Ed Perlmutter pauses to point to a framed newspaper spread displayed on the wall at the Lakewood congressional office he's preparing to vacate in a little under a year after eight terms in Congress.
"Little Fanfare as a Bull Turns 10," blares the March 9, 2019, New York Times headline, which marked an even decade since the stock market began its upward climb from the depths of the Great Recession.
His ever-present smile widening, the Arvada Democrat, who was serving his second term in the House when the market reversed course, recounts the story behind the words credited with triggering the pivot.
A couple months into President Obama's first term, House Democrats were hearing dire warnings from renowned economists when Perlmutter says he approached Barney Frank, the chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, with a suggestion.
"'We've heard these guys before,'" Perlmutter recalls saying, referring to the doomsaying economists. "'You just need to get out there and tell people we've got a plan. They just need to know.'"
Turning from the newspaper story on the wall, Perlmutter, an attorney with a background in business and financial dealings, describes his thinking.
"The economy is based on confidence, so if people are confident, it goes up, and if they're not confident, it goes down, and it had been going down, down, down. So, Barney, who is kind of an irascible guy, says, 'Leave me alone, leave me alone,'" Perlmutter says, delivering a pitch-perfect impression of the raspy-voiced Massachusetts Democrat.
Perlmutter persisted and soon got Frank's ear, he says. "'Tell them three things,' I said. 'Tell them that we need to deal with mark to market, the uptick rule, and naked short sales.' The market would understand those things." Frank protested that it was up to Obama or the Treasury Department to send the signals Wall Street was waiting on.
After a few hours, however, Perlmutter says Frank pulled him aside after he returned to the House floor and asked if he'd seen what was going on with the stock market. "He says, 'Well, I left the caucus and there was a bunch of reporters, and they said, 'Mr. Chairman, Mr. Chairman, do you have a plan?'" Slipping into his Frank impression, Perlmutter continues. "He said, 'Yes — mark to market, the uptick rule and naked short sales.' That was March 9, 2009, and the market has gone up 30,000 points since then. People need to know you've got a plan, that you're not just fumbling around."
Perlmutter, 68, left heads spinning and set political wheels turning on Jan. 10 when he announced he wouldn't seek a ninth term. A few days later, he met with Colorado Politics to review his nearly three decades in elected office, including two terms in the Colorado state Senate and the last 15 years in the U.S. House, where he's won a reputation for his tenacity, sense of humor and practical approach. He's also known as one of the hardest-working retail politicians in Colorado — famous for performing cartwheels on election nights and in community parades — and among colleagues as a crack outfielder and coach on congressional baseball teams.
"I say the only way I ever got to the field of Mile High Stadium — even though I always dreamed of being a professional football quarterback — was to get elected to Congress," Perlmutter says with a wide grin, recalling the speech he delivered on the final night of the 2008 Democratic National Convention before Obama accepted the nomination.
"I always wanted to be a major league pitcher," he adds, "and the only way I got to a major league field was to be elected to Congress and play in the annual baseball game."
Nearly every inch of the walls of Perlmutter's Lakewood office sparks a memory.
There's a framed letter from 10 World War II veterans who fought in the Battle of Iwo Jima, declaring Perlmutter an "Honorary Marine" after his assistance helped them complete the last leg of a 2010 trip to the island to commemorate the battle. "At the darkest moment, when it appeared we may have to cancel this important trip, you came to our aid," the veterans wrote. "Through your intercession, we were able to go."
Behind his desk, which overlooks much of the 7th Congressional District — Adams and Jefferson county suburbs north and west of the metro area, from Commerce City to Westminster and Arvada to Lakewood — is a bumper sticker featuring a photograph of the planet Mars, the date 2033 and the phrase, "We can do this."
If the United States lands an astronaut on Mars in a little over a decade, it'll be due in large measure to Perlmutter's persistence when NASA's Orion Program — based in large part in Colorado, where aerospace giant Lockheed Martin is developing the spacecraft — was on the chopping block in 2010.
As usual, Perlmutter has a story.
“There was a real potential that that thing was going to get cut, which would have been thousands of jobs here in Colorado," he says. "I've always been a 'Star Trek,' 'Star Wars,' 'Men and Black' aficionado — I just love that stuff, and I love the science."
