Why Is this Woman Smiling?

She's been heckled, threatened, and placed on Sarah Palin's hit list. Yet Democratic Congresswoman Betsy Markey is raking in campaign money and still thinks she can hold the traditionally conservative 4th District come November.

May 2010

Over dinner and beers in the basement of Fort Collins' Crown Pub, four blocks from their home, Markey and her husband are considering what life would be like if she were representing a solidly Democratic constituency.

"It seems like it'd be so boring to be in one of those safe districts, like Jared Polis or Diana DeGette," Jim Kelly, Markey's husband, says, ticking off representatives from neighboring Democratic districts in Boulder and Denver. "How uninteresting would life be without the excitement?" Markey laughs. "I'd like to find out."

"Boooooring," says Kelly, who, at 55, is athletically built with shaggy, salt-and-pepper hair, and is ostensibly the more laid-back of the duo.

That Markey is a congresswoman at all, let alone one in a triple-underlined, bold-faced district, is something of a remarkable story in and of itself. Longtime friends and party allies express their pride at her ascent to her now-prominent position, but her candidacy surprised them—even though she was no stranger to politics and the particulars of the Beltway. Markey grew up in a D.C. suburb across the Potomac River in Virginia, worked in Washington after graduating from the University of Florida, spent time leading the Larimer County Democrats in Fort Collins, and then spent nearly two years as the northeast regional director for then-Senator Ken Salazar, for whom she managed offices and was a sort of Johnny-on-the-spot to resolve constituent issues. In those jobs, she'd always seemed more interested in being the invisible hand than the public face, the operator whose political aspirations ended where the stage began. "Betsy was always about helping," Waak says. "When she talked about what politicians could do for their constituents, she really meant it. There was something very altruistic about her, but not in a silly way."

Markey's worldview was shaped by being the sixth of seven children born to Irish-Catholic parents. Her father was a Democrat; her mother, a Republican. "I took the best parts from both of them," Markey says. "Mom was the one in the family who took care of the finances, to the point that Dad would complain that she never gave him enough lunch money." She laughs. "Mom was concerned about not spending above your means. Dad dropped out of high school and got his GED, so he was the one who wanted to make sure everyone had an equal opportunity and that no one was forgotten."

After enrolling at the University of Florida as a political science major in 1974, she became a Democrat. "It was very hard for [my mother]," Markey remembers, citing the abortion conflicts between the Catholic Church and her party as one of the primary debates she and her mother had. It was a spiritual, philosophical issue she was still trying to work out when she graduated in 1978. Roe v. Wade had been settled five years earlier, and Markey had gone to work as a low-level staffer for a Democratic congressman. Even now, with the issue resolved in her mind—"It's a decision between a woman, her family, and her faith"—the rift between her values and her church's values still bothers her. "I was brought up Catholic, so it was in my DNA, but I was very angry with my church because I agreed with almost everything— immigration, social justice. But some of the stances were too much for me," she admits. "I've come to the conclusion that my relationship with the church is like the one that anyone has with their parents. Sometimes you're mad at them, and you might not always agree with them, but they're still your parents, and you're always going to love them. The Catholic Church is still home to me."

She points to her husband. "Jim went the other way."

"No longer Catholic," he says.

Markey worked for six years after college—first in congressional offices, then as an aide to a vice president at American University (where she earned a master's in public administration), and finally at the departments of State and Treasury—then married Kelly in 1984. Less than a year later, she was promoted and took over the computer security, policy, and training wing at the State Department, a high-level job that took her around the world.

Instead of reveling in her career, though, Markey found herself wanting to be home with her new family. The tipping point came during a weeklong trip to East Berlin in 1987. "I kept calling home so I could talk to [my first daughter] Katie, but she was always sleeping," says Markey, who was pregnant with her second child. "She's only one year old, and I'm begging Jim to put the phone next to her so I can hear her breathing. It was a terrible feeling." When she left East Berlin, her phone charges exceeded her room bill. "I looked at myself and said, 'I can't do this anymore.' "

Markey quit her job a few months later. Kelly had started his own boutique technology firm, Syscom Services, an early e-mail provider for D.C. nonprofits. Finance, however, was not Kelly's strong suit: His filing system consisted of pieces of paper stored in brown bags. "He wasn't making money because he was making a sale and just throwing it into the bags," Markey remembers. "I got the bags, and my mom and I poured everything out onto the dinner table. From then on, I handled the finances."

