Denver Rustlers, Pikes Peak Posse saddle up for Colorado State Fair’s junior livestock auction

Author: Ernest Luning and Joey Bunch - August 28, 2018 - Updated: August 29, 2018

Political consultant Josh Hanfling, Gov. John Hickenlooper, Denver Mayor Michael Hancock and Greenwood Village Mayor Ron Rakowsky visit as Laura Teal, right, keeps an eye out for stragglers at the Denver Rustlers send-off brunch on Aug. 28, 2018, at the Tavern Tech Center in Greenwood Village. (Ernest Luning/Colorado Politics)

Up and down the Front Range, hundreds of political, business and community leaders cleared their calendars and donned matching western shirts and cowboy hats Tuesday before heading to the Junior Livestock Auction at the Colorado State Fair in Pueblo.

“This is one big, wonderful extended family,” said Larry Mizel, chairman and CEO of MDC Holdings and a founder of the Denver Rustlers, as the group assembled for bipartisan camaraderie over brunch at the Tavern Tech Center in Greenwood Village before its 34th philanthropic outing.

As has become an end-of-summer custom, the Rustlers met up in Pueblo with competing civic groups — including the Colorado Springs area’s Pikes Peak Posse, the Pigskin Buckaroos and the Fair Ladies, a bidding group from Pueblo and Otero counties — to bid on animals raised by Colorado youth at the livestock sale.

“This expedition is a big deal for the entire state, because it allows us to support agriculture in a very powerful way,” Gov. John Hickenlooper told the group last year. (Clad in one of the Rustlers’ trademark white Rockmount Ranch Wear shirts with flowered embroidery, the governor joined the group just before the buses departed on Tuesday at around noon.)

Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers, third from the right, meets 4-Her Sara Keese, 17, at his right, her mom, Melissa Keese, and Pikes Peak Posse organizer Scott Smith. (Joey Bunch/Colorado Politics)

Down the road, Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers welcomed dozens of the region’s leaders at the ProRodeo Hall of Fame around lunchtime for the Pikes Peak Posse’s annual trek.

The former state attorney general used to ride with the Rustlers, but now Suthers presides as the figurative sheriff of the Posse — and wears one of the group’s distinctive blue western shirts with its gold embroidery. He said the day was partly about friendly and productive rivalries.

“There’s a history of tension between Pueblo and Colorado Springs, and I’ve worked very hard on improving that relationship,” Suthers said.

As for his old gang in Denver, he said he hoped the El Paso County folks would take it easy on them at the fair.

“I’ve had to caution every one not to remind the Denver crowd that we were rated the No. 1 most desirable place in the country to live and Denver was 10th,” Suthers told Colorado Politics.

“We just got an A-plus for business-friendliness, and Denver got a C-minus,” the mayor added with a grin. “We’ll try to resist bringing that up.”

U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, Colorado’s Democratic gubernatorial nominee, visits with Denver Rustlers founder Larry Mizel, chairman and CEO of MDC Holdings, the parent company of Richmond American Homes, at the organization’s send-off brunch on Aug. 28, 2018, at the Tavern Tech Center in Greenwood Village. (Ernest Luning/Colorado Politics)

The friendly rivalries spill over into the fast-paced auction, which last year took in more than $500,000 for the kids selling the prize-winning cattle, hogs, lambs, goats, rabbits, chickens and turkeys they’d raised.

Tim Schultz, another founding Rustler, reminisced about the group’s start in the mid 1980s when he was the state agriculture commissioner, and the junior livestock auction was in danger of being canceled for lack of interest.

Mizel, Schultz and Denver dairy operators Dick and Eddie Robinson banded together with some of their friends at the suggestion of the late Tom Farley, a former state lawmaker from Pueblo — and the group was born.

At the Tavern Tech Center, Schultz explained how the process works.

“What I do is bid on literally every animal, trying to make sure every young person gets a fair price,” he said. “When it goes above what the lowest price was for that animal last year, then I’ll back out and let somebody else buy it.”

That way, he added, the Rustlers use the group’s pool of money to boost prices for everyone, even though other bidding groups wind up going home with some of the livestock.

Alan Salazar, chief of staff to Denver Mayor Michael Hancock and a top Democratic strategist, left, visits with State Treasurer Walker Stapleton, the GOP gubernatorial nominee, and Jennifer Price, director of external affairs for AT&T, at the Denver Rustlers send-off brunch on Aug. 28, 2018, at the Tavern Tech Center in Greenwood Village. (Ernest Luning/Colorado Politics)

Over the years, rival groups have sprung up.

Businessman Steve Schuck helped start the Posse about 25 years ago to compete with the Rustlers.

“I used to drive to Denver to catch the bus and ride back through Colorado Springs to go to Pueblo,” he said. “This is great for the kids at the fair, but it’s also good for the Springs.”

Some politicians straddle the two groups, including Secretary of State Wayne Williams, who lives in Colorado Springs and works in Denver.

He told Colorado Politics he typically starts the day with the Rustlers but rides back with the Posse after the auction.

“It didn’t make much sense to ride the bus all the way back to Denver, then get in my car and turn around to drive back home,” Williams said with a chuckle.

Democratic attorney general nominee Phil Weiser talks with Assistant House Minority Leader Cole Wist, R-Centennial, at the Denver Rustlers send-off brunch on Aug. 28, 2018, at the Tavern Tech Center in Greenwood Village. (Ernest Luning/Colorado Politics)

After the bidding groups arrived at the state fair — greeted by the youth whose animals would soon be up for bid — and enjoyed a barbecue lunch at the Southwest Motors Events Center, big shots and dignitaries broke into small groups to chat and laugh, as their designated bidders prepared to compete around the sawdust arena. It was time to score some prize livestock while pouring big bucks in the pockets of Colorado youth.

Mizel led the charge on an $18,000 Hampshire-cross pig named Woody, raised by Hannah Rigirozzi, a 14-year-old 4-Her from Stratton.

Hannah had won swine shows at her county fair, but never at the state level. After earning champion status, she hoped Woody might fetch $15,000 at the auction.

The windfall will someday go toward her tuition at Colorado State University, she said.

“It inspires me to try to do it every year,” Rigirozzi said of the big win.

In a corner of the arena as the auction continued, Chad Vorthmann, executive vice president of the Colorado Farm Bureau, said the show teaches kids focus, commitment and a sense of civic involvement.

“Agriculture is a backbone of Colorado,” he said. “One of the great things that comes from 4-H and FFA, that people don’t always see, is the civic involvement.

“Kids learn how to conduct a meeting, about parliamentary procedures, but especially how to be a part of the greater good in their community. That’s one of the reasons why we’re excited about being part of the state fair.”

Ernest Luning

Ernest Luning is a political correspondent for Colorado Politics. He has covered politics and government for newspapers and online news sites in Colorado for more than 25 years, including at the Highlands Ranch Herald, the Jefferson Sentinels chain of community newspapers and the Aurora Sentinel, where he was the city hall and cops reporter. After editing the Aurora Daily Sun, he was a political reporter and blogger for The Colorado Independent site. For nearly a decade, he was a senior political reporter and occasional editor at The Colorado Statesman before the 119-year-old publication merged with Colorado Politics in 2017.