The congressman from Columbine

For Colorado Rep. Tom Tancredo, reelection seemed inevitable -- until tragedy struck Littleton.

By Jake Tapper

Published December 7, 1999 12:30PM (EST)

Colorado's 6th Congressional District -- consisting of the eastern, western and southern suburbs of Denver -- is a leafy, soccer-mom kind of place that has sent only Republicans to Congress since it was first created after the 1980 census. But a disconcerting and unpredictable factor has been thrust into the 6th District's political equation this year that removes all electoral guarantees. The peaceful sprawl of Jefferson and Arapahoe Counties has been forever disrupted and the area is now known for something other than suburban anonymity: the blood-soaked tile of Columbine High School.

"They're still grieving," says Rep. Diana DeGette, a Democrat from the neighboring 1st District. "People are still really deeply affected. Particularly people in that community."

Deep emotions don't always make good politics. Some do, of course -- in the right hands, voter anger, contentment, outrage and exasperation can be channeled into electoral results.

Grief, however, is tricky terrain.

But the tension the grief has created in the 6th District is so volatile the House GOP is nervous about the job security of the freshman congressman whose district includes Columbine: an outspoken pro-National Rifle Association, conservative Republican named Tom Tancredo.

Normally this seat's a "gimme" for any Republican. The district's only congressman until 1998 was the low-key Dan Schaefer, who glided to one reelection victory after another. But after Schaefer retired last year, he was replaced by a very different kind of pol in Tancredo: a right-wing feather ruffler.

Elected to the Colorado House at age 30, Tancredo was one of a small clique of conservatives known as the House crazies. In 1981, Tancredo resigned from the House to serve as a regional representative for the Reagan Administration's Department of Education, where he proceeded to cut the regional office from 220 employees to about 60.

After a career as a local activist and head of a think tank that argued against government support for public education, Tancredo eked out a victory in a contentious five-way House primary for an open seat. During his campaign, Tancredo was tarred by one of the ugliest and most highly derided negative ad campaigns in history, in which his opponent essentially accused him of Nazism.

And when Tancredo's not the victim of controversy, he's creating it. He made national news just days after his election by refusing to attend a White House welcome for new members of Congress.

"I'm not going," he said. "I've been to the White House when we had a real president." He subsequently pulled a no-show at the State of the Union address.

Tancredo's district is perfect for a moderate Republican, but not necessarily for one as conservative as he. "When [critics] say Tancredo is out of touch with the district, they're probably to some extent correct," says Fred Brown, political editor of the Denver Post.

Tancredo's conservative antics combined with his pro-NRA views -- which seem inappropriate in the district where Klebold and Harris wreaked their havoc -- have both Democrats and Republicans raising their eyebrows.

"His district is the district my constituents move to escape urban school violence," observes DeGette. "Suburban Coloradans have become shocked. It's not going to be a normal election year for a guy like Tom Tancredo because of the gun control issue."

Tancredo's vulnerability was formally acknowledged early in November when he was included on a short list of House Republicans targeted for extra help by the national party.

Enter Ken Toltz, a soft-spoken, balding, diminutive Democrat who hopes to unseat Tancredo. The son of a prominent local family that owns 27 area dry-cleaning stores, Toltz is -- for a Democrat in this strong Republican district -- a serious challenger

Having worked for both a pro-Israel lobbying organization and as deputy national finance director for former Colorado Sen. Gary Hart's 1984 presidential bid, he has connections and is politically savvy. He is well on his way to raising more than $200,000 by year's end -- an especially strong showing for a 6th District Democrat. He has hired a pollster and a media consultant.

Toltz was already planning on challenging Tancredo five months before the massacre. Now, however, his race has a new focus.

"People are looking for a way to express their anger and their pain," Toltz says. "And it's new for a lot of people to express it through political activity. And that's the challenge for us."

But when asked how he intends to meet that challenge, how he plans on discussing gun control as a weapon in his arsenal against Tancredo without being accused of exploiting the tragedy for his own political ends, Toltz admits he doesn't yet know.

"It's still a very open wound right now," he says.

Toltz has two little girls at public schools not far from Columbine High. And a few of the high school kids working at his dry cleaning shops in the afternoons are Columbine students who lost friends in the massacre.

But Tancredo is also all too familiar with the wound. He lives only half a mile from Columbine.

