Dennis Gallagher, former Denver auditor, member of Denver’s City Council and state senator and state House representative, has died at the age of 82.
His longtime friend and colleague, Clay Vigoda, said Gallagher was sick on and off for the last few weeks, but nobody around him expected it was that serious. He was in “good spirits” on Friday, Vigoda said, before he took a nap and never woke up.
“It was shocking to everybody,” he said.
Gallagher is probably the most famous for the “Gallagher Amendment,” which passed Colorado’s legislature in 1982. It was intended to lower residential property taxes at a time when Coloradans faced very steep dues to the state. In 1992, Colorado passed another amendment, the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, or TABOR, which complicated Gallagher’s legacy. While Gallagher always stood behind his amendment, he did advocate for changes that would loosen the “noose” on state spending that it had become under TABOR. Instead, voters repealed his amendment in 2020.
Beyond the complicated fiscal stuff, Gallagher is remembered as a caring neighbor, loving father and a brilliant friend.
Though he formally retired in 2015, Gallagher remained active in Denver and Colorado’s civic life. He grew up in Denver – “the son of a firefighter,” Vigoda said – and cared deeply about his city.
He fought the repeal of the Gallagher Amendment. He worked with former mayor Wellington Webb to stave off development at the Park Hill Golf Course. He supported Jamie Giellis in her bid to unseat current mayor Michael Hancock – and even got a cease-and-desist letter from Denver for sending a scathing email to city workers asking them to vote against Hancock. He broke through a construction fence to rescue ephemera from the childhood home of the former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Maer, and helped turn the house into a museum. He showed up in debates about environmental issues and infrastructure projects. He taught speech, Latin, Greek and media at Regis University.
“Dennis never slowed down,” Vigoda said. “If you asked, he would have told you it was his Jesuit upbringing and education. He would always talk about leaving the city a better place than you found it, and I think he took that to heart. That’s why he stayed politically active.”
He was born in 1939, the tail end of the Great Depression. His son, Danny Gallagher, said his father’s memories of that time colored the rest of his life.
“Growing up in the Depression and seeing how hard peoples’ lives were, it really changed him,” Danny said. “I think that’s why he had a true calling, a vocational calling to politics.”
His colleagues from the Colorado Senate remembered him as someone who could work with anyone, who would listen and who invariably made people around him laugh. Don Ament, a former Republican state senator, called Gallagher – a Democrat – a “lifelong friend” who was “just a guy that appealed to people.” Ament also said their relationship marked a bygone era of cooperation and friendship in state politics.
Danny said his father’s life was defined by his affection for people, both inside and outside of the public office. Walking down the street with him was always a slog – it seemed like Gallagher would run into someone he knew on every block, and he’d have to stop to chat and find out what was new.
“He was teaching me how you’re supposed to interact with people, how you’re supposed to make time for someone,” Danny said. “He would bend over backwards for anyone, any single person who came to him, whether he knew them or not.”
Often, Danny recalled, his father gave out business cards to strangers.
“He’d say, ‘If you get arrested, just give them my card and tell them you know me,'” Danny said.
Every now and then, he’d get a call from the police station and “go to bat” for whoever was in trouble.
“His legacy here in Colorado is not just north Denver. It’s not just Denver. It’s Colorado as a whole,” Danny said. “He really was all in.”
Danny said his father treated him and his sister, Meaghan, with the same care and attention.
“Everyone has a job, but not everyone is a good dad, a good father. My father Dennis was a good father,” Danny said. “He was so proud of us. His love was unconditional.”
Linda Powers, a former Democratic state senator who served alongside Gallagher, said he chose his words carefully and commanded his colleagues’ attentions.
“When Dennis went to the mic to speak, everybody listened because he didn’t just open his mouth,” she said. “I couldn’t have had a better mentor than Dennis. He was brilliant. He was compassionate.”
Powers said Gallagher was “a man of Denver.” He loved jazz and often went to El Chapultepec to hear it. He had a coffee blend named in his honor at Common Grounds, the now-closed Sunnyside coffee shop that served as a hub for local politics and gossip. He was known for his annual St. Patrick’s Day parties, which were open to all.
“Dennis was kind of a renaissance man,” Powers said. “I don’t know if we have that any more.”
Gallagher’s family posted about his death on his official Facebook page and the news has been met with an outpouring of supportive comments.
“Dennis was such a wealth of knowledge, humor, and stories. He was brilliant and kind. My family and I will miss him,” one person wrote.
“A true Denver original, with a heart as big as the world. Was there any topic on which he could not converse?” said another.
“Such a giving and magnificent gentleman,” penned a third. “May God’s grace forevermore be upon us because He gifted us this human being.”
As Gallagher aged, Vigoda worked with him to record as much of his history and philosophy as possible. They minted a series of video conversations on YouTube, titled “Gallagher’s World,” which cover everything from his childhood to the present.
You can hear him in his own words:
This story has been updated with comments from Danny Gallagher and Don Ament, former state senator.