Frustrated to the point of exasperation, in a last-gasp try to hammer out an agreement on grazing rights on federal lands in 1993, Colorado ranching interests put out an appeal for Governor Roy Romer's assistance. Romer was no champion of their cause, but ranchers knew that as one of the few Democrats holding statewide elected office in the Mountain West, he had extensive contacts within the new Clinton administration. His rural background gave him some familiarity with the issues. More important, they trusted him.
Romer brought Interior Department Secretary Bruce Babbitt out to Colorado for weekly meetings with environmentalists, farmers and ranchers. Within three months, they came to an accord on an alternative rangeland management plan that became known as the Colorado model.
In his three terms as governor, Romer's uncanny knack for finding common ground and brokering deals between warring factions has become the hallmark of his tenure. "He has the depth to understand the complexities of the issue and the conviction of a solution-oriented, consensus builder," says Reeves Brown of the Colorado Cattlemen's Association. "He's the consummate collaborationist."
To some extent, Romer's hand has been forced by his circumstances. He is a Democrat in a Republican-friendly state and a governor hampered by relatively weak constitutional powers. When he takes his legislative agenda to the Capitol, he must account for two hostile chambers that dominate the budget process.
For that reason, much of his success has occurred outside the legislative realm. At the national level, Romer won notice as a lead Democratic negotiator on welfare and Medicaid reform. Ultimately, Congress scrapped the compromise struck between Republican and Democratic governors, but Romer emerged with a reputation among his colleagues as one who could zealously guard his party's interests without poisoning the negotiation process.
Back home, in his State of the State address last January, Romer explained his national role with a clarity that could apply to all his endeavors. "We were trying to stand in each other's shoes trying to find common ground. I don't mean just coming halfway between two opposite positions," he said. "I mean continuing to push our minds so that we can discover a true common purpose, a win for both sides."
Romer's role as conciliator-in-chief surfaced in the course of settling two bitter teacher strikes in Denver. In 1991, when teachers and the local school board failed to come to terms on a contract, he had forced teachers back to work by digging deep into the Colorado statutes to find an obscure 1915 mining law that permitted him to intervene. Three years later, in the midst of another teachers' strike, Romer again intervened, this time by sequestering both parties until they came to a final agreement. When the two factions proved too agitated to sit together, he moved them to separate rooms and shuttled between the two. After a total of 44 hours of deal-making, he emerged at 4:30 a.m. on a Saturday morning with a contract.
His energy level remained so high throughout the process that exhausted negotiators referred to him as the Energizer Bunny. "He broke things down into small parts that he could work with and built them up from there," says Beverly Ausfahl, president of the Colorado Teachers Association. "Whether you agree with him or not, most people will agree he has a kind of integrity abut things he cares about. That engenders respect."
Romer's style is deceptively simple. His first trick is obvious--he listens. But those who have worked with him also report another shared observation: Nobody gets everything they want.
— Charles Mahtesian
Photo by Eric Bakke/Black Star