Feature

The Contender

Could state Senator Morgan Carroll become Colorado’s first female governor?

October 2012

5280.com Exclusive: Learn more about Colorado's female politicians here.

The doorbell is broken so the volunteer taps on the metal door of state Senator Morgan Carroll’s home in eastern Aurora. “Come on in,” Carroll hollers. Standing atop the entryway stairs, she is dressed, as she often is, like a grape, wearing a purple campaign shirt, and carrying a matching tote and pen. The 5-foot-9-inch redheaded congresswoman towers over the volunteer, a Republican rancher who has driven two hours to spend the afternoon campaigning for Carroll—a Democrat, environment-lover, and social progressive who’s rarely seen an animal she doesn’t want to bring home. They shouldn’t get along, yet here they are, yakking about Aurora’s stance on oil fracking.

The strangeness of this mash-up is enhanced by the surrounding decor, an archive of Carroll’s travels. On one wall is a menorah, on another hangs a Native American picture. A ristra strand of dried peppers dangles in the kitchen, where ivy leaves are stenciled along the ceiling, and actual plants are scattered throughout the house. Under one umbrella plant, a cat (Carroll has four) peeks out; he’s a gray longhair named Zapata, after the Mexican revolutionary.

Carroll is explaining the afternoon’s plan—door-to-door canvassing in a nearby neighborhood to earn votes for her re-election bid this fall—when a second volunteer knocks on the door. She’s here primarily because of the senator’s support for pro-midwife legislation, and as she talks to Carroll about giving birth at home, her hands flutter and her eyes become teary. “I can’t vote for you”—she lives in Arvada—“so I figure this is the next best thing.” Carroll, also misty-eyed, listens with an empathetic head-tilt and soothing affirmations before handing over a clipboard and a stack of newsletters.

Now in her fourth year as state senator, the 40-year-old is already Aurora’s most senior legislator and the senate majority caucus chair, making her one of the most powerful women in Colorado. That lofty status, however, isn’t guaranteed beyond November. Thanks to reapportioning, Carroll’s territory now stretches beyond Aurora to include a hefty chunk of rural Arapahoe County. She spends a significant part of her campaigning time along the Plains in an attempt to meet voters who’ve never heard of her; the rest she allots to hitting neighborhoods she’s served since 2005 as a representative or senator. Today, she’ll work a middle-class neighborhood near the old Buckley Air Force Base, targeting voters who match her favorite color—purple. These are the citizens so key to winning Colorado elections: independents, Democrats who vote infrequently, and the occasional Republican who might be persuaded to swing left.

Properly outfitted, the crew splits up to cover more ground. Carroll and the Republican climb into her Nissan Sentra emblazoned with a bumper sticker: “Well-behaved women rarely make history.” She clears papers and maps and empty water bottles off the seat, mumbling about campaign debris while also apologizing for the beat-up 10-year-old car. Carroll makes $30,000 as a state senator and augments her salary by working as an attorney. All told, it’s enough to cover her mortgage and student loans, but a new car will have to wait.

On this weekday afternoon, no one answers the door at many of the houses, and Carroll leaves each of them a personal note (in purple ink). A few blocks into her trek, she hears a yell. It’s a young woman, shuffling toward her in house slippers and waving a newsletter. Carroll stops to give her campaign spiel, which she usually forms as a simple question: I’m your state senator; is there anything you’d like me to work on?

The woman breathlessly launches into her family’s troubles. The house is near foreclosure. Gulp. There’s confusion with Medicare and Medicaid for her mom. Gulp. There aren’t enough senior services. Gulp. Carroll listens, scribbles a few notes on her pad, and starts doling out advice. Call this hotline. Contact this department. I’ll look up that statute for you. You’ll hear from me soon. She spends almost 40 hours each week helping her constituents with seemingly mundane—and personal—issues like this, and by the end of their conversation, Carroll has adopted yet another list of someone else’s problems as her own.

