Feature

The Life of the Party

Bob Beauprez came off the ranch to lead the state GOP, won one of the tightest U.S. Congressional races in history, and now he's the Republican frontrunner in the Colorado governor's race. What would JFK say?

February 2006

He's at it again. For at least the fifth time in 36 hours, U.S. Rep. Bob Beauprez is pitching his life story. "My grandfather came to Colorado from Belgium," he says, addressing his audience of the moment. Some 30 people surround him on a gazebo outside of Colorado Springs' City Hall. The gazebo is festooned with red, white and blue bunting. Under a late-summer sun, a young, rosy-cheeked, female volunteer hands out cookies and cups of lemonade. "He shoveled coal in the furnaces of Xcel Energy Company 'til he realized it wasn't good for his health." Beauprez's normally subtle Front Range drawl lately is sounding more pronounced. "Then, on a handshake, he bought some land and started a dairy farm...." In no time Beauprez aw-shucks his way to the point, laying out his impressive rise and latest ambition: Lafayette dairy-farm kid, cattle breeder, developer, banker, state GOP chairman, and now a 57-year-old Republican congressman running to become Colorado's next governor.

 

If the typical political barometers of statewide name recognition, fund-raising, weighty endorsements, pundit prognosticating, and polls mean anything, Beauprez will trounce his Republican primary opponent, Marc Holtzman, and short of a tabloid revelation that he partied with CU Buffs and babes-for-hire, Beauprez should overcome Democrat Bill Ritter in the general. (Perhaps you've noticed Democratic Party operatives begging Denver's popular mayor, John Hickenlooper, to pretty-please jump in the race.) But the old dairy hand in Beauprez learned a long time ago not to go counting milk bottles before the udder's been squeezed. This is also the guy who got elected to Congress by one of the slimmest margins in the history of U.S. House races.

No one needs to tell him how quickly this campaign could turn ugly and tight. First of all, there's the fact that he's running as a Republican congressman at a time when the Republican administration he has so dutifully supported is about as popular as the avian flu. Congressman Beauprez voted to support the war in Iraq. One of his good pals and generous political patrons is Tom DeLay, the recently indicted former U.S. House Majority Leader. (Armed with that information alone, even a Nuggets cheerleader could whip up some potent attack ads.) Then there's the high stakes. This election is about more than the perennial state issues such as education, water, and economic development: The once ruby-red state of Colorado has been turning a shade of purple. In the last presidential election, Bush had to fight harder to win Colorado than the GOP had expected, while local Republicans lost their majority in the state House and Senate. The GOP establishment now is betting on Beauprez to win the governor's office and re-energize the state party machine-Gov. Bill Owens and former state and U.S. Rep. Bob Schaffer have even put aside their differences and jointly issued a press release announcing their endorsement of Beauprez.

So far Beauprez has been living a charmed political life. He's gone from being chairman of the Boulder County Republicans to boss of the state party to a U.S. congressman-landing a coveted spot on the almighty pork factory that is the House Ways and Means Committee-all in less than a decade. Along the way, he has provided just the spark the GOP has needed at critical times. When he was elected state party chairman, he inherited a membership that was bitterly divided and coffers were empty; he left that machine united and flush. When he ran for Congress in 2002, he did so in a newly created district, one some analysts figured gave Democrats the upper hand; yet Beauprez eked out the win and helped secure a Republican majority in D.C. If he fails to deliver this time, however, all that might not matter much. It could be goodbye life of the party, hellllllo party pooper.

Which is why Beauprez has been leaving nothing to chance and instead is traveling the state, working the campaign schedule of an underdog-selling his deep Colorado roots, not to mention the drawl. He believes it is one of the advantages he has over his competition, in particular his Republican opponent, Holtzman, the very urbane president of the University of Denver who also happens to be a Pennsylvania native. "Standing here before you," Beauprez says, wrapping up on the gazebo, "I am proof that the American dream works." He smiles and handshakes his way to his staffer's pickup truck and is whisked off to his next stop on the campaign trail, having neglected to tell the crowd the most critical part of his biography-perhaps because it taps too many uncomfortable memories and takes a bit of the gleam off of his otherwise shining American tale.