By 1995, Markey had two more children, Erin and Al. "Things got to a point with Syscom where things could run well without us being there all the time," Kelly says. The two sold part of their company and decided to move "to a state with good schools, a place where we could live one of those small-town idyllic lives," Kelly says. (The couple's net worth today, according to Kelly, is less than $5 million.) The family came to Colorado at the suggestion of Markey's oldest sister, who lived in Denver. "We wound up driving all over, and then we came to Fort Collins," Markey says. "We saw this guy taking groceries from his car. There were toys all over his lawn, so we figured we'd go and ask him what the town was like for kids. He invited us in for tea, and we were sold."

Likewise, after a short time, Fort Collins was sold on Markey. Two years after they'd arrived in town, she and Kelly bought a faltering sandwich joint in the city's Old Town District and named it Huckleberry's. Recast as a coffee-and-ice-cream hangout, the shop quickly turned a profit.

It was the beginning of Retail Politics 101 for Markey. She started a buy-10-coffees-get-one-free promotion and kept the cards under the cash register so she'd have to remember her customers' names. Markey gave her children after-school tutorials in small-business economics. One day, she caught then 10-year-old Erin lecturing a Huckleberry's customer on the inefficiencies of the homemade fudge-making business, citing the costs of infrastructure, ingredients, and labor.

After the store closed for the night, Markey would invite friends over and "we'd talk about taxes and health care," she remembers. "They were just good, regular kitchen-table discussions."

One friend suggested that Markey volunteer at the Food Bank for Larimer County, which she did. That led to a position as the Food Bank's chairwoman of the board, where she helped raise $850,000 in capital campaign for a building expansion. Just as she'd done in Washington, Markey obliterated the learning curve. She started a group for Democratic business owners, then in 2001 was named chairwoman of the Larimer County Democratic Party and helped register thousands of new voters. In 2004, Colorado elected the state's Democratic attorney general, Ken Salazar, as its junior U.S. senator. Two months later, Markey was working for him. "Every step I was taking in life was leading me" toward Congress, she says. "The whole time, I was learning about finance, how to meet people, and how to take care of problems. Somewhere along the way, all of that became who I was."

Markey's decision to step into the national spotlight is quintessentially American in its idealism and, some would say, in its naïveté: "I just thought I could help people," she says today. In 2007, Salazar encouraged his protégé to challenge the incumbent. "Musgrave didn't seem to care" about voters, Kelly says. "Betsy had spent so much of her life working one-on-one with people. It was her forte."

Salazar called Pat Waak and told her that he knew someone who could beat Musgrave. "I'm like, 'Betsy Markey?' " Waak says today. "It's not that she wasn't well-qualified, but you look to the usual suspects: the people who lost before, then people in state politics who might want a chance. I wouldn't have thought about Betsy."

Waak had a conversation with Markey and told her the Democratic field was getting crowded. At the time, three candidates—including former state Representative Angie Paccione, a former Stanford University basketball player who'd been the House Majority Caucus Chair—were expected to run in the Democratic primary. The state Democrats couldn't back anyone until after the primary race. "I was fine with that," Markey says. "I was going to show them that I was someone who needed to be taken seriously."

One of her first campaign visits was at a picnic in Yuma County, southeast of Fort Collins. Waak, who arrived before anyone else, was sitting at a table when, as she remembers, "here comes Betsy, dressed like a little cowgirl." Markey shook hands all afternoon and had remembered nearly everyone's first name by nightfall.

"She just killed them," Waak says. "Right then, I knew this was it."