Best known as the two-dimensional face of a protest campaign that helped unseat U.S. Senator Cory Gardner, Cardboard Cory died January 3, 2021, the same day John Hickenlooper officially took office. “People were always happy when Cardboard Cory showed up for them,” says Boulderite Katie Farnan, who helped create the flat figure. “He fostered a kind of joyful activism in our state.”
Cardboard Cory’s dark-horse political career began during a February 2017 town hall at Denver’s Byers Middle School. The event’s organizers, which included Farnan and ProgressNow Colorado executive director Ian Silverii, planned to erect an empty podium to symbolize Gardner’s inaccessibility. Before the event, though, the group found a folded-up cutout of Gardner in ProgressNow’s basement. (No one is exactly sure what it was originally used for.) They duct-taped the image to the lectern so many of the nearly 1,600 attendees could vent frustration directly at the visage of the absent senator. Cardboard Cory proved to be a considerate listener. “Everyone was so fired up about Trump’s policies and Gardner’s lack of response,” Silverii says. “It was cathartic for folks.”
The stunt inspired so much fervor that ProgressNow made around nine new Cardboard Corys, each featuring a stock photo of a businessman with Gardner’s head on top. When the real Cory failed to make in-person appearances until August the following summer, Farnan shipped the cutouts to activists across the state, who held events with the fake ones. Farnan uploaded the resulting videos and photos to the Twitter account @CardboardCoryCO. “Cardboard Cory’s persona became about being everything Cory Gardner wasn’t,” Farnan says. “He believed in science. He believed in health care for all. He made statements when our real senator wouldn’t.”
He also became a media sensation. Local anchors, such as Kyle Clark of 9News, ran stories about Cardboard Cory protests and how long it had been since the real Gardner had hosted a town hall. (It reached nearly 500 days during summer 2017.) MSNBC host Rachel Maddow recognized the “prop version of [Coloradans’] senator.” To keep the paper politician in the limelight ahead of the 2020 election, liberal groups including ProgressNow and Indivisible Colorado kicked off a 14-stop, statewide bus tour during summer 2019. At each location, dozens—sometimes hundreds—of Coloradans told the shy pseudo senator how they felt about Gardner’s policies on issues like health care and gun control.
Cardboard Cory remained a prominent figure during the run-up to the 2020 election. Boulder production company Sender Films made a short documentary about his life, and Gardner’s opponent, former Governor John Hickenlooper, even debated two knockoff Cardboard Corys during a campaign commercial. When Coloradans elected Hickenlooper in a landslide in November, the usually reserved Cardboard Cory celebrated the news, tweeting, “People are saying it’s time for me to head to the garbage bin. But while Cory Gardner is garbage, 1) he’s still a senator until next January, and 2) I’m recyclable.”
Nevertheless, the liberal activists who created Cardboard Cory said there was no reason to keep him alive with Gardner out of office. He will, however, be remembered by Hickenlooper, who received a Cardboard Cory signed by its creators in January. “Hickenlooper promised there would never be a Cardboard Hick,” Silverii says. “If he is accountable, present, and shows up, then we won’t have any reason to make one. That’s all we ever wanted from Gardner.”