Dudley Brown's War
The executive director of Rocky Mountain Gun Owners has been aiming to remake Colorado politics using hyper-aggressive and confrontational political strategies.
The .45-caliber Nighthawk T3 Comp that had felt so heavy to me looks featherlike in Dudley Brown’s firm, two-handed grip. He slices the air, bringing the gun from his waist up to eye-level in a blink. He pauses, then flicks the safety and squeezes the trigger. Two quick shots thunder through the low-ceilinged range, ejecting bullet casings that clatter on the cement floor. Twenty-five feet away, a single hole pierces the target through the center of the outlined chest.
It’s a Friday afternoon in May, and the 47-year-old executive director of Rocky Mountain Gun Owners (RMGO) is initiating two new staff members at the Front Range Gun Club in Loveland. Brown—unassuming in a baggy, camouflage hunting shirt, his full face slightly reddened and graying blond hair cropped close—has also brought a fully automatic MP5 machine gun he carries with a special federal permit. An expert shooter and instructor, Brown is a popular figure at the range—and at the nearby Grimm Brothers Brewhouse, where he relaxes with his protégés after the demonstration. The welcoming environment contrasts with that of the Colorado political scene, in which Brown is becoming something of a pariah.
“You’ll probably lose some friends when they find out where you’re working,” he warns the clean-cut young men, with obvious relish. It’s almost as if they’ve joined a cult—and in a way, they have. Their new boss has spent nearly two decades taking aim at select Colorado Republicans—and rarely missing. He savagely and routinely attacks candidates and officeholders unwilling to pledge, in writing, their absolute loyalty to Brown on Second Amendment issues. The Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling in 2010—the “corporations are people” case—spurred myriad nontraditional political groups into action, and Brown has capitalized on his group’s newfound freedom. He’s built RMGO and the National Association for Gun Rights (NAGR) into a double-barreled fund-raising machine that bullies anyone who compromises Brown’s pro-gun, anti-abortion, anti-gay agenda. (A favorite showy tactic is driving around in a Pinzgauer, a boxy, big-wheeled Cold War–era Austrian troop truck that Brown calls his “political pain delivery vehicle.”) Says former state Representative B.J. Nikkel, a Larimer County Republican who ran afoul of Brown last year after she voted for civil unions legislation: “He’s a political terrorist and a modern-day charlatan who operates in the shadows and portrays himself as a supposed ‘Christian,’ but he uses the people naive enough to believe him and financially support him.”
He’s also a primary, if almost unrecognized, reason why Democrats, in a little less than a decade, have turned this once-red state a deepening shade of blue. While Colorado has changed, Brown—Colorado politicos know him as just plain “Dudley”—has not. Nor does he intend to. The RMGO’s demand of “no compromises” on gun rights is an indirect shot at the National Rifle Association, which Brown sees as too willing to cut gun control deals. (The disdain is mutual; the NRA once called Brown the “Al Sharpton of the gun movement,” too extreme for America’s most notorious firearm lobby.) True to form, last July, two days after James Holmes shot 70 moviegoers in Aurora, killing 12, I asked him about proposals to limit ammunition purchases. When I mentioned Holmes had 6,000 rounds with him that night, Brown said, “I call 6,000 rounds running low.”
Brown’s hostage-holding of any center- or left-tilting Colorado Republican has crippled the GOP’s ability to regain a political foothold, making Colorado a swing-state microcosm of the national GOP’s biggest problem: breaking free of its base and becoming more “inclusive,” an imperative Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus outlined in March. Indeed, Brown doesn’t give much thought to the Republican team. “If you’re not feared in politics, you’re not respected,” he told me one day in his office. “And I don’t really care anymore about trying to play nice.” As he spoke, hanging on the wall behind him were photos of his wife and two children—affixed to the front of a case that stores a loaded combat shotgun.
If Colorado Republicans have not been widely successful in recent years, how has Brown become one of the most powerful people in state politics and raised his national profile? It turns out this modern-day Machiavelli amasses more influence and income when his party loses than when it wins. By taking out moderate Republicans in primary races, he’s left the GOP with fewer officeholders, most of them staunch conservatives in a state where nearly two-thirds of voters register as either Democrats or independents. Many of the remaining Republican lawmakers are more loyal to Brown than to the state party, itself an increasingly impotent and underfunded organization. As Democratic majorities at the state Capitol pass more progressive laws, Brown’s members have begun to literally hit a panic button: the “contribute” links in his organization’s near-constant emails. It’s created a golden opportunity for Brown—and maybe for Democrats, too. Progressive activist Ted Trimpa, an architect of the Colorado Democracy Alliance, says Brown’s nefarious ways have aided his causes, but he doesn’t necessarily welcome the help. “Dudley sometimes makes our day,” Trimpa says, “but overall he’s poison in our ecosystem of democracy.”