The Contender

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

October 2012

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.