From Zambia to the Denver DA’s office, Bill Ritter has been following an unconventional path toward the state’s highest office
Published in 2006 Colorado Super Lawyers magazine
on March 9, 2006
Updated on March 16, 2016
It was a decision his colleagues advised him against.
Only six years after graduating from the University of Colorado School of Law, Bill Ritter Jr. had become chief deputy in the Denver district attorney’s office, and he seemed a likely candidate among the 63 lawyers working in the prosecutor’s office to become district attorney himself one day. Yet there he was in the spring of 1987, announcing that he and his wife, Jeannie, and their 2-year-old son soon would leave for a three-year sojourn in Zambia in central Africa. There they would manage and expand the work of a Catholic food distribution and nutrition center committed to helping end the region’s terrible starvation and malnutrition problems. Yes, it was important work, his colleagues agreed, but wasn’t Ritter concerned about the possibly fatal blow the time in Africa would deal to his career? Ritter’s answer, to his colleagues as well as himself, was no, he was not concerned. Going to Zambia was a great opportunity; the work there was service he deeply believed in, and he knew, somehow, that it ultimately would benefit rather than block the trajectory of his professional life.
At the end of three remarkable years in Africa, during which time the Ritters and their assistants trucked 60 tons of food each month to children in Zambia’s bush and had experiences that were, Ritter says, “just incredible, almost impossible to describe,” he, his wife, and now two sons returned home. And in just three more years, Ritter was appointed Denver’s district attorney. He was elected to that office in 1994, then re-elected two more times until term limits forced him to move on in January of 2005. Moving on, of course, meant seeking the Democratic nomination for governor of Colorado — despite the very real possibility that he would have formidable primary opponents for the open gubernatorial seat, and that as an anti-abortion (he prefers “faith-based opposition to abortion”) Democrat, he was vulnerable to charges that he was outside his party’s mainstream.
But things tend to go well for Bill Ritter, and as this magazine goes to press, he seems well positioned in his run for the state’s top office. Even though he is not well known outside the Denver metro area, says Colorado College political science professor Bob Loevy, a veteran observer of Colorado politics, “I see Bill Ritter having a good shot at statewide election if the anticipated anti-Republican national sweep occurs in November.”
Ritter grew up the sixth of 12 children on a five-acre farm just east of Denver. His alcoholic father, a heavy-construction worker and dryland wheat farmer, left the family when Ritter was 13, and he and his seven brothers and four sisters did what they could to help the family survive. “That meant doing landscaping, hauling firewood, whatever it took,” Ritter explains, adding that during summers from the time he was 16 until midway through law school, he worked in the heavy-construction trade, doing the work he’d learned from his father, often with his father as boss. “We were never completely estranged,” he says. “He had abandoned my mother, and none of us were happy about that, but somehow, he and I always stayed in close touch. He had a problem, and he was my father,” he adds, noting that he is August William Ritter Jr. and that he gave his eldest son the family names as well. By the time Ritter’s father died last year, he had successfully reconciled his relationships with much of his family.
It was Ritter’s successful foray into speech and debate competitions in the ninth and tenth grades that initiated his earliest thoughts about pursuing a career in law. “By the time I was a junior, I knew I really loved taking a point and intellectually engaging with it in debate,” he says. “I liked extemporaneous speaking and oratory too, and the law seemed like the logical profession in which I could practice those skills. Right from my junior year in high school, I just knew I was going to be a lawyer.”
Although neither his parents nor his grandparents attended college, Ritter set his plan in motion. He was accepted at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, where summer jobs on water and sewer pipeline projects and student loans helped pay his way. He graduated from CSU in 1978 with a degree in political science and then enrolled in the University of Colorado College of Law in Boulder. At the end of his second year of law school, he decided to forgo a summer spent laying pipe for an internship with the Denver district attorney’s office. It was Denver’s renowned district attorney Dale Tooley who offered him the prized summer work, and Ritter immediately fell in love with it. “It was a Camelot kind of environment. Dale Tooley was a remarkable man, and he instilled in everyone in the office a real passion for doing the right thing, for upholding the highest standards. I liked that. I tried to meet that challenge.”
Ritter returned to the district attorney’s office immediately after graduation. He married Jeannie, whom he had known and dated since high school, at about the same time. Ritter was chief deputy district attorney by the time he was 28, relishing, he says, the social justice component of the department’s mission more than its law enforcement role, and believing that he had found his life’s work. But the young couple’s faith — together with Jeannie Ritter’s desire to do more of the direct aid she had been introduced to while in the Peace Corps in North Africa — led them to take the break from his career track that Ritter’s colleagues believed was folly.
For three years, the Ritters lived in remote Zambia among subsistence farmers who were struggling with drought — a region where the per capita annual income was barely over $100. “Thirty to 35 percent of the children we were feeding were terribly malnourished,” Ritter says. “People had to contend with malaria and other tropical diseases. AIDS had begun to devastate central Africa by the time we arrived, and at times it was overwhelming to consider everything these people had to contend with. But they were also people of such grace and hopefulness. We were deeply moved by the experience.”
