The Contender

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

October 2012

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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.”