After a quick digression to explain how his committee assignments — on the Financial Services, Science, Space and Technology, Rules and Modernization of Congress committees — align with his interests and legislative skills, Perlmutter continues:
"So, I called the White House, and I said, ‘I don't know what you guys are doing. Lockheed is on time and on budget, and this is a whole bunch of jobs in Colorado at a time we can't afford to lose any more jobs.’ That was on a Monday — the Lockheed people had come in to me to see me on Friday. The president went down to Cape Canaveral just a few days later and announced cuts to a number of the space projects, but not to Orion. And we've been able to continue to build and expand that, and we're going to get our astronauts to Mars by 2033. That was a big win — big for jobs and big for stretching our horizons."
For Perlmutter, the decision to leave Congress took some time, but he says he's ready.
"My dad would say, ‘Leave a job when you still like it, and leave it when people still like you,'" Perlmutter says. "He would always say, ‘Leave 'em laughing.’ And I feel like I'm doing that. I feel a tug and am emotional about it, but it's right."
He adds: "It's been a long time coming — sort of in the back of my head for years actually. But I love this job, and I love the people who live in this area that I represent, and I love my staff, I just have the best staff, and we got a good operation."
Perlmutter is the first member of Colorado's delegation to retire voluntarily from Congress without at the same time seeking higher office since Republican U.S. Rep. Joel Hefley, who stepped down after 10 terms representing the Colorado Springs-based 5th Congressional District in 2006, the same year Perlmutter won election to the House.
National Republicans greeted news of Perlmutter's decision with glee after hammering him for months, by turns blaming him for inflation and linking the incumbent to President Biden and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
“Coloradans are being forced to pay more to celebrate the Fourth of July this year because Ed Perlmutter’s wasteful spending has caused inflation to skyrocket," said National Republican Congressional Committee spokeswoman Courtney Parella last summer. "Voters will hold Perlmutter accountable for making everyday goods and services more expensive.”
The NRCC in November added Perlmutter's name to its "exit list," a taunting roster of Democrats the campaign group was encouraging to retire.
Different from announcing a departure from other jobs, Perlmutter is giving his notice a full year before his replacement will take over, and he'll likely have a hand in helping pick a successor. The process, he says, is bittersweet.
"The thing that's unusual about a political office, especially a congressional office — [in] most businesses or a law firm or nonprofit, you either sell a stock certificate or you hand the keys to the junior partner or you get a new CEO. But not a political office, because the whole thing ends up being disbanded for the next person, which is is OK. Except that we put together a heck of a good organization. That's been a tough piece of all of this, but it's time."
The longevity of Perlmutter's staff is legendary. His chief of staff, Danielle Radovich Piper, has been with Perlmutter since his days in the state Senate in the mid-1990s, for instance, and he's had just two communications directors during his tenure in the U.S. House — Ashley Verville since 2014, and Leslie Oliver, an attorney who works at Comcast after a stint at Colorado's Public Employee Retirement Association.
Campaign and congressional staff alumnae include state Rep. Chris Kennedy, D-Lakewood, who was Perlmutter's campaign manager across several cycles, state House Speaker Alec Garnett, D-Denver, state Rep. Dylan Roberts, D-Eagle, Arapahoe County Commissioner Bill Holen, former state Sen. Cheri Jahn and Aaron Greco, a lobbyist for the Colorado Department of Corrections, among numerous others.
"Every two years the people choose whether they want to hire you again, or not," he says. "But every two years you decide, 'OK, is this how I want to continue my life?' Because it's a life endeavor, and I've loved it. You know, there are tough times and moments where you get frustrated, but it's been a hell of a job for me. But I do have an opportunity to do some things. Hopefully, I'm going to be the last person standing in my office and everybody else gets placed because they're so good."
Perlmutter may be moving on from Congress but says retirement is the furthest thing from his mind, citing the many endeavors pursued late in life by his father, Leonard Perlmutter, who died in 2018 at age 92.
"My dad, when he retired from his business, Stanley Structures" — the company formed after Stanley Tool Company merged with the business founded by Perlmutter's father, Prestressed Concrete of Colorado — "he then went on to be head of economic development for (Gov. Roy) Romer. Then when he finished that, he was the head of Colorado's open space program, and then he was CEO of National Jewish Hospital for three years — and this is after he retired from his business. So, I see a lot of things like that in my future."
