Against the Odds


Bill Ritter is a prolife Democrat with a good shot at besting his fellow Catholic, Republican Congressman Bob Beauprez, in their race to become Colorado’s next governor. Ritter has been running slightly ahead in the polls for months, and he has surprisingly strong support in the business community. His negative ratings are nowhere near as high as those of his opponent, whom a fellow Republican competitor indelibly tagged as “Both-Ways Bob.”

Ritter, the popular forty-nine-year-old former Denver D.A., was not his party’s first choice, it’s true. Until the last possible moment, Democrats at the state and national levels were still yoo-hooing out the window, trying to recruit a primary opponent to run against him: Somebody? Anybody?

But their grudging support for Ritter is now as crucial for them as it is for him-more than they know. The Democratic Party won’t win back the Catholic vote it lost in 2004 without showing a new willingness to back prolife candidates like Ritter. And even more than the Pennsylvania senatorial race between two better-known prolife Catholics-Republican incumbent Rick Santorum and his Democratic challenger, Bob Casey Jr.-the Colorado race does signal such an opening. (A reluctant one, yes, but we can work on attitude later.)

Because Santorum is such a-let us say-special case, the Democratic Party’s embrace of Casey doesn’t necessarily signal anything beyond desperation. The fact that former NARAL president Kate Michelman even considered jumping into the race, and becoming Pennsylvania’s Ralph Nader, was just another reminder that the prochoice lobby may still prefer a Republican with whom it agrees on nothing to a Democrat who strays on abortion rights.

In the Colorado race, no one ever seems to have doubted Ritter’s appeal to voters. As the Denver Post recently noted in an overwhelmingly positive profile, Ritter “has attracted loyal friends and charmed adversaries since he first took public office in 1993.” For a dozen years, until he was term-limited in 2005, “he was known as Denver’s chief prosecutor, racking up a high number of convictions, expanding victim services, and promoting alternative courts for drug offenders.” Even at an emotional gathering of strongly prochoice women in Denver last year, the consensus was that he was “an otherwise fabulous candidate,” as more than one woman who attended that morning put it.

Ritter also has quite a bio. He grew up on a small wheat farm east of Aurora, the sixth of twelve kids. His father was a heavy-equipment operator and a heavy drinker who left the family when Ritter was thirteen. Just a year later, Bill Jr. went to work on a construction crew to help support the family, and later, put himself through college and law school that way. Near the end of his father’s life, Ritter not only reconciled with him but took him in. And when his own firstborn was still a baby, he and his wife moved to Africa, where they spent three years as Catholic-aid workers, teaching women in Zambian villages about nutrition.

The problem for the Democrats was a straightforward one. As the Denver Post reported in a news story last fall, Ritter “alienated some Democrats by refusing to alter his stance against abortion rights.” In an interview a year ago, Ritter told me, “I’m the only candidate and I’m still the underdog; everybody is saying I’d have success in the general but I can’t win the primary-and I have no opponent! Under irony in the dictionary is my picture. But, that’s the nature of the party right now.” It’s undeniably tough to finance a Democratic campaign without the support of the prochoice lobby. As Ritter told me, “I’m trying to raise money, and I don’t think you can imagine the pushback. I have to have a fifteen-minute conversation about abortion with every single person I talk to. We polled and found that only 9 percent of Democratic primary voters said it was their big issue, but there is an enormous number among those who give money who have it as the issue.”

Still, Ritter’s party has come around. Ann Frick, a prochoice lawyer who worked with him in the D.A.’s office and was initially iffy about supporting him, threw a major fundraiser for him this summer. Recently she told me about being at a small focus group: “There were six of us at a birthday party, all strongly prochoice women, and two of us have maxed out [in campaign contributions], and the rest will definitely vote for him. He is so honest, such a man of integrity, and that sneaky stuff that went on with DeLay and Abramoff would never be Bill.”

Nor, in the end, do Ritter’s prolife views seem to have hurt his fundraising efforts. On the contrary, as of July he had outdone his opponent. “People who said a year ago they wouldn’t vote for me are now my event sponsors,” Ritter said when I talked with him again recently. “It’s the future of the party, and not only on the life issue. Saying, ‘This is who I am,’ and being honest about faith and decision-making matters to people as never before.”

Published in the 2006-09-08 issue: 

Melinda Henneberger, a Commonweal columnist, is the former editor-in-chief of

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