How Crisanta Duran used her family's commitment to public service to become one of the state's top lawmakers.
—Photo by Matt Nager
On an unseasonably warm afternoon this past October, about 100 people are gathered in the airy foyer of the Denver Art Museum’s Hamilton Building for the annual Latinas LEAD Launch and Power Summit, which celebrates the accomplishments of Hispanic women who live in the region. Minutes before her speech, Crisanta Duran arrives. Her mahogany eyes light up whenever she sees another familiar face, of which there are many in the room, and now and then someone says something that causes her to toss her head back with a robust laugh. About three-fourths of the women are dressed in black. Most of the rest, including Duran, are wearing wine-colored outfits, but the shade she’s chosen is just a bit bolder.
Duran is here to discuss her journey from being a child so shy she hid behind her mother’s dress when meeting strangers to becoming the intrepid young woman who knocked on countless doors during her first political campaign in 2010. She won that unlikely victory in an atypically bruising down-ballot race that made her the youngest Latina legislator in Colorado history. Duran later became the state’s first Latina House majority leader, and 2016 has become an even more momentous year for the 36-year-old. In November, her fellow Democrats designated her to be Colorado’s speaker of the House; she and former Senate president pro tempore Lucia Guzman are the first Latinas to hold their respective posts.* Duran also spoke at July’s Democratic National Convention, and in today’s address, as she did then, she invokes the memory of her maternal grandmother.
The woman's own parents withdrew her from school in third grade so she could tend to the household, and as a result, she grew up unable to read or write. When Duran was old enough, she brought books to the family matriarch’s house so she could help her grandmother learn some basics. Those simple acts of love have informed Duran’s political philosophy. “She never had the choice to determine what she wanted her full potential to be,” Duran says. “It makes me understand how fortunate I am to have done what I’ve done and to have that choice.”
Roughly 20 years earlier, Duran found herself, and her calling, in the strawberry fields of Central California. The sixth-generation Coloradan had ridden a bus more than 1,200 miles with other activists, including Duran’s father, a powerful—some would say notorious—attorney and labor organizer. The wave of supporters, 30,000 by one estimate, descended on the area in the mid-1990s to support strawberry pickers who were trying to organize a union.
At the time, almost 25,000 workers picked strawberries for the $3 billion per year industry, earning a nickel for every pint they plucked. The organizers’ goal was both bold and modest, seeking to double the workers’ wages to 10 cents per pint. They ultimately succeeded—sort of—when the corporate titan Monsanto sold its strawberry farms to investors who were more open to unions. Even so, a decade later a small fraction—less than 10 percent—of California’s strawberry workers were unionized.
But in that moment, as she climbed off the bus, Duran saw something she’d never forget. She’d already spent years in west Arvada listening to her parents preach to her and her two siblings about the importance of giving everyone a voice, or showing them how to get one. Now Duran saw these laborers, many of whom had endured subpoverty wages, hazardous working conditions, and vicious harassment, and she still remembers how stunned and grateful the workers looked. “Thousands of people had shown up to protest on their behalf,” Duran says today. “I felt the importance of standing up for people who couldn’t necessarily stand up on their own. It was a defining moment for me.”
Today, as Duran enters her fourth and final go-around as a state representative (she’s term-limited after 2018), her legislative to-do list includes pet issues, such as workforce development and funding for education and transportation, and legislation that covers everyday needs and gives people the stability to begin exploring whatever greater ambitions they might have. Among the many successful measures she co-sponsored or authored in 2016 was a bill that extended the state’s low-income housing tax credit; ones that created more career development courses for high school students; and other bills that aligned some of Colorado’s workforce development efforts with those at the federal level or with state-specific needs.
But after the unexpected election of Donald Trump to the presidency, her causes—particularly the plight of women and undocumented students—have assumed a new sense of urgency and vigilance. “What a time it is to be serving [as Colorado’s speaker of the House],” she said a few days after the election. “We have amazing opportunities to work across the aisle in Colorado, but with Mr. Trump as president, we’re also ready to stand against any divisive policies he might try that are sure to destroy communities and families.”
The speaker-designate has already seen the concerns Trump’s immigration proposals have stirred among families in her district who worry about “deportation forces” and a rise in bigotry and hate crimes. Should these fears be realized, she hints at a more vocal resistance to the administration’s goals. “We have a long history of peaceful transitions of power, and I respect the choice of the American voters,” Duran says. “But it’s also important that people get more involved with the political process. Sometimes people in my position can lead with legislation, but there are other ways for leaders to make their voices heard, too. I’ve had a front-row seat for some ugly campaign encounters, and that approach doesn’t advance the issues people live with every day. We must rise above that.”
There’s a folksy old adage, “No politics at the dinner table,” that never applied to the Duran family; the dinner table is where they learned how the political world works. Both sides of the clan landed in southern Colorado in the late 1800s; in addition to their Mexican roots, they also have Spanish, French, and Native American blood. One of Duran’s great-grandfathers ran a ranch and sawmill near Trinidad (the ranch is still family-owned and produces organic oats and alfalfa). Her parents moved to Northglenn after she was born in Boulder, then to west Arvada because it had better public schools. Her father’s law and union work, along with her mother’s activism—she spent her entire career with Colorado’s Division of Housing—were the fodder for those suppertime conversations. “Our parents instilled the belief in us that we have to serve other people,” says Duran’s sister, Carolina. “It was always more about the greater good than about us.”