He declined, however, to speculate on future opportunities, noting that he plans to be in office for another 11 months and has lots to accomplish.
High on that list, he says, is finally passing the SAFE Banking Act, which would allow legal cannabis businesses to access the banking system.
"We're going to get that passed this year if it's the last damn thing I do," he says with a grin. Perlmutter has steered the legislation through the House for years, only to see it flounder in the Senate.
"There are seasons to life and seasons to business. I said a few years ago, you go from player to coach, and I still have all sorts of energy and desire," he says.
"But in the Congress, I'd like to see new energy, new perspectives, new ideas come to the fore," he says. "And I think that's happening. I think you're going to see (New York Democrat) Hakeem Jeffries take on more and more leadership responsibility. (Massachusetts Democrat) Katherine Clark, who you ought to keep an eye on — she was a district attorney here in Colorado for a number of years — she's just a super star. And then Pete Aguilar from California. We've got stars in our caucus here. Joe Neguse is going to be going places, and Jason Crow is going to be going places — they’re already going places."
On Jan. 27, Perlmutter formally endorsed state Sen. Brittany Pettersen, a Lakewood Democrat, for the congressional seat he's relinquishing. Four Republicans are also running in the district, which is considered slightly more competitive after redistricting.
Perlmutter says he's proud of more accomplishments than he can name, including helping more than 10,000 constituents with casework over the years — many initially encountered at the more than 100 Government in the Grocery outreach events he's held across the district since his first term.
"In terms of macro types of deals, the VA hospital, it's got to be at the top," he says, referring to the Rocky Mountain Regional VA Medical Center in Aurora, a $2 billion state-of-the-art facility whose construction was beset with cost overruns and delays before opening in 2018. (Perlmutter's district covered northern Arapahoe County, including the site of the hospital, before redistricting changed boundaries ahead of the 2012 election.)
"It had its ups and downs and twists and turns, but we got it going, we got it built," he says. "The process wasn't pretty, but it's the best medical facility for our veterans anywhere in America, and it serves vets from Montana to New Mexico."
Waving out his window at the headquarters of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, known as NREL, at the base of the mesa that dominates the view, Perlmutter recalls his role helping revive the facility in his first term, when its future was uncertain.
"George Bush had cut way back on NREL, and I was able right out of the box to get a big appropriation to help them rebuild themselves," he says. "And it's gone from 600 or 700 employees when it was way down up to over 2,000 (employees), doing the best work on renewable energy anywhere in the world."
Last fall, after touring NREL's Arvada campus, President Joe Biden called technology emerging at the lab key to addressing climate change.
Perlmutter says he's equally proud of his smaller, more personal accomplishments.
"Let's take one example," Perlmutter says, describing a young Colorado School of Mines student who was on an exchange program in Tokyo when one of his friends sent him four marijuana-infused edibles in the mail.
"At that time, it would have been a fine in Colorado, and in other states, maybe a $5 fine, but in Japan — a serious felony," Perlmutter's says. "The drug sniffing dogs found the edibles, going through the mail. And they found him, and boom! — immediately into solitary confinement, and he was looking at a 10-year sentence for four edibles."
Perlmutter said he was able to call on the relationship he'd built with the Japanese ambassador when he helped the Marine vets get from Okinawa to Iwo Jima, but it was dicey for awhile.
"He said, ‘Ed, this is not a diplomatic matter. This is a matter for our courts, and we really are so opposed to any kind of marijuana, cannabis stuff,'" Perlmutter said. "He said he didn't know what we could do. The young man sat in solitary for six months, but we worked with the embassy, we found out about how to make pleas to the court. His parents went over there, and we helped them understand the process. And we were able to get him out of jail after six months, when it was pretty much assumed he was going to get 10 years — and he ended up marrying a young woman from Japan. They live here now."
Likewise, Perlmutter says, the pinning ceremonies he sponsored, honoring more than 900 Vietnam-era veterans for their service in that war, stick with him.
