The Colorado Woman
Colorado has the most confident, intelligent, thoughtful, inspirıng, dedicated, joyful, influential, resilient, adventurous, independent, gutsy, innovative, groundbreaking women in America. Meet them.
The thing about Roxane White is that few people have a perspective like hers. On the wall above her desk hangs a small wooden sign with a W-♥, which read from right to left spells out the brand—open diamond bar W—from the ranch she grew up on in the rural town of Victor, Montana. On a shelf along the wall there is a picture of her daughter, Donalyn, her stepson, Zach, and her foster son, Daniel, whom she raised for many years as a de facto single mother. On a piece of paper taped just above her computer there is a saying by Gifford Pinchot, who was a governor of Pennsylvania in the 1920s and ’30s: “It is a greater thing to be a good citizen than to be a good Republican or a good Democrat.” And on her right leg, there is a tattoo that reads “The needs of the poor take priority over the desires of the rich,” a quote from Pope John Paul II.
White says she needs these visual reminders to keep her centered, but it’s clear to anyone who meets her that she needs little assistance remembering what’s important to her (work, her kids, her friends, God, the homeless) and what is not (romantic relationships, partisan agendas). It’s a personality trait that has served her well professionally, taking her from working as the executive director of a youth services center in San Francisco to being the president of Urban Peak, a Denver nonprofit that helps kids experiencing homelessness, to heading up the Denver Department of Human Services to being then-Mayor John Hickenlooper’s chief of staff to today serving in the same role in the governor’s office—in just 17 years. Her dramatic rise is all the more poignant for its relative improbability: Although White had what she calls an idyllic early childhood, financial hardship brought on by family tragedy—a couple of strokes that partially disabled her mother when White was nine, and the unexpected death of her father when she was 13—could have stifled her ability and drive to leave Victor. She had the highest grades in her small high school class, but an undergraduate degree from Lewis & Clark College in religious studies with a minor in Judaism and master’s degrees in divinity and social work would have been unfeasible without the hefty scholarships White worked tirelessly to earn.
Sitting on a hot pink exercise ball, shoes under her desk, bare feet gripping the plastic orb, White still has the affect of an earnest teenager studying for an exam. Except it’s not an algebra test she’s prepping for; her next meeting is a daily check-in with John Hickenlooper. As the governor’s chief of staff, one of only 10 females to hold that position in the United States, White’s monumental job can be distilled to this concise description: “I handle the day-to-day functions of the state government so that John can focus on vision and strategy,” White says. “If I’m doing my job right, what takes eight hours of my time to figure out should then only take 15 minutes of his time to make an informed decision.”
Over a salad delivered to a massive conference table in Hickenlooper’s office, White and the governor discuss the day’s happenings in what sounds like another language. They bandy acronyms and last names and policy measures while finishing each other’s sentences and chuckling at things only they understand. The two clearly have an affinity and respect for each other; it’s a kinship that has more of a sibling vibe than the romantic relationship White says people so often (and so infuriatingly) infer. In fact, White says that persistent allegation—sometimes subtle and sometimes not—is one of the most disappointing aspects of being a woman in a leadership role. The blatant sexism is also, in her opinion, partly why more women aren’t in politics. “Men don’t consider women for positions because of the perception,” she says, “and women don’t like it that people think they’re sleeping their way to the top.”
The governor, however, originally considered White for the mayor’s chief of staff job, he says, because she was “orders of magnitude” more qualified than the other candidates. Plus, he says, he liked her spark. Today, Hickenlooper relies on White to tell him the no-bullshit truth, even when she knows he’s not going to like it. He admires her energy, her nonpartisan mentality (she’s a registered independent), her thorough preparation and attention to detail, and, maybe more than anything, what he says is an inner joy she radiates. For her part, White cites a long list of reasons why she happily works at least 75 hours a week for Hickenlooper, not the least of which is that she knows in her gut he didn’t even think about the fact that she is a woman when he hired her.
After they finish talking politics, White reminds the governor this is their last appointment before they both head off on vacation—simultaneously. White is primarily concerned about what happens if. As in, what happens if there’s another Aurora shooting? Or what happens if more wild fires break out? Or what happens if another little girl like Jessica Ridgeway goes missing? White wants well-defined instructions left behind in their absences in the event what if would happen again. With a mouth full of salad, the governor shrugs and says he’ll just come home from the East Coast if disaster strikes. White, who is planning to visit her 20-year-old daughter Donalyn in Uganda for two weeks, is not comforted by his easy solution. She’s worried the governor’s signature could be immediately necessary and wants to make sure everyone who will be at the Capitol in his absence knows exactly who would step in and how that would get done. Again the governor shrugs, this time as if to say he’s well aware of—and values—the fact that White will handle the particulars of this even though he thinks it’s unnecessary.
Everyone who knows Rox knows that she powers down at 9 p.m. So when her cell rang around 8:45 p.m. on March 19, 2013, White knew it must be important. The caller, a Colorado Department of Corrections staffer, told White that Lisa Clements needed White to call her immediately. It wasn’t unusual that Lisa would call, but White wondered why her friend hadn’t just called her directly. When Lisa’s shattered voice dissolved through the earpiece seconds later, White had her answer. Just minutes before, someone had rung Tom and Lisa Clements’ doorbell at their home in Monument. Tom, who had been the executive director of Colorado’s Department of Corrections for more than two years, opened the door and took a bullet in the chest. White had been close with Tom and was one of the first people Lisa called that night after dialing 911.