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Dick Lamm. (Handout)

Former Gov. Dick Lamm, who served three terms leading the state and championed an environmental awakening in Colorado that led voters to reject the 1976 Winter Olympics, died Thursday. He was 85.

Lamm’s wife, Dottie, said her husband died in Denver at Rose Medical Center surrounded by his family. The cause was complications from a pulmonary embolism the former governor suffered earlier in the week.

Dick Lamm. (Handout)

Details about a memorial service are forthcoming.

“Frank, innovative, unapologetic and, yes, controversial,” Peter Groff, the Democratic former president of the Colorado Senate, said in reacting to Lamm’s death. “He’s an icon in Colorado politics.”

Lamm, a Democrat who was born in Madison, Wisconsin, was first elected governor in 1974 at a time when Colorado leaned conservative. He held the governor’s office for 12 years, winning support from people across the state with his no-nonsense attitude and strong commitment to his beliefs.

“Dick Lamm captured a moment in Colorado,” said Eric Sondermann, a political analyst who served as an aide to Lamm. “It was a brief environmental awakening marked by the rejection of the Winter Olympics, marked by his election.”

Sondermann left college before graduating to work for Lamm because he so believed in the man.

“Dick was an early, formative influence in my life and he remained a formative influence in my life,” Sondermann said. “He developed this style as someone who said what was on his mind. People resonated with his candor even if they didn’t resonate with his specifics.”

As governor, Lamm appointed the first woman and first Hispanic justices to the Colorado Supreme Court and hired the first Black and Hispanic department heads, according to Colorado Politics and Government by retired Colorado College profeessors Thomas Cronin and Robert Loevy.

Colorado Gov. Jared Polis cited Lamm’s work “to make Colorado an even more amazing place.

“Gov. Lamm took on tough issues, and he never shied away from civil political discourse and embraced collaboration,” Polis, a Democrat, said.

Before becoming governor, Lamm served in the Colorado House, where he rose to the position of assistant minority leader. As a lawmaker, he helped pass one of the nation’s first liberalized abortion laws.

Lamm was a state legislator in 1972 when he famously led a movement that spurred voters to reject funding for the 1976 Winter Olympics. That’s the only time a host city has rejected the Olympics after they were awarded.

He circled back to the question of whether hosting the Olympics was appropriate in 2018, when an exploratory committee was floating the possibility of Colorado making a joint bid with Utah for the 2030 Winter Games.

And again, he said voters should make the choice.

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“I do think the IOC and the USOC, they are snakebit for Denver and rightfully so. They should be cautious. But if the committee can persuade the Colorado public that this is a good idea, I think most everyone would swing behind it,” Lamm said. “But I can’t imagine why they would want to come to Denver when they have Salt Lake.”

During his gubernatorial tenure, Lamm chaired the Western Governors’ Association.

Lamm ran for the U.S. Senate in 1992, but lost in the Democratic primary to Ben Nighthorse Campbell, who went on to win the seat.

At times Lamm clashed with fellow Democrats on issues of race and ethnicity. In 2006, for instance, he was chastised for remarks interpreted as suggesting that Latinos and Blacks lacked the drive and ambition of Asians and Jews.

Late in his political career, Lamm rejected the Democratic and Republican parties.”I think both political parties are controlled by special interest money, and I’ve had enough of it,” he famously said.

He ran for president in 1996, seeking the nomination of the Reform Party. He lost to Texas billionaire Ross Perot, who was beaten in the general election by Bill Clinton.

Lamm stayed active in politics and kept up with Colorado news until his death.

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In recent years, Lamm warned about Colorado’s population growing too quickly.

“The traffic is getting worse, the smog is getting is worse,” he said on Denver7’s politics show, Politics Unplugged. “I think there’s been a real lack of planning and foresight in terms of Colorado.”

The former governor said Colorado should have moved to mass transit.

“I have always admired Dick Lamm,” Denver Mayor Michael Hancock said in a written statement. “His leadership was transformational for Colorado. He ushered in a commitment to the environment that lives with us today. He was an original policy thinker, innovative and direct in his communication. We are in a better place for his leadership.”

Jesse Paul is a Denver-based political reporter and editor at The Colorado Sun, covering the state legislature, Congress and local politics. He is the author of The Unaffiliated newsletter and also occasionally fills in on breaking news coverage....