We headed into City Park on Thursday afternoon in search of a bald eagle. While we didn’t find the bird we were looking for, we did run into something else that reeked of civic symbolism.
Katie Farnan stood under a tree at the park’s northeast corner with a cardboard cut-out of Cory Gardner, which she’d used to protest the former Republican senator over the last four years. Then, Senator John Hickenlooper, who beat Gardner in last November’s election, emerged from a nearby car. We had to stop and see what was going on.
With little pomp and circumstance, Farnan handed this “Cardboard Cory” off to Hickenlooper. She read a short statement she’d prepared, expressing gratitude and congratulating him on his win. Then, she showed off dozens of messages that local activists had written to Hickenlooper on the 2-D politician.
“We are counting on you,” read another from Justine Sandoval, president of the Denver Young Democrats.
“Don’t forget who put you in office,” read a note from Denver Public School board member Tay Anderson.
“Just because you were anointed by the establishment arm of the party doesn’t mean you get Rebekahmended. You gotta earn that,” wrote filmmaker Rebekah Henderson.
Farnan later told us she was very happy that Hickenlooper accepted the prop: “It was very gratifying to close a chapter on four years of holding Sen. Gardner accountable.”
Cardboard Cory’s following grew since he was born four years ago.
Farnan told us she and some other local organizers dreamt up the idea for Cardboard Corey back in Feb. 2017, right after Donald Trump took office and all kinds of people were marching in Denver’s streets and taking up new political fights on both the local and national level.
The cut-out, she said, felt like an appropriate response to Gardner’s perceived absence in the community. She and other progressive activists focused on demands that Gardner hold a public town hall to answer for his policies and communicate his values. Farnan never got an actual audience with the senator, so she and her friends began holding town halls with him “in absentia.” The cardboard version would have to do.
“We spent four long years trying to get a word in edgewise and find out what Cory Gardner thought about anything,” she said.
Cardboard Cory flew to Washington D.C. twice. He showed up at countless marches and protests across Colorado. He had his own bus tour. He rode in a coffin that was paraded around Gardner’s office when the Affordable Care Act was up for cancelation in the Senate. His supporters even made a short documentary about him.
“It turned out people really seemed to enjoy it,” Farnan said. “It was a great vehicle for people.”
The cut-out’s shadow still loomed as political momentum grew around the 2019 election. Hickenlooper used Cardboard Cories in campaign ads. Farnan said she heard Gardner acknowledge the campaign at least once, saying something like, “He’s a lot better looking than me.” She was floored to see the piece of cardboard continued to hold attention and symbolic power.
“It did go beyond that activist bubble,” she said.
She said the prop had staying power, in part, because progressives didn’t use it to denigrate Gardner.
“It’s also not an effigy. It’s not like we want to punch this thing,” she said. “We weren’t going to throw him into a dumpster.”
Instead, activists who knew the cardboard senator best imbued it with a sense of hope. They treated it like the senator they wished they had in office. He showed up for them, even if his breathing counterpart often did not.
That kind of accessibility is one reason Farnan was happy that Hickenlooper agreed to meet her this week.
“One of the first things I said was, ‘Wow. It’s amazing to be able to see you.’ And to think, over the last 3 years that was kind of impossible from his predecessor,” she said.
Still, endings are often new beginnings. As the messages written on cardboard Gardner’s back demonstrate, progressive activists still have political battles to wage.
Farnan said she’ll likely focus on local issues where she lives, particularly those that involve Boulder City Council. But her journey with Cardboard Cory will stick with her through whatever comes next.
“I’m a changed person in a few very critical ways, and it’s for the better,” she said. “Even if I get less sleep.”
Hickenlooper and his team didn’t want to comment, but he did tell Farner that he’ll be thinking about the prop each time he sets out for a round of town halls.