Down But Not Out

John Hickenlooper walloped Tom Tancredo in last year’s gubernatorial race, but Tancredo in turn delivered a convincing knock-out to Republican upstart Dan Maes. With his surprising showing behind him, will the ever voluble, relentlessly divisive Tancredo come back for more? You bet.

February 2011

Tom Tancredo is blazing east across a cold, empty stretch of blacktop near the Colorado-Nebraska border with two shotguns in the back of his wife’s Toyota minivan, a handful of cigars hidden in a coat pocket, and the radio tuned to a conservative talk show.

It’s late November and Tancredo in the driver’s seat, right foot firmly on the gas pedal—is wearing a pair of worn brown pants and a ripped gray hoodie with the words “Border Patrol” emblazoned across his left breast. Less than a month earlier, during his failed third-party bid to become Colorado’s 42nd governor, Tancredo couldhave been en route to one of those faraway campaign stops politicians are supposed to make so they can say they’re listening to the concerns of “real” Americans. In fact, Tancredo was near these fields not all that long ago and had whipped his supporters into a frenzy. That was then. Today there is more enjoyable business at hand: Tancredo’s going to kill some birds.

Brown stalks rise from the near-frozen ground, and 20-foot-high mounds of corn lay outside the co-op silos that mark each town along U.S. 6. “What a beautiful morning,” Tancredo says to his friend, Kim Herzfeldt, a confidant and former congressional staffer who’s in the backseat. Herzfeldt nods in approval. “A great day for huntin’,” he says.

“Oh, shit,” Tancredo says.

“What is it?” Herzfeldt asks.

“Cop’s got me,” Tancredo says. “Damn it.”

The sheriff’s vehicle, which had passed us going the opposite direction, slams on its brakes, makes a U-turn, and charges toward us, blue and red lights flashing.

The fact that we’re seconds from being pulled over isn’t a surprise. Since leaving the former congressman’s suburban Denver house two hours earlier, I’d witnessed driving that only the most strident free-market crash-test dummy could appreciate. Speeding. Failure to use a turn signal. And a near-religious aversion to his seat belt despite the blinking red light on his dashboard. It’s no wonder that he nearly lost his license more than 30 years ago.

“How fast?” Herzfeldt asks.

“Twenty, I think,” Tancredo says. He pulls onto the shoulder and rolls down his window. The sheriff’s deputy approaches and glances at the gun cases in the back.

“Where you off to?”

“Hunting in Holyoke,” Tancredo says.

“Do you know how fast you were going?”

“No.” “Seventy-nine in a 65,” the deputy says.

“Oh, my. I guess that’s pretty fast.”

Tancredo hands over his license, but he can’t find his registration or insurance. He reaches across me and pops open the glove box. Papers fall onto the floor. He grabs a stash and puts it on his lap. Herzfeldt and I watch Tancredo flip through the stack: bills, receipts, a “NOBAMA: Keep The Change” bumper sticker. Tancredo finds a scrap of paper and holds it up like a winning lottery ticket.

“Registration!” he calls out. I find the insurance card a couple of moments later. Then the officer returns to his car.

“Quick, who’s the sheriff in Logan County?” Herzfeldt jokes. “Get him on the phone!”

Tancredo laughs. The deputy is back at the window within a few minutes. He’s smiling. “I have to ask,” he says. “Are you the Tom Tancredo?”

A grin spreads across Tancredo’s face. “Guilt-eeeeeee,” he singsongs. The cop’s eyes flash with excitement. “Everyone who I work with is gonna hear about this one,” he says. “Everybody’s on the radio now because they can’t believe I’ve got the Tom Tancredo pulled over.”

Herzfeldt stifles a laugh in the backseat.

“Now, this would be a $170 ticket, but I’m gonna let you off with a warning.” There’s a brief pause. “Wow!” the deputy adds, shaking his head in disbelief. “I’ll have to tell the guys that, sure enough, it was him.”

“ ’Tis I,” Tancredo says. “I’ve never met another Tom Tancredo.”

