On my wall I have hung a framed copy of Time Magazine from June 19, 1964, the week the Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed in the U.S. Senate. The man gracing the cover is Illinois Sen. Everett Dirksen in all his horn-rimmed-glassed, wild-white-mop-of-hair glory.
Across the front right corner the picture is captioned, “The Civil Rights Bill – Product of Principle and Compromise.”
Colorado Republicans in the legislature could not find a better role model for their current position.
During his time as Minority Leader in the U.S. Senate, Dirksen led a Republican Party mired in a deep deficit. When 1964 opened, they held 33 seats to the Democrats’ 67. When they banded together, Democrats did not need votes from Republicans, let alone engagement.
Absent strong leadership from Dirksen combined with intraparty splits between Southern Democrats and the rest of the party, Republicans would have been bit players on the national stage. Instead, they were at the table for many major policy decisions, most notably the country’s greatest civil rights law.
As Southern Democrats engaged in a mammoth filibuster that kept the bill on the floor for 60 working days, Dirksen secured the votes necessary to end debate. His “The Time Has Come” speech, delivered before the cloture vote in his gravelly baritone, is one of the great oratorical accomplishments of the last century.
But it would have all been for naught had Dirksen failed in his tireless efforts to find the bounds of every compromise necessary to secure passage. He understood that principle without passed legislation is stubborn ideology and not governance.
Colorado legislators may recognize some of the same circumstances Dirksen faced before them now. Democrats control 20 of 35 state Senate seats and 41 of 65 state House districts. Close to the same 2-to-1 ration Dirksen saw in his time.
Republicans may also see the divisions working their way between moderate Democrats and their more progressive colleagues. Big majorities tend to breed bitter resentment within a caucus between those members with different policy perspectives.
That should create an opening for incoming House Minority Leader Rep. Hugh McKean and Senate Minority Leader Chris Holbert.
McKean may be in a particularly strong position to take advantage. He won a three-way race for the office after Rep. Patrick Neville chose not to seek reelection to the post. McKean has taken a more collaborative tact than his predecessor.
He will be bolstered by a caucus where several mainstream Republicans beat far-right ideologues in last June’s primaries. That will provide McKean some flexibility as he attempts to work across the aisle with centrist Democrats.
It is not an easy task nor short-term ambition, but a necessary one.
Republicans have been caught in the maw created by the presidency of Donald Trump, beholden to a base blindly loyal to his every whim. That culminated in the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.
The shock and revulsion in the wake of that moment, and the subsequent muzzling of Trump on social media platforms, may have created the brightest opportunity for a Dirksenesque approach over the past five years. Republican leaders in Colorado cannot let that opportunity go to waste or they will find themselves searching for ever more creative modifiers for the color blue.
Dirksen himself was met by “stout resistance, with shrill and strident cries of radicalism, with strained legalisms, with anguished entreaties that the foundations of the Republic were being rocked,” yet he persisted in his pursuit of a moral outcome. He quoted Thomas Jefferson and he quoted his fellow Illinoian, Abraham Lincoln, and found the path forward.
Colorado Republicans should take that example to heart. Minority status should not be viewed as relegation to a party of pure opposition. Instead, it should be an opportunity to make the necessary steps to a better future. The time has come.
Mario Nicolais is an attorney and columnist who writes on law enforcement, the legal system, health care and public policy. Follow him on Twitter: @MarioNicolaiEsq