Carroll keeps moving as the temperature climbs toward 90 degrees. She arrives at a two-story, gray-blue house—much like her own home—where she’s expecting to encounter an unaffiliated voter; instead, a registered Republican answers the door. The sweltering temperature outside reflects how furious he is about Democrats. They’re stealing my money. All they want to do is take, take, take. He hates having to wear a helmet on a motorcycle. He loves TABOR. As he rails, sweat drips off his silver hair—so uniformly slicked back you can track the comb lines—and soaks into his gray T-shirt. He punctuates his antiliberal rant by spitting out, “That Nancy Pelosi is a bitch.”

 

Though enraged and politically incorrect sentiments such as these might not reflect it, the West has historically led the nation in advancing women’s rights. By the time East Coast suffragettes, in their white dresses and black boots, finally marched to the voting booths in 1920, women in Colorado had been voting legally for 27 years. Today, women fill about 40 percent of Colorado’s state legislative seats, giving us more gender parity at the state Capitol than in any other state in the nation.

Unfortunately, the momentum stops there. Colorado has no women in statewide positions such as governor or secretary of state. (The last woman to run for governor, Gail Schoettler, lost to Bill Owens by fewer than 8,000 votes in 1998.) Diana DeGette is the only female to represent Colorado in Washington, D.C., just one of four women from the Centennial State to have ever made the trip to the nation’s Capitol. “Colorado and Denver have been good about electing women and getting women the right to vote early,” says Chaer Robert, director of the Denver Women’s Commission, a city government organization that supports women’s rights. “It’s not that we don’t elect women. To me, the glass ceiling is the division between the legislative branch and the executive branch. We’ve had women city council members elected since the mid-’70s. They’ve been the majority of [Denver] city council members in recent years, but none of them has won mayor. The same goes for governor.”

Morgan Carroll is the latest, most likely potential candidate to try to punch a hole in that ceiling. If Carroll, who has never lost an election, wins again next month and Democrats maintain control of the Senate, she’s considered a strong contender for the position of senate majority leader. (Colorado has had only one female senate majority leader, Norma Anderson, in 2003–04.) If that happens, Carroll would have her hands in every piece of legislation the Democrats introduce next session, which would arguably make her the most powerful female legislator in Colorado history.

“It’s good to be majority leader,” says Carroll about her prospects. “This [would] put me in a position to take on some of the things that I personally care about, like reading all the bills, like the balance of power between lobbyists and legislators, like keeping the focus on policy.” She’d also attract statewide attention and whatever political opportunities that brings. “Considering the number of women that we’ve had [in Congress], women have been largely underrepresented in leadership,” Carroll says. “I think that’s changing.”

The question is, how quickly? Just last April 27, Carroll was fighting not just for her own turf but also for the rights of women everywhere. This was the day legislators discussed Senate Memorial 3, a mostly symbolic measure that urges Congress to rule that insurance plans may use moral and religious reasons to deny contraception coverage. (The national provision, also known as the Blunt Amendment, failed to pass in the U.S. Senate a month earlier.) Senate Memorial 3 was Colorado’s late-to-the-game moment in what critics have called the “War on Women.”

In her purple pantsuit and billowy scarf, Carroll takes the podium. “This measure is absurd and unworkable,” she says, rolling the fingers on her right hand to some internal rhythm while she speaks. “Do we want a system in place to track the moral and religious beliefs of every American?” She notes that birth control has become commonplace in 2012 and wonders aloud why no one seems to be denying health-care services to men on religious or moral grounds.

“Why a war on women?” she asks. “This deals with maternity care for pregnancy that obviously affects women. This affects services, for example, for endometriosis for conception, which affects women. For polycystic ovarian syndrome, which affects women. For menorrhea, which affects women. For premenstrual syndrome, which affects women. For treatment of hormone imbalances that affect women. Tubal ligations, for women. Hysterectomies, for women. Termination of ectopic pregnancy that can be fatal to the mother, which applies to women. In vitro fertilization for women. For starters, this is why so many women feel this is an assault.”

As she concludes, a group of female legislators unfurls a banner spanning the width of the chamber. It’s covered with stop signs that mark each instance in which a woman could be denied services if a Senate Memorial 3–type law were to pass. A few incensed Republicans immediately demand that the prop be removed, and pandemonium ensues. Although her banner is ultimately taken away, Carroll has made her point. Put to a vote, Senate Memorial 3 fails. For the moment, anyway, Colorado’s political war on women has ended.

