Denver Post: Women Quietly Emerging from the Political Shadows in Colorado

There’s a not-so-subtle difference in the Democratic primary ballots across Colorado this year. Look closely. There are women there at the top of the ticket.

Hot damn.

In its 142-year history, the state has never elected a woman to be governor or to serve in the U.S. Senate, and Denver never has had a woman mayor. It’s pathetic.

All that could change, however, because while most of us have been understandably distracted by the daily outrages in Washington, a group of visionary political organizers has been busy cultivating women candidates as an alternative to the creaky and dysfunctional status quo.

“Building a bench is really important,” said Michal Rosenoer, executive director of Emerge Colorado. “We are dedicated to ensuring the development of a great slate of Democratic women candidates at the city, county and state levels, so we have wonderful progressive candidates ready to run for higher office.”

At this point, 27 Emerge alumni are on the 2018 ballot, including Jena Griswold, who is running for Colorado Secretary of State. That’s up from nine in 2016 when eight of them won their elections.

Rep. Dafna Michaelson Jenet, who was elected to the Colorado Assembly from House District 30 in 2016, credits Emerge with teaching her the skills she needed to run and providing her with a support network that was critical to her success.

“Even at the very beginning, I talked to people at Emerge about which office to run for so that I could make the impact I wanted,” Jenet said. “They helped me identify the right path to take.”

You see, for her this was hardly a vanity project. She had a mission. Jenet’s son had struggled with behavior problems in school. He’s on the autism spectrum, but because he is highly intelligent, he could not get the attention he needed. At one point, he even attempted suicide.

Through this experience, she witnessed first-hand the many factors that contribute to the school-to-prison pipeline and she wanted to create effective policies to address them and make sure children get the help they need to be productive members of the community.

“I learned that what I wanted to accomplish had to happen at the state level,” Jenet said, so she decided to run for the legislature.

She completed Emerge’s six-month training program, learning how to run a campaign, to raise money, to evaluate public policy, and to become a more confident and effective public speaker.

She also “emerged” with a group of powerful women to call when she had questions, problems or just moments of doubt.

“I think I could have done it on my own, but it would have been much harder and far more isolating,” Jenet said. “Running for office is grueling and exhausting, so it’s really important to have that community to call upon when you need to remind yourself why you’re doing this.”

Rosenoer said Emerge is the counterpoint to the old boys club, except that it’s not so exclusive.

“Forty percent of Emerge Colorado alumni are women of color,” she said. “Our goal is more representative government, not just a more feminist perspective.”

There’s no issue screen at Emerge, Rosenoer said. The candidates have their own political agendas. But with more women in the leadership pipeline, bills on such things as equal pay, support for public education and reproductive health care will have a better chance of avoiding the kill committees.

Emerge alumni also are trained to recruit and nurture other women to run for public office.

“Eleven years ago when I met (Rep.) Faith Winter (former executive director of Emerge Colorado), she told me that typically a woman has to be asked seven times before she decides to run for office,” Jenet said. “She said not to wait to be asked, to always be the one to ask other women to run.”

That conversation came back to haunt her.

A few years ago, Jenet’s husband was making crepes for breakfast one Sunday morning and they ran out of milk, so she made a quick trip to the store. She ran into a city council member who recognized her and said, “I need you to run for office.”

She was gob-smacked.

“There I was in the checkout line in my pajamas and I suddenly realized, ‘Oh no, I’ve waited to be asked,’ ” she said. “I couldn’t believe it.”

She signed up for Emerge.

The rest is her story.

Diane Carman is a Denver communications consultant and a regular columnist for The Denver Post.