INSIGHTS | House trailblazer Brianna Titone burns up the political spaces

It seems like no time ago that I didn’t give Brianna Titone much of a thought or much of a chance in Colorado politics.

I was mistaken. Her political star continues to ascend, so add Joey B to the list of doubters Titone has proven wrong.

The two-term state representative from Arvada is the 100-member legislature’s first and only transgender lawmaker. Four years ago, she seemed like the longest of long shots. I’d never heard of her when she jumped in the race in House District 27, a red district that looked hard to flip.

Titone has since moved from the back bench of the General Assembly to being a front-row policymaker.

The recognition has followed. On Tuesday she spoke to other Democrats from around the country on a panel titled, aptly in her case, “Running in a Red District” for the National Democratic Training Committee.

Last week, Titone was a panelist for the American Petroleum Institute’s discussion on workplace diversity and inclusion.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics doesn’t even count the number of LBGTQ+ employees among the roughly 97,000 people who work directly in oil and gas extraction nationwide. The workforce, though, was 80.6% white and just 14.9% female last year.

Titone said she speaks to a lot of companies about how to be more inclusive, but the problems and outcomes are predictable.

“There are a lot of really good people you want to hang on to,” she said. “By creating a space where they don’t feel welcome, you’re going to lose (them) accordingly. People want to be themselves. They want to come out. If they don’t feel safe coming out, they’re going to move on. If they come out and they don’t feel welcome, they’re going to move on.”

Titone, so far, is unopposed for a third term.

She surprisingly won her first term by edging a well-liked, well-qualified Republican, Vicki Pyne, in 2018 by just 439 votes out of nearly 50,000 cast. Two years later, in a rematch, Titone won by 1,892 votes out of close to 61,000.

“I had a really hard time fundraising because nobody wants to bet on the three-legged horse in the horse race, because that’s how they viewed me,” she said of her first race two years earlier, when her campaign raised $80,732. “They viewed me as someone who could never win …  And there were a lot of (Democrats) who donated to every other candidate, but then me, I got maybe 50 bucks.”

Last year, Titone raised $195,944 in campaign cash to Pyne’s $63,895.

She campaigned on policies, not her gender identity.

“I did not run on being a trans person,” she said to fellow Democrats. “I ran on being the person who wanted to do the work for the district. You have to say the same thing over and over again. You have to mean it. You have to believe it. You have to live it. And that’s how you convince people, with authenticity.”

Her legislative record bears that out. Titone co-sponsored legislation that removed panic (to learn or suspect a victim is gay or transgender) as a heat-of-passion defense in a criminal case. The bipartisan bill passed both chambers collectively 98-1.

Her name and growing influence are on many of the most consequential bills of the last two sessions: restructuring gas and special fuels taxes, putting surplus state property to good use, free menstrual hygiene products in schools, creation of a kidney disease task force and mandatory insurance coverage for an annual mental health exam, to name a few.

She didn’t start out that way. Her first session, Titone carried bills related to rental application fees and urban drainage control.

Before Titone came along, House District 27 had been red for a while. Lang Sias held it until he became the running mate for Walker Stapleton, the Republican nominee for governor in 2018. Two years earlier, Sias won the seat by 13 points, or 6,452 votes.

In 2014, Republican Libby Szabo won it by nearly 15 percentage points. The last Democrat to represent the district was Sara Gagliardi, who won by 1,500 votes in 2008, as Obama fever afflicted the state. She lost her reelection in 2010 to Szabo by 2,402 votes, after the fever broke.

Service is Titone’s thing. She joined the volunteer fire department when she was 16 and served for seven years. A native of New York state, she tried to join the FBI immediately after 9/11 but couldn’t get in.

“Politics was probably the last thing I ever thought about,” the 43-year-old said this week.

Carrie Hackenberger, the associate director of the American Petroleum Institute, who moderated the talk about inclusion last week, said Titone’s talk was “exactly” what leaders in the natural gas and oil industry needed to hear.

“We are deeply proud of the strides our industry has made in recent years with respect to diversity, equity and inclusion in the LGBTQ+ community and beyond, and we’re looking forward to continuing to build on that progress,” she said, adding, poignantly, “If the events of the past 18 months have taught us anything, it is that society has needed a fundamental reset, and this discussion acutely highlighted that reality.”