The Gang of Four

May 2005

It was one of the most venomous days in the history of the state Legislature.

In the first week of May 2003, majority Republicans, still flush from taking back control of the state Senate from the Democrats, orchestrated a political coup d'etat: With the encouragement of White House political advisor Karl Rove, the Republicans asserted their legislative muscle to redraw the state's congressional districts. Democrats watched helplessly as Republicans gerrymandered the state, creating five congressional districts guaranteed to send a Republican to Washington.

Republicans had kept their plan secret until the last days of the session, and passed the redrawn map at night-midnight-just hours before the Legislature was to adjourn.

The scene under the dome as the plan went through was astonishing. State senators screamed at each other and pounded their desks; Democratic lawmakers walked out in the midst of the vote. One clerk responsible for reading bills aloud in the Senate quit in protest. Another clerk wept while she took the roll call of member's votes.

Quietly witnessing the uproar that day was Al Yates, former president of Colorado State University. One of the few African-Americans chosen to preside over a major state university, Yates' rational steeliness and soft-spoken moral fervor had won him many friends in Colorado, and he quickly established himself as one of CSU's most beloved leaders. During his successful 13-year tenure, the university had added new buildings, expanded its endowment and seen several professors win national acclaim for their research. The state Senate and House were both considering passing resolutions honoring him for his service to the university, and with his retirement approaching, Yates' day at the Legislature should have been a happy one.

Instead, what he watched happen on the floor of the Colorado state Legislature outraged him. Though not a man known for his temper, he was disturbed by the abandonment of legislative decorum, and more than that, he was deeply convinced that what he saw unfolding before him was simply wrong.

For Yates, the stealth effort to redraw political lines was just the latest in a series of outrages. For the past two years he had watched as CSU's budget was eviscerated, a victim, as he saw it, of the financial bind created by the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights, or TABOR amendment. Yates and other leaders of higher education in the state feared that Colorado was on the road to wrecking its colleges and universities.

Yet, while funds were being slashed for education, health care, and other needs, the Legislature was embroiled in fights over bills being pushed by social conservatives. There had been an effort to target liberal college professors for supposed harassment of conservative students, a bill that would have forbidden teachers from discussing homosexuality in the classroom, a resolution to support a federal constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, and an attempt to mandate that all students and teachers recite the pledge of allegiance.

Yates couldn't shake the feeling that something was deeply wrong with politics in Colorado.

It wasn't long before Yates was on the phone with a woman he knew well, Fort Collins heiress Pat Stryker. It was a call that would upend the political structure in Colorado.