With that, the deputy hands over a warning citation, which Tancredo dutifully signs. “Just watch that speed, OK?” the deputy says.

Tancredo rolls up his window and starts the van. He lets out a deep breath.

“Well, that’s good,” Herzfeldt says.

“No shit,” Tancredo says as he pulls back onto the road.

“We’re in Tancredo country now!” I exclaim.

“Yeah,” Tancredo says mockingly, pointing to the empty road and fallow fields that spread out before us. “Just look at all these voters.”

Even if Tom Tancredo, the former five-term Republican congressman from Colorado’s 6th District, hadn’t lost one of the more bizarre gubernatorial races in recent memory, chances are you would have an opinion of the wild-eyed border-security advocate, theoretical proponent of bombing Muslim holy sites, and all-around bipartisan pisser-offer. Just before launching his own scorched-earth campaign against the state’s Republican Party this past summer, Tancredo, who’s 65, wrote a newspaper column in which he laid out the case for President Barack Obama’s impeachment, calling the president “an enemy of our Constitution, and…a danger to our safety, our security and our personal freedoms.” In case the point wasn’t clear, Tancredo added: “Mr. Obama is a more serious threat to America than al Qaeda.”

That’s Tancredo for you: The man whose Italian last name means “thought-counsel” could just as easily mean “right-wing nut job” to millions of Americans. He’s the guy who called Miami a “Third World country,” in part because of its flood of immigrants, and who said the Catholic Church accepted illegal immigration as a way to boost church numbers. “He speaks what he believes,” Herzfeldt tells me. “He’s a very honest man.”

It’s a personality trait that’s gotten Tancredo into trouble often. On certain campaign stops, Tancredo’s security detail made him wear a bulletproof vest. Once, Tancredo wanted to adjust the vest, but his handlers worried that it would be too visible. A would-be assassin would go for a head shot.

Tancredo survived the campaign, but history one day may say that former Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper’s 260,773-vote beat-down of Tancredo signaled the end of the conservative’s political career. But the numbers only tell part of the story. For Tancredo, there’s no defeat; there are only the 650,000-plus people who cast their ballots for him—not for Hickenlooper or for Republican Dan Maes, a political train wreck who garnered fewer than 200,000 votes and essentially decimated the state GOP. “What Tom did—jumping into a race three months before an election, raising the money and support—that’s nothing short of incredible,” says Bob Beauprez, Tancredo’s friend and a former Republican congressman who lost a bid to become the state’s governor in 2006. “Tom didn’t lose the election as much as he ran out of time.”

In a matter of months last year, Tancredo dumped the GOP, registered as a member of the marginal American Constitution Party, entered the race for governor, and performed more than respectably (despite the results of some polls, Tancredo never seriously threatened Hickenlooper). That he threw his former party into disarray and angered more than a few people along the way is just a happy by-product for him. “Tom is a purely selfish person,” says state Republican chairman Dick Wadhams, who publicly battled Tancredo during the election. “He thinks of no one but himself.”

It’s a point that’s difficult to argue. Tancredo has made such a political sideshow of his opinions—making himself famous while raging against the “cult of multiculturalism” and illegal immigration—that he once bragged to his wife, Jackie, about killing a coyote in Texas. Jackie immediately thought her husband had blown away not an animal, but a “coyote,” a person who helps smuggle illegal immigrants across the border. In other words, even his wife sometimes thinks he’s bat-shit crazy. “Tom is going to do what he’s going to do,” Jackie says. “He’s an interesting man to live with.”

But for every voter and pundit to whom Tancredo is a caricature—an extremist who never conjured up a provocative sound bite he didn’t like—the election showed off a Tancredo most people hadn’t seen, or didn’t believe existed. Here was a man who’d split from religion as a child and discovered faith as an adult and wasn’t afraid to talk about the emptiness he’d experienced before finding God. Here was a man who would tout his proudest legislative achievement: authoring the Sudan Peace Act, a sweeping federal law that forced two warring factions to the negotiating table.

