The Outsider

updated 07/29/1996 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/29/1996 AT 01:00 AM EDT

LAUNCHING HIS CAMPAIGN FOR THE presidential nomination of Ross Perot's fledgling Reform Party on July 9, former Colorado Gov. Richard D. Lamm laid out the theme of his quixotic candidacy. "Conventional politics is not working," Lamm, 60, told reporters and supporters at the University of Denver. "We need to think and do the unconventional." At that point, the blunt-spoken Lamm hadn't offended anyone—extremely unconventional for him.

This summer, as Bill Clinton and Bob Dole begin their carefully orchestrated dance toward the the White House, Dick Lamm hopes to be the pushy intruder who steps on their toes. As a three-term Democratic governor of Colorado (1975-1987), Lamm had a knack for making politically incorrect remarks. Known as Governor Gloom for his Cassandra-like insistence that America is recklessly outspending its resources, he once complained that too much money was devoted to helping disabled children instead of bright students. "We must ask ourselves: In a world of limited resources, does it make sense to spend $10,000 a year to educate a child to roll over?" he declared. Dozens of handicapped Coloradoans gathered later at the governor's office and rolled on the lobby floor in protest. "Very few people have accused me of political pragmatism," Lamm concedes. Certainly not Dan Buck, aide to Rep. Pat Schroeder of Colorado. "He might think of himself as Paul Revere," says Buck, "but I think others might think of Henny Penny. The sky is always falling in his world."

Indeed, Lamm's proposals to cut Social Security, Medicare, veterans' benefits and other popular programs seem sure to offend huge blocs of voters. Then there's the Perot problem. Though Lamm guessed Perot would step aside if he declared his candidacy, the unpredictable Texan did just the opposite. Within 24 hours of Lamm's launch, Perot announced he would be running. Still, Lamm, an avid mountain climber who has conquered 49 Colorado peaks higher than 14,000 feet, is undaunted: "All my life," he says, "I've been a risk taker."

Raised in tiny, rural Barrington, Ill., outside Chicago, Lamm was the oldest of three sons born to accountant Arnold Lamm, now 88, and his wife, Mary. Growing up in the shadow of the Depression, he recalls, "we were a very frugal family. We never wasted any food on our plates."

A self-confessed slacker in high school, Lamm got much of his education outside school. At 18, he spent a summer in Canada, canoeing and fishing in the northern wilderness. He crewed on ore ships on the Great Lakes, cut lumber in Oregon and was a runner at the New York Stock Exchange. "Those were my college years," he says now. "They were immensely adventurous."

After graduating from the University of Wisconsin with a business degree in 1957, he earned his law degree from the University of California at Berkeley, then tried and failed to land a job in Washington. Heading west to Colorado in 1961, he met Dorothy "Dottie" Vennard, 24, a United Airlines flight attendant, at a Christmas party. When Lamm later asked her out, she declined. He said he would try again in a week. "Exactly a week later, he calls back and says, 'How about that beer?' " recalls Dottie, 59, a Denver psychiatric social worker, newspaper columnist on women's issues and mother of the Lamm's two children—Scott, 28, who is opening a computer business in Denver, and Heather, 25, a graduate student at Northwestern. "I thought to myself, 'This is an interesting person.' So I said, 'Sure.' "

They married in 1963, and three years later Lamm was elected to the state legislature. There, in 1967, he wrote the first state law in the U.S. legalizing abortion. He made news again in 1972 by helping to kill Colorado's bid to host the 1976 Winter Olympics. Although "I was probably the biggest winter sportsman in the Colorado legislature," he says, he was wary, knowing that Sapporo, Japan, and Montreal lost millions on previous Olympics and that the games could have an environmental impact. The victory encouraged him to run for governor two years later.

Still, Lamm sees Dottie's battle with breast cancer in the early '80s as the greatest challenge he ever faced. "I thought I was going to lose her," he admits. She recalls that after surgery "as busy as he was, when I would wake up in the morning, he would be sitting by my hospital bed. Every single morning."

Today, Lamm works just as hard outside the office as inside. Rising at 4:30 nearly every day, he retires to the study of the family's tri-level townhouse not far from downtown Denver to write. (He has written or cowritten six books, including works on social policy and a 1985 novel, 1988, about a third-party presidential candidate.) Even in leisure time he can't sit still, heading off to kayak or backpack instead. That very restlessness is what drove him into the current presidential race, says Dan Buck. Lamm is "pawing the ground," he concludes.

Lamm, who lost a 1992 primary for the U.S. Senate against then-Democrat Ben Nighthorse Campbell, is well aware that it will be difficult to win favor for a tough-love presidential platform asking Americans to tighten their belts a notch. "There has to be an equality of sacrifice," he says, explaining that he would downsize virtually all federal programs: "It's the Dick Lamm offend-everybody-a-little-bit plan."

VICKIE BANE in Denver and MARGIE SELLINGER in Washington

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