 

Carroll’s finely tuned sense of social justice blossomed early. One day in the 1970s, she brought a message home from her Boulder elementary school: “Mom, Ms. Becky might want to talk to you.” Most parents know the dread that accompanies such a statement, and Carroll’s mother, Rebecca Bradley, was no different. She coaxed the tale out of her too-tall, red-haired daughter. Carroll had noticed that whenever her teacher—Ms. Becky—would yell at the boys about misbehaving, she always singled out Patrick. OK, Bradley thought, where is this going? The trouble, her five-year-old daughter explained, was that Patrick was the only black boy in the class, and it wasn’t right to single him out. She told Ms. Becky to stop. When Bradley spoke to Ms. Becky at the school, she mentioned the incident because she wanted to hear the teacher’s side of the story. The mortified teacher apologized, saying, “I had no idea I was doing that.”

Carroll was born on November 24, 1971, and spent much of her childhood around adults, including long hours at her parents’ disability law practice, which begins to explain her early sense of activism. As soon as she learned the alphabet, Carroll was labeling and filing the office’s case folders. She drank “big people” coffee and sat in on client meetings.

To Bradley, her daughter always was one of those kids who seemed to feel almost too much. She was almost too curious. What else could she be? Carroll saw the people who visited the office: burn patients, wrongful-death cases, grieving parents, medical-malpractice victims. “From childhood, I began plugging into a lot of pain that people have,” Carroll says. “So much of it didn’t have to be that way. There was so much that actually seemed preventable.” From a young age, attorneys were her heroes, and she traded her Barbie dolls for social causes.

Carroll’s parents were content to be role models, just not in the way most people would expect. Bradley was more likely to send her daughter to a school bake sale with a box of Entenmann’s than make the cookies herself. She cussed in front of her two kids—Carroll has one older brother—answered questions about sex as if the kids were adults, and included them in her own causes, such as the Boulder Action for Soviet Jewry to help refuseniks (Jews who were hoping to emigrate from the Soviet Union). On family vacations, Bradley would let Carroll and her brother take a harmless sip of tequila, climb a mountain in Bolivia, or parasail. “To my kids, I’m always a lawyer first before being a parent,” Bradley says. “Kids are fun things to play with, but when it’s work time, give them to the caregivers. I believe kids learn more by way of example than [through] lectures and phony absolute rules.”

The fatherly presence of Carroll’s dad, John Carroll, was just as ephemeral. A longtime sufferer of Parkinson’s disease, he was a state legislator, a full-time attorney, and had four kids from another marriage. After he and Bradley went through a nasty divorce when Carroll was 16, the teenager started to drift. Rather than attend college after graduating from high school, as was expected of her, she picked up a minimum-wage job without insurance—and then another because she couldn’t pay bills. She was working constantly, barely above the poverty line, when a case of strep throat sent her to the hospital. She was released a few days later, 19 years old, strapped with massive hospital bills, broke—and broken.

She kept toiling at the low-paying jobs, working at places including a video store and a gas station, because she loved interacting with people. She met everyone from strippers to executives, witnessed the joy of kids’ birthday parties and the trauma of disgruntled family interactions. She endured the angry men who’d yell at her about the broken car wash, and she welcomed the guy who worked at a bakery and brought her breakfast.

At 21, still saddled with debt, Carroll decided she was ready for school. She enrolled at the Community College of Denver in 1992 and later transferred to the University of Colorado Denver. Many of the other students were like her: working to support themselves and unconcerned with typical undergraduate life. She met, married, and divorced a professor, all within two years. This “blip of a detour in undergrad,” as Carroll describes it now, only helped her focus. She completed her degree and went on to the University of Colorado law school. After passing the bar exam, she started a mother-daughter law firm with Bradley that handled disability and family-law cases. At long last, Carroll was paying her bills and helping save her little corner of the world.

