On April 15, the day federal taxes were due, Weld County District Attorney Ken Buck stood shoulder-to-shoulder with fellow Republican office-holders on the steps of the State Capitol in Denver and gave full-throated voice to the populist anger on display at conservative tea parties across the nation.
Invoking Paul Revere and the famous cry that helped spark the American Revolution, Buck sounded his own alarm: “Folks, 234 years later, we hear that warning — we hear the warning about extreme government, we hear the warning about extreme taxes, we hear the warning about losing our liberty,” Buck proclaimed as the crowd cheered. “And we’re going to do something about that.”
As he ticked off a litany of complaints about “more government” solutions to the banking crisis, global warming, education and health care, the veteran prosecutor sounded more like a candidate for federal office than a small-town district attorney that day — and it wasn’t by accident. Fresh off a tour of every one of Colorado’s 64 counties, Buck is expected to announce his intentions to seek the GOP nomination in 2010 to challenge U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, the Democrat appointed in January to fill Ken Salazar’s seat.
Buck’s Senate campaign Web site, BuckforColorado.com, came to life Saturday after being anonymously registered on Thursday, the day after Buck won a highly publicized conviction on first-degree murder and hate-crime charges in the beating death of a Greeley transgender woman. By Monday afternoon, the site was still mostly bare, sporting only a colorful campaign logo and the announcement “Web Site Coming Soon.” Buck’s Senate announcement is expected to come any day now.
Other potential Republican hopefuls include Aurora City Councilman Ryan Frazier, who formed an exploratory committee earlier this month, and radio talk show host Dan Caplis and former U.S. Rep. Bob Beauprez, who lost the 2006 gubernatorial election to Democrat Bill Ritter, himself a former district attorney in Denver.
“The problems we face now are because the people that are in power deceive us — and we are complacent,” Buck thundered at the tea party crowd, shaking his fist. “We are complacent no more.”
The next day, back at his day job, Buck appeared in court twice — once in person and once through his attorney — continuing two controversial and high-profile prosecutions. Buck’s decision to file hate-crime charges against the killer of transgender teen Angie Zapata contrasts with an ongoing identity theft probe targeting thousands of undocumented Weld County workers. Regardless of his Republican credentials — and they are solid — the Princeton graduate who spent 15 years as a federal prosecutor doesn’t fit into an easy, ideological box.
Buck did not respond to repeated requests for comment submitted through his spokeswoman.
Buck zeroes in on Senate race
Earlier this year, Buck mulled aloud on plans to run for Colorado attorney general — plans he immediately shelved when the incumbent, Republican John Suthers, announced he would seek a second full term rather than run for the U.S. Senate seat — and for a while considered jumping into a crowded race to challenge U.S. Rep. Betsy Markey, the Fort Collins Democrat who last year unseated three-term Republican Rep. Marilyn Musgrave, a outspoken conservative whose campaign Buck served as chairman. But for two months, since letting slip his intentions at the annual Lincoln Day Soup, Salad and Pie Social in Phillips County, Buck’s sights have been set on Bennet’s seat.
The parallels between Buck and Bennet are striking. Both are lawyers and Ivy League graduates — Buck’s undergraduate degree is from Princeton and Bennet’s law degree is from Yale — and both moved to Colorado in the 1990s after working for a time at the Justice Department in Washington. Both had powerful mentors offer them jobs early in their careers: Buck was hired by then-U.S. Rep. Dick Cheney to work on the congressional Iran-Contra investigation, and Bennet landed a job with billionaire Phil Anschutz as a corporate turn-around expert.
While he has years of political experience, Bennet has never run for office himself, but even though Buck has run for office twice, he won election as district attorney without a Democratic opponent. And Ritter was there at crucial points in both Buck’s and Bennet’s lives: the Democrat stood as Buck’s best man when he married his wife, Perry, and Ritter plucked Bennet from his position running Denver Public Schools to fill the Senate vacancy.
With Suthers out of the race and former Republican Gov. Bill Owens giving no indication he’s interested in running, the Republican field lacks a clear front-runner, said political analyst Eric Sondermann. “There’s clearly an opportunity for somebody to catch fire,” Sondermann said, pointing to difficulties Beauprez could face after losing statewide to Ritter by landslide proportions. “I get the sense among many Republicans that it’s time for new blood.”
That’s one reason Frazier and Caplis are considering the race, along with Buck, though none of the three are an obvious choice for the Senate. “For a small-town rural district attorney to try to parlay that to a U.S. Senate seat,” Sondermann said, “let’s say that’s shooting kind of high.” Of course, Sondermann pointed out, Ritter accomplished a similar leap, albeit from the marginally larger platform as the former district attorney in the state’s largest city.
“All three of them are trying to move from Single-A ball to the Major Leagues in one big step,” Sondermann said. “Until you see them out on the trail, you have no idea who has the capability.” Sondermann observed one reason the 2010 Colorado Senate race is drawing so much attention: “People could say the same thing about Bennet, given he’s never been elected either.”
CLARIFICATION: Buck did not respond to repeated requests for comment submitted through his spokeswoman over the last three weeks. That point was inadvertently left out of the story as originally posted.
UPDATE 4/28/09: Ken Buck formally announced his candidacy for the GOP nomination to challenge U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet in 2010.