Will a #MeToo wave help elect a woman as Colorado governor?

Former Colorado State Treasurer and current Democratic gubernatorial candidate Cary Kennedy gestures after accepting her nomination for governor at the 2018 Colorado Democratic State Assembly at the 1STBANK Center in Broomfield on April 14. (Photo by Andy Colwell for Colorado Politics)

Cary Kennedy sees two waves potentially carrying her into the governor’s mansion in November: Not only a blue wave of support for Democrats, but also potentially a women’s wave born of frustration with President Donald Trump and the many sexual-harassment scandals that have plagued Congress and the Colorado legislature.

“I see women all over the state motivated and getting involved, getting engaged because they’re frustrated. They’re mad at the president. They want to see women treated better,” the former state treasurer told Colorado Politics. “They want to see equality, with women represented in leadership positions, and they’re engaging in the political process like I’ve never seen before.”

Kennedy is coming off a Democratic state assembly win in Broomfield on April 14 that saw her claim the top line on the June 26 primary ballot by a margin of 61.65 percent of the delegates to 32.85 percent for the presumed Democratic front-runner, U.S. Rep. Jared Polis.

Colorado has never had a women governor in its 142-year history. The closest it came was 20 years ago when former Democratic state treasurer and lieutenant governor Gail Schoettler lost to Republican Bill Owens by less than 8,000 votes.

Donna Lynne
Colorado Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne greets well-wishers as she heads to her seat to listen to term-limited Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper deliver his final State of the State address to a joint assembly Thursday, Jan. 11, 2018, in the State Capitol. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

Another woman candidate for governor this year is Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne, a Democrat hoping to replace her term-limited boss, Gov. John Hickenlooper. She sidestepped the state assembly successfully petitioned her way onto the ballot, the secretary of state announced April 20.

Lynne, a former executive with Kaiser Permanente, agrees with Kennedy that women are very politically active across the state right now.

“I’m happy that women are energized, but I think a lot of people are energized,” Lynne said. “Make sure that we have qualified people in the office, that we continue to build on the legacy of Gov. Hickenlooper and economic progress as well as some of the other progress that we’ve seen in this administration. Voters are energized, but also very mindful that a strong governor is really important given some of the challenges that we have in Washington and the fact that some of the things that we’ve gained in the last eight years are being eroded.”

On the Republican side, at the party’s April 14 state assembly, Colorado Attorney General Cynthia Coffman failed to get the requisite 30 percent of the delegates needed to get on the primary ballot.

Coffman did not go the petition route, meaning she is out of the race. But prior to the assembly result, she told Colorado Politics that she, too, saw a women’s wave coming in Colorado.

“The stories of sexual harassment and the fact that is getting attention makes some people think that having a women’s perspective on issues and on government might be a good thing,” Coffman told Colorado Politics last month. “There’s a sense now among women that we can talk about these things and not be considered either to be exaggerating or making up facts, because of the sheer number of us who have had (harassment) experiences.”

A CBS News national poll in January showed women overwhelmingly see a need to elect more women.

In the survey, 54 percent of women said it was very important to put more women candidates in political office, and another 28 percent said it was somewhat important. Among Democratic women, the “very important” group soared to 77 percent.

Even as the #MeToo anti-harassment campaign has grown nationally, numerous allegations of sexual misconduct from women lobbyists, legislative aides and even some lawmakers against male legislators in both parties have dominated the current session, with committees searching for answers and studies indicating the problem is even more widespread than what’s been reported.

Kennedy, who was surging in the race even before the state assembly after decisively winning preference polling during the Democratic caucuses last month, previously served as deputy mayor and chief financial officer under Denver Mayor Michael Hancock, who has
been embroiled in his own harassment scandal over text messages he sent to a female subordinate. Hancock has since apologized.

“[Harassment] isn’t just in the Capitol and in politics, but it’s throughout our culture, and I’m proud that women are raising this issue strongly and I’m pleased to see things are changing,” Kennedy said. “With respect to Mayor Hancock, I know that he made a public apology and it was a very painful experience I think for both of them. She has accepted his apology, but his behavior was inappropriate.”

