William Armstrong, ex-U.S. senator for Colorado, dies at 79

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File photo of William Armstrong courtesy of the U.S. Senate

File photo of William Armstrong courtesy of the U.S. Senate

DENVER — William L. Armstrong, a Colorado media executive who became a major conservative voice in the Senate, died Tuesday after a five-year battle with cancer. He was 79.

A devout Christian as well as a staunch conservative, Armstrong served as director of the evangelical group Campus Crusade for Christ after retiring from the Senate in 1991 and later as president of Colorado Christian University in Lakewood, Colorado.

Armstrong was first elected to the Senate in 1978 and served two terms, spending much of his time focusing on economic issues. He sponsored an amendment to a 1981 tax bill that indexed federal income tax brackets to compensate for inflation. He also played a major role in a fight in the early 1980s over putting Social Security on sound financial footing.

In 1981, Armstrong led conservative opposition to then-President Ronald Reagan’s proposed budget, contending the administration was not doing enough to cut long-term federal deficits. The move forced the administration to come up with a compromise closer to Armstrong’s position. Two years later, as a member of a Reagan-appointed commission to come up with a plan to solve Social Security’s financial problems, Armstrong said proposed solutions were focusing too much on raising Social Security taxes and not enough on cutting future benefits. Armstrong fought for — and lost — his proposal to raise the retirement age for Social Security recipients.

He was also a sponsor and a leading advocate of a proposed constitutional amendment to require a balanced federal budget.

“His strong conservative views mainly centered around economic issues rather than social issues,” said Bob Loevy, a political science professor at Colorado College, in a 2012 interview.

U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley, of Iowa, called Armstrong “a person who was not afraid to take on the tough issues, lead fights on the floor” in a video tribute to Armstrong presented Friday at the Western Conservative Summit in Denver, which Colorado Christian organizes.

Armstrong’s career in elected office began in 1962 when he won a seat in the Colorado Legislature at the age of 25 and eventually became majority leader of the state Senate. In 1972, Armstrong moved to the House of Representatives, winning election from a newly created seat in the eastern suburbs of Denver. He was easily re-elected twice.

In 1978, Armstrong decided to challenge the Senate seat held by Democrat Floyd Haskell. He won an easy primary victory and in the general election, Armstrong won 59 percent of the vote. In 1984, Armstrong easily defeated his Democratic opponent.

Armstrong was born in Fremont, Nebraska, on March 16, 1937. He attended high school in Lincoln, Nebraska and later went to Tulane University in New Orleans and the University of Minnesota.

“I didn’t manage to earn a degree, although subsequently I received a number of honorary doctorates,” Armstrong, who was also a lieutenant in the Army National Guard, said in a 2012 email to The Associated Press.

He started working in radio at a young age, at stations in his hometown and elsewhere in Nebraska. At 22, Armstrong bought a radio station on the outskirts of Denver, KOSI-AM, beginning a career that turned him into a millionaire. He was also president of KEZW in Denver and president of Ambassador Media Corp., which owned television stations in Pocatello and Twin Falls, Idaho, and Jackson, Wyoming.

He served as president of the Sun newspaper in Colorado Springs. Armstrong grew up in the Presbyterian Church and became a Lutheran when he married Ellen M. Eaton in 1962. In the 1970s, he had what he called a “conversion experience” that made him a more committed Christian. After that experience, he said, he became more tolerant of other people’s opinions.

“So even though I am certain of what I believe, I am more accepting of other opinions on other subjects,” he told the AP. “My own limitations and shortcomings remind me not to be too critical of the failings of others.”

He was the co-chairman in 1983 of the Year of the Bible, an effort to encourage the reading of scripture. He served as director of the Campus Crusade for Christ from 1991 to 2008. His business roles included serving as chairman of three mortgage companies and as a director of Helmerich & Payne Inc., an oil and gas drilling business.

He served on the boards of other companies including StorageTek, Provident Life and Accident Insurance Co. and UNUM/Provident. He became chairman of the Oppenheimer Funds mutual funds group in 2003. Armstrong became president of Colorado Christian in 2006. When he was approached about taking the job, he said, his initial inclination was to decline because of his age — he was 69 — and because he had no background in education and was preoccupied with his other business and religious work.

“Instead, however, I promised that Ellen and I would pray about the proposal, and to my utter surprise, (God) made it clear this was what I was called to do,” he told the AP. He and his wife, Ellen, had a daughter, Anne, and a son, Wil.

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