At the beginning of 1908 the new Denver Municipal Auditorium, with a capacity of 12,500, was completed in time to host the 1908 Democratic National Convention. And in the general election of 1908, Democrats won back both the Governorship and the Attorney General’s Office. John F. Shafroth was elected Governor and John T. Barnett was elected Attorney General. Barnett defeated Republican George Hodges and two other candidates.
Barnett was born in Potsdam, New York on June 22, 1869. He was the son of “an American farmer and a devout Catholic mother.” At the age of 22 he moved to Silverton, Colorado where he became a teacher and the Superintendent of Schools. He also owned a newspaper. His intent was to save money for a legal education. He went to the Chicago College of Law graduating in 1896 and then returned to southwest Colorado, where he became a prominent lawyer in the San Juan region. He practiced law with James Teller and John Campbell, both former Justices of the Colorado Supreme Court. His office was in Ouray and he served as Ouray County Attorney for several years.
Upon his election as Attorney General, Barnett had six assistants. James Brinson served as Deputy Attorney General and James Teller, James Ragus, George Thorne, Elmer Brock, and Eugene Moran served as Assistant Attorneys General. In his report to the Governor at the end of his term, Barnett noted it was extremely important to audit the accounts of State departments and institutions at least once a year. He was also very critical of certain departments’ retention of “special counsel,” a practice he called “illegal.” Barnett also joined his predecessors in complaining about all the boards he was required to sit on. He urged citizen commissions be appointed. He also suggested that terms of office for State executive officers be extended from two years to four.
A strong, pro-labor Democrat, Barnett expounded on the problems of the working class and railed against trusts and illegal combinations in restraint of trade. He blamed them for “making the cost of living out of proportion to the earning capacity of the individual.” He proposed a state antitrust statute, but it was defeated in a legislative committee.
Barnett began an investigation of the state penitentiary in Cañon City amid allegations that the warden was misusing money earned by prisoners for his personal expenses. The local District Attorney had refused to file charges and Barnett’s authority to do so was challenged in court. The State Supreme Court ruled that he could proceed upon direction of the Governor or the General Assembly.
Barnett also brought cases against the United States to assist the state’s control over private lands for use as pasture land or for timber harvesting. He challenged whether the federal government was usurping states’ rights and retained several eminent counsel, including former U. S. Senator Henry Teller, to assist with the litigation.
After leaving office Barnett served as chairman of the Colorado Democratic Party from 1912 to 1916 and as national committeeman from Colorado from 1913 to 1928. In 1932 he sought the Democratic nomination for the U. S. Senate, but lost a close and hotly contested race to Alva Adams.
Barnett was active in oil and gas ventures in Colorado and Wyoming and became one of the state’s wealthiest citizens. Unfortunately, his connection to several oilmen caught up in the Teapot Dome scandal tainted his reputation and probably cost him confirmation when he was nominated by President Franklin D. Roosevelt as Envoy to Canada in 1935. His expertise in oil and gas did lead to his appointment as a trustee of the Colorado School of Mines and as an officer of the First National Bank. He also served as president of the Denver Art Museum.
Barnett had his share of heartache. His first wife died after only two years of marriage. His second wife died in 1926. He was survived by a third wife upon his death in Denver on February 1, 1942 at the age of 72.