"I don't think that I have ever been so affected by an event in my political life," Tancredo says. "By far the most extraordinary phenomenon -- the event itself -- almost seemed incomprehensible. Then you saw the community actually in shock. And I know that seems a bit over-dramatic. But I'm telling you, you could actually see it. ... I don't know exactly how to explain it other than to express my feeling that the entire community was showing symptoms of shock."

One of Tancredo's neighbors had a few children in the school that day. "Thank God none of them were physically injured." One of them "held the teacher who eventually died. He's a young man, this kid ... And his father told me not too long ago that he hardly knows him anymore. He said, 'I really don't even know my own son anymore.' And it's true. He seems about 20 years older."

Lately, Tancredo says, residents of Littleton and the surrounding area have been somewhat heartened by the sight of survivors of the April 20 massacre, "coming out of the hospitals with their wounds being healed. They have scars, yes, but they're able to walk now. They're able to pick up the pieces of their lives and try to move on. And we're very pleased by that. But in the back of my mind, I think that for every one of those kids there are probably 100 whose scars we cannot see. And they're not greeted by crowds and flowers and friends. And I just pray for them too. Because there are many more of them, frankly, than we know about. And their healing process can be more difficult than even the ones that some of kids with physical injuries are facing."

But even as the students of Columbine heal, a different kind of attack is being staged in Washington.

In looking to prevent the next Columbine, liberal-to-moderate lawmakers stumbled head-on into gun control, one of the most contentious issues in American politics. DeGette argues that "people want to see some benefit come from their tragedy for society as a whole." And for that to happen, a tragedy such as Columbine needs to be dragged into the political arena. "How are you going to have child gun-safety laws if you don't pass legislation?" she asks. "You've got to take it through some political body."

But Tancredo doesn't see additional gun laws as the answer. "If you actually asked the people of the 6th Congressional District in Colorado if they believe that the major issue at Columbine was the issue of firearms and their availability, I think that they would say, 'no,'" he says.

Denver Post's Brown agrees. "The major response to Columbine is still 'What's wrong with the kids?' It wasn't so much gun control as it was kid control."

But as Toltz points out, "There's a feeling -- and I think everybody still has this feeling -- that we have to do something. We don't know what, but we have to do something."

For Toltz and DeGette, gun control is one answer. For Tancredo it isn't.

A week after the shootings, Tancredo introduced a bill condemning the tragedy and offering Congress' condolences to the victims and their families.

"I hope with all my heart, and pray to the ever-living God that he give me, and my colleagues, and my community and the culture the wisdom to know what actions we individually can take so as to avoid a tragedy like this ever happening again. I pray for that wisdom," Tancredo said on the floor of the House.

Others pressed for more than prayer. On June 18, the House debated the Mandatory Gun Show Background Check Act. The bill as it stood -- offered by Judiciary Chairman Rep. Henry Hyde, R-Ill., a longtime moderate on guns -- would have required that background checks be conducted on firearms purchasers at gun shows, allowing up to 72 hours for law enforcement to conduct such a check before the gun could be sold.

Gun shows -- such as the one where guns used in the Columbine shootings were purchased -- are currently exempt from background check requirements. Licensed dealers at gun shows have to conduct background checks, but unlicensed dealers are exempt.

Since background checks were instituted nationally in 1994, more than 470,000 people -- almost 75 percent of whom were convicted felons -- have been prevented from purchasing firearms. And while most gun purchases are approved immediately under the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, established on Dec, 1, 1998, roughly 5 percent require further investigation -- which no doubt causes some gun buyers an inconvenience.

Most of the June 18 House debate centered around a confrontation that pitted an amendment offered by Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, D-N.Y., whose husband was killed in the 1993 Long Island Rail Road shooting, against one offered by Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., and backed by the NRA.

McCarthy's amendment would have extended the 72-hour background check period to three business days to ensure that state and federal law enforcement agencies were open so that the responsible parties could conduct the background check.

Dingell's amendment would have reduced the background check period to 24 hours -- codifying a pre-existing loophole, since many gun shows take place on the weekend when federal and state agencies are closed.

Though it was sold as a moderate alternative to McCarthy's amendment, the NRA, Majority Whip Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Texas, and NRA award-winner Rep. Bob Barr all supported the Dingell amendment, which would have created nothing more than the appearance of action. So did Tom Tancredo.

