When decorum mattered: Campaigning for Congressman Aspinall
When U.S. Rep. Wayne Aspinall beat his Republican opponent, Howard Shults, by a mere 29 votes in 1952, Democrats in western Colorado spent weeks anguishing over why the vote had been so close.
And two Grand Junction women have always wondered whether they shared the blame for the near-defeat or should be congratulated for contributing to the Aspinall victory.
Aspinall, a former Colorado state representative and senator from Palisade, was bidding for a third term in Congress in the old 24-county 4th Congressional District that, at the time, included all of western Colorado.
Shults, a Grand Junction auctioneer and former Republican member of the Colorado House, had conducted auctions throughout much of that congressional district and was widely known.
Aspinall’s advertising budget was tight — skinny, actually — and had to be administered with great care. In his two previous congressional campaigns, Aspinall’s major advertising had consisted of small, dignified newspaper ads extolling his knowledge of water, mining and other Western Slope issues.
Shults’ twin brother, Harold, operated a Grand Junction sporting goods store, and some rather brilliant tactician decided to build his advertising campaign around that fact. The Shults ad that began appearing in newspapers in early fall carried a picture of Harold and identified Howard as “my twin brother,” before crediting Howard with some specific attribute. The ads weren’t long on dignity, but Howard and Harold were folksy personalities, and the ads seemed to work right in with their characters.
The ads were causing some comment, and at a meeting of Aspinall supporters trying to figure out a counter-action, Fern Cook, a fervent pro-labor Democrat, volunteered to head the advertising campaign. Fern, who still lives in the Grand Junction area, worked then as a business clerk and telephone operator at The Daily Sentinel. Fern studied the issues and didn’t hesitate to speak her mind.
I was The Sentinel’s women’s editor and a sort of wishy-washy Democrat who voted a split ticket, but I agreed to work with her. Our goal was to find a new approach for Aspinall’s advertising.
Aspinall was a solidly built man, a dark-blue-suit-and-white-shirt type, who projected a picture of utmost dignity. While he had a quiet sense of humor and could be a bit sarcastic, he was a serious, no-nonsense sort of politician.
Fern and I brainstormed for a week or two, searching for a gimmick for a new ad approach. Time was slipping away, and we still had no ideas. One afternoon, we approached Burt Meyers, the Sentinel city editor who later became a senior editor at Fortune magazine and a writer of Western novels. Burt thought about it, then suggested we use a take on an oleo ad that was then appearing in the newspaper and was based on the coming election.
His suggestion was to show respected Mesa County Democrats using the heading, “No, Wayne is not my twin brother,” and adding, “I am voting for him because ...” then detailing Aspinall’s expertise in various areas.
We were pretty desperate and it sounded OK, so we broached the idea to the late Charles Traylor, a Grand Junction lawyer and Aspinall’s campaign manager. Traylor, who visualized Aspinall as a decorous, devoted public servant, balked, saying the idea didn’t fit in with the congressman’s image. But Fern could be quite persuasive, time was rushing by and nobody else offered another idea. Traylor finally approved the campaign.
Things were going swimmingly. We had Miles Kara, the respected county Democratic chairman; Traylor, whose experience in water law we highlighted; and a couple of women Democratic activists lined up to explain why they would vote for Aspinall.
But we ran into trouble with E. B. Adams, a highly-esteemed Grand Junction lawyer. Adams, a lanky man who needed only a stovepipe hat and tails to be mistaken for Uncle Sam, didn’t object to the endorsement. He just thought the whole thing wasn’t dignified.
Fern put up another formidable argument, and he ended up agreeing, with very little enthusiam, to be a participant.
The ads appeared in The Daily Sentinel and, as I recall, in Delta and Montrose papers. I can’t remember if they were in newspapers in northern and southern areas of western Colorado.
In the wake of the election, pundits offered all sorts of reasons about why the Aspinall-Shults race was so close. The major one was that it was a Republican presidential year, in which Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower took 60.2 percent of the votes in Colorado, while Democrat Adlai Stevenson garnered only 38.9 per cent.
Traylor wasn’t judgmental, but Fern and I always believed the Aspinall campaign manager felt he had been correct in his assessment of our advertising efforts. We were never again asked to head the Aspinall advertising campaign.
Aspinall went on — with stolid, unimaginative ads and without our help — to win nine more successive terms in Congress before being defeated in the 1972 primary by Alan Merson, a Boulder environmentalist. Merson lost that November to Republican James Johnson.