It didn’t hurt that at a time when dissatisfaction with the Obama administration and Democrats was at a high point, Tancredo could boast legitimate small-tax, small-government bona fides. “He was able to run a serious statewide campaign and basically articulate on a range of issues and spend at least part of the time not talking about illegal immigration,” Denver pollster Floyd Ciruli told the Washington Times after the election. “At the moment, I believe he is the most easily nominated Republican in the state.”

Driving up I-76 on our hunting trip, Tancredo flipped through his BlackBerry and found a message sent to him by a former campaign supporter. The note quoted a story from the Times: “Despite the loss, Mr. Tancredo’s ability to pull together a viable third-party challenge at the last minute has given him credibility as a statewide candidate beyond anything he ever enjoyed as a five-term Republican congressman or the nation’s leading border-security advocate,” he reads aloud. The story brings up a thorny issue for a guy who claims he never wanted to run for governor (“I was trying to make a point”) but now very much sounds like he’s disappointed he didn’t get the job. “So here I am, with greater credibility for a statewide office, but the problem is what the hell statewide office can I possibly run for anymore?” he asks. The 2014 governor’s race seems almost too far away, and, even then, he complains, “Four years from now, with our luck, the economy will be good…and Hickenlooper will get all the credit.”

Maybe, though, it won’t be in elected office where Tancredo makes his biggest impact. Tancredo has already founded the Rocky Mountain Foundation, a conservative advocacy group that pushes for education and tax reform, and he has a host of other ideas in the works. Just weeks before our hunting trip, he laid out his plans over breakfast. With others’ money he would create a “shadow Republican Party” to counter the Colorado Democracy Alliance, which directed cash and resources to left-of-center candidates in past state races. The need to balance Democratic money is an obvious one, at least to Tancredo. “I’m proof,” he says, “that parties have become almost irrelevant.”

Tom Tancredo lives in an $850,000, nearly 4,000-square-foot Tuscan-style house he bought just before realizing that Ponzi schemer Bernie Madoff had lost more than $1 million of his family’s retirement fund. The house is almost three years old and has views of the foothills and rows of half-built homes.

One day last fall, I visited Tancredo at his home. He sat on a couch while his golden mini-doodle jumped around the kitchen. His grandkids’ video games were strewn in front of the flat-screen TV, and a four-foot-tall framed portrait of Tancredo and his wife graced the wall across a room decorated in what can only be described as Midwestern Grandparent. There is no pretension here—a mishmash of rugs covers the floors, and the kitchen table, a wooden oval, has leather chairs with rollers affixed to the legs. Scattered around the house are family portraits, including one of the Tancredo clan—his wife, their two kids, his two stepchildren, and six grandchildren. Everyone’s wearing American-flag T-shirts.

Tancredo was telling me about his immigrant roots, his days as a kid growing up in North Denver. He would watch his Italian-born grandparents argue in the car after Sunday Mass at St. Catherine of Siena Catholic Parish and School on Federal Boulevard. “My grandmother would yell because my grandfather would always lapse into Italian when they argued, and she would say, ‘Speak American, damn it!’ ” Tancredo tells me. “My parents used the term ‘Americanized’ over and over, especially my mom. It was like a goal to become Americanized. Part of it was the language and melding into the community.”

The last of three boys born to a short-haul truck driver father and a store-clerk mother, Tancredo attended Catholic schools in Denver but left the church in high school after finding the rituals dull and off-putting. He was an average student who was more intent on stealing hubcaps and hiding out at the neighborhood movie theater than staying home, where, Tancredo says, his father was an alcoholic who occasionally beat his mother. It’s a story that caused a brief familial rift when it was made public in the Rocky Mountain News a few years after Gerald Tancredo died. “It really hurt my mom,” he says of his mother, Adeline, who died in 2006, three years after Gerald. Today, Tancredo talks rarely of the abuse and the deep effect it had on him. He says his father hit him once, across the face, after learning the youngest Tancredo had phoned relatives to complain about the beatings. By then, his brothers—both more than a decade older than him and to whom he is not close—had left home. It was left to young Tom to diffuse blowups. “I would try to get between him and my mom, and that was ugly,” Tancredo says. “Eventually, as I got older, I would blame my mom. She had a choice. I didn’t. I begged her to leave. But Catholic? In those days? Where would she go?”

