Pat Schroeder testifying in committee in 1973

In this file photo, 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 Feb. 13, hadn't planned on going to Washington even hours after the polls closed in 1972 β€” she'd expected to return to work at the jobs she'd kept during her candidacy β€” but once she got there, she soon established herself as a towering political figure.

Whether it was landing a seat β€” but not a chair of her own β€” 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 β€” mostly fueled by conflict over the Vietnam War β€” 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 β€” 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.

While they were politically involved β€” the couple signed on as plaintiffs in a landmark school desegregation lawsuit filed by Barnes, the district's 1970 Democratic nominee β€” before Pat launched her campaign for Congress, it was Jim who was viewed as the politician in the family.

In 1970, Jim Schroeder had nearly won a state House seat, falling just 46 votes short, but after the GOP-dominated legislature carved the Schroeders' residence out of the district during the redistricting process, he declined another run.

Change was afoot across Colorado in 1972, including a statewide ballot measure effectively asking voters to reject the 1976 Winter Olympics, helmed by a liberal Denver state lawmaker named Dick Lamm, who would go on two years later to win the first of three terms as governor.

Law school classmate Dick Freese, who encouraged the Schroeders to move to Denver, recalled last year at a reunion of Schroeder's campaign and congressional staffers at History Colorado that the new candidate stunned a group of her friends by telling them she was running and then handing them each assignments, with Freese to serve as campaign fundraiser.

"The national party didn’t think it was a winnable seat," he remembered, particularly because the division within Denver's Democratic Party was still too great over Vietnam and Barnes' candidacy two years earlier.

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 set-up inside an abandoned drugstore. Decker switched parties a few years later and ran unsuccessfully against Schroeder in 1982 as a Republican.

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." Another depicted an older woman walking with a cane and was captioned, "Cheer up, the Olympics are coming."

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

At the History Colorado discussion, her former campaign aides described how voters aligned behind both Schroeder and the Olympics measure, which passed on the strength of an unlikely alliance between environmentalists, who warned the Games would spoil Colorado, and fiscal conservatives, who worried that building the necessary infrastructure would cost too much.

"I think they supplemented each other," Freese said, adding that support for the ballot question boosted turnout among Schroeder's voters.

Schroeder beat McKevitt by about 8,000 votes out of just under 200,000 votes cast, while the ban on funding the Olympics passed by a wider margin, both in Denver and statewide.Β 

"There was synergy with the anti-Olympics vote," said Mimi Barker, who handled press on Schroeder's 1972 campaign and was her first congressional press secretary. "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."

"When she asked me to be her press secretary, I said, 'Pat, I’ve never been a press secretary,' and she said, 'Mimi, I’ve never been a congresswoman,'" Barker added with a laugh. "She just had this belief β€” I almost said naive belief β€” but she had this belief that things could change, and that one person could make things change, and I think that’s her lasting legacy."

Betty Wheeler, who volunteered on the 1972 campaign and later worked in Schroeder's D.C. office, said the sense that nobody thought she would win meant Schroeder "felt liberated to run the campaign she wanted to run."

"It was not a campaign that was suggested by political professionals, people who knew how to run a campaign," Wheeler said. "It felt like that set the tone for her whole career, that she never was boxed in to the way people did things. She did this campaign that was pretty free-wheeling and said just what she wanted. Then throughout her career, she always followed that way of conducting herself."

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