"When most of those guys and gals came back from Vietnam, they weren't well received," he says. "Remember, it was a tough time, but not through their fault. It was just not a war that was politically popular. And at the 50th anniversary, President Obama had commissioned this pin to be awarded, and I'd seen a pinning ceremony at the Paralyzed Veterans of America dinner I went to and said, 'Can we do that?' We ended up doing eight ceremonies, and they were so appreciative of being recognized for their service. So, that is a kind of a bigger but still individual thing."
Perlmutter said his nine congressional campaigns — including surviving a tough, three-way primary before he was first elected to the U.S. House in 2006 — strained some friendships but still yield plenty of fond memories.
"Remember John Lerew?" he says with a chuckle, and then quotes his 2008 Republican rival's campaign slogan: "'John who? John Lerew!'"
Perlmutter adds that the race against neighbor and family friend Joe Coors Jr., the district's 2012 Republican nominee, bruised their longstanding relationship but was quickly patched up, and that he and Coors's widow, Gail, exchange hugs when they run into each other.
Pegged as one of the most evenly divided districts in the country in the early 2000's, the 7th CD was represented for the first two terms of its existence by Republican Bob Beauprez, who ran for governor in 2006 rather than seek another term. After winning the primary that summer, Perlmutter faced Republican Rick O'Donnell in the fall and won by 13 points. He's been re-elected by double-digit margins seven times since.
"They're tough, campaigns," Perlmutter says. "Anybody who thinks they're easy doesn’t know what the hell they're talking about. They have no clue because your ego is in every article, at every doorstep, with every sign out there. This is serious stuff and you're dealing with serious subjects. You have a responsibility to tell people what you believe on policy X, Y or Z. And it's real competition."
Perlmutter's recent Republican challengers haven't forced the Democrat to break much of a sweat — he won re-election over Casper Stockham by 22 points last time and beat Mark Barrington by 25 points in 2018 — but he's long been pelted with criticism for hewing the party line.
“The Democrats like to say they stand up for the average consumer. That is a lie,” 2016 GOP nominee George Athanasopoulos told Colorado Politics when he announced his bid to unseat Perlmutter. “What they support is bigger government, government that requires more resources — more taxes, more government intervention. We can’t afford the government we have, and they want to increase it.”
In 2012, Coors, a wealthy scion of the family that founded the brewery that bears their name, blasted Perlmutter as a free-spending liberal.
“There are two distinct choices for voters this year,” Coors said. “The first option is to continue the expansion of federal government both in size and scope, placing control of far too many decisions in the hands of bureaucrats. This is the voting record of the incumbent and the liberals in Washington, D.C."
He added: “I believe the best option is the second option. Free enterprise with limited government — that allows men and women to start and grow their businesses as large as their dreams will carry them. This formula has made our economy the largest in the world.”
Perlmutter says the secret to his political success is his optimism and inclination toward collaboration rather than confrontation.
"I don't come in with a big agenda," he says. "I think part of the gift I brought is an ability to work with people to solve problems, and it doesn't matter what their political stripes are. I have a sense of humor and a sense of, ‘We’re in this together, let's see if we can figure this out,’ and a willingness to say, ‘You know what ,you have a damn good idea on that let's let's try it out.’"
Still, he acknowledges that times have changed since he first won election to the state Senate in 1994, a historically big Republican wave year.
"I'm always optimistic," he says. "But it's tough right now — the political climate part of it is tough. Just from a visibility standpoint, from social media, from a press standpoint, the more noise you make, the more extreme your view, the more likes you get, the more press you get. It makes it harder, but then on a person-to-person basis, it’s still pretty positive there."
He adds: "I don't write anybody off. I try not to burn too many bridges. It's hard right now, there’s no question about that. There's a lot of polarization, and that really starts with the general public, there's this polarization. But I trust the people here — Democrats, Republicans unaffiliated — so I trust that everybody will get through this temperamental moment in American history and and we’ll be fine. Democracy is a fragile kind of a thing. The Constitution and democracy, you’ve got to protect them and not take them for granted. And I think people are awake to that.”
Perlmutter says he recently ran into two constituents he knows, both recently retired teachers, at Starbucks one morning.
"They both said, ‘We never really needed anything from you. We were just always happy to know that you are around or that your office was available to us,'" he says. "And it was like, that's just perfect. That is what I want to be known for."
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