Hyde's bill, however, contained gun control provisions that made gun enthusiasts uncomfortable -- including a ban on the sale of assault rifles to children under 18 years old and the importation of certain ammunition clips. Though House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., personally voiced support for passage of the bill, the GOP leadership as an official entity didn't decide to support the bill until "late in the game," according to one House GOP leadership source.

"Leadership made the decision that it wanted the bill to pass," says the source, "they wanted to put the issue behind us. But the lobbying and whip effort came kind of late."

Arguing that it didn't go far enough -- and not wanting to let the Republicans off the hook -- Democrats started voting "no" on final passage. As they watched Democrats abandoning ship, Republicans decided to do so as well.

"Five minutes into the vote, it was apparent that the bill was going down big-time," says the leadership source. "So Republicans said, 'Well, leadership wants us to vote yes, but this is going down big so we might as well vote no.' The left and right extremes on gun issues came together in a confused alliance."

All of the Republicans in the Colorado delegation -- except for Tancredo -- voted against the bill.

"There was all along a sort of understanding that Tancredo had a unique situation," the GOP leadership source says, characterizing the message from the GOP House leadership to Tancredo as, "'Hey, you do whatever you've got to do, whatever you think is best, you go ahead and do.'"

The bill died. But Tancredo had managed to earn a headline that worked for him -- and he didn't have to have a hand in passing one of the gun laws he so ardently opposes.

"Divided House rejects gun bill," read the next day's Denver Post. "State delegation votes 'no' by 5 to 1."

Tancredo had his cover; he was the "1."

But there were two other insightful votes made by Tancredo that day. Joining forces with the NRA, he supported an amendment by Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Texas, exempting pawnshops from the act and another by Rep. Virgil Goode, D-Va., that would have repealed a ban on handguns in the District of Columbia.

The freshman had even gone on CNN the day of the vote and made like a moderate.

"How could [anyone argue that this bill is] a step backward when it included things like banning assault rifles for children under 18 years old, when it included banning the importation of clips, when it included the safety mechanism being sold with the gun?" Tancredo asked. "I mean, that's not a step backward, I don't think."

Tancredo's posturing convinced the Denver media that he was the area's one true moderate.

"Tancredo, despite his conservative reputation and the $10,400 he has received from pro-gun groups, supports many of the gun restrictions in the bill," reported the Denver Post, buying Tancredo's spin. "He said that he liked many of the proposed gun-control measures and that he wanted some form of restrictions at gun shows to pass," the story went on. "He says he would have considered the stronger provisions if he thought they had a chance."

Adds Brown, "I don't think [Tancredo and Toltz] are that far apart on the issue of guns. Since Columbine, Tancredo's become more centrist on that issue, favoring some restrictions on access to guns."

But those who support gun control are incredulous that anyone would believe that Tancredo has emerged as some sort of voice of reason.

"They said [the Dingell amendment] was a moderate vote in an effort to inoculate themselves," says DeGette. "But it's difficult for anyone in any district to call a vote for any NRA-backed bill a pro-gun-control vote. Tancredo may have done a good job of convincing a few people of that, but once the campaign really gets going, and people really start debating these issues, I think that the fact that he voted for an NRA-sponsored amendment will be pretty clear."

Adds Handgun Control Inc., political director Joe Sudbay: "We don't see a moderate position in the Dingell vote or the other votes he took that day. He has the same voting record on the issue as the leaders of the gun lobby. That to us is not a moderate position."

"In Littleton, as in everywhere in America, people are looking for solutions to gun violence," says Sudbay. "But Tom Tancredo is not looking for solutions. He's towing the NRA line."

A few weeks ago, Handgun Control endorsed Toltz.

Meanwhile, Tancredo continues to make like a pragmatist who wanted to toughen up gun laws in the wake of arguably the most gruesome school shooting incident in history. He argues that "the process of legislation is one that in fact requires" compromise. "That was the best piece of legislation we could get out, especially out of the House."

He says that House Democrats were more interested in creating a wedge issue for the 2000 elections than in passing a good law. "The broader strategy of the Democrats is the strategy of maintaining political issues and avoiding political solutions," Tancredo says. "They didn't want a solution, they didn't want a bill ... We needed a gun bill to come out of the House [to go to the House-Senate conference committee] in order to get any gun legislation out of Congress."