The remedy for Duran’s youthful shyness turned out to be flamenco and Mexican baile folklórico, both styles known for their brightly colored costumes and elaborate and expressive movements. She competed in the Miss Colorado and Fiesta Days pageants as a teen, and she tasted her first electoral victory in middle school, when her peers awarded her the honor of best hair. “It was four-inch bangs and enough product that you’d want to stay away from lighter fluid,” says Duran’s childhood friend Rongene Falasco, who won the same prize at her own middle school.
The teenage Duran’s increasing self-confidence hinted at her future career path; she became known for helping her peers work through problems by showing how much power they actually had. “Even as a kid, she knew it was OK for people to demand their rights,” Falasco says. “She’d tell people, ‘You can go talk to your supervisor, or whoever, to solve a problem.’ She saw how people can come together to make real change.”
Duran earned a scholarship to the University of Denver and learned Spanish during a study-abroad program in Mexico. (Duran’s grandparents had been told that speaking English would help their future employment prospects, so Duran and her siblings didn’t grow up hearing or speaking Spanish at home.) After DU, Duran enrolled at the University of Colorado Boulder’s law school and became president of the Student Bar Association. Her friend and classmate James Lyman says she was instrumental in brokering changes that elevated the school and its students, such as helping raise money for a new building and creating funds to help indebted graduates pay off their student loans when they took public-service positions. She also helped revamp CU’s student rating system into broader tiers, rather than straight numeric rankings, which made it easier for graduates further down the academic ladder to find jobs. “The old system actually benefitted [highly ranked students like] her and me, but so many other students were penalized by it,” Lyman says. “It was a great indicator of what she’d be like later in life.”
That later came sooner than expected. After graduating from law school at 24, Duran worked for the United Food & Commercial Workers (UFCW) union, Local 7, for several years, and there she had her first front-row view of political ugliness. In the mid-’90s, Duran’s father, Ernest, was at various times the union’s president, its lawyer, or both, and he hired both his daughter and his son, Ernest Jr. He also presided over a tumultuous time for the UFCW: As reported by Westword in a series of articles in the mid- to late ’90s, the elder Duran faced allegations of nepotism and that he and his son had improperly spent union funds on personal items. Wild parties were thrown on the union’s dime—one such gathering resulted in a woman being sexually assaulted, and the union was later held partially liable in a civil suit. The union’s male leadership and members were also known for frequent physical altercations and for using the threat of violence to quell dissension. As one Westword writer wryly opined, the environment became so seamy that Crisanta Duran decided to rise above it—by entering politics.
Duran was Mark Udall’s political director during his victorious 2008 U.S. Senate campaign and was further inspired by the Cinderella run of a young upstart named Barack Obama. Despite being significantly outspent by her opponent in 2010—and facing a campaign mailer that dredged up her family’s alleged union indiscretions—all her knocking on doors paid off when she won her seat in House District 5 (which roughly includes north Denver, RiNo, downtown, and Athmar Park) with 76 percent of the vote.
Through it all, Duran remembered those bygone dinner-table conversations. “It’s not like I was a little girl thinking, ‘I want to grow up to be a state rep,’ ” Duran says. “Empowering others to become a collective voice in the community was political but also a broader core value. There’s nothing more powerful than when people get together, get involved, and vote. Believing I could make a difference by getting involved was always something very tangible to me.”
Although Duran might seem too young to be called old-school, she brings those throwback sensibilities to public service, along with a reputation for collaboration and policy smarts. “She’s always very well-prepared and passionate about what she believes,” says Brian DelGrosso, the Republican state representative from Loveland. “She’s definitely a formidable opponent. You aren’t going to catch her off guard.” Others who’ve worked with Duran say she makes efforts to see all sides and doesn’t shrink from tough conversations. “She always has an open door and is willing to listen, but she’s not afraid to tell you no if it’s not right,” says Julie Whitacre, director of government affairs at the Colorado Education Association. “She’ll force people on opposing sides to talk with each other to get the best possible piece of legislation. I’d much rather deal with a politician like that than with someone who’ll vote my way but never talk to me.”
Having become Colorado’s first Latina House majority leader, and now its groundbreaking speaker, all before her 37th birthday, questions naturally arise about what Duran might do next. In 2016, EMILY’s List, a national group dedicated to electing more Democratic women, gave Duran its Gabrielle Giffords Rising Star Award, and the Washington Post has speculated that Duran might seek U.S. Representative Diana DeGette’s House seat if and when the veteran lawmaker moves on.
Even those who know Duran well aren’t sure what her long-term plans are, and Duran isn’t ready to divulge them. Her friends and allies are confident she’ll continue to involve all stakeholders and craft legislation that’s as bipartisan as possible. She’ll keep turning her annual birthday gathering into a “low-dollar” fund-raiser—Governor John Hickenlooper showed up this year and crooned “Happy Birthday” to her—that doubles as a convenient way to get all the people she knows and loves into one place, if only for an evening.
And Duran will keep insisting that she doesn’t have the time or inclination to answer the “What’s next?” question yet, even if everyone around her knows it will include a public service component, most likely a higher elected office. “Whatever I do next, I’ll always be focused on where I can be to have the greatest impact on people and really make a difference,” Duran says. “That’s my goal for the next two years: to get as much done as possible and not miss any opportunities.”
* Because of Colorado Republicans' current 18-17 edge in seats, Guzman is now the Senate minority leader.