Hancock admits to sending inappropriate text messages to a Denver Police detective when she was serving on the mayor’s security detail in 2011 and 2012. Earlier this month the Denver City Council declined to open a new investigation into Hancock’s behavior.

Kennedy and other political observers say the #MeToo, #StandUp and Women’s March movements are bound to impact the current campaign to replace Hickenlooper and other key national races.

A record number of women have entered U.S. House races this year, shattering the previous record in 2012, but that was also a Republican and anti-Obama wave year that saw Kennedy ousted as treasurer by current treasurer and GOP gubernatorial front-runner Walker Stapleton.

“Quite frankly it’s surprising that a forward-looking state like Colorado hasn’t had a woman governor,” Kennedy said. “We’ve been a state for over 140 years, and there is momentum here in Colorado and throughout the country to have women equally represented in positions of leadership, both in the public sector and in the private sector.”

Morgan Carroll, the current Colorado Democratic Party chairwoman and former state senate president who was trounced by U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman in a congressional race two years ago, told Colorado Politics the women’s wave has been building ever since 2016.

“This is a grass-roots, women-driven movement that gets stronger with every anti-woman policy or decision that we see from Republicans in our state or in Washington, D.C.,” Carroll said. “Trump’s election was the last straw for American women who have been upset with the GOP’s backwards thinking on choice, equal pay, paid family leave, gun safety, and other issues.

“Meanwhile in Colorado, Republicans in the state senate have refused to do anything to hold GOP sexual harassers accountable,” she added. “Women across the country are rightly sick and tired of what we’ve been seeing from the GOP, and we’re organizing to make a change in 2018.”

Michal Rosenoer (Photo courtesy of Emerge Colorado)

Emerge Colorado Executive Director Michal Rosenoer, whose left-leaning organization recruits and prepares women to run for office, told Colorado Politics that “2018 is shaping up to be an incredible year for women, both as voters and candidates.”

Some wondered if an anti-Trump backlash might energize women in 2016 – a trend that never materialized and in fact was the opposite case among white women – and Rosenoer says she believes some women voters may have been complacent during the Obama administration.

“I do think that activism loves a clear and obvious enemy and in that respect Trump has motivated a massive amount of women, both white and women of color, to get involved in politics in a more real way,” Rosenoer told Colorado Politics.

“It’s possible many of us got complacent under an Obama administration when we were talking about the difference between fine and good, and now we’re talking about the difference between life and death for some families and people of color and immigrants who are looking at deportation and those kinds of shifts in priorities,” she added.

Rosenoer points to Emerge-backed  candidates such as Democrats Jessie Danielson, Faith Winter, Tammy Story and Rebecca Cranston – all running in key Colorado state senate districts Dems will need to win to retake the majority.

Joni Inman — executive director of the right-leaning Colorado Women’s Alliance, which does not recruit candidates but is instead a more issues-oriented group — says Colorado has a history of strong female voter turnout that is not necessarily linked to current events.

“I do believe women have gotten more involved in political discussions over the past few years than ever before, but Colorado female voters have always been very strong,” Inman said. “In the last presidential election in 2016 there were approximately 3 million registered voters in Colorado and, of those, 1.9 million were women. So, two-thirds of the voting public in Colorado is female. That’s not a new phenomenon.”

Of those Colorado women voters, nearly 1.5 million voted in 2016 (nearly 150,000 more than men), and Democrat Hillary Clinton wound up winning the state by a 4.9 percentage points.

Inman said women are not that focused on sexual harassment in the upcoming 2018 election.

“I don’t think that the #MeToo movement is generating more interest in politics,” Inman said. “I think a number of things that have happened over the last couple of years have encouraged women to speak out more vocally than perhaps they have in the past.”

She says surveys of women – Republicans, Democrats and Independents — conducted by her group indicate women are more focused on other issues.

“In fact, sexual harassment comes out fairly low when asked to identify the top issues,” Inman said. “The top issues in Colorado that women are really deeply interested in are the cost of healthcare, public education, the cost of housing, immigration issues, growth, transportation. Sexual harassment showed up, but a very low percentage would name that as a top concern in Colorado.”