In the back seat of the pickup, Beauprez folds his blue suit jacket neatly in his lap like a man who understands the importance of appearance. He's a handsome guy, with a tan, youthful face and the sort of deep-creasing smile that's easy to trust. His height is average, but his lanky frame and broad shoulders, along with the story he tells of himself, makes him seem like a bigger character. "Heck," he says to me as the two of us settle into the red pickup driven by his staffer, "you've heard me talk about myself so much in the last two days, you could have probably given that little speech back there yourself." He laughs loudly, and adds, "And you probably could have done a better job."

 

Part of Beauprez's charm is his self-deprecating humor. Fact of the matter is, he is a remarkably gifted public speaker. He thinks quickly on his feet and conveys what often appears to be genuine empathy and thoughtfulness. Just a few minutes ago, back on the gazebo, a young man who looked to be in his early 20s emerged from the crowd around Beauprez and raised his hand to be acknowledged. The guy had a Mohawk and an unsettling look in his eye, like he was channeling Robert De Niro's Travis Bickle from Taxi Driver. He wore a black T-shirt with the name of the punk rock band "MISFITS" across the front. "Yes, young man," Beauprez said respectfully. Mr. Mohawk asked, "What sort of plans would you have as governor to take care of the homeless?"

The couple of local reporters on hand looked up from their notebooks. This topic clearly was not on the candidate's list of talking points and could be just the sort of innocuous subject that would trip up the congressman. "Why don't you tell me a little bit about yourself," Beauprez said. Suddenly, the gazebo felt like the set of the Dr. Phil show. Mohawk shared that he's had some "problems" but he's worked through them. Beauprez listened as if he had all the time in the world, and, when Mohawk finished, said, "There are some great shelters nearby." Beauprez even offered the name of a person who runs one of them. "It's important," he said, "that we continue to support programs that help people find opportunities and get back on their feet." Mohawk stepped back, nodding his head, apparently satisfied with the response.

It's Beauprez's compassionate-conservative rhetoric and everyman appeal that makes him such an immensely electable candidate, and he knows it. Last January, at Marc Holtzman's request, Beauprez met with the DU president at his campus office. Holtzman asked Beauprez if he were going to run for governor. Beauprez, who had just been re-elected to his second term in Congress, said he wasn't sure. Holtzman confided that he would run, and although he didn't come right out and ask the congressman for his endorsement, Beauprez sensed, "It was pretty obvious that's what he wanted." Instead, Beauprez says, he offered an opinion. "I said, 'Marc, I grant you're pretty comfortable on 17th Street, and your Rolodex is obviously very impressive, but if you want to be the next governor you've got to be able to walk into the mechanic across the street's garage. You've got to be able to walk into the sale barn in Lamar. You got to be able to meet the potato farmer down in the San Luis Valley."

"You don't think Holtzman can do that?" I ask Beauprez, as we roll along in the pickup to his next campaign stop.

"I think it's a tough sell for Marc."

Beauprez proved that he could not only talk to Colorado's disparate constituencies but also win them over during his first run for public office in Colorado's 7th Congressional District. It was a race that in many ways could foreshadow Beauprez's strategy for the upcoming governor's contest. The 7th District was drawn up in response to the 2000 U.S. Census, immediately taking shape as one of the most demographically diverse districts in the state. It includes parts of Adams, Jefferson, and Arapahoe counties and cities like Bennett, which is home to mostly white, rural folks who tend to vote Republican, and Aurora, a more racially diverse urban subdivision that trends Democrat. The 7th District's registered Republican and Democratic voters were almost evenly divided. In 2002, Beauprez ran against former state Rep. Mike Feeley, a lawyer and sometimes lobbyist.

Colorado was then a battleground state, as the Republican majority in D.C. was, as it is now, in jeopardy. The hot-button issue was Social Security reform. "Privatization" was a volatile buzzword. Each candidate said the entitlement program was overextended yet denied he would support drastic cuts. While the issues got muddied, Beauprez framed the race as a personality face-off between himself as the rancher-developer-small-businessman-regular-and-rugged-Catholic-Coloradan versus Feeley, the fat-cat lawyer-lobbyist. Throughout that campaign Beauprez would say in his folksy way, "I don't think we need to send another lawyer to Washington." Meanwhile, a Republican 527 group mailed out fliers in the district with a picture of a snarling dog next to a picture of a cigar-smoking lobbyist. The mailing's caption suggested that when you combine these two you get Mike Feeley, "a mean-spirited embarrassment to the state of Colorado." Beauprez won by 121 votes.