 

In late June 2004, the 32-year-old Carroll was obsessing over an argument she’d had with her live-in boyfriend. She needed to get out of the house, if only for an evening. That’s when she remembered an invitation she’d received to a political fund-raiser at the home of term-limited state legislator Frank Weddig. Despite her father’s political background, Carroll had never immersed herself into party politics. At the shindig, she talked to Weddig and his wife. The Democrat was looking for a strong candidate to fill his seat, and he told Carroll that he thought she was the one to do it. Carroll demurred, saying she wasn’t electable.

Still, she couldn’t stop thinking about it. The original Democratic candidate eventually dropped out of the race, leaving a prime Democrat-friendly state Legislature position open, with no viable option to fill it. Carroll knew the timing was off. The problems with her boyfriend persisted. Her house came with a mortgage that was based on two incomes. She’d need to refinance while simultaneously fund-raising for a political campaign. She was coming into the race late, just four months before Election Day. She signed up anyway.

Carroll won with 55 percent of the vote and showed up at her third-floor Capitol office in January 2005, woefully unprepared. Given the early-year start to Colorado’s legislative session, every workday for the first few months began around 5 a.m., in blackness. For some time, Carroll remained in the dark. Although she arrived to the post expecting to enact social change and impact policy, her initial naïvete made her a poor fit, especially when dealing with the state’s lobbying machine.

The way lobbyists work is something of a tradition. When a bill is being debated on the House floor, lobbyists working for or against the issue typically send a note—similar to an old-time dance card—into the chamber, to the politician they’re attempting to sway. The official leaves the floor and speaks to the lobbyist outside the room, as the law requires. After a week, Carroll started refusing cards. Why would she want to dance while bills were being debated?

Lobbyists complained to the Democratic leadership. Carroll stood firm, saying she was available to talk at any other time, just not during debates. Her choice was so unpopular that about 240 lobbyists rallied against Carroll’s workers’ compensation bill, which would have allowed injured workers to choose their own doctors. To Carroll, it was a commonsense bill; to the medical lobby, it was anathema because of how it chipped away at health-care practitioners’ rights. It failed, as did all of the bills Carroll introduced during her first session. Although two of the three bills she co-sponsored eventually passed, her legislative track record that year was one of the more ineffectual among state Democratic lawmakers.

Carroll returned for her second legislative session in January 2006. Her initial stumbles inspired her to concoct a savvier agenda: Now she would take on the lobbyists by adopting some of their techniques to win support from fellow legislators. She thoroughly researched her colleagues’ positions, enough to find common ground for a bill that would require lobbyists to more openly report who was paying them. Carroll still wouldn’t accept their cards during floor debates. As an April’s Fools Day joke, Republican Representative Greg Brophy put a basket outside her office with a note instructing lobbyists to leave their cards in it. Carroll left the basket there. Her lobbyist bill passed, and Republican Governor Bill Owens signed it into law in June 2006.

 

On June 17 of this year, Carroll’s campaign manager, Mike Weissman, outlines their re-election strategy for Senate District 29 at a gathering in Carroll’s backyard. Although many people don’t realize it, Weissman also has been Carroll’s boyfriend since 2006, the tightly wound, on-message yin to Carroll’s loose and unscripted yang. Although they live together, the two are invariably businesslike in public. Carroll usually refers to Weissman as her campaign manager, even when recounting something personal. They don’t deny they are dating; they just don’t talk about it.

By the time the 30 or so guests are beginning to arrive, the triple-digit heat is already curling the edges of the neon-yellow cheese on party platters. Weissman—a compact man with closely trimmed black hair, glasses, and a slow smile—starts to speak about how Carroll’s once-cushy district, reliably Democratic, has changed—dramatically. “We’re not running in your dad’s District 29 anymore,” he says. “It’s a purple district, with red, blue, and between.”

Aurora’s senior state senator seems to sense that something could go terribly wrong. Holding a glass of red wine, Carroll thanks everyone for coming out to support her, swaying gently as she speaks. She’s in a purple dress that would make Stevie Nicks proud, her hair pulled back and her freckled, pale skin washed out by the sunlight. She talks about what went well last session—and more frequently about what didn’t. Across the fence, a neighbor yells at her kids to stop goofing around in the yard. Carroll doesn’t miss a beat: “This is a very emotional job,” she says. “We do this because we really care.”

