The Contender

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

October 2012

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.”