Last time district was split, the West Slope lost a congressman

By Mary Louise Giblin Henderson

A funny thing happened on the way to Colorado’s 1972 congressional election in the wake of the state’s 1971 redistricting.

Then, as now, Republicans controlled the Colorado House. They also controlled the Senate, and Democrats were busy charging that boundaries were being drawn to favor the Republicans.

Colorado’s 4th Congressional District had been made up of western Colorado since it was first formed a few years after the 1910 census, and it had continued that way through 1964. Although the U.S. Constitution mandated redistricting after each decennial census, Colorado’s General Assembly had neglected to do so in over 40 years.

For many years there had been criticism that the 4th District, with some 196,000 voters, was not only the smallest, population-wise, in Colorado, but one of the least populated in the nation. After the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark 1964 “one-man, one-vote” decision, Colorado was told it must redistrict.

The 1964 result was a combination of western Colorado with Weld and Larimer counties from northeastern Colorado, creating an L-shaped district.

The old 4th District had been kind to Democrats. Created around 1914, its first congressman was Ed Taylor, a Glenwood Springs Democrat and lawyer, who continued to serve for 16 consecutive terms until his death in 1941. He was replaced for three terms by Republican Robert Rockwell of Paonia, who was defeated in 1948 by Democrat Wayne Aspinall of Palisade. Aspinall was continually re-elected every two years for 20 years.

After the 1970 census, the 4th District had to be redrawn again. Many conservative Western Slope Democrats were doubly annoyed because the new district contained not only Republican Weld and Larimer counties, but a portion of Adams County — a hotbed of emerging environmentalism. The southern half of western Colorado, considered a Democratic stronghold, was moved to the 3rd District.

However, Aspinall had continued to win since 1948, and there was speculation he was unbeatable. He had bested Republican James P. Johnson of Fort Collins in 1966, following the 1964 redistricting. And in 1970, he had beaten back a primary election challenge by Greeley Democrat Richard Perchlik, following up by defeating Republican Bill Gossard of Craig.

Over those years, Aspinall was described by some detractors as more Republican than Democratic. Aspinall himself freely admitted that he had support from both sides of the political spectrum.

Thus it was, with considerable annoyance but not great apprehension, that western Colorado Democrats greeted the news that the Republican-controlled Legislature had carved out a different 4th District in 1971.

But the 1972 race turned out to be the so-called “horse of another color.”

The 26 Amendment had been ratified in 1971, giving 18-year-olds the right to vote, and many college students, including a cadre at Mesa College, were intent on electing an environmentalist.

When Front Range support for Democratic environmentalist Alan Merson, a Denver University law professor and Adams County resident, began to emerge, Western Slope Aspinall forces still felt secure in their candidate’s invincibility. To their shock, many environmentalists and college students voted in the September primary election, and Merson carded 53 percent of the vote to 47 percent for Aspinall.

Merson backers were ecstatic, but they reckoned without the Republican voting power of the eastern Colorado counties. When the votes were tallied in the November 1972 election, Jim Johnson — the man Aspinall had defeated in 1966 — was in and Merson was out. There was some reliable speculation that Merson had also lost support among more conservative Democrats.

Democrats and some Republicans in northwestern Colorado weren’t that happy that they no longer had one of their own in Congress. However, Johnson was politically astute enough to retain Aspinall aide Bill Cleary, now of Grand Junction, on his team. As a result, Johnson continued to be provided with a western Colorado point of view.

Johnson served three terms, retired, and was replaced by Hank Brown of Greeley. Brown served one term in the then-4th District. When the state was redistricted after the 1980 census, all of western Colorado was joined with Pueblo and the adjoining southern counties into the 3rd District.

While there was the usual political finger-pointing at election-time during the Johnson and Brown tenures, there did not appear to be big issues in which western Colorado felt that its needs were neglected.

Mary Louise Giblin Henderson is a former political reporter for The Daily Sentinel. She now lives in California.


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