Feature

See Dick Run

And holler. And distract. And infuriate. And, usually, win. It's all part of the grand plan for Colorado Republican chairman Dick Wadhams. But after a devastating political loss in 2006, can the man who was once dubbed the next Karl Rove get his groove back?

November 2008

But for a man whose media-cultivated image is pure political bully, Wadhams often doesn't look—or act—the part. His default expression is a smile, sometimes smug or mischievous, but often warm and welcoming. His steel-blue eyes twinkle at the jokes and chummy stories he shares with friends and foes alike during the lulls at political events. He is gracious with his time, and acquaintances describe him as exceedingly kind. He treats his junior staffers as part of the team rather than mere gofers. Many of his closest friends have known him since childhood and don't necessarily agree with him politically; the man Wadhams calls one of his best friends in the world, Bill Long, is the Democratic commissioner for Bent County.

"He has a knack for friendship and loyalty, and he cares about people," says Bill Armstrong, the legendary Colorado politician and one of Wadhams' primary mentors. Armstrong, now the president of Colorado Christian University in Denver, says Wadhams' geniality stems from his personal code. "He's an idealist," Armstrong says. "He is disdainful of people who cut moral corners, and he honors people who stand up for what they believe, even if it's not what he believes." Even some of his opponents agree. "He can be quite respectful," says Chris Watney, who was the communications director for Tom Strickland in the 2002 senatorial campaign that Strickland lost to the Wadhams-managed Wayne Allard. "I don't think he thinks that people who disagree with him are idiots."

Dick Wadhams was born on August 26, 1955, the fifth of six children who grew up tending the family's Las Animas farm, mostly sugar beets and livestock. Dad was a Republican; Mom was a New Deal Democrat until motherly pride in Dick's career choice coaxed her to switch sides.

Wadhams financed his college years by working in a mortuary, so by the time he entered politics, making stiffs seem lifelike had become a well-honed skill. He attended two community colleges before earning his political science degree from the University of Southern Colorado (now CSU-Pueblo) and distinguished himself as a small-government iconoclast in the post-Watergate '70s. He's a cultural conservative and casually devout Catholic who doesn't use issues like abortion or gay marriage as a litmus test for who he'll represent. "I had no apologies for Nixon, but I've always felt Republicans believe in the freedom of living their lives without a lot of government, economically and every other way," he says. His youthful devotion to conservatism led Bent County officials to offer him their GOP chairmanship when he was 19, primarily, he says, because "nobody else wanted to do it."

His avocation soon evolved into a full-time obsession. (To this day, Wadhams rarely vacations, and the closest thing he has to a hobby is reading about politics and history.) Within several years of becoming Bent County chair he was apprenticing under Bill Armstrong, and he later worked for Colorado Republican stalwarts Bill Owens and Hank Brown. It was during Bo Callaway's Senate campaign in 1980 that Wadhams, deeply devoted to the first love of his life, met the second in Susan Farrell, a fellow staffer whose adoration for politics matched his own. After their marriage in 1982, the tandem became a behind-the-scenes power couple on the state political scene for the next two decades, with Dick organizing campaigns and Susan working a variety of high-profile positions, including a stint as Bob Schaffer's chief of staff when he was a U.S. representative.

Susan had a son and daughter from a previous marriage, and family life in Dick and Susan's Littleton home was harmonious, if unconventional. Though the concept of "soul mates" probably would have been a tad too touchy-feely for these two workaholic conservatives, everyone who knew the couple agrees that they were uncannily well-matched. "They were awesome together," says Wadhams' stepdaughter Khristie Barker. "Most people come home from work and life goes on, but they'd still be going over everything that happened that day." Instead of dinner parties or neighborhood barbecues, the couple hosted caucuses, and family activities included passing out campaign flyers and attending Lincoln Day fund-raisers. "Those poor kids were subjected to a lot of political events," Wadhams says with a laugh. "But Susan went out of her way to make sure things were as normal as possible at home."

Wadhams also showed a tender side to his family that might strain the credulity of those who see him as a cynical Machiavelli. One of Barker's first memories of him came after her childhood cat died. "In Richard's fashion, he wrote me a letter I still have about how sad it is and so on," she says. "Once he took off his political hat, he was the opposite of what people think of him. I don't think he can show his humanity to the outside world without losing his edge. But he was just like a dad."

On the campaign trail, he was more like a bulldog. He ran come-from-behind senatorial races for Wayne Allard in Colorado, campaigns in which Wadhams recast Allard's perceived blandness into the advantage that delivered victories in 1996 and 2002. He also helped Conrad Burns, another underdog, to victory in Montana in 2000. A year after the Burns win, though, Wadhams lost Susan to a three-year battle with breast cancer. News of her illness, and its seriousness, surprised many. "When she was really sick during the last few months, she would implore me to go to the office," Wadhams says. "She didn't want me to dwell on her situation to the point where I wasn't doing my job."

Tributes flowed in from around the state after Susan's death. "She was one of Colorado's brightest political minds, and I learned most of what I know about moving an agenda forward in Washington from her," Bob Schaffer says. "She had a deep sense of purpose and knowledge about political circles at all levels of government."

Armstrong says Susan was a beloved figure in state Republican circles and talks of the sorrow that friends and colleagues experienced after her death. But Wadhams kept his game face on, just like his late wife would've told him to. "She was a great sounding board; it was a big void immediately after she passed away, and still is. She was very good at it, and she probably was smarter than me," he says before quickly adding, "Obviously, there were a lot of reasons I missed her, but she was great to talk about work things with."

If anyone expected Wadhams to have a changed perspective—on life or on politics—after Susan's death, it quickly became clear that the man from Las Animas wouldn't wallow in self-pity about his loss. To no one's surprise, he found solace by throwing himself back into work. After managing Allard's win in 2002, he headed up South Dakotan John Thune's 2004 Senate campaign against Senate minority leader Tom Daschle. People on both sides of the aisle thought Thune's campaign was hopeless, but the combination of Wadhams' elementary, disciplined message—and, some argue, shenanigans that walked a tightrope between ingenious and unethical—sent Thune to Capitol Hill and Wadhams into a rarified spotlight.

Suddenly a star, Wadhams went nationwide. After Thune's victory, Wadhams was tapped to be Allen's chief of staff in Virginia. The combination of the Senator's rising star and Wadhams' proximity to it prompted Slate magazine to dub Wadhams the next Karl Rove. Then the monkey business ensued.

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