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The Nation: Lamm: A Compass in His Head

3 minute read

When Richard Lamm came to live in Colorado in 1961, he spotted a flock of geese a few feet inside the state border. He stopped his car, stepped out, drank in the unspoiled scenery and told himself, “This is the place.” Ever since, he has tried to keep Colorado the way he found it—a battle for the environment that spurred his political rise and carried him into this year’s gubernatorial race. In a victory that showed a majority of Coloradans share his concern, he defeated the popular incumbent, John Vanderhoof, by 441,144 votes to 379,298.

Lamm’s victory would not have been possible without a dramatic change in the state’s electorate. Over the past few years, Colorado has been invaded by Easterners and Westerners alike, anxious to escape urban blight and sprawl, and, ironically, more concerned than the natives to protect their state’s natural beauties. For them, the environment is the overriding issue. A rather traditional booster who looked forward to Colorado’s becoming the “energy capital of the world,” Vanderhoof, 52, did not get the voters’ message until fairly late in the campaign. Then he joined Lamm, 39, in opposing a ski-run development and further nuclear blasting on the Rockies’ western slopes in an effort to extract natural gas. But Lamm, a leader of the successful drive to keep the Winter Olympics out of the state, had already made the environmental issue his own. “I have a compass in my head, and Vanderhoof has a very fine scale,” says Lamm. “Generally the scales win in politics, but not here and not now.”

A native of Madison, Wis., Lamm speaks less with the measured drawl of the Westerner than with the rapid-fire delivery of the transplant. But zealous as he is on the environment, he is no extremist. “I am a politician of the finite,” he says, and he fully expects to cooperate with Republicans, who are scarcely less alarmed about the future of their state than Democrats. “We’re not saying ‘no growth’ or opting for a steady state economy,” says Lamm. “But growth has to be controlled. What we’re really demanding is that growth pay its way.” Unless it does, he fears that Colorado will soon resemble the ravaged landscape of West Virginia. “We’re all happy to be Americans,” says this new-style states’-righter, “but we’re not going to let you rip us off.”

Lamm has been dubbed a one-issue man; a tough land-use plan he sponsored in the legislature lost by a single vote, and he plans to push it again as Governor. But he has also supported a variety of other causes. He managed to win passage of the nation’s first therapeutic abortion law in 1967. He was a major backer of no-fault insurance; he fought so hard for child-abuse legislation that admirers floridly called him “champion of the battered child.”

Little that is Coloradan is foreign to him. At the outset of his campaign, he walked some 888 miles around the state getting to know it and its people. Much of the information is collected in his garage-office-hideaway, where he often spends his evenings after having dinner with his wife Dottie, a psychiatric social worker, and their two children. “My passion, in the best federal tradition, is to stay here and make Colorado a laboratory for social change,” he says. “From now on, you can only think big by thinking small.”

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