All Terrance Carroll ever wanted was a chance. After escaping the mean streets of Washington, D.C., and heading west as a young man, he overcame childhood trauma to ascend to the upper echelons of Colorado politics. Now, as the first black speaker of the House, Carroll's goal is to give all Coloradans something he had to fight for—the opportunity to succeed.
Pandemonium ensues. The unknown politician, a Democrat at that, had just hefted the Bible at Tancredo—a man with an answer for everything—and smacked him in the mouth. Afterward, even Tancredo recognized the momentary defeat, offering his hand to Carroll and saying, "You got me on that one."
Three years later, on the morning of January 7, 2009, the suspender-clad Carroll sits in his office, practicing his upcoming speech to the Colorado House of Representatives. A steady flow of staffers, reporters, and politicians keeps interrupting him with congratulations. Vivian Stovall, Carroll's adopted godmother—the political activist who encouraged him to run for office—has been by, as has former Mayor Wellington Webb and his wife, Wilma, a onetime state rep.
State Senator Peter Groff also pops in with congratulations. The two men have a close, brotherly relationship; Carroll took over Groff's seat when Groff moved up to the Senate, and the two banter regularly about who's the better dresser—an honor Carroll refuses to concede to his friend—and have an ongoing contest to see who can fit more hip-hop and R&B lyrics into their respective legislative addresses. Today, the pair will make American history, as snow-white Colorado becomes the first state to have black men leading both houses of its legislature—Carroll as speaker of the House, Groff as president of the Senate.
Becoming speaker was not Carroll's original plan, at least not so soon. Heading into the 2009 session, term limits were forcing out Speaker Andrew Romanoff and House Majority Leader Alice Madden, and the Democrats needed fresh leadership. The odds-on favorite to land the post was Bernie Buescher, a popular representative from Grand Junction who'd help give the Democrats some senior Western Slope representation. Carroll, by then the assistant majority leader, was expected to ascend to the role of house majority leader—a less public role, befitting his shy personality. The house majority leader only needs to run the Democratic caucus, while the speaker must corral both parties and manage the voluminous day-to-day operations of the House. But well into election night, after it became clear that Buescher didn't have the votes, Carroll jumped into the race, winning the post two days later.
The new speaker's office just outside the House chambers is only half decorated, due to Romanoff's recent departure. A portrait of Martin Luther King Jr. adorns one wall, and behind Carroll's desk hangs a macramé version of Shephard Fairey's now-iconic Barack Obama "Hope" poster. Carroll is teasing his staff—a favorite pastime—that he's going to hang a print of the Francisco Goya painting "Saturn Devouring One of His Sons." It's dark and disturbing, depicting a demented Roman god who, unwilling to give up his power, tears apart and eats his heir. "I'd worry about the message I'd be sending," he says with a giggle. Nobody in the room knows the painting, which isn't surprising—Carroll has the kind of hyper-educated mind that leaves people around him Googling his many references. He can hold forth on subjects such as St. Thomas Aquinas on the soul and Dr. King on opportunity, and he frequently sprinkles his conversations with the words of great men who came before him.
Back in his office, Carroll returns to his speech, slowly reading his remarks aloud. It's hopeful but serious, acknowledging Colorado's $600 million budget shortfall and advocating for high-paying jobs, support for struggling families, and improved education. He's more collected than he was three years ago at the immigration panel; his voice is steadier, though not as deep as you'd expect from his strong-shouldered build, which is a little rounder than usual from a grueling fall campaign that kept him from working out as much as he'd like. For the big day, the always-dapper Carroll is sporting a custom-made Tom James charcoal pinstriped suit, complete with a special inside pocket to hold his omnipresent BlackBerry; a blue and white shirt; and a white and silver floral tie with a matching pocket square. His hair is cropped close, his goatee neatly trimmed.
The House chamber is packed with representatives, family members, staffers, media, and citizens who've come to watch the first day of the 67th Colorado General Assembly. The ceremony is part civic lesson, part high school graduation, and Carroll is the valedictorian calling for reconciliation and bipartisanship. "The 65 of you in this room elected to the 67th General Assembly come from many different walks of life," he says. "We have folks from big cities and small towns, the Eastern Plains and the Western Slope, blacks, whites, Hispanics, and Pacific Islanders.... A patchwork of unique and wonderful biographies that together make Colorado, like America, different and more magnificent than other societies in history. But that patchwork alone does not make this country great. What makes America great is that the fabric of our community is sewn together by a single thread. That thread is called opportunity."
He speaks of the need for jobs, of economic help for families struggling to make their mortgage payments, and for better public education. He hammers again and again on the theme of opportunity, quoting Thomas Jefferson and Dr. King, before acknowledging the portrait etched in the stained-glass window above him: a black man wearing the long jacket and boots of a frontier businessman. After the Civil War, Barney Ford became a wealthy gold prospector, hotelier, and business owner, buying buildings along Blake Street and building a home in Breckenridge. He also reached out to others, pushing for education for freed slaves who came to Colorado, and holding up the territory's bid for statehood until blacks were ensured the right to vote. "Born a slave in Virginia, Ford escaped servitude by way of the Underground Railroad when he was still a young man," Carroll tells the crowd. "Once in Colorado, he capitalized on the opportunities provided to him by the New West.... Barney Ford saw that Colorado was a place where opportunity knew no bounds, a place where hard work, a willingness to take a risk, and personal sacrifice can lead to a better life. The task before us is to ensure that opportunity is available to this generation of Coloradans and the next. And while the path to prosperity will be challenging, and at times fraught with controversy, our journey must be successful."