Ray Powers: A rich life, a dying breed

Former Colorado Senate President Ray Powers was a conservative and a gentleman and a bona fide kingmaker in the rough-and-tumble Republican politics of El Paso County. It never struck anyone as strange or unrefined that the most important political fund-raisers in the area — drawing some of the highest office-seekers in the land — were held in a barn on the Powers’ ranch on the plains. Powers, who never went beyond the eighth grade and graduated to a life of principle and flair, died on Friday. He was 79.

The last time I properly interviewed Powers was just a bit over a year ago.

He’d had three bypass surgeries, but that clearly wasn’t getting him down. He and his equally venerable wife, Dorothy, had just returned to the ranch, he said, from a long Mediterranean cruise, followed by a road trip that took them to Arizona, with stops in Texas, Mississippi, Tennessee and Missouri. They had semi-retired, Powers said, to Green Valley, Ariz., which wasn’t as crowded or polluted or hot as Phoenix — and had a couple of dozen golf courses.

“And I’m not even a golfer!” Powers laughed.

Powers was a Colorado native, a dairy farmer and a rancher and businessman who went on to own car dealerships and serve 22 years in the legislature, the last two ruling the Senate chambers as president. Powers Boulevard, east of Colorado Springs, was named after him. And that was long before it became a major north-south thoroughfare lined with big-box super-centers and chain restaurants.

Years ago Powers became smitten with llamas. Last July he reported his favorite, “Black-Eyed Susan,” was still on the ranch. “She’s a doll; she just comes running to us and will just kiss ya — what a great little lady.”

And yes, the Powers’ famous fund-raisers were still going strong, he said. The barn — decorated wall-to-wall with decades’ worth of GOP bumper stickers — was open to any Republican of any stripe save one: Douglas Bruce.

Bruce, author of Colorado’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights, challenged Powers in a nasty primary race in 1996. It was Bruce’s first bid for public office in Colorado and Powers’ last race before term limits forced him out. But it wasn’t Bruce’s challenge itself that put Powers off — it was his insolence and downright nastiness. Powers refused to endure the treatment, and Bruce was banned from the ranch for good.

Indeed, Powers had little patience for ideologues like Bruce who holler incessantly about eliminating government. Powers believed in good governance and that most Republicans, as he said, “don’t have a problem paying taxes as long as they know their taxes are being spent properly.” He had no interest in legislating morality and invading anyone’s bedrooms to dictate any action there.

He also prided himself on being accessible to constituents and to the media — even if it meant taking lumps along the way. Unlike many of today’s crop of politicians — including current state GOP Chairman Dick Wadhams, who currently advises public servants to steer clear of some or even all reporters — Powers respected the role of the Fourth Estate.

“None of them write positive stories, and you have to expect you’re going to get your hits and your political cartoons, because you’re a public figure,” Powers correctly noted some years back, dispensing advice that is spot-on today.

Last Friday morning Powers died at the ranch. Dorothy found him when she returned from having coffee with friends, according to news reports. The cause of death was listed as congestive heart failure.

In subsequent news reports, Powers has been described as “Mr. Transportation” for his commitment to major highway projects, including the massive T-REX and COSMIX Interstate 25 projects in Denver and Colorado Springs.

He certainly had a heavy hand in those projects. But Powers’ most controversial, and passionate efforts were trying to hard-line the meting out of death-penalty sentences in Colorado. In the 1990s Powers sponsored a bill to take death-penalty cases out of the hands of a jury and make a three-judge panel decide the fate of convicted murderers. Powers was furious after three-judge panels subsequently declined to take full advantage of the death sentence, and, in his final term in office, Powers introduced a proposal — ultimately unsuccessful — that would have forced just one judge to decide whether to execute a person convicted of murder. (The U.S. Supreme Court since ruled such decisions by three-judge panels are unconstitutional.)

Agree with him or not, when he was reminiscing over his life and his political career last year, Powers sounded positively satisfied when he laid claim to that rare beast — consistency.

“I don’t believe my story would be any different than when I was first elected in 1978,” he said. “We need good highways, an effective judicial and criminal justice system; we need good education — and we need to do all of those efficiently and effectively.”

In addition to Dorothy, Powers is survived by his daughter, Janet; his stepson, Steve,; five grandchildren; nine great- grandchildren; and a sister, Marjorie Morford of Colorado. A memorial service is planned for 11 a.m. Tuesday at the First Church of the Nazarene, 4120 E. Fountain Blvd., Colorado Springs.