In the small world of Colorado politics, Mike Feeley is now the treasurer for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ritter. When I asked Feeley about Beauprez he was politely coy. "He's a very talented politician," Feeley said. "He's very good at what he does." When I asked Feeley's former campaign manager, Erik Greathouse, about Beauprez he was more direct. "The thing about Bob is that he kind of packages himself, at least to be displayed in public, as someone who is not a radical conservative. He comes back home and plays this farmer-small-town-banker shtick. He dresses well. He's handsome, and he won't say the wrong thing. But the truth is, if you peel back the layers, he's right there with right-leaning Republicans. The average guy who hears him probably doesn't think that."

Since Beauprez has gone to Washington he has voted in lockstep with the Republican majority. But really the "average guy" probably would not find that so surprising. After all, Beauprez is a Republican congressman among a Republican majority on Capitol Hill, serving under a Republican president. And who doesn't know that going along and getting along in D.C. has its rewards? Beauprez's 7th District was recently handed $48 million in federal funds for road construction. That's on top of more than a few million dollars here, like the $3.8 million for a new children's hospital at Fitzsimons, and a few thousand dollars there, like the $38,910 homeland security grant for the Bennett Fire Department.

Keith Ashdown is the vice president of policy for the nonpartisan watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense and has been keeping tabs on Beauprez, and he says when it comes to the congressman's politics there simply aren't that many layers to pull back. "Beauprez is a congressional anecdote that virtually no member will remember," he says. "His was a self-serving two terms in which he got very little done except to create a stepping-stone for his ambitious rise to higher office. He is political milquetoast." What the average guy may find surprising about Bob Beauprez, however, is that he was born and bred a Democrat.

One second, we're in Beauprez's campaign pickup truck having a perfectly fine discussion about his father; the next second, the cheerful, self-assured congressman abruptly stops speaking, and I notice him wiping tears off his face. A few quiet moments hang in the air before he says, "Some of this is probably me still feeling a bit remorseful that I did not fully appreciate my dad for what he was and what he'd been through."

Over and over again, gubernatorial candidate Beauprez tells his whistle-stop audiences about the "values and work ethic" he learned from his parents. Like he did back on the gazebo, Beauprez will go on about how his dad, Joseph Beauprez, took the dairy farm he inherited from Bob's grandfather and grew that farm into a 160-acre ranch. What Beauprez doesn't mention to the crowds is that his old man was a Democrat, and that Beauprez himself didn't care much for ranching, or that for a while he even was ashamed of his father.

Joe Beauprez began farming in Lafayette back when Hwy. 36 was a dirt road. He rose every morning at 4 a.m., worked the head in the field until well after dark, and when his three sons came along he expected them to do the same. Bob was the youngest brother (sister Rita was the youngest sibling of them all). Beauprez Sr. wasn't a man who demonstrated or articulated affection. Mostly what young Bob heard from his dad were lists of chores: drive the tractor, shovel the manure, haul the feed. When those tasks were done, Joe simply directed his sons on to the next job. After all, the Beauprezes had bills-the overhead that comes with animals, feed, equipment.

In high school, Bob came to despise ranching, all those chores before and after school. "I came home one night from practice," Beauprez says, "and my brothers announced that tonight we got all the chores to do ourselves: milking, cleaning, all that, and tomorrow morning too, 'cause dad took mom to the state fair for a little overnighter. I threw an absolute fit." He hated the dirty bib overalls his dad wore. Especially when Bob ended up rubbing elbows with the sons of white-collar workers for the new IBM complex that had come to town. All those guys wore suits and ties. Bob thought: What did I do wrong? Life sure dealt me a tough hand.

And while many of those blue-chip business types likely pulled the Republican lever, old man Beauprez was a Catholic who believed if Jesus could vote that son of a carpenter would turn out for the Dems. Regardless of the weather or chores, Joe Beauprez almost never missed a Sunday mass or an election. Without preaching politics, he raised his boys accordingly. In a Fairview High School mock Kennedy-Nixon presidential debate, it was teenage Bob Beauprez who chose to passionately argue the position of JFK.

