People should not disparage the dead.
But what do lawmakers do when faced with the sticky predicament of honoring a politician with a history many want to forget?
Lawmakers had to answer that question this week in remembering the service of former state Rep. and state Sen. Charlie Duke of Monument.
Early in his career, Duke was known as a national leader in the states’ rights movement. But his latter years, in Colorado, were characterized by bizarre outbursts: He accused Newt Gingrich, then the House Majority Leader, of breaking into his home and stealing tax returns. He also charged then-U.S. Rep. Joel Hefley and his wife, Colorado Rep. Lynn Hefley, of Colorado Springs, of manipulating the stock market in order to destroy him.
Duke, a Republican, passed away at 73 at the end of January in Oklahoma, where he had lived for at least a decade. He was estranged from his family, save for a cousin, James Duke, who took care of funeral arrangements.
Charlie Duke had also broken ties with his former Statehouse colleagues, as evidenced by a brief obligatory memorial in the Senate on Monday.
Sen. Kent Lambert of Colorado Springs sponsored the event, although he confessed he had not known Duke. He told his Senate colleagues he gathered information for his speech from Colorado Springs Republicans who served with Duke, including former state former Senate Majority leader Jeff Wells and Sen. MaryAnne Tebedo, who had shared an office with Duke.
Nobody who served with Duke attended the memorial, which is customary when the General Assembly remembers a deceased lawmaker.
Sen. Kevin Lundberg of Berthoud said he had known Duke. It was before his days in the legislature, Lundberg said. He called Duke a brilliant man, deeply committed and passionate about what he believed was right.
Senate Majority Leader Mark Scheffel of Parker called Duke a “colorful character” who enjoyed passing out copies of the U.S. Constitution.
The memorial noted that Duke “brought a passel of new ideas to the General Assembly knew how to coin a phrase of impeccable common sense,” and that he was a leader in states’ rights issues.
And that may well be Duke’s real legacy. He was the lawmaker largely responsible for advancing, on a national level, the idea that states’ rights trump federal rights, a philosophy that harkens back to the Confederacy’s fight for slavery and has been the centerpiece of standoffs between the federal government and militia groups in Western states, including Idaho, Montana and more recently, in Nevada and Oregon.
Duke was the original author of a 1994 10th Amendment State Sovereignty Resolution. It declared that the states act as the federal government’s agents, but that the federal government power comes only from the states.
Duke also wrote, for the blog sweetliberty.org, instructions on how to find lawmakers and others who would support the anti-federal-government resolution.
“A legislator who would be interested in a strong Tenth Amendment stance will have an interest in other patriot issues such as Constitutional rights and freedoms, a balanced budget, the right to keep and bear arms, honoring veterans and our American flag, and opposing federal mandates,” Duke wrote.
Colorado Republicans at the state Capitol have a long history of sponsoring legislation on the states’ rights issue.
Last year, Senate Republicans attempted but failed on legislation to study the mechanics of transferring federal lands to the state – billed as a state’s rights’ issue. The bill, Senate Bill 15-232, noted that Utah lawmakers passed similar legislation. Five other Western states considered but dismissed similar bills last year.
This year’s House Bill 16-1109 sends a message to the federal government: “Hands off” of Colorado water, arguing water rights are under the authority of Colorado law, not the federal government. That bill, which has been run for four successive years, now awaits the governor’s signature.
To friend Jackie Patru, who started the Sweet Liberty blog, Duke was a hero. They met in the early 1990s in Indiana, at a Patriot movement event.
He was “a wonderful, loving, kind, selfless person,” Patru said. “He brought hope to the people of America…He wasn’t looking for fame. He just wanted to do what was right.”
When California passed the Tenth Amendment resolution in 1994, Duke was enthralled, Patru said. “We were Charlie Duke’s army.”
Patru said Duke traveled from state to state, talking to lawmakers about the dangers of a constitutional convention, which was being contemplated in 1995. Such a convention, which must be called for by two-thirds of states, would allow a rewrite of the U.S. Constitution. That 1995 effort came within one state of 34-state threshold, although four states later rescinded their resolutions. Colorado was one of the 29 states that signed on and never rescinded the call.
“We stopped it twice,” Patru said. “If it weren’t for Charlie, we wouldn’t have known about it.”
Patru said Duke changed after his encounter with the Montana Freemen, an anti-government militia group, later that year. The FBI asked Duke to negotiate with the Freemen, who engaged in a standoff with the FBI for 81 days. After spending five days with the Freemen, Duke ended his negotiations, saying the Freemen had no interest in a peaceful resolution.
After the standoff, Duke was never the same, Patru said. Things started going downhill for him shortly thereafter. She blames the Freemen for his decline, believing that something happened to Duke during those five days that changed him forever.
The Duke memorial legislation passed the Senate 33-0 on Monday. The resolution next heads to the House, where Duke served two terms.