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.
Colorado's history-making black legislators—Carroll and Groff—have the unenviable challenge of running the state during unusually lean times. "On the one hand, they were elected to great posts with great leadership skills," says Pat Waak, the chair of Colorado's Democratic party. "But their hands are tied because we don't have the resources to do everything they want to do." Carroll strongly believes that the linchpin of much-needed job creation will be education. "We need to expand the circle of opportunity," he says, paraphrasing Dr. King. "The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at a time of challenge and controversy."
The task ahead will require cooperation with Republicans, a skill Carroll has honed as a representative willing to engage in thoughtful debate. "Terrance is cool-headed and pragmatic," Groff says. "He's not as partisan, and that makes him able to solve problems." Rob Witwer, a Republican who served with Carroll in the House for four years, says, "Terrance has enormous respect on both sides of the aisle. Even when you have disagreements on policy, he's always a gentleman and willing to give you a hearing."
Carroll generally votes with his party but is willing to stray—he ticked off Planned Parenthood in 2003 by supporting parental-notification laws for teenage abortions, and he later irritated the teachers' union by helping Governor Owens and the Republicans pass legislation supporting charter schools. "Terrance puts kids ahead of special interests," Witwer says. "He understands, as Thomas Jefferson said, that 'education is the great equalizer.' He's lived that principle—education allowed him to ascend to the level he's achieved."
Becoming speaker in 2009, though, is a thankless job. He'll be forced to cut back programs he believes in, such as education and health insurance, to help the state make up its budget shortage. Only days into the session, Republicans began stonewalling the Democratic bill dubbed FASTER (since approved) that is designed to help fix Colorado's decaying transportation infrastructure. And while Carroll talks about creating new jobs and helping struggling families, there isn't much funding to go around.
Much of Carroll's early tenure will likely involve finding ways to tactfully deliver bad news. A couple of days before he's sworn in as speaker, he meets with a group of senior citizens who are lobbying for more money to help the elderly. He listens thoughtfully, the pain registering on his face when he hears that 40 percent of seniors live below the poverty line. "I'm sympathetic to the issue," he says. "But I'm in a situation that I can't make any promises. Things are bad, but I like to remain optimistic. We need to expand the circle of opportunity in this state. And in the next two years, we have a lot of work to do."
Two weeks after his swearing-in, Carroll is in a more comfortable, intimate environment: The First Baptist Church on Grant Street is hosting about seven dozen people for an 11 a.m. service. MLK Day is tomorrow, and though he's no longer a full-time minister, Carroll preaches annually on this day to honor his hero. The church is a touchstone in his life, and he finds it refreshes his spirit and faith to periodically return and engage the flock.
January has been bittersweet for Carroll. Two days after this service, Barack Obama will become the nation's first black president, nearly 41 years after Dr. King's assassination. Carroll has also reached new heights and is now widely seen as a rising star in the Democratic party; if he doesn't go onto further elected office in Colorado, he may be snatched up by the Obama administration for his political and legal talents. And yet Inauguration Day is also a hard one for Carroll, because it's the seventh anniversary of his mother's death. Every year, January 20th reminds him of where he came from and all he's thankful for, and so he's not going back to Washington, D.C., for the inauguration. It's simply too hard for him to be in that city on that day.
Carroll looks comfortable in the pulpit. Taking the podium in his hands, he smoothly riffs off the first reading from the book of Nehemiah. "Nehemiah was a smart guy. He had the best of everything—a nice chariot, a nice home, he went to all the best parties," Carroll says. "He was in the top rungs of the Persian government, but he knew that [Jerusalem] wasn't safe for the Jews. It was like Anacostia, where I grew up."
The worshippers listen attentively to the young, black preacher bringing the Old Testament to life. "And so Nehemiah goes to the king, and says, 'I need to go see about my people.' He gives up his comfort to go see about others," Carroll says. "Nehemiah and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. were very similar. Dr. King came from a great preaching family, the third generation to go to Morehouse."
Carroll smiles. "I'm not going to say anything about Morehouse—it speaks for itself." The crowd laughs, and he continues, now fully at ease. "Dr. King was a very approachable speaker. He was scholarly, but able to talk to the regular folk in a common language. He was a great preacher. But more important, he always wanted to know, 'What can we do for other people?' "
Patrick Doyle is an associate editor of 5280. E-mail him at email@example.com.