When he enrolled at CU, Beauprez was a bit like the George Bailey who wanted to escape the old savings and loan in It's a Wonderful Life. He studied geology with grand plans of moving to New Zealand and putting his degree to work there. But reality got in the way. Like George Bailey, Beauprez ended up back home. He married Claudia, his high school sweetheart; they lived on the family homestead in a house Bob's dad helped him build; and he slogged through the anonymous drudgery of the family business.

That is until he discovered cattle breeding. From one of his neighbors Beauprez learned a guy could make serious money breeding pedigree cattle. A good breeder could earn a reputation, travel the country showing off his stock, even win ribbons and start judging other ranchers' head at fairs. It wasn't as glamorous perhaps as cracking rock formations in New Zealand, but it wasn't milking cows, either. Beauprez persuaded his dad to let him give it a try. Before long, Beauprez, who as a U.S. congressman would oppose federal funding for stem-cell research, was tweaking cattle embryos and had become a player on the breeding circuit.

As his socio-economic stature changed from struggling rancher to successful breeding entrepreneur Beauprez's political perspective also transformed. It was the mid-'70s. Nixon had been impeached, the wounds of the Vietnam War were fresh, and the Supreme Court had recently decided Roe v. Wade. Beauprez, now in his mid-20s, decided the Republicans were more his speed. "I guess maybe it did have something to do with Watergate," he says, "since it had to do with who got elected in Colorado. The first election following Watergate, we got Gary Hart in office, and David Skaggs, and Pat Schroeder. And I remember after church one Sunday, I'm watching all this and listening to the rhetoric...it was the rabid pro-choice. It was the strong antiestablishment movement that existed, especially around here in the wake of Vietnam, and now Watergate. And the feminism movement was alive and well. And Claudia and I decided it just wasn't our party."

When Beauprez's mother learned of her boy's political switch she shared her surprise with his big brother. Mel Beauprez remembers her saying, "You are not going to believe this. You better sit down.' To her, it was almost like he was now Jewish or something."

Having left his father's political party, Beauprez finally washed the ranch dirt of his dad's profession from his hands in 1989. By then, arthritis had forced Joe Beauprez into retirement, and Bob Beauprez sold off most of their acreage to developers who used the land to build 1,500 homes and the Indian Peaks Golf Course.

 

With his proceeds from the sale of the cattle-roughly $250,000-Beauprez bought himself a Louisville bank. No more ranching and cattle and manure. Now he was the banker who gave loans, not the rancher who applied for them. No more bib overalls for this Beauprez. He now wore a tie, like those IBM execs of his youth. Beauprez was a businessman-a Republican businessman. His dad voted for Carter, but he voted for Reagan. He became more involved in the state GOP, and with his Rolodex of well-heeled business contacts-and his inside knowledge of whose bank accounts were flush-he became a fund-raising star. In 1997 Beauprez was named chairman of the Boulder County Republicans.

Party officials realized quickly that Beauprez was more than a moneyman. He had grit and personality. They could see Beauprez knew a good line of bulls and a good line of bull; that he understood the rural folks and he could relate to the chamber of commerce crowd. In 1998, when the chairman of the state GOP refused to publicly endorse Republican gubernatorial candidate Bill Owens and threw the party into a tizzy, Beauprez was seen as the natural choice to take over as party boss.

"He united the party," says Larry Liston, a longtime Colorado Springs Republican and now a state representative from El Paso County. "I remember I went up to him and I said, 'Would you come down to El Paso and speak with us?' At that time myself and my colleagues were setting up small luncheons. A lot of these people say sure and then once they're the chairman decide they don't have the time and can't. He came, and we were all impressed. He spoke from his heart and created a tremendously good impression. He's good and personable with people. He's comfortable being around blue-collar Republicans-the people on the Eastern Plains and Western Slope-types. And he's right of center of most political figures."

