Steamboat Springs People who knew the late state Sen. Dave Wattenberg, of Walden, have a difficult time recalling his many legislative good works without mentioning his irrepressible penchant for harmless practical jokes.
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Wattenberg, who died Jan. 20 in Lakewood at age 73, was to be remembered during a memorial ceremony today at the state Capitol. He served in the Legislature from 1983 to 2000, when term limits brought his public service career to a close. As a state representative, he represented Routt and Moffat counties as well as his home of Jackson County and Rio Blanco, Garfield and Eagle.
Wattenberg was a member of the informal Colorado Cowboy Caucus that wielded influence by speaking out about issues that resonated in the mountain parks of Colorado’s Western Slope. More formally, he served on the Business Affairs and Labor committees and pursued his interest in water, mining and banking issues.
Former state Sen. Jack Taylor, of Steamboat Springs, was a relatively new state representative serving on the House Agriculture, Natural Resources and Energy Committee when Wattenberg was the chairman of that committee.
Taylor recalled Thursday that Wattenberg was engaged in a long-running contest with state Rep. Don Ament, R-Iliff, to see who could top each other by pulling harmless practical jokes.
Wattenberg got the best of his rival on April Fool’s Day 1993 — or maybe it was 1994 — when he dressed up in granny clothes to impersonate one of Ament’s constituents.
Taylor recalled that former state Rep. Bob Shoemaker was in on the joke before he was.
“Bob Shoemaker came up to me and said, ‘Come over here, I want you to meet a constituent of Don Ament’s; her name is Mildred,’” Taylor recalled.
“We caught up with Mildred in the well of the House floor. She was wearing granny glasses and acting a little disoriented, (looking around), and I asked her if she needed to find a bathroom. She said, ‘No,’ but there was something about her blue eyes, and then I realized, ‘My God, that’s Wattenberg!’”
Before Taylor could give him away, the practical jokester in disguise proceeded to make Rep. Ament squirm in front of the entire state Legislature.
“He actually went to the mic and started working on Ament at the podium,” Taylor recalled.
But Wattenberg saved his best effort for one of the biggest moments in Ament’s career, when Gov. Bill Owens appointed Ament to become the state’s next Commissioner of Agriculture.
Ament had to be confirmed by the Senate Ag Committee, and Wattenberg had ascended to the state Senate and become the committee chairman.
It was nothing more than a mere formality — there was no way the committee was going to deny the governor his choice for the job — but Wattenberg wasn’t about to pass up an opportunity for mischief.
“He booked the old Supreme Court chambers for the confirmation hearing and printed a brochure that read ‘Hang ’em High, see the last hanging of the 20th century,’” Taylor recalled. “All of the committee members wore black robes and powdered wigs. The chambers were packed and (Sen.) Ken Chlouber (Leadville) brought in a hanging rope.”
Taylor misses the old days, before passage of Amendment 41, when state legislators felt free to take one another out for drinks and dinner.
“That’s how we used to get to know the other legislators. Unfortunately, that era has stopped,” Taylor said.
Constitutional Amendment 41, passed by the state’s voters in 2006, prohibits public officials from receiving gifts from another person valued at more than $50 per year. Intended to prevent people from exerting undue influence on public officials, 41 also has put a damper on the camaraderie that used to prevail in the Legislature, Taylor said.
You have to think that if North Park’s Dave Wattenberg still were toiling at the state Capitol, he’d continue to find a way to keep things light.
“It was one story after another with Dave Wattenberg,” Taylor said.
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