Pat Schroeder testifying in committee in 1973 (print)

the associated press file U.S. Rep. Pat Schroeder, a Denver Democrat, testifies before the Senate subcommittee on Interior and Insular Affairs on the use of public lands for nuclear stimulation of natural gas on May 11, 1973, in Washington.

During the 24 years she represented Denver’s 1st Congressional District, Pat Schroeder became known as much for her razor-sharp wit and memorable quips as for the landmark legislation she championed and the barriers she knocked down.

A fierce advocate for women and children, the Colorado Democrat had a knack for bringing into focus injustices others either ignored or shrugged off as the natural order of things, all while producing a seemingly endless stream of succinct phrases that made her points.

Schroeder, who died at age 82 on March 13, hadn’t planned on going to Washington even hours after the polls closed in 1972 — she’d expected to return to work at the jobs she’d kept during her candidacy — but once she got there, she soon established herself as a towering political figure.

Whether it was landing a seat — but not a chair of her own — as the first woman on the House Armed Services Committee or filling the Capitol with young children to illustrate the building’s lack of day care, Schroeder met obstacles with a cheeky defiance.

The unconventional path she took to Congress paved the way for a career marked by bucking the system and speaking her mind, according to Schroeder and her friends and campaign workers.

She wasn’t supposed to win.

She wasn’t even supposed to run, at least as the 1972 election approached, since the local Democratic establishment had already anointed a conservative state lawmaker to try to win the congressional seat back from the Republican who’d held it for a term.

Two years earlier, Denver’s Democratic Party had torn itself apart in the 1970 primary election, when a young, anti-war attorney named Craig Barnes dislodged 11-term incumbent Byron Rogers by just 30 votes out of more than 54,000 cast.

Still reeling from the divisive primary — mostly fueled by conflict over the Vietnam War — the city’s Democratic-heavy electorate swung toward a Republican for the first time in a quarter century, sending former District Attorney Mike McKevitt to the House.

The party poobahs had picked state Sen. Clarence “Arch” Decker to run in the 1st CD, though to hear Schroeder and her contemporaries tell it, his chances weren’t considered great, since Republican President Richard Nixon appeared on course to a landslide reelection.

A group of younger, anti-war Democrats that included Schroeder’s husband, Jim, were casting about for a candidate to challenge Decker in the primary — figuring he was really “an elephant in donkey’s clothing,” Schroeder recalled in her memoir, “24 Years of House Work ... and the Place Is Still a Mess.” Then one night Jim Schroeder came home with the news that the committee thought Pat should run.

Of course, they didn’t think she could win, he said, but wanted a candidate who could make sure the issues they cared about were part of the debate, including Vietnam and the environment.

The 32-year-old mother of two young children decided she’d give it a go, understanding that it was the ultimate quixotic effort, Schroeder recalled.

The Schroeders, both attorneys, moved to Denver a decade earlier after they met and married at Harvard Law School, where Pat was one of only five women in the 550-member class.

Schroeder recalled that the Democratic National Campaign Committee didn’t acknowledge her during the primary and refused to meet with her after she won the nomination.

“But getting rejected by the establishment was the best thing that could have happened,” she wrote in her memoir. “Instead of listening to the slick advice of the high-paid pros, I stayed with the instincts of friends gathered at our house. ... I think the voters responded to my directness. It seemed to penetrate the normal clutter and noise of politics.”

On primary night, Schroeder defeated Decker with 55% of the vote, and within days the campaign pivoted from its rag-tag headquarters in the Schroeders’ basement to an equally scrappy setup inside an abandoned drugstore.

Rather than print up glossy posters that featured a smiling family and anodyne slogans, Schroeder’s crew produced a series of posters on cheap paper with memorable messages. One, focusing on Vietnam, depicted rows of gravestones in a military cemetery and quoted a line from a Nixon speech: “Yes, many of our troops have already been withdrawn.”

“As a neophyte in politics, I didn’t understand that ducking the issues was the goal of most campaigns,” Schroeder wrote.

In the general election, Schroeder beat McKevitt by about 8,000 votes out of just under 200,000 votes cast. 

“There was a feeling of optimism in the air that one could actually make a difference from the grassroots, and that’s what she was, she was a grassroots candidate,” said Mimi Barker, who handled press on Schroeder’s 1972 campaign and was her first congressional press secretary.

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