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May 2015 • Online Edition

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Ex-Pol Ken Gordon Resolutely Indicts Big Money In Politics | Print |  E-mail

by Susan Dugan

Former state representative, senator, and campaign finance reform champion Ken Gordon’s passion for politics began with opposition to the Vietnam War during his college years at the University of Michigan, where he majored in political science and economics.

KEN GORDON HAS CAMPAIGNED FOR SENSIBLE CAMPAIGN FINANCING since running for a seat in the Colorado House of Representatives in 1992. Since leaving the legislature in 2008, he has worked to assist candidates who decline contributions from political PACs.

After earning a law degree from Boston University, he traded the East Coast for a sunnier and drier Colorado in the mid 1970s. “I had come out to Colorado a couple of times to ski and I knew it was beautiful. The weather in Boston is really terrible. I actually didn’t feel good in that environment.”

The Detroit native relocated to Denver without knowing anyone, passed the bar exam, and set about searching for work. “I took the elevator to the top floor of all the tall buildings downtown thinking law firms would be in tall buildings,” he recalls. “I would walk down the stairs and find a law firm and ask if I could talk to them.” The unorthodox approach yielded a job in the public defender’s office where he remained for the next four years. “I didn’t like law school but it turned out I liked practicing law, and I was good at it.”

Gordon then founded his own trial law practice where he tried cases for 14 years and volunteered doing pro bono work. “I practiced some criminal law; I defended someone on a death penalty case and they ended up not getting the death penalty.  I also did medical malpractice work for injured plaintiffs.” 

Eventually his work revived his penchant for righting wrongs through politics. “They were passing legislation that was making my clients lose their cases before they even walked in my office,” he says. “In October 1991 I took a continuing legal education course on tort reform and the bill the legislature had passed for the insurance companies, to make it harder for people to sue people that injured them. I felt those laws were poorly written, even if you favored the insurance companies. And I thought: I can do better than that.”

He ran for and won a seat in the Colorado House of Representatives in 1992, making an issue out of his decision to refuse special interest PAC campaign contributions, and rose to the rank of House minority leader. “I was the only candidate in either party who won an election who didn’t take PAC contributions. I wanted to help protect the environment, and thought it would be hard to take money from groups that represented special interests and still be effective in representing my constituents. In all of my subsequent elections, I never took a PAC contribution. I have always thought it was wrong.”

In 2000, Gordon won a state senate seat that had never been held by a Democrat before, the same year the Democrats took the senate for the first time in 40 years. He was the first Democrat to chair the judiciary committee and served as senate majority leader the last four years of his eight years there. Instrumental in passing Referendum C to preserve higher education, and provide resources for primary education, a health care safety net, and transportation, his overall experience in both houses confirmed his suspicion that campaign financing practices were crippling the democratic process. 

“I had started out running for the legislature out of concern over how campaign contributions affected the environment, but once I was in the legislature I saw that it affected everything. Through contributions, tobacco companies were able to prevent laws that would have made it harder for juveniles to get cigarettes. Banks and doctors and chiropractors and teachers and lawyers were making PAC contributions. I saw that you have to solve this problem, because you’re not going to be able to address any of the important issues as long as special interest money is influencing legislative bodies. I had a very simple idea that legislators were supposed to represent the people who lived in their district – and that wasn’t happening because of the money legislators were getting from special interests.”

His vigorous efforts to stem the tide failed. “I carried a lot of campaign reform legislation but I didn’t get any passed,” he says. “But we did pass some through initiatives, working with the League of Women Voters and Common Cause.” Through his leadership roles, Gordon also tried largely unsuccessfully to foster bipartisan cooperation.

“I always thought it was a value in a legislative body to have respect (for each other). Because on Monday or Tuesday you might not agree with somebody but on Wednesday you might need their vote for your bill. One of the big fights I had in the capitol was trying to get Republicans to work with me when I was in the majority and trying to get Democrats to work with Republicans. As majority leader I proposed making the Republicans vice chairs of the committees. The vice chair doesn’t really have any power, but I thought it would be a gesture of respect. But I couldn’t get Democratic colleagues to agree to it.”

Gordon directly attributes the growing polarization in the state legislature and in politics in general to the power of big money. “One of the reasons bipartisan collaboration is disappearing is because the money people are pulling the sides apart so that it’s harder and harder to work together. In the old days the Democrats used to think Republicans were wrong and Republicans used to think Democrats were wrong. Now each side thinks the other is evil. You can work with somebody you think is wrong but you can’t work with someone you think is evil.”

After leaving the senate in 2008, Gordon decided to direct all his considerable energies toward championing like-minded candidates from either side of the aisle who shared his deep philosophical opposition to accepting PAC contributions. He began by supporting Andrew Romanoff’s unsuccessful grassroots campaign for the U.S. Senate in 2010 and formed the nonpartisan organization CleanSlateNow.org, dedicated “to getting big money out of politics by supporting qualified candidates who refuse special interest PAC campaign contributions and agree to run respectful campaigns.”

The organization backs any candidate deeply committed to refusing special interest campaign contributions. “We put any candidate who doesn’t take PAC money up on our website. But for us to actually go out and spend money and work on their campaigns, we need to be convinced they genuinely share the value and are not just trying to get a tactical advantage. We also support races we think are possible to win. I don’t mind a challenge, but I don’t want a lost cause.”

And Gordon knows from firsthand experience that despite the odds it is possible to win elections without taking PAC contributions. “There is a way out, by demonstrating to the people that candidates who don’t take PAC money can win. I’ve talked to thousands of people who want to support candidates who don’t take PAC money, and I know it’s possible because I’ve done it. I’ve seen this work to the candidate’s advantage if the candidate truly believes in it. You have to talk about it at every door, talk about it in all your campaign literature. If you do, you can win seats people don’t expect you to win. I’m working on these races even though I don’t get anything out of it and it costs me money, because I believe in supporting democracy.”

In his frequent talks to groups to get the word out about Clean Slate, Gordon likes to tell a story that sums up his view of the importance of his cause. “I walked across the state for Referendum C, and while walking from Colorado Springs toward Canon City a young man I was with wanted to play political trivia. I asked him who William McKinley’s campaign manager was. His name was Mark Hanna, a senator from Ohio credited with creating the modern, money campaign, raising lots of money from Eastern corporations and trusts to defeat William Jennings Bryan.

“Hanna once said, ‘There are two important things in politics: One of them is money and I can’t remember the other one.’ But the other one is people. The only counterweight to the power of money is people. We need to do something about this and if we don’t, we create a vacuum and allow money to get its way. People need to take ownership of this or someone else will. And it will be for their interests, not yours.”

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