Ghosts of Colorado caucuses past, from nuns to a naked boy

The year was 2008 and interest in Colorado’s quirky and confusing precinct caucus system reached a zenith thanks to the presidential race, especially on the Democratic side.

Precinct co-chair Jamie Laurie counts votes for Hillary Clinton at one of 15 causes at East High School on Feb. 5, 2008. Barack Obama's supporters outnumbered Clinton supporters 1,033 to 394 in the 15 precincts. (Rocky Mountain News/
Fifteen Democratic caucuses were held at East High School on Feb. 5, 2008. Barack Obama’s supporters outnumbered Hillary Clinton supporters 1,033 to 394 in the 15 precincts. (Rocky Mountain News/Western History/Genealogy Dept., Denver Public Library)

As a  political reporter for the Rocky Mountain News, I asked a variety of politicos — from then-City Auditor Dennis Gallagher to U.S. Sen. Wayne Allard to former First Lady Wilma Webb — about their precinct caucus experiences.

With Colorado Republicans and Democrats holding their precinct caucuses tonight, here’s that 2008 story:

Ah, there’s nothing like memories of caucuses past

By Lynn Bartels, Rocky Mountain News

The famed astronaut. The naked boy. The chocolate frosting. And don’t forget the nuns and the no-shows.

Every two years, Colorado Republicans and Democrats meet in their precincts as part of the first step in picking candidates.

Turnout has significantly dwindled in recent years, but a record crowd is expected Feb. 5. That’s because Colorado moved up its caucus date to coincide with “Tsunami Tuesday” when 21 other states will hold caucuses or presidential primaries.

Some notable Coloradans recently shared their caucus experiences over the years:

House Majority Leader Alice Madden and her husband Pete in 2008 point to their son Jack who as a young child entered into precinct caucus lore. (Rocky Mountain News/
House Majority Leader Alice Madden and her husband Pete in 2008 point to their son Jack who as a young child entered into precinct caucus lore. (Rocky Mountain News/Western History/Genealogy Dept., Denver Public Library)

House Majority Leader Alice Madden, D-Boulder

I decided to host a caucus at my home — back when that was the typical practice — in 1998.

My husband, Pete, was trying to keep our two young boys downstairs, but they knew something fun was going on upstairs.

Our youngest got away from Pete as he was getting him into his PJs, and he came barreling up the stairs. We had a bi-level so we could all see him as his grinning face appeared. We weren’t ready, however, for his declaration and subsequent proof that “nakey boy escaped.”

After the laughter died down, we got back to work.

But to this day, when my family or I run into folks who were there that night they still ask, “How is nakey boy?”

Bruce Benson, former GOP state party chair and 1994 gubernatorial candidate

My favorite caucus was in 1976 at George Hopper’s house in Lookout Mountain. It was very close between Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford. As I recall it, Reagan, the guy I was supporting, won our caucus.

The reason it’s my favorite is we had a big turnout. We had about 60 people there for one precinct caucus. Now, you have four precincts together and about four people show up.

Jeanne Faatz, Denver city councilwoman, former state lawmaker

In 1978, I was seeking the Republican nomination for state House District 1 in southwest Denver. I wanted to meet as many potential delegates as I could. I attended my own caucus and dropped in on seven more. Talk about a hectic night!

Excellent turnout that year, but my race wasn’t the drawing card. Former astronaut Jack Swigert and U.S. Rep. Bill Armstrong were running for the GOP nomination to the U.S. Senate. Later, each campaigned door-to-door with me in House District 1. Terrific men. Great fun.

Mike Feeley, of Lakewood, former state Senate minority leader

It was 1974, and I was just a few days out of the Marine Corps and new to Colorado. I noticed a very strong odor of a certain herb as I walked into my caucus location, the basement of the Community Free School.

A young Mike Feeley.
A young Mike Feeley.

It was the Watergate year, and there were hotly contested races for governor and U.S. Senate. There were about 40 to 50 people there, and everybody wanted to go to the county assembly to support their candidate.

But no one wanted to run for the job of precinct chair, so they dispensed with the formality of an election and appointed the new guy — me. I did that for about four years and got to meet the late Mo Udall — hands down the funniest politician of all time.

Fast forward to 1988 and the clubhouse at Waterside Condominiums just south of then Villa Italia Shopping Center in Lakewood. Two days before, I got a call from the Jeffco Dems, asking if I would like to go to a caucus. I said sure, why not. They then asked if I would like to run the caucus. I said sure, why not. I went to the caucus and thought I had gone to the wrong location because no one else showed up.

But it was the right place and not another soul did show up. So, I elected myself to go to the county assembly.

