Colorado made history and earned its progressive stripes last year by electing the state’s first openly gay and first Jewish governor, Jared Polis.
But in doing so, it bypassed three qualified women, two of them Democrats, Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne and former Secretary of State Cary Kennedy. Republican Attorney General Cynthia Coffman never got her gubernatorial campaign off the ground.
In 2020, history is on deck again. Colorado has never sent a woman to the U.S. Senate. There are at least a half dozen ways that could happen next year.
If Secretary of State Jena Griswold decides to get in the Democratic primary to take on incumbent Republican Cory Gardner next year, as she has said she might, she would be the seventh female Democrat in a 2020 primary field of 11 candidates, so far.
Three — state Sen. Angela Williams, Stephany Rose Spaulding and Lorena Garcia — would, in addition, be the first woman of color Colorado has sent to the U.S. Senate. Among the men, Dan Baer hopes to become Colorado’s first openly gay senator.
That’s a lot of landmarks for one ballot to bear.
“I think gender is going to play a huge part in this,” Williams told me.
But she’s more than a race and gender, she quickly added. She’s qualified, she says, including in ways others in the race can’t match.
Williams grew up on an 80-acre farm in rural Oklahoma, among the cows and vegetables. She’s operated an insurance business and provided a strong voice for small businesses and social justice at the state Capitol, where she’s represented lower-income communities of color and sponsored key climate change legislation. That’s quite a résumé.
On gender at the top of the ticket, it’s time for Colorado to decide, Williams told me.
“If we’re going to move forward and have all voices at the table, it’s past time for Colorado to send a female to the U.S. Senate,” she said.
But with so many solid choices, it could mathematically hurt the women in the race. The “woman” vote could get carved into so many blocs, and that could prove to be a difference for one of the four men now in the race to win the day.
My friend Michal Rosenoer helps train Democratic women to run for office and govern in a program called Emerge Colorado. And, boy howdy, has it paid off, though it hasn’t cracked the governing glass ceiling in this state. But it’s only a matter of time.
“Women across the country are tired of watching all-male rooms make decisions that impact our families and livelihoods,” Rosenoer said. “That led to an unprecedented number of women stepping forward to run over the past few years, and the record numbers of we have in office now. Now voters are starting to understand that women bring a unique set of lived experiences to the table, and America is better for it. In fact, 23 of the 40 seats Democrats picked up in 2018 were won by women. So women are not just running and winning — they are changing politics in America every day.”
She was on a roll.
“In Colorado, I think voters are hungry for the type of leadership that a woman senator could bring,” she said. “Women legislators are more responsive to constituents, value cooperation over hierarchical power and find ways to engineer solutions in situations where men have trouble finding common ground. Frankly, why wouldn’t we want to elect our first woman senator?”
Governing is now; history is still being drafted.
One of the most interesting choices in the primary race is Trish Zornio, who has been running, in essence, longer than any of the men or women.
Zornio is an outsider to politics who checks a lot of boxes for where her party is nationally yet brings a Colorado-moderate edge. A Superior resident and millennial, she’s a musician who’s the founder of House of Community Music Night on Boulder’s “eTown Hall,” plus a biomedical researcher at the University of Colorado. She also rock climbs.
Her fundraising is far from top tier, and her shot at making it to D.C. might depend on a bus ticket. Her odds are long, to be generous.
She’s completely undaunted. Jeanne Shaheen inspired her.
Zornio was in middle school in New Hampshire when Shaheen became the state’s first woman governor. Then, because Zornio was on her school’s Constitution team, she got to meet the governor.
Shaheen bypassed a fourth term for governor in 2002 but lost her bid for U.S. Senate to Republican John Sununu. She came back in 2008 to beat him by 7 percentage points to become New Hampshire’s first woman in the Senate.
In 2020, she and Zornio are both in the running.
Witnessing a barrier being broken gives young women a chance to dream a little bigger, Zornio thinks.
On the campaign trail she’s heard from young women glad to see someone like themselves running for the Senate, and a scientist, no less.
“I’ve heard from a dad how he drove his teenage daughter and her friend several hours so they could meet me and how on the car ride home it led to a conversation of women’s empowerment and how they can be scientists, politicians, anything they want,” Zornio said.
But for women to lead, enough voters have to follow.