In the 1948 campaign, the only announced Democratic candidate for Colorado Attorney General was Homer Preston. However, delegates to the party’s state convention were unhappy with Preston and drafted 35-year-old John Metzger to be the Attorney General candidate. Metzger was, by all accounts, a colorful lawyer and politician who was very outspoken.
Born on April 4, 1914 in a sod house on land his father homesteaded near Sterling, Colorado, John Metzger overcame a difficult childhood. His father abandoned that homestead as unproductive and became a miner in the Cripple Creek-Victor district. He died in a mining accident when John was eight years old. His mother died five years later and he and his sister were sent to a state home for dependent children. The children were then put in the custody of different families and remained separated for four years. Metzger was essentially indentured to an eastern Colorado farm family and claimed he ran away at fourteen and became wholly self-supporting as a dishwasher, waiter and dairy hand.
He finished high school by attending a YMCA-sponsored night school. After high school he was hired as a law clerk by attorney Hugh Neville. Metzger took law courses at the Westminster Law School but did not graduate. When Neville suffered a jaw disease and was unable to speak, Metzger reputedly did the speaking for his boss in court. In 1936, Metzger was admitted to the bar on motion without a law degree. He was one of the last people in Colorado to be admitted to the bar without having graduated from an American Bar Association-approved law school.
Metzger also became heavily involved in Democratic Party politics. He campaigned for Al Smith in 1927 and later recalled crowds throwing vegetables at Smith, the first Roman Catholic candidate for President, at a rally at the Orpheum Theater. At age 20 he helped organize a Young Democrats organization and served as president three times. When he got a last minute nomination for Attorney General in 1948 he geared his campaign around the Truman presidential campaign. It proved to be a good strategy. He won by 25,000 votes. Metzger was a personal friend of Truman’s and drafted the seconding speech for the president at the 1948 Democratic convention. Metzger had worked at a munitions factory with Bess Truman’s brother during World War II. When Metzger’s son was born in 1949, Truman sent him an autographed dollar bill. In fact, Truman wanted to nominate Metzger for federal judge, but Senator Ed Johnson blocked the nomination and the President appointed Lee Knous.
The two-year term was an eventful one which Metzger described as the “most boisterous period of growth the state has ever had.” Road building, school financing and countless problems shelved during war time became front and center. A compact was successfully finalized with Kansas over the Arkansas River. Metzger appointed the first African-American Assistant Attorney General.
Metzger railed against temperance groups attempting to disseminate information in public schools. He said it was “just as harmful for these do-gooders to be propagandizing children in schools as it would be for the wets to be propagandizing the children.” Metzger’s office also brought suits against relatives of mental patients in state institutions seeking to recover the cost of care.
In one of his biggest controversies, Metzger refused to rehire Jean Breitenstein as the State Attorney for the Colorado Water Conservation Board, saying he wasn’t worth the $6,000 salary. “I’m not interested in hiring a lobbyist under the guise of a lawyer,” he said. Breitenstein had actively opposed the Columbia River Authority, one of the Truman Administration’s pet projects. Republicans responded with considerable criticism of Metzger. Breitenstein later became a Federal District Court and Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals Judge.
Metzger claimed he purposely lost a case involving a challenge to the Denver Boulder Tollway to expedite its resolution by the State Supreme Court. He also was proven wrong in opining that a contract between the State Insurance Fund and Rose Memorial Hospital was illegal. A June 14, 1950 Rocky Mountain News article criticized Metzger for not giving the press enough information on his investigation of gambling in Colorado. Metzger fired back, saying the press was trying to jeopardize the investigation. Finally, Metzger got into a legal battle with Denver Mayor Quigg Newton. He told the mayor he couldn’t fly a Soviet flag with other international flags in the Civic Center on United Nations Day and Armistice Day. Metzger sued to prevent the “red flag of anarchy” from being flown in Colorado. When Metzger lost the 1950 general election race to Republican Duke Dunbar, several newspapers attributed the loss to this “red flag” incident and the fact he was sued for slander by the Mayor of Lamar for statements he made about the town.
Metzger was a very persistent person. After his defeat in the 1950 Attorney General race, he successfully sought the Democratic nomination for Governor in 1952, only to lose the general election to Republican Dan Thornton in a landslide. In 1958, he was blocked by Democratic Party rules from making a late run against incumbent Byron Johnson for Congress from the Second District. In 1962, he took a last shot at winning back the Attorney General’s job, but lost again to Republican incumbent Duke Dunbar.
Metzger built a successful private practice. He and his wife Betty and two children lived on a ranch near Broomfield, and he was a founder of the City of Broomfield. His daughter, Karen, became a lawyer and eventually served as a Denver District Court Judge and on the Colorado Court of Appeals.
John Metzger was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1982. Given just a few months to live, he survived for two years. He died January 25, 1984 at the age of 71. He was entombed in a mausoleum at Fairmont Cemetery. His daughter eulogized him saying, “He had an absolute straight sense of what was right and wrong with no fudging and full disclosure.”