Q&A with Penfield Tate | A tale of two Tates and their impact on our state

Author: Dan Njegomir - September 4, 2018 - Updated: September 24, 2018

The late mayor of Boulder Penfield Wallace Tate II, left, and son Penfield W. Tate III — former state lawmaker and longtime Colorado politico. (Photos courtesy University of Colorado-Boulder; Kutak Rock LLP)

Long before Penfield W. Tate III made a name for himself in Colorado politics, Penfield Tate II was a force to be reckoned with.

The elder Tate was Boulder’s first and, to date, only African-American mayor, serving in that post 1974-76 after a stint on the council. Decades ahead of his time, the standout college football player, one-time Army officer and civil-rights lawyer was a champion of LGBTQ rights. He led the council in amending the city’s human rights ordinance in 1974 to protect employees and job seekers from discrimination on the basis of “sexual preference.”

That policy was considered so radical at the time, even in Boulder, that voters immediately repealed it at the ballot box and turned their ire on Tate and fellow council members. He survived a recall that toppled a colleague, but the episode ultimately cost him re-election.

Perhaps inevitably, the political path of his son and namesake — a prominent Denver attorney who served in both chambers of the legislature, on the cabinet of Democratic former Gov. Roy Romer, and at the helm of the state Democratic Party — began with his father’s legacy of political activism.

The younger Tate tells us his dad, who died in 1993 after battling cancer, was “a guiding force” for him who “intrinsically understood discrimination against one is discrimination against all.” He likens his father to an iconic character from the pages of American literature (if you haven’t guessed which one, you’ll just have to read on).

Tate also recaps how he and some fellow elected Dems at the Capitol helped wrest control of the Colorado Senate from the GOP nearly two decades ago; he sizes up the performance of the state’s news media, and he talks about being named “Father of the Year.”

Oh, and we ask him if it’s true he’ll run for Denver mayor. Find out his answer, and a lot more, in today’s Q&A.

Colorado Politics: Public service has been a defining influence in your life, well beyond the time you spent in elective office in the Colorado House and Senate in the 1990s and early 2000s. Arguably, it all began in your own youth when your father, the late Penfield Tate II, was an Army officer and, later, a prominent political activist who was elected mayor of Boulder. He remains the only African-American ever to have held that post, and he did so with unflinching advocacy on issues like LGBTQ rights — which drew intense fire at the time. What kind of impact did his political involvement have on your views of politics and public life?

Penfield Tate: My father was a guiding force — as an All-American football player, an Army vet and one of Colorado’s top lawyers.  He had an Atticus Finch quality about him.  He also had a basic common sense and appreciation for human decency.  When he stood up for the LGBTQ community in proposing and passing the human rights ordinance, my father did so because he intrinsically understood discrimination against one is discrimination against all.

He believed it was about basic fairness and decency and was really shocked at the backlash in the community to the ordinance.  I still remember the hateful notes in my school locker and the vitriolic attacks that ended his promising political career. Even the Boulder and Colorado Democratic parties would not support him after the failed recall and his unsuccessful run for re-election. And, never once did he express regret.

He taught my sisters and me how to accept people for who they are and where they are in life. He and my mother taught us to stand up for what we think is right.

My style is different than my father’s, but the core values he not only raised me with but upon which he led his life and career are a key reason I have dedicated my life to public service.

Penfield Tate III

  • Attorney and partner at Denver office of national law firm Kutak Rock, specializing in public finance, transportation and government relations, among other areas.
  • Vice president, Denver Board of Water Commissioners.
  • Represented Denver’s District 8 in the Colorado House, from 1996 to 2000, and District 33 in the state Senate, 2000-2003.
  • Vice chair, Colorado Democratic Party, 1994-1996.
  • Former executive director, Colorado Department of Administration.
  • Serves or has served on boards of Aurora Economic Development Council, The Bell Policy Center, Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce and the Denver Bar Association, among other groups.
  • Was an aide to former Denver Mayor Federico Peña.
  • Holds a B.A. from Colorado State University in Fort Collins and a J.D. from Antioch School of Law in Washington, D.C.

CP: When did you develop an appetite of your own for political office? You’ve helped lead the state Democratic Party and followed that with stints in both legislative chambers. What issues motivated you to run?

Tate: Public service was always something important to me. Whether on student council in junior and senior high or as the president of my law school student body, I have always served. I took time to serve on boards, help those in need and use my talents to make Denver a better place to live.  I served as second vice chair of the Colorado Democratic Party because I wanted to support candidates who looked to serve the community.

In 1996, I saw a legislature that was not serving the needs of my community and wanted to help Denver Democrats offer effective leadership. I ran for the House District 8 seat and won.  I served four years and ran for and was elected as state senator in District 33.

In the House we got a lot done. Then, in 2000, I along with a group of activists including Stan Matsunaka, Bill Thiebaut, Ed Perlmutter, Mike Feeley and Doug Linkhart took it upon ourselves to win a Democratic majority. We worked our tails off, campaigned tirelessly and elected a Democratic majority in the Senate for the first time in decades.

It’s never been about holding office for me — it has always and only been about getting things done for people and our community.