In the months before this gathering, Carroll had sat on Colorado’s reapportioning commission, the once-a-decade power grab when political district lines are redrawn, primarily according to population changes. Her actions on the panel earned the wrath of some Republicans, including House Speaker Frank McNulty, who accused her of using that role to manipulate districts in favor of Democrats—even though the addition of the Plains territories to her own district made her seat far more vulnerable. Some legislators even told Carroll her 2012 session bills were a waste of time because they wouldn’t vote for anything with her name on it.

This kind of partisan fighting doesn’t appeal to the no-nonsense Plains voters; they’re looking for a legislator who can get things done, especially since so many of these folks live in areas that have been declared natural-disaster sites because of widespread drought. The trick for Carroll will be to appeal to them without losing her base. “What is of concern to those communities is not necessarily the same that is of concern to somebody living at 14th and Arvada, in the original part of Aurora, which is also in Morgan’s district. That’s a new factor,” Weissman told me.

The other new, unforeseen variable in Carroll’s district, the very definition of a nightmare scenario, unfolded about a month later. On July 20, James Eagan Holmes allegedly unleashed chaos into a dark, packed movie theater in Aurora during the midnight premiere of The Dark Knight Rises. As the theater filled with smoke and gas, some people thought it was a gimmick, an opening-night spectacle. Then Holmes began shooting. The 911 calls started about a minute later, and the Aurora Police Department was on site 90 seconds after that. Holmes was in police custody by 12:45 a.m., just six minutes after he’d opened fire. More than 70 people were injured. Twelve of them—one just six years old—died.

This wasn’t the first time Aurora had made the news in the past year, during which time the phrase “Aurora Rising” became a common refrain for the city’s businesses and politicians. Aurora officials had tried to poach Denver’s century-old National Western Stock Show and discussed plans with hotel behemoth Gaylord Entertainment to build a Las Vegas–style convention center close to Denver International Airport. There were rumblings that Aurora would embrace the oil and gas industry and allow fracking within city limits. Suddenly, the state’s third-largest city seemed just that: massive—and powerful.

In the weeks before the shootings, though, Aurora’s newfound strength had started to falter. The city council approved oil and gas exploration, but the Gaylord project had fallen apart. The stock show was told to stay put in Denver. Meanwhile, Aurora continued to rebound from its foreclosure crisis—its county’s rate is at least double the state average.

All these setbacks seemed trivial after Holmes entered theater number 9. Carroll awoke on July 20 to a call from Weissman’s dad on the East Coast, who’d seen news of the shootings. Like many people that morning, Carroll cried. She watched TV. She cried some more. She forgot that she was Aurora’s state senator, until she realized that she wasn’t doing much good sitting at home. The theater is in her district, as is the high school where victims’ families gathered, the police department, hospitals, and counseling centers.

If there’s a physical heart of Aurora, the Town Center shopping mall—where the theater is located—is it. “It’s the nerve center for the community,” Carroll told me shortly after the shootings. “We’ll never look at that area in the same way again.” After the tragedy, Carroll found herself returning to the mall. She’d stop by the Cold Stone Creamery, semi-anonymously, to self-medicate with ice cream. Inevitably, she ended up speaking to the workers in conversations that have become common: talking about the shootings when people need to, talking about something else when they can’t. “Honestly, I’m tired,” Carroll says. “We don’t want our whole town judged by this. This guy, basically, wasn’t from Aurora. Forbes has listed us as a safest city of our size. We’ve got a pretty decent track record. We’re not going to let this guy define the town. We’re going to live openly. Love openly.”

 

Morgan Carroll has won each of her elections handily. Her batting average for passing bills has increased—to almost 60 percent in 2012—despite the lobbyist and Republican threats to boycott Carroll-sponsored initiatives. She’s even written a book about what she’s learned, titled Take Back Your Government: A Citizen’s Guide to Grassroots Change (Fulcrum, 2011). “One of the benefits of learning things the hard way is that I’ve had to get more strategically scrappy and savvy,” Carroll says. “You can be a really good strategy partner when people run into problems on their bills, because I ran into every possible problem on every bill I’ve ever run.”

