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.”