken was over the role of unions in the political process. As a UAW brat, I saw them as an integral part of campaign finance, and Anti-PAC legislation could interfere with their influence in Democratic campaigns. Since then, Ken became a supporter of my organization, Progressive Women of Colorado, and I looked to him as a leader on the “Romanoff for Congress” campaign.
Ken was our conscience. He never gave up on those he mentored, advised or kindly scolded. Ken’s was the little voice in all of our heads that said to Democrats, “Don’t be seduced by corporate influence and big money in politics. Don’t allow fancy parties, impressive titles and large donors to undermine your values. Don’t get sucked in to cynicism, to apathy and to corruption. Trust your gut, work for the people you do not know, and remember most the people too weak to help you, rather than those who can.” I’m glad I started listening to Ken Gordon and started to believe what he had been telling me – and so many others – for years. It is possible to fund a successful national campaign through individual contributions. Andrew Romanoff is doing just that right now.
As a progressive who considered Ken Gordon both the thorn in my side at times, and one of my most respected heroes, I am deeply saddened by his death – not only the devastating loss to his entire family, but also to the state of Colorado, to the United States, and to the world. His leadership had become increasingly more important, rather than less so, and his death came at one of the most inopportune times, politically speaking. The race for Congress in Colorado’s CD-6 between Andrew Romanoff and career corporatist Mike Coffman has much more riding on it than one man’s legacy – proving that individual contributions can fund a winning political campaign has enormous potential repercussions for the future of this country, and for the world. Ken’s inspiration in this race literally impacts the very future of our democracy.
What remains of Ken’s dream to secure democracy is up to us. In recent conversations with Ken, all he spoke of was winning the Romanoff v. Coffman race, as the ultimate testing ground for his life’s work. I ask those who are reading this – no, I implore you — please make winning the race in CD6 for the people your highest election priority, in Ken’s memory. Allow Ken to earn that legacy as the genius political scientist he so richly deserved. Allow Ken’s inspiration to live on, by securing the future of democracy for the United States, and around the world.
Ken's family has asked that contributions be made in Ken's memory to www.CleanSlateNow.org.