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.
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?