Tancredo's First Race Was Classroom Dare

Tom Tancredo

Tom Tancredo in a photo from his 1976 campaign brochure. The pamphlet outlined his anti-tax and anti-government views. Courtesy Tom Tancredo hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy Tom Tancredo

Read about Tom Tancredo's political career and his prospects as a presidential candidate.

Tancredo bio

In 1976, Tom Tancredo was teaching civics at a junior high school outside Denver. It was the beginning of election season, and Tancredo challenged his students to get involved in a campaign. But they weren't interested.

"And one of them finally said, 'Well, what are you doing, Mr. Tancredo?'" he recalls. "I said, 'Well, let me get back to you on that!'"

Tancredo did get back to them, with this proposition: If all 32 students signed up for an election activity, then he would run for office. They did, and then they voted that he should run for state representative. Tancredo went down to the local Republican Party headquarters, where officials were still recovering from Watergate-related losses in the previous election.

"As they shook my hand, they took my pulse and decided I was alive and that was going to be good enough," says Tancredo.

A History of Political Involvement

Tancredo was essentially dared into running, but he had been politically vocal since the late 1960s, when he was a student at Colorado State College.

"There were only four of us in College Republicans and four of us in Young Americans for Freedom, and they were the same four people," he says.

Steve Durham, his roommate back then and one of the four, says on college campuses in the 1960s, being a pro-Vietnam War conservative wasn't easy. But Tancredo held onto his ideology. And 40 years later, the congressman still has pretty much the same views.

"He is principled, not pragmatic," Durham says of Tancredo. "He's not going to change his views because they're unpopular or to become popular."

Tancredo handed out a pamphlet during his 1976 campaign that laid out his beliefs — he called for lower taxes and smaller government.

"We tend to think that crooks account for most of the theft that occurs in this country," Tancredo wrote in the brochure. "In reality, the government, at every level, is the greatest rip-off artist around."

An Anti-Government Message

Tancredo's opponent in that race, Democrat Roger Johnson, remembers campaigning on his ability to practice the more mundane aspects of governing — building consensus and slowly making change within the established system. But he says Tancredo spent a lot of the campaign simply criticizing government at all levels. "He was running in opposition to the government in which he wanted to become an integral part," says Johnson.

Johnson thinks that worked in the post-Watergate era of cynicism. Even though Republicans were hurt most by the scandal, Johnson believes Tancredo's anti-government message gained him just enough votes to win.

Tancredo served two-terms in the Colorado House. He joined a group of conservative legislators who were dubbed "The House Crazies." One of the first issues Tancredo worked on was opposing bilingual education in schools. That was the start of the anti-immigration agenda that he has become known for.

Tancredo is realistic about his current campaign for president — it's a long shot. He says he doesn't get up in the morning thinking he might be living in the White House come January 2009.

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