Staring up at the sky on a somewhat cloudy night in Westcliffe, Colorado. Opening a box that contained a campaign banner from long ago. Listening to stories from brave and memorable people.
That’s what I’ll remember from 2016 (along with the passing of too darn many icons of my generation, but that’s a story for another day).
Here, the stories behind the stories.
I have a good friend who is an amateur astronomer. Over the years, I’ve visited his home near Strasburg, and our conversations sometimes turned to the stars. He moved to Strasburg because the night sky in his previous home, in Westminster, was polluted with too much light. It made any kind of stargazing impossible.
In Strasburg, he built a small planetarium in his backyard, most of which is underground, and was once again able to enjoy the night skies.
I’ve been fascinated by the stars for years. I sit outside my home in Lakewood, catching the major constellations and planets. In Estes Park, where my family has a home, I have much better odds of seeing the night sky and at least some of the Milky Way.
Several years ago, I heard about the International Dark-Sky Association, and how it was picking places around the world where it was still possible to see the Milky Way in all its glory. How lucky, I thought!
Then, in March 2015, the IDA awarded the small twin towns of Westcliffe and Silver Cliff, about an hour west of Pueblo, certification as a Dark-Sky community. Indy editor Susan Greene asked, without knowing my fascination with the stars, if I’d like to go down there. Wow, would I!
I love writing stories in which I get to indulge some of my non-political passions, and my trip to Westcliffe and Silver Cliff to write about the night sky was my favorite from 2016.
The next story is a bit sad, but it also comes from my passions.
In the mid-’90s, I watched with fascination the antics of one of our state’s lawmakers, Charlie Duke. He was one of the most outspoken states’ rights advocates in Colorado, and anti-government before it was cool. Duke went to Montana at the request of the FBI to negotiate with the Montana Freeman, who were at the time engaged in a standoff with law enforcement. Duke abandoned that effort after five days, saying the Freemen weren’t interested in a peaceful resolution.
There was a sad side to Duke, too: bizarre claims that Newt Gingrich and Bill Bennett stole his tax records or that U.S. West (now CenturyLink) bugged his phone.
At that time, I was not yet a journalist, but I had the itch in my blood since almost before I could walk. Duke fed that itch, revealing a political landscape that was lively and full of colorful characters. In 1998, I lucked into an opportunity to become a reporter and to head to the state Capitol to cover higher education policy from the General Assembly. Unfortunately, Duke left the legislature just a few months before I showed up, so I was never able to see him in action.
Many have since said that Charlie’s colorfulness was likely a sign of mental illness. He left Colorado not long after leaving the legislature and eventually landed in Oklahoma.
He died this year under sad circumstances as described by his cousin, James Duke. His family, including a son, no longer had any contact with him, so he died alone. James Duke told me he found his cousin’s body and believed he had been dead for several days.
When a former member of the General Assembly dies, lawmakers past and present line up to eulogize that member. Memorials are read at length and those who knew that lawmaker speak of his or her service to Colorado. Sometimes those tributes can go on for a long time.
Charlie got a memorial, as a member of the House and Senate in the 1990s. But not one person who served with him, and believe me, there are plenty of them still around, stood up for him. No one from his family came to accept the memorials offered in the House and Senate, written by those who never knew him.
The stories have a postscript: Two rooms at the state Capitol contain offices for members of the Capitol press corps. Some of the walls are covered with campaign memorabilia, or funny photos of reporters and/or politicians.
There’s a new addition planned for the basement press corps room: likely the last existing banner from a Charlie Duke campaign, courtesy of James Duke, who sent me the banner after the first story ran in February.
I draw inspiration from lots of people at the Capitol, as is my luck. In the past year, I’ve written about a woman who continues to fight to find her missing daughter, about families fighting the Department of Revenue over conservation easements and the hell they’ve been through, or those who want to see more oversight over our state’s charter schools.
And that leads me to the third story of the year that has stayed with me. It’s about Jude. She’s a 10-year old with more courage than any of the lawmakers who listened to her story. Jude is transgender. She testified in March in front of the toughest committee in the Senate: the State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee, which was hearing a bill to allow transgender individuals to obtain a new birth certificate reflecting their gender identity. Currently, state law allows for an amended birth certificate, but only after a court order and gender reassignment surgery, not exactly an option for a 10-year old. Federal law was changed six years ago to make that request easier, but Colorado’s statute remains behind the times.
The State Affairs Committee, which exists in both the House and Senate, is known as a “kill” committee. Bills sent there usually have but one fate – to be killed. Supporters of the House bill saw it pass that chamber with 39 votes, including five from Republicans. No such luck in the Senate State Affairs committee, where the committee’s three Republicans voted the bill down without a word of explanation to the young girl. They left the room immediately after the vote.
In the hallway outside the hearing room, Jude and others who supported the bill vowed they will not give up. I wrote this story to honor her fight and her courage. I remain in awe of Jude.
Feature photo courtesy of Dark Sky LLC of the Wet Mountain Valley. Photo of Charlie Duke courtesy of the Colorado General Assembly. Photo of Jude taken by Marianne Goodland, The Colorado Independent.