Steve Durham, lobbyist and former state representative

It was 1990 or 1992, and I was the precinct committee man. And the caucus was at our house in Colorado Springs.

There were a group of us who were pro-choice Republicans. The right-to-life crowd was trying to take over all the caucuses.

The rules state you start at 7 o’clock. We had the people there that we wanted there a little bit early, and at precisely 7 we called the caucuses to order. If you really know what you’re doing, you can finish your caucus in about three minutes, electing committee leaders and delegates to the county assembly. We got everything done.

Congressman Wayne Aspinall arrives at Stapleton Airport. (Rocky Mountain News/
Congressman Wayne Aspinall arrives at Stapleton Airport. (Western History/Genealogy Dept., Denver Public Library)

Around 7:05, a group of right-to-life activists showed up at the door to caucus. I let them know, gee, I wish they had been there earlier because we certainly wanted their participation.

U.S. Sen. Wayne Allard, R-Loveland

I remember a precinct caucus at my parents’ house in Loveland. My mom and dad were Democrats, and I was a Democrat. Joan and I were married, and she came with me. We needed somebody who could write, so we made Joan the caucus secretary even though she was a Republican!

I didn’t become a Republican until our good family friend Congressman Wayne Aspinall was defeated in 1972 in the Democratic primary. The whole family switched. It was a big deal because my dad, Amos, had been the Larimer County Democratic Party chairman.

Dennis Gallagher, Denver city auditor

My first caucus was in 1968. I told Dolores Dickman, my Democratic captain, that I wanted to help her with the Robert Kennedy campaign in north Denver. She assigned me the task to try to get as many people for the Kennedy/McCarthy coalition as possible to the caucus. My precinct committeewoman was my neighbor and family friend, Aileen Ray. She and her husband were both pushing for Hubert Humphrey.

I couldn’t find anyone in the precinct who was for RFK or Gene. I finally found a couple named Scanlan who lived across the street from my house, and they were from Minnesota and liked McCarthy because he was from Minnesota, too. So, with my mother, my father and myself, all for Kennedy, and the Scanlans for Gene, I counted only five. My first political assignment looked doomed.

I noted Holy Family convent was within the boundaries of the precinct. The Sisters of Loretto taught me and lots of other north Denver kids at Holy Family grade and high school.

So I went by the convent one early evening before the caucus day. I believe it was Sister Alene Dalton from Kansas City, Mo. I asked if she and some of the sisters wanted to go to the precinct caucus. She reminded me of her ancestral Democratic roots with the Pendergast machine in Kansas City. She said she had never been asked, but she thought the sisters might enjoy attending the caucus.

Seven Sisters of Loretto came with me to the caucus and we took all the delegate slots, thanks to them.

Now, Mrs. Ray attends Holy Family Church along with all the rest of us at the caucus.

And I am amused to tell you that forever after, at the part of the Mass where you are supposed to forgive your enemies and shake hands, she would turn to me, if I were near her pew, put out her hand and instead of saying, “Peace be with you,” she would say, “You took all the delegate slots.”

Congresswoman Pat Schroeder and presidential candidate Jimmy Carter at an event in Colorado in 1976. (Rocky Mountain News/
Congresswoman Pat Schroeder and presidential candidate Jimmy Carter at an event in Colorado in 1976. (RMN/Western History/Genealogy Dept., Denver Public Library)

Pat Schroeder, former Denver congresswoman

My first caucus was 1968. I was 28, and we were living in Capitol Hill on High Street. The precinct committeeman and woman lived in one of those large, beautiful old homes. They treated it like a party. She made a lovely chocolate cake for everyone — I can still taste the frosting.

There were around 20 people there, more than usual, because a lot of young people came out of concern for the Vietnam War.

Congressman Byron Rogers was up for re-election, but he had a very low profile in the peace movement, which was growing very strong in Denver. Congressman Rogers was supported by the committeeman and woman, and there was quite a lively debate, even though they struggled to keep a partylike atmosphere in their home.

Rogers won that year, but in 1970 he lost in the primary to Craig Barnes.

It was wonderful to witness grass-roots politics at work in a living room. We read about such things in history, but most of us doubted they happened anymore.

Wilma Webb, former first lady of Denver and state lawmaker

I remember one middle-aged man who always came to the caucus. He always brought his mother along with him. She passed away a few years ago.

All we knew about him was that he was a very nice man who had a wealth of knowledge about everything. He knew about all the wars, the details and the reasons for them. He knew about religions. He knew about taxes. It seemed like he knew all there was to know about everything.

Only this past year, after some 35 years, did he share with me that he was a retired professor with a degree in history. I only hope that I did not say anything in those caucuses that he chuckled about to himself as he said, “Really.”