Club 20 – Coors, Salazar square off in Grand Junction |

Club 20 – Coors, Salazar square off in Grand Junction

Scott N. Miller

GRAND JUNCTION ” The debates are the show, but the hallway is where the action happens.

In election years, the Club 20 fall meeting in Grand Junction features political debates and seminars on hot topics. But the hand-shaking, flesh-pressing and what we now call “networking” takes place out in the halls.

It’s there an Eagle Realtor can shake hands with the Mayor of Denver, or a rancher from Craig can meet, and really talk to, a candidate for the U.S. Senate.

“If you have your questions ready, you can get your issues resolved,” Eagle Realtor and Club 20 Executive Board member Tom Harned said. “Here’s a chance to talk face-to-face with people. I find it’s a good way to scratch my political itch.”

Another board member said the Club 20 meeting is a way to bring people with diverse interests together.

“It’s a way to find out what other people think,” Les Mengelman of Cedaredge said. “We’ve got to work together across the Western Slope. This is a way to learn about our representatives and know who these people are.”

Working the halls is a time-honored tradition at Club 20 meetings, and a few business and civic groups take full advantage. One Denver firm that specialized in document destruction ” not just shredding, but ripping to tiny pieces” had its big document-destroying truck in the parking lot and representatives inside.

Republicans and Democrats had exhibits set up, of course, as did the Colorado Union of Taxpayers, which, as the name implies, consists of people who think paying taxes is, well, taxing.

Union boss Dick Sargent, who sought the Republican gubernatorial nomination in 1994, and campaigned through the state with a Trojan horse on a flatbed trailer opposing some now-forgotten ballot initiative, was working the room like a true pol, handing out literature, and, spotting a large member of the Fourth Estate, grabbed said reporter and proclaimed, “Thomas Jefferson said, ‘You can’t have a revolution without a newspaper!'”

Sargent is a likable guy.

Club 20, dedicated to advancing Western Slope issues in both Denver and D.C., isn’t well known outside business and government offices, especially here in Happy Valley. Here, most residents look to Denver as the state’s power center. And it is.

But Club 20 has pull. People from Durango to San Luis to Rangely to Walden belong, and many make trips of several hours to attend the spring and fall meetings. Those meetings draw some seriously heavy hitters, too.

Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper accepted an invitation to be the keynote speaker at the Club 20 luncheon, and gave an address about “regional partnerships.”

But Club 20 was founded in the early days of “Front Range water grabs,” and old habits die hard.

“Denver still wants our water,” Mengelman of Cedaredge said.

Club 20’s pull was further evidenced by the fact that the state’s two U.S. Senate candidates, Pete Coors and Ken Salazar, held their first head-to-head debate in Grand Junction.

Democrats, knowing the event was to be televised from a town that consistently votes Republican, responded in time-honored fashion and salted the crowd.

“This isn’t a real Grand Junction crowd,” retiring Third District Representative Scott McInnis hissed about midway through the debate between his potential replacements, Republican Greg Walcher and Democrat John Salazar (Ken’s brother). “They’ve brought people in from Denver and Boulder.”

While the crowd wasn’t particularly representative of Grand Junction ” or much of the Western Slope, for that matter ” the bused-in Democrats seemed to be having a good time, both inside and outside the Two Rivers Convention Center.

Outside, one man posed for a photo beside a giant chrome-plated buffalo sculpture ” which is what passes for art in Grand Junction ” outside a downtown bank. He and his wife were clearly having a dandy field trip.

Inside, the Democrats brought the noise, cheering for the Salazar brothers as they talked about repealing tax cuts for the rich and “restoring justice” to America, and occasionally hooting, especially when Coors talked about President George Bush “inheriting” the 2001 recession.

Not that all the Democrats were from out of town. Deb Marquez of Edwards, local Democrat chairwoman, has belonged to Club 20 for years, and served as a panelist during the Coors-Salazar debate.

The Republicans, who, with the exception of Coors’ campaign staff, weren’t bused in, responded in kind, cheering lustily whenever Walcher or Coors called for making Bush’s tax cuts permanent, or talked about maintaining a strong national defense. The Republicans didn’t boo the Democrats much, presumably taking names for future layoffs, instead.

With the crowd eager for full-contact politics, the candidates were willing to oblige.

Both Salazars employed the Politics of Anecdote, John with a story about how his dying father’s last two memories were for the love of his family and pride in his World War II service, Ken with a tale about his hardscrabble upbringing and the fact he and his siblings were the first generation of the family to graduate from college.

The Republicans relied on Support for the President, with Coors throwing in a dig at the much-maligned John Kerry remark about waging a “more sensitive” war on terror.

Walcher, though, tried to out-regular-guy John Salazar.

“My place isn’t 2,000 acres that spreads across two counties,” Walcher said, noting he and his wife have just a small spread on the Western Slope.

While the politics was full-contact, with tough questions and barbed remarks, none of the rhetoric went out of bounds.

As close as anyone came was Coors’ remark that “I’m a job creator, not a litigator,” a key element in his “send-me-to-D.C.-because-I’m-not-a-lawyer” campaign.

In the end, all the candidates shook hands, and Ken Salazar asked his supporters to rise with those of Coors for a standing ovation at the end of the senate debate. The Democrats responded, albeit a bit reluctantly.

We need more debates like that.

The action may be in the hall, but the main show was pretty good, too.

Staff Writer Scott N. Miller can be reached at (970) 949-0555, ext. 613, or

Vail Daily, Vail Colorado

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