Beauprez couldn't be more right of center than he is now. His pickup has just parked in front of the right wing's unofficial headquarters: Dr. James Dobson's sprawling Focus on the Family campus in Colorado Springs. On the drive over here, Beauprez said he's shaken hands with Dobson maybe twice at events in D.C. and that he doesn't know him all that well. What Beauprez does know of Dobson, he said, is that he's "a very influential guy." I'm not welcome to join the congressman and his staffer for the Focus meeting, so I wait in the truck. An hour later, the two men emerge from the building smiling. Beauprez tells me that he met with one of Dobson's representatives. "I'd say it went pretty well," he says. "The gentleman we met with said he'd like to host a dinner party for me and Claudia."

It makes sense that Beauprez and Team Dobson would get along divinely. In 2004, Congressman Beauprez's votes supported the Christian Coalition 100 percent of the time. He opposes abortion and rejects the idea of same-sex marriage. He's okay with same-sex "unions," but he believes "that marriage is between a man and a woman." Not exactly the stuff of bread-and-butter issues that he would face as governor. So, considering his position on abortion, I ask Beauprez what he would do as governor if he had to sign off on a death sentence-if he sees any difference between his Catholic respect for the "unborn" and his Republican Party's willingness to execute criminals. There are three inmates on death row in Colorado.

Beauprez nods thoughtfully for a few seconds. He says he's discussed this very question with Archbishop Charles Chaput. The "essence" of Chaput's explanation, Beauprez says, was that there is a "distinction between the innocence of the unborn and then one who has forsaken innocence and committed one of those heinous criminal activities." Finally, he says, "I don't know. I've just decided that I will deal with that when and if the time actually comes."

Some of Beauprez's critics have taken to calling him "Both Ways Bob." They insist the congressman has a knack for being on both sides of an issue while seeming to take no firm position at all. The nickname recently resurfaced with the referendums on C and D, the two TABOR-bending tax proposals to fund public education and infrastructure improvements. Holtzman had been running around the state telling anyone who would listen that Beauprez had not come out against C and D-which Holtzman insisted would be the truly Republican thing to do. On the gazebo, I heard Beauprez say clearly, "I am against C and D," and then add the line, "but I do have friends on both sides of the issue."

On the gazebo, Beauprez had talked to Mr. Mohawk about homelessness for several minutes, sounding sincere and thoughtful, but neglected to offer any concrete plan. He's talked with Chaput about respect for life, but remains uncertain about what he'd do if he had to sign off on a death sentence. He's gone to pay his respects to Focus on the Family, but says he really doesn't know Dobson all that well. Beauprez continues to support the war in Iraq, but he says when he cast his vote he was relying on the military experts and, look, "humans make mistakes." As far as Tom DeLay, the former House Majority Leader indicted for allegedly violating campaign-finance laws, Beauprez says he isn't rushing to judgment. He's going to let the system work. And no, he has no intention of returning any of the approximately $30,000 DeLay has given to him over the years. "I've done exactly what Tom asked me to do with that money," Beauprez says. "I've used it to win elections."

Ask Beauprez what as governor he would do about two of the most pressing issues Coloradans face-education and water supply-and Beauprez will talk about the importance and nuances of each issue, and tell you he plans to convene a task force for each issue and put some of those recommendations out to the voters in a referendum. Creating task forces, like blue-ribbon panels, almost any politician, banker, and IBM executive knows, is the move a leader makes to look decisive without taking a stand.

 

"I'm a pretty confident guy in who I am and what I'm made of," Beauprez tells me as his pickup approaches Denver. "I don't shy away from making judgments, and I think I learned that from my dad."

A few months before Joe Beauprez died in September 2004, he attended a fund-raising dinner for his congressman son, who was defending his 7th District seat. For the affair, Rep. Beauprez flew into town on Air Force One with President Bush. So close to home, yet a world away from the ranch. "It was one of those $1,000-a-plate things," says Beauprez's big brother Mel, who attended the dinner with his wife, Sally. (Family members did not have to donate to dine.) While Republican Congressman Beauprez, dressed in his fine suit and tie, addressed the audience, his dad stopped eating his salad. "He leans over to me and my wife," Mel says, "and he said, 'Who is that fella up there? He sounds familiar, but I can't see far enough to see who that is.'" Mel's wife said, "That's Bob, your son."

"Oh," is all Joe Beauprez said, and he went back to eating his salad.

Maximillian Potter is executive editor at 5280.