The Ritters gave long consideration to staying on in Africa at the conclusion of their three-year commitment but opted, in the end, to take the advice of the U.S. deputy ambassador to Zambia, who suggested that they could be of even more assistance back home, helping alert other Americans to the terrible plight of Africa’s poor.
Home again in 1990, Ritter accepted a job in the U.S. Attorney’s office, focusing principally on prosecuting crimes on Colorado’s two Ute Indian reservations in the southwest corner of the state. But he missed the district attorney’s office and returned there in May 1992 when then-district attorney Norm Early offered him a position. After Early resigned to run for mayor, Colorado Gov. Roy Romer appointed Ritter to fill the vacancy, and Ritter retained the office for the next 11 years. His tenure got off to a challenging start.
The middle months of 1993 were dubbed the “Summer of Violence” by Colorado’s media. Beginning in May, when a baby was struck by a stray bullet at the Denver Zoo, and culminating with the August murder of a suburban elementary school teacher in a parking lot, it appeared to many that the metropolitan area was overwhelmed with youth- and gang-initiated violence. Gov. Romer called a special session of the state legislature to address what were both legitimate and media-fueled concerns, and Ritter remembers that among his initial responses to the crisis was to attend community meetings in all parts of the city. “I quickly realized there were parallels with what I’d seen in Zambia,” he says, “in that the absence of basic opportunities, the basic necessities of life, was responsible for a significant part of the problem.” Ritter initiated a community justice division, the first drug court in Colorado and, later, a victims’ services network and an economic crime unit, one that focused on securities fraud, bank fraud and embezzlement, the kinds of crime that often escape vigorous prosecution in overworked urban district attorneys’ offices.
During his 11 years in office, Ritter faced harsh criticism for never filing a criminal charge against any of the 80 Denver police officers involved in fatal shootings of suspects. But he forcefully defends the decisions. Each time he invited reporters to examine a particular case file, he says, they came away from their investigations in agreement that charges against the officers were not warranted. At the end of his term, Ritter was proud of his accomplishments at the helm of an 80-lawyer, 200-employee office. Like his mentor Dale Tooley, he says he attempted to ensure that every person in his employ was committed to a common set of ethics. “Without ethics, the office is nothing, and can accomplish no civic good, no social justice,” he says.
“Whenever I interviewed a candidate for a position, I always asked him or her whether they could imagine working as a defense attorney as well. When someone would say, ‘Oh, I couldn’t possibly defend anyone,’ I made careful note of that, because to me, it demonstrated a critical lack of understanding of the vital role defense lawyers play in our system, and of the adversarial nature of the system that is essential to its functions.”
Could he have been a criminal defense lawyer? “Oh, yes, I certainly could have,” Ritter says.
Just as he was confident in his decision to move to Africa, Ritter had been making no secret of his plans for the governor’s race. Yet just as his colleagues in 1987 insisted it would be difficult for him to leave the law for three years and still support his career goals, so too have some observers been intent in their opinion that Ritter’s personal anti-abortion beliefs will make his quest for the governor’s office a big challenge in a state where polls show voters are very comfortable with current national and state laws that guarantee abortion’s legality.
Characteristically direct on the issue, Ritter repeatedly discusses his views on abortion these days, and restates his position as specifically as he can. “I am pro-life as a matter of personal faith. If Roe v. Wade is overturned, and the decision of whether or not to legalize abortions reverts to the states, and if the Colorado Legislature passes a bill banning abortion, I will sign the bill only if it provides protections for women who are victims of rape or incest, or to protect the life of the mother. However, should the Colorado Legislature pass a complete ban without these protections, I would veto that bill. That said, Roe v. Wade is the law of the land and abortions are legal. As governor, I will act in the same way I did as DA. I will respect the law as it stands, and I will not act to undermine the right of a woman to choose to have an abortion. For example, as Denver DA, I prosecuted those who caused damage and created disruption at family services clinics.”
Early in the election year, Ritter’s stance on abortion doesn’t appear to be damaging his popularity among likely voters. Yet Democratic Party activists continue to urge potential candidates with high profiles and pro-choice credentials to challenge Ritter in the primary, concerned that the former DA’s abortion position makes him suspect, even in a state where “moderate” is an adjective applied to virtually every Democrat elected to statewide office. “In the Democratic primary, if he can get there,” says Loevy, “Ritter should have an even chance against a pro-choice candidate. If he gets the nomination, his pro-life stance could actually help him in the general election by taking monopoly of that issue away from the Republicans.”
Ritter is convinced that by the time of the August primary and November general elections, his goals — to reform Colorado’s tattered, neglected and underfunded education system, to find a workable way to provide health care coverage for the state’s 750,000 citizens currently without it, and to create viable and distinct economic development plans for five separate regions of the state — will resonate strongly with voters.
Every bit as much as in his ninth-grade debates, Bill Ritter continues to love to engage a point intellectually and argue it persuasively, and, as he learned from his three years in Africa, things work out when he follows his own compass.