One of the most effective strategic tacks she’s learned to take is simply listening. “Anybody that thinks they’re going to dictate terms to Morgan, be they man or woman, has another thing coming,” Weissman says. “She’s happy to listen to an opinion, and in particular is happy to get some expert perspective from someone, but at the end of the day she’s going to make up her mind based on what she thinks is best for her district and Colorado.”

Not everyone is convinced that Carroll’s leftward leanings are right for her district. Ryan Call, the chairman of the Colorado Republican Committee, told me that Carroll’s seat is one that Republicans have targeted this fall. “[Carroll has] never had a tax increase she didn’t like,” Call says. “She seems to use the approach that it’s government’s job to fix every wrong. It’s a laudable goal—to level the playing field by bringing everyone down.” Call’s sarcastic tone illuminates the vulnerability in Carroll’s do-gooder political persona: Does she push her personal agenda too far? Should she find more common ground?

Before Carroll can think about rising to a high-profile leadership position, she’ll have to answer questions like these to be re-elected. If she wins, Carroll also knows that talk of her future gubernatorial chances will have to wait, regardless of how promising her supporters think her statewide prospects are now. “Morgan Carroll can do anything she puts her mind to,” says Rick Palacio, chairman of the Colorado Democratic Party. “[Carroll] is someone who has great leadership potential. I could see her go on to run for a statewide office, whether that be attorney general or another position. I could see a Governor Morgan Carroll.”

To the now-savvy insider Carroll, political ascension is more complex than merely wooing voters. She cites the “self-fulfilling prophecy” of the politically powerful always backing one of their own and limiting the upward mobility of anyone who’s outside their circles. “No one gets to higher office by themselves,” she says. “This subconscious question of who’s viable is still hurting women. The assessment of who’s really up to the task may still subconsciously be funneling women out. Some of this has to do with press and name recognition; people don’t know their state legislators. And going outside of your district? It’s not going to be a lot of people.”

Some local political positions garner statewide interest, such as Denver’s mayor or, in the case of Michael Bennet, the superintendent of Denver Public Schools, which eventually led to his position as a United States senator. “I’m not sure a woman with his same profile could have had the support and trajectory,” Carroll says. “I think he’s done a very good job as a senator, but he had no electoral background. You could look at any woman who’s been elected at lower office, and none of us would have been on the short list to say, ‘OK, we’ve got to recruit. Who are we going to recruit?’ ”

Before Colorado’s political kingmakers raise that question again, Carroll has a long to-do list of policy changes. She worries about K–12 funding, wonders how Colorado will deal with TABOR next session, and obsesses over fracking concerns with the oil and gas industry. There’s water policy, civil rights, the criminal-justice system, fraud—and of course, it always comes back to the economy. “I’m not ready to leave until these things have been addressed,” Carroll says. “I can carry those bills. I can’t promise they’ll pass, but no one can keep me from introducing them. I can hold public meetings and get people involved. I’ve got a shot at actually getting the things that I really want to see done before I’m out.” She says, without smiling, “You have to live up to what people hope you’ll be.”

Which is why, week after week, Carroll plods through her district and knocks on the doors of so many of her 150,000 constituents. It’s also why she won’t leave the front steps of the angry Republican’s house on that sweltering July afternoon. As he rips on Democrats and derides the general idea of women in politics, Carroll does as she’s disciplined herself to do and listens.

Finally, she sees an opening—Carroll is a supporter of concealed-weapon rights and thus shares some common ground with the man. With that toehold, she drills down on TABOR. What do you like about it? The ability to vote and be a part of the process? Yup, he agrees, that’s it. She asks him repeatedly about his military service, and he gobbles up the chance to wax on about the memories. He’s sweating; so is she. They keep talking as if the blistering sun doesn’t matter. She listens long enough to let the man wind up—and then unwind again. Before Carroll heads down the street to meet the next person whose problems she’ll adopt and attempt to solve, the silver-haired, gun- and TABOR-loving, motorcycle helmet- and Pelosi-hating Republican veteran renders his verdict. “I’ll vote for you,” he tells Carroll, “and I’ll tell my wife to vote for you, too.”