Such an argument, however, is disingenuous. Tancredo is the kind of man who believes that allowing schools to display the Ten Commandments will have more of an impact on preventing school violence than any gun law. He is genuinely searching for solutions -- but gun control isn't one of them. He's "very proud" of his amendment that would have allowed school districts to spend federal cash on the development of school safety hotlines that students, teachers and parents could use to report threats or rumors of violence in schools.

He talks up "zero tolerance" policies for school violence, providing schools with programming during the hours of 3 p.m. and 6 p.m., when most violent acts occur.

"There are a whole slew of things government can do," Tancredo says. "A lot of them just don't have as much sex appeal as the gun issue."

Tancredo's position will probably be enough, says Amy Walter, House editor of the Cook Political Report. "It was a very arcane process," she says. "You get bogged down in all these confusing questions: Did you vote for McCarthy? Did you vote for Dingell?"

Given Tancredo's wise maneuvers, the odds look good that he can pull it off, Walter suggests. "If Tancredo argues that he did what he thought was best to keep guns away from kids ... it'll be hard to argue that he's an extremist on that issue."

Combined with the fact that "Columbine is a very tricky issue to politicize," Walter notes, "it certainly is going to be difficult for Toltz and the Democrats to do that. Certainly, we're keeping an eye on the race, but would I put it as the most vulnerable seat in Congress? No, I wouldn't."

The Denver Post's Brown also sees a danger in politicizing Columbine. "The Democrats are trying to push the issue, but I don't think it's particularly wise. The wound is so fresh."

Agrees Tancredo, "It is not as clear cut as some would like it to be. It's not as pure a political issue as Ms. DeGette and perhaps Mr. Toltz would like it to be. If they intend to use it that way, they'll be sorry. It'll backlash."

In the last few weeks, DeGette has felt the "backlash" -- but from the Republicans in the Colorado delegation, not, she argues, actual voters. Just before Thanksgiving, DeGette and a small group of other women House members unveiled the "Columbine Clock," counting the days, hours, minutes and seconds since the shooting and in which the GOP-led Congress has failed to pass any gun control legislation.

Upon learning of DeGette's press conference, Tancredo immediately took to the floor and angrily denounced the Columbine Clock.

"There's a tendency to forget that there's a group of wounded kids and adults out there," he says. "No one in my neighborhood needs to be reminded of when that happened."

Rep. Scott McInnis, R-Colo., decried the clock as "a horse and pony show," and suggested that DeGette would be better off in the PR biz than in Congress. "She can count on Scott McInnis' criticism when she tries to parlay this horrible tragedy into political points," McInnis told a reporter from the Rocky Mountain News.

DeGette didn't expect McInnis and Tancredo to get so angry. "On both sides of the aisle, the gun issue often gets so emotional that people become reduced to ad hominem attacks," she says.

And it's especially bad back home. "The wounds are so deep," she argues, hoping that both Toltz and Tancredo "handle the issue in a sensitive and thoughtful and policy-oriented way." Otherwise, she fears, "it could really be a very ugly election. Both sides need to be very careful to have discussion on policy grounds, and it not through personal attacks."

But with blood on the ground, and gun control advocates convinced of the righteousness of their ways, that could be tough.

On Friday, Tancredo again moved to inoculate himself on the issue, telling the Rocky Mountain News that he would not accept money from gun groups. But Tuesday, Toltz's campaign slammed Tancredo for not only accepting $2,500 from a pro-gun group called Safari Club International, but for doing so on June 18, the very day of the vote on the Dingell amendment.

"I think that's outrageous," Toltz says. "And it really shows little regard for what our community's been going through."

Tancredo clearly wishes the issue would go away. But from the tenor of his opponent's rhetoric, not only is that not going to happen, but the flared tempers and inflamed passions that marked the April 20 tragedy will clearly be part of the House race. And that makes for some ugly politics.

"This guy's a bad guy," Toltz says of Tancredo. "He is a bad guy. And he needs to be taken out of Congress. Now. And I've decided I'm going to be the one that's going to do it."

Jake Tapper

Jake Tapper is the senior White House correspondent for ABC News.

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Crime Gun Control Guns Republican Party Tom Tancredo U.s. House Of Representatives