A tribute to Mike Strang " gentleman, legislator, rancher | AspenTimes.com

A tribute to Mike Strang " gentleman, legislator, rancher

Morgan SmithThis photo from the late 1970s shows Mike Strang and his Mercedes Benz, with its memorable license plate.

“What do you think about that House district I carved out for you?” Mike Strang asked. It was the early spring of 1972 and my wife, Julie, and I were visiting Mike in the Aspen hospital where he was recovering from back surgery. He was stretched out in an uncomfortable-looking bed but was, as always, in good humor.

I didn’t know how to answer. Mike and I weren’t even in the same political party; he was a Republican and a longtime cattle rancher on Missouri Heights. I was a Democrat from Adams County. And I wasn’t aware that the reapportionment process had created an open legislative seat, Colorado House District 31, where we lived. Within days, however, my wife, Julie and I were in the race, launched by that bedside pep talk from Mike.

I’m thinking of Mike and Kit these days because of the death of their 46-year-old son, Lathrop, in a skiing accident on Mt. Sopris in late April. This is what a parent dreads the most ” the death of a child. I’m thinking of Mike, in particular, because we served together for two years and he was a courageous, witty and highly effective legislator and public servant.

During our one term together, 1973-1974, Mike was heavily involved in land-use legislation, a huge issue in those years as Coloradans struggled to deal with rapid growth. I actually remember his epic battles with Senator Joe Shoemaker from Denver more than I remember the outcome of the legislation itself. The year 1974 was especially political because two of our House members, Dick Lamm and Tom Farley, were vying for the Democratic nomination for governor and weren’t going to give the Republicans, who had majorities in both the House and the Senate, credit for anything. So the oratory sometimes obscured the actual results.

Whatever the climate, however, Mike was an articulate and intelligent legislator who brought a special flair and a gift for language to every debate. With his wit and sense of humor, he often stepped into debates that were about to get out of control, quickly defused them with a joke and got us calmed down and back on track. Highly sophisticated about urban issues like land use, he was, most of all, a great advocate for rural Colorado, for agriculture and rural values. Most important, he showed a level of courage and foresight that I rarely have seen in politics.

During that term, Mike introduced a bill to legalize marijuana. I think he believed that marijuana was relatively harmless and that law enforcement should focus its resources on more serious issues. Taking on this issue all alone seemed like political suicide, however, so I offered to be a co-sponsor. I was in a relatively safe district and felt that I could survive the political fallout.

But Mike said no. He refused to allow anyone else to get in trouble over the issue.

The bill died quickly, of course. And Mike later won election to the U.S. House of Representatives so, in the end, the issue wasn’t that damaging politically. But I don’t know of any legislator in the many years since then who has had the courage to carry an across-the-board marijuana legalization bill.

Since then, the surging demand for drugs has created havoc worldwide. In Colorado we have some 23,000 people in prison compared to about 2,000 when Mike and I were in the legislature. In Afghanistan, heroin production undercuts our efforts to bring about peace and stability. Colombia is recovering now under the leadership of President Uribe but it was almost destroyed by the drug business. The pressure, however, is turning to Mexico where, in May, the acting chief of Mexico’s federal police, Edgar Millan Gomez was assassinated in his home in Mexico City and where drug lords along the U.S.-Mexico border fight pitched battles with the most sophisticated weapons.

Maybe Mike Strang saw this coming way back in the ’70s. Maybe someday other political leaders will summon up the kind of courage that he showed so many years ago.

In the meantime, our thoughts and prayers go out to Mike, Kit and their family.

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