The constant fighting, Tancredo says, led him to suffer what he now believes to be panic attacks. “I always called it the ‘shitbird,’ ” he says. “I would be walking down the street and, kaboom, it would happen.” He later visited a psychiatrist who diagnosed him with depression. The verbal and physical abuse “affected Tom, and he had to get his mind clear,” Tancredo’s 75-year-old brother, Ralph, told me. “The psychiatrist straightened him out.”

Tancredo became extremely conservative, a trait he isn’t sure how he acquired, starting in his teens. Neither of his parents was political, but Tancredo enjoyed debating at school, especially about the spread of communism. “Nothing I can think of encouraged me to be conservative except being on the stage for those debates,” he says. “Maybe I’m a frustrated actor.”

Outside his growing interest in politics and conservatism, the only things that kept his attention as a teenager were the summer jobs he had at the old Elitch Gardens amusement park a couple of miles from his home at West 46th Avenue and Lowell Boulevard. With money Tancredo earned working concessions, then operating rides, and finally as a part-time manager, he was able to cover tuition at Northeastern Junior College in Sterling, where he studied political science. He transferred to Colorado State College in Greeley (now the University of Northern Colorado) in 1967, where he eventually graduated with a degree in education.

In college, he became the conservative man-about-town and helped form student groups like the Young Americans for Freedom that traveled the state and supported the war in Vietnam.

During Tancredo’s last year in college, he says his draft number was pulled and he was ordered to take an Army physical as part of the routine enlistment process. Among the questions he was asked was whether he’d been treated for a mental illness. “I said ‘yes’ and they sent me to an Army shrink,” Tancredo told me. “I went to see him, and next thing I knew I had this thing called a 1-Y. You’re eligible to serve but only when they get to the bottom of the barrel.”

Tancredo says he’s generally avoided discussing his past depression and its possible causes, in part because it could lead to broader questions about his father. “I never went into any great detail,” Tancredo says. “I talked about my depression, but that was it.”

The idea of a hawkish Republican possibly shirking war has been problematic, even for some of Tancredo’s most strident proponents. Congressman Mike Coffman, a former Marine who represents Tancredo’s former district and supported his gubernatorial run, walked away from a pro-war rally with Tancredo in 2003. “I just didn’t feel [Tancredo] had the moral authority to send other young people off to war when he was not willing to go himself,” Coffman said at the time. Most recently, during a taped interview with MSNBC in 2009, Tancredo took off his microphone when the issue came up. “What do you do?” Jackie, his wife, asked me when we discussed the issue. “He is what the media want to portray him as. You can’t fight that.”

Tancredo’s past is not all that far from his present. After we talk for a while at his house, he says he wants to show me where he grew up. The two of us hop into Tancredo’s Buick and drive 15 miles to the now-hip Highland neighborhood, which was a working-class enclave when Tancredo lived there. We creep past his grandfather’s former grocery store on Zuni Street; an old girlfriend’s home a few blocks down the road; the apartment he shared with his first wife, a liberal from Bryn Mawr College, whom he divorced in 1973. We turn a corner and see St. Catherine’s, his old elementary school. We drive a few more blocks and we’re outside his parents’ old home. He points to a house on our right. “I’d run there to call 911 when my dad hit my mom,” he tells me.

Later, we make a left turn and end up in front of a large brick building with a massive lawn. “That building,” he says, pointing out his car window, “that was St. Vincent’s Orphanage. We spent nights there just to get away. I remember begging my mom to let me stay there. They would give us a room. There was a little room my mom and I would sleep in.”

He has a worn expression on his face, as if he’s resigned to his past. This period in his life has clearly defined him, perhaps more than even he knows. This is the root of Tancredo. How could he say what he says, be labeled as he’s been labeled, and really, truly not care? Perhaps the answer is simple. When you’ve seen your father beat your mother—when life is so hard you never want to return home, what is there to be afraid of?