GOLDEN, Colo. – Peter Coors (search), a member of the beer industry's staunchly conservative Coors family, has acted at times as if he had been switched at birth.
He once sat down with a union to iron out problems at the Coors brewery and later helped secure benefits for gay employees.
Now the Republican is bucking family tradition again, by running for the Senate from Colorado.
While his father and grandfather preferred to pursue their political causes behind closed doors, Coors stepped up when GOP leaders came calling, setting the stage for what is expected to be one of the most expensive and closely watched Senate races in the country.
"I have business experience. I'm kind of a peacemaker. I believe we should solve problems by getting people together and finding out what each side wants," said the 57-year-old political novice.
He faces former Rep. Bob Schaffer (search) in what is shaping up as a tough GOP primary, with the winner expected to face a formidable Democrat this fall in Colorado Attorney General Ken Salazar. All are trying to succeed GOP Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (search), who cited health concerns in announcing his retirement.
The race could help determine the control of the Senate, where Republicans hold a 51-48 majority with one Democratic-leaning independent.
Peter Coors, a tall, silver-haired figure with a charismatic presence on the campaign trail, took over as president of the Golden-based company in 1987 and in 2002 was named chief executive. He now runs the nation's third-largest brewer, with 8,500 employees and $4 billion in sales last year.
Over the years, the Coors family has supported a variety of right wing organizations, including the Heritage Foundation and the John Birch Society (search). Coors' mother, Holly, helped persuade Ronald Reagan to run for president. The brewer built a reputation for union-busting decades ago, replacing striking workers during a dispute in the 1970s.
Peter Coors, though, is considered moderate in some quarters.
Relatives were stunned when Coors in 1984 declared it was time to negotiate with union officials to end a nearly decade-long labor dispute.
"My uncle and my father said if you sit down with them, it will be a sign of weakness," Coors recalled. "I said it would be a sign of weakness for them, too, if they wanted to sit down and talk about it."
The company exceeded the workers' demands and the union disbanded.
During the mid-1970s, the brewer started requiring lie detector tests for employees, including questions about religious, sexual and political beliefs. Gays boycotted Coors beer.
Peter Coors took up their cause, visiting a gay bar to ask patrons why they were upset with the company. He claims responsibility for getting the company, then under his uncle, Bill Coors, to agree in 1978 to end the lie-detector tests, adopt an anti-discrimination policy and institute benefits for the partners of gay employees.
"We have benefits for common-law husbands and wives, and I don't see why we should discriminate against gay employees who have long-term, committed relationships," he said last week. "There aren't that many."
Michael Brewer, public policy director for the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center in Denver, said he does not believe the policies were simply a marketing ploy. "I've referred other businesses to Coors as a model," Brewer said.
Colorado Democratic Party chairman Chris Gates ridiculed the notion of Coors as a moderate. "Democrats are not going to let Peter get away with characterizing himself as Coors Light," Gates said.
Many of the 23,000 members of the Food and Commercial Workers (search) union in Denver are still boycotting Coors beer because of the union turmoil in the 1970s.
"Peter Coors is a Republican, and there are very few Republicans who support workers' rights," Colorado AFL-CIO president Steve Adams said. "The Coors company track record is not friendly to workers' rights."
Coors defended his company's reputation and said it will help him, not hurt him.
"Our company's values are our family's values. And our family's values are Colorado values," he said. He added: "Citizens of this state believe in hard work, they believe in having jobs."
Wealthy candidates from Democratic Sen. Jon Corzine of New Jersey to Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger of California have made the jump into politics with millions of their own money.
Political observers suggest Coors is an attractive candidate not just because of his wealth -- put at about $25 million -- but because he will be perceived as less conservative than Schaffer. That could be a big plus in November should he face someone like Salazar.
For his part, Schaffer has been railing against candidates with "the right genetics and a big enough checkbook."
Coors and Schaffer both oppose abortion without exception and both back President Bush's decisions in Iraq. Coors said he believes marriage is a union between a man and a woman, but he is not sure a gay marriage ban belongs in the Constitution, as backed by Bush.
Eric Sondermann, a nonpartisan political analyst based in Denver, said the challenge for Coors is to present himself as a Colorado legend, not as a rich businessman trying to jump to the head of the line.
"If he's just another businessman in a dark suit, I don't know if that resonates," Sondermann said.