Jerry Kopel

Ralph Cole, who died several weeks ago at age 81, was truly unique. There may have been others like this former state senator in the Colorado legislature before 1965, but there haven't been any since 1988. And this column is as much a legislative history and a personal history, as it is about one legislative life.

Ralph and I served together 18 of his 24 years in the legislature. We were both House freshmen in the class of 1965, the only time Ralph ever served in a part of the legislature not controlled by Republicans.

We also sat in the same row on the Republican side of the House. There were so many Democrats (42) that the third row down from the back contained Wayne Knox (D), Lou Rinaldo (D), Jerry Kopel (D), Tom Jordan (R), Ralph Cole (R), and Floyd Haskell (R).

That first two-year term, Ralph and I were close friends, often lunching together. Thirteen years my senior, he was my mentor with his sagacity and legal knowledge. We were on opposite sides of the fair housing issue, but blood brothers against high interest rates charged consumers by money lenders. I think it was Ralph who convinced his row-mate Floyd Haskell on the merits of truth-in-lending legislation.

Being opposed to high interest rate money lenders put Ralph at odds with his minority leader, industrial banker John Vanderhoof, and assistant minority leader John Mackie, an industrial bank counsel.

When I returned to the House in 1971, Ralph was chairman of Judiciary Committee and I learned, to my dismay, another of his dislikes: Statutory rights for residential tenants known as warranty of habitability.

At the behest of Legal Aid Society attorneys Jean Dubofsky, Richard Hennessy, and Tucker Troutman, I introduced HB 1135 with 27 additional House sponsors, to provide tenant rights. The bill was assigned to Judiciary Committee. Ralph was totally fair and above-board in arranging testimony and votes. The bill passed out of committee 8 to 4.

But Ralph then used a closed-door Republican caucus (it was legal then) to speak harshly and convincingly against the tenant rights bill. Rep. Carl Gustafson came out of that meeting and told me it was all over...the bill was dead. We held the committee of the whole vote. No one spoke against the bill, but three of my co-sponsors voted "no". Two others, Reps. Betty Dittemore and Jerry Rose had left the chamber. The bill died 28 to 32.

In 1975, when the House went Democratic again, Ralph was Senate Judiciary chairman and I was House Judiciary chairman. In late 1975, there was a major three-day conference on prison reform directed by Gov. Dick Lamm, Supreme Court Chief Justice Ed Pringle, Ralph and myself. Ralph and I then adopted a strategy is dividing the bills that proved effective.

Example: I (the Democrat) started the bill on mandatory minimum sentences for certain violent offenders. Ralph (the Republican) started the bill establishing local control of community corrections. We were chief co-sponsors of each other's bills.

I don't know why or when Ralph's dislike of then-Gov. Lamm began. But it was unrelenting and from conversations I had with Ralph after 1976, personal as well as political.

Recent obituaries in the News and Post deservedly stressed Ralph's integrity. But no one is perfect and in the summer of 1979, many of us who admired him saw his dark side during the interim Judiciary Committee hearings to "reform the way judges are chosen." While Rep. Ron Strahle was the nominal chairman of the hearings, Ralph really ran the show.

We started with allegations by former Chief Justice Otto Moore regarding the choice by Gov. Lamm of Jean Dubofsky instead of Brooke Wunnicke for the Colorado Supreme Court to replace retiring Justice Pringle; saw subpoena power used on many of the eleven member Colorado Supreme Court nominating commission; listened to behind-the-scenes gossip divulged by former Lamm press secretary Jack Olsen; heard allegations by A.M. Dominguez Jr. regarding the appointment of John Althoff instead of Scott Clugston as Greeley District Court Judge; and listened to conversations with Gov. Lamm and David Greenberg, then general counsel for Lamm, surreptitiously taped by Dominguez, who is presently a district attorney.

As I listened to those tapes made by Dominguez, I felt both shame and dismay at this level of legislative proceedings. Perhaps Watergate hearings in 73-74 had contributed to the no-holds barred atmosphere, but in the 17 years since 1979, no other Colorado committee hearings were ever as abusive or unfair.

Only one change came about because of those hearings and that was done without statute: The public naming of the three finalists for a judgeship before the appointment is made. Sen.Cole's push for Senate confirmation of the governor's appointments to the judiciary did not make it through the legislature.

After the 1980 election, Ralph contested Sen.Dan Noble for the position of Senate majority leader. The caucus tie vote would not break and in the end a "Solomon-like" compromise was reached. Ralph would be majority leader in 1981 and Noble in 1982. But 1981 was not an enjoyable year for Ralph, who always worked much better dealing with specific legislation than as an administrator. He never tried again for a leadership position but stayed as Judiciary chairman.

Ralph's really important contribution was in keeping tabs on what the executive branch was proposing. He had no problem challenging decisions as unconstitutional, and to his credit, he was right more often than he was wrong. He was definitely a burr under the executive branch saddle.

Ralph often used creative approaches to get his way. For example, he did not like the law requiring legislative committees to announce in advance what measures would be scheduled for hearing. So he found a "lawyerlike" solution: ANY bill still in Senate Judiciary was always included in the Judiciary Committee schedule.

Sen. Cole never lost a legislative race and he never filed a campaign report with the secretary of state. He didn't have to, because he always used ONLY his own money to finance his campaign battles.

Ralph did not retire in 1988 because he wanted to. Up and coming Rep. Bill Owens made it clear he would challenge Ralph in a primary and Ralph, then 73, and recognizing finally the frailties of age, both physical and mental, chose not to run again.

When I retired in 1992, Don Kinney of Channel 6 taped an interview and asked me who were the most influential people during my 22 years in the legislature. I named three, including Ralph Cole. Ralph definitely changed the course of Colorado history by almost single-handedly emptying the surplus in the state treasury over a period of years, returning those moneys to the state taxpayers.

Well, so long Ralph. If there is a Judiciary Committee in heaven, I know who will eventually be the chairman.


Jerry Kopel writes a column for the Statesman based on 22 years past experience as a state legislator.

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