Tancredo's First Race Was Classroom Dare Tom Tancredo was a junior high civics teacher whose students challenged him to campaign for the Colorado state legislature. His anti-government and anti-tax message caught on with Watergate-era voters — and still forms the basis for his presidential run.
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Tancredo's First Race Was Classroom Dare

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Tancredo's First Race Was Classroom Dare

Tancredo's First Race Was Classroom Dare

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Among Republicans, Congressman Tom Tancredo is running for president on immigration, or anti-illegal immigration.

Thirty years ago, when he was starting in politics, he talked mostly about shrinking government. As part of our series on first campaigns, NPR's Jeff Brady looks at Tom Tancredo's first run for the Colorado House of Representatives back in 1976.

JEFF BRADY: As the election season was starting that bicentennial year, Tom Tancredo was teaching civics at a junior high school outside Denver. He challenged his students to get involved in a campaign. But they weren't too interested in that.

Representative TOM TANCREDO (Republican, Colorado): And so one of them finally said, well, what are you doing, Mr. Tancredo? I said, well, let me get back to you on that.

BRADY: Tancredo said that if all 32 students signed up for an election activity, then he'd 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. Their leaders were still recovering from Watergate-related losses in the previous election.

Rep. TANCREDO: As they shook my hand, they took my pulse and decided I was alive and that was going to be good enough.

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

Rep. TANCREDO: There were only four of us in College Republicans and four of us in Young Americans for Freedom, and they're the same four people.

BRADY: Steve Durham was his roommate back then and one of the four.

Mr. STEVE DURHAM (Former Republican Representative, Colorado): Being a, you know, pro-Vietnam War conservative on the college of campuses in the '60s was no easy task.

BRADY: But Durham says Tancredo held onto his ideology through that period. And 40 years later, the congressman still has pretty much the same views.

Mr. DURHAM: He is principled, not pragmatic. He's not going to change his views because they're unpopular or to become popular.

BRADY: During his 1976 campaign, Tancredo handed out a pamphlet that laid out his beliefs - mostly lower taxes and smaller government. Here's a quote from that brochure: We tend to think that crooks account for most of the theft that occurs in this country. In reality, the government at every level is the greatest rip-off artist around.

Rep. TANCREDO: Wow. That's great. I love that. I'm going to take that and put it on their newest stuff.

BRADY: Tancredo's fond memories of that first campaign are not shared by his opponent. 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.

Mr. ROGER JOHNSON (North Dakota Agriculture): He was running in opposition to the government in which he wanted to become an integral part of.

BRADY: Johnson says 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 and 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 his anti-immigration agenda that he's pursuing now.

Recently, it was on full display at the Values Voter Presidential Debate in Florida.

Rep. TANCREDO: You stop their employment, you stop their ability to come, and if they do not go home, you have to deport them, because it is the law.

(Soundbite of applause)

BRADY: Despite that hearty applause, Tancredo is realistic about his candidacy - 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 of 2009, since just after the last presidential election he said that if a stronger candidate takes on immigration, then he wouldn't run. When no one did to his satisfaction, Tancredo jumped into the race.

Jeff Brady, NPR News, Denver.

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