CP: You’ve also been a pundit who holds forth on the political scene, and you became a familiar face on local TV news and public affairs shows. There’s even a web page on you listing you as an “actor” for all your appearances as a panelist on Rocky Mountain PBS! Share some thoughts on the Colorado news media — critique us, too — and coverage of state political news. Particularly where you think we all could do better.

Tate: Well, let’s be clear, I am not and never have been an “actor.”  I don’t know where that web page came from.  On the positive side, Colorado Politics has been a vibrant voice covering politics.  The Colorado Independent fills an important need and I certainly have high hopes for the Colorado Sun. Colorado Public Radio does an excellent job reporting, and there are other great examples.  And the electronic media often rise to the occasion.

It would be helpful for the media to do more coverage of politics like Channel 12 (Denver-based Colorado Public Television) — to dedicate time for debates and real exchanges of ideas.  We have one of the most important congressional races in the country in CD 6 and an important governor’s race.  I’d like to see more news coverage in general on campaigns, issues and candidates and a series of debates and in-depth profiles on all of our local stations so that people can see and make more informed choices.

We need to get young men and women the training they need for jobs — we need to increase diversion and alternative sentencing to give young folks who have earned it a second chance. And if the state won’t do it, we as a community must offer training for those who have been incarcerated a chance for a better life.

CP: There’s talk that you’re not through with running for office — and would like to be Denver’s next mayor. True? And — indulge us — how would a Penfield Tate administration make its mark at City Hall? What would be its agenda?

Tate: I’m not going to talk about a Tate administration — any administration should aspire to:

  • Meeting the needs of the people and our community as the first priority. Decisions should be vetted by understanding how well they positively impact people.
  • Transparency and openness. Politicians certainly don’t have all the answers, but people working together do. Every neighborhood and community needs to not only be heard but have their concerns listened to and heeded and made part of the process of governing.
  • Being ethical.
  • Working collaboratively with a City Council that is a true partner.
  • Assembling a team that is as talented as, if not more talented than any City Hall in the world and as diverse as our city. A team that is bold, creative, dynamic, able to think outside the box and knows how to get things done.

CP: What yet needs to be done to improve the climate of race relations in Denver and in Colorado overall, particularly in flashpoint areas like law enforcement? Are more changes in public policy needed at the state or local level to address your concerns?

Tate: When I graduated from Antioch School of Law, I came home to build a career.  Denver has much to be proud of in race relations. Our state for example had an Open Accommodations Law long before the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  With the leadership of Gov. Ralph Carr, we welcomed during World War II our Japanese-American brothers and sisters.

Today, we need to build on that proud history. However, we also need to be mindful of the historic influences of the Klu Klux Klan in the halls of state and city government.  We need to remember that we passed Amendment 2 and became known as the “Hate State.” Too many young African-Americans and Hispanic-Americans feel disenfranchised.  Unemployment in some communities is much higher than the population at large.

I co-chaired the effort that became the Denver Independent Monitor’s Office.  We need to make sure this remains an effective and empowered tool to safeguard the interests of the community and those who serve and protect in law enforcement.  As a former civil rights attorney, I have filed cases involving the loss of civil rights due to excessive force. Disparities in use of force, charging, sentencing and incarceration must be brought to an end.

What we need is a community-wide effort involving the communities of all faiths, of the private sector and public officials.  We need to get young men and women the training they need for jobs — we need to increase diversion and alternative sentencing to give young folks who have earned it a second chance. And if the state won’t do it, we as a community must offer training for those who have been incarcerated a chance for a better life.

In short, you improve race relations by implementing policy to work to change attitudes and offer hope and opportunity to those who do not have it today.

CP: Name a favorite accomplishment from your time in public office, whether as an elected or an appointed official.

Tate: When I served in the House, a woman from my neighborhood came to me to help solve a problem. Patients could not get their original mammograms, only a copy – and the quality of a copied mammogram was not nearly as good as the original.  Patients either had to stick with a doctor they didn’t want, pay for an expensive new mammogram or have their new doctor use one that was a copy and less effective for comparative purposes and treatment.

I took on the Colorado Medical Society, built a coalition across party lines and changed the law so patients could get their original medical records and not just copies.

This was a favorite of mine for two reasons — first I helped a neighbor I represented, and my mother is a breast cancer survivor.

CP: Throughout your years of civic engagement, one distinction that stands out for us is your designation back in 2004 as Father of the Year by the National Father’s Day Coalition and the American Diabetes Association. Not many dads in public life or outside of it can claim that honor. How did you land it?

Tate: My daughter is very special to me.  Being a dad has been the most important job of my life.  My greatest sense of accomplishment is seeing her now living a full, complete and independent life.

Whatever the issue, be it getting women original copies of mammograms, securing adequate funding for kids with special needs, or working for parental leave, I always put myself in the shoes of men and women working hard to raise a family despite obstacles put in their way.

Dan Njegomir

Dan Njegomir

Dan Njegomir is the opinion editor for Colorado Politics. A longtime journalist and more-than-25-year veteran of the Colorado political scene, Njegomir has been an award-winning newspaper reporter, an editorial page editor, a senior legislative staffer at the State Capitol and a political consultant.