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.”