Four of the five men on the dais at the University of Denver's Gates Concert Hall look like they belong. They're the kind of middle-aged white men who appear on television all the time, the kind who neatly part their hair, wear ties that don't quite match their jackets, and almost perpetually ask for your vote. It's January 2006, and they've been chosen by 9News to speak at a televised town hall panel about immigration. Governor Bill Owens sits dead center. To the left are Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper and U.S. Representative Tom Tancredo. On the right is former Governor Dick Lamm.
The fifth man, sitting to the right of Owens, is Terrance Carroll, a black, 38-year-old state representative from northeast Denver. Although Carroll has served in the Statehouse for three years, working on education and criminal justice reform, he looks out of his league alongside these veteran politicians.
Carroll, it turns out, wasn't 9News' first choice; the station had asked Colorado's more high-profile Democratic legislators to participate. The lot of them—Diana DeGette, Mark Udall, John and Ken Salazar—all cited scheduling conflicts, leaving it to the young Carroll to help argue the progressive side of the issue.
Tancredo, stretched out in his chair, calmly begins by explaining that the law of the land is being broken, plain and simple. Hickenlooper follows with a bit about the need for smart reform, and Owens echoes Tancredo, calling for enforcement first.
Carroll's opening statement pours out of him in a wavering voice, his shoulders clenched around the words. Yes, he says, our immigration system is broken, but the nation and Colorado still must confront the demand for low-skill, low-wage workers, the lack of native-born citizens who are willing to fill the jobs, and our inflexible labor laws. "Most importantly," he says, restricting immigration is "a direct challenge to the moral, cultural, and social fiber of this nation and of this state."
Later in the evening, once the floor has been opened to questions, an audience member asks what role faith should play in the immigration debate. Tancredo, an evangelical Presbyterian, says, "I believe that I have a responsibility both to the oath of office I take and to my conscience.... That's my job, and that's what I need to do, and that's what I have to do to face my Maker. And I'm comfortable with that.... But nowhere in the Bible can you find me anything that says, 'Protect the people who've violated the law of your land by coming in.' "
Carroll, who happens to be a Baptist minister, excitedly raises his hand. "Can I respond to that?" he asks. "Leviticus 19:33 and 34 clearly state that the strangers who live among your land, do not mistreat them, do not oppress them. Treat them as if they are citizens and native born of your land."
The audience erupts with cheers. Hickenlooper and Owens laugh out loud at the young upstart's sudden outburst. "And then it goes on to say, 'You were aliens in Egypt, so love them as you love yourself,'" Carroll continues. "So there's a very clear biblical mandate for how we deal with the strangers among us that goes beyond women and children. What it does say—without making the distinction between illegal and legal aliens—it says treat them as if they're native born. If you're going to use the Scriptures as a basis, you have to seriously deal with the issue and address it and not work your way around it."
Pandemonium ensues. The unknown politician, a Democrat at that, had just hefted the Bible at Tancredo—a man with an answer for everything—and smacked him in the mouth. Afterward, even Tancredo recognized the momentary defeat, offering his hand to Carroll and saying, "You got me on that one."
Three years later, on the morning of January 7, 2009, the suspender-clad Carroll sits in his office, practicing his upcoming speech to the Colorado House of Representatives. A steady flow of staffers, reporters, and politicians keeps interrupting him with congratulations. Vivian Stovall, Carroll's adopted godmother—the political activist who encouraged him to run for office—has been by, as has former Mayor Wellington Webb and his wife, Wilma, a onetime state rep.
State Senator Peter Groff also pops in with congratulations. The two men have a close, brotherly relationship; Carroll took over Groff's seat when Groff moved up to the Senate, and the two banter regularly about who's the better dresser—an honor Carroll refuses to concede to his friend—and have an ongoing contest to see who can fit more hip-hop and R&B lyrics into their respective legislative addresses. Today, the pair will make American history, as snow-white Colorado becomes the first state to have black men leading both houses of its legislature—Carroll as speaker of the House, Groff as president of the Senate.
Becoming speaker was not Carroll's original plan, at least not so soon. Heading into the 2009 session, term limits were forcing out Speaker Andrew Romanoff and House Majority Leader Alice Madden, and the Democrats needed fresh leadership. The odds-on favorite to land the post was Bernie Buescher, a popular representative from Grand Junction who'd help give the Democrats some senior Western Slope representation. Carroll, by then the assistant majority leader, was expected to ascend to the role of house majority leader—a less public role, befitting his shy personality. The house majority leader only needs to run the Democratic caucus, while the speaker must corral both parties and manage the voluminous day-to-day operations of the House. But well into election night, after it became clear that Buescher didn't have the votes, Carroll jumped into the race, winning the post two days later.
The new speaker's office just outside the House chambers is only half decorated, due to Romanoff's recent departure. A portrait of Martin Luther King Jr. adorns one wall, and behind Carroll's desk hangs a macramé version of Shephard Fairey's now-iconic Barack Obama "Hope" poster. Carroll is teasing his staff—a favorite pastime—that he's going to hang a print of the Francisco Goya painting "Saturn Devouring One of His Sons." It's dark and disturbing, depicting a demented Roman god who, unwilling to give up his power, tears apart and eats his heir. "I'd worry about the message I'd be sending," he says with a giggle. Nobody in the room knows the painting, which isn't surprising—Carroll has the kind of hyper-educated mind that leaves people around him Googling his many references. He can hold forth on subjects such as St. Thomas Aquinas on the soul and Dr. King on opportunity, and he frequently sprinkles his conversations with the words of great men who came before him.
Back in his office, Carroll returns to his speech, slowly reading his remarks aloud. It's hopeful but serious, acknowledging Colorado's $600 million budget shortfall and advocating for high-paying jobs, support for struggling families, and improved education. He's more collected than he was three years ago at the immigration panel; his voice is steadier, though not as deep as you'd expect from his strong-shouldered build, which is a little rounder than usual from a grueling fall campaign that kept him from working out as much as he'd like. For the big day, the always-dapper Carroll is sporting a custom-made Tom James charcoal pinstriped suit, complete with a special inside pocket to hold his omnipresent BlackBerry; a blue and white shirt; and a white and silver floral tie with a matching pocket square. His hair is cropped close, his goatee neatly trimmed.
The House chamber is packed with representatives, family members, staffers, media, and citizens who've come to watch the first day of the 67th Colorado General Assembly. The ceremony is part civic lesson, part high school graduation, and Carroll is the valedictorian calling for reconciliation and bipartisanship. "The 65 of you in this room elected to the 67th General Assembly come from many different walks of life," he says. "We have folks from big cities and small towns, the Eastern Plains and the Western Slope, blacks, whites, Hispanics, and Pacific Islanders.... A patchwork of unique and wonderful biographies that together make Colorado, like America, different and more magnificent than other societies in history. But that patchwork alone does not make this country great. What makes America great is that the fabric of our community is sewn together by a single thread. That thread is called opportunity."
He speaks of the need for jobs, of economic help for families struggling to make their mortgage payments, and for better public education. He hammers again and again on the theme of opportunity, quoting Thomas Jefferson and Dr. King, before acknowledging the portrait etched in the stained-glass window above him: a black man wearing the long jacket and boots of a frontier businessman. After the Civil War, Barney Ford became a wealthy gold prospector, hotelier, and business owner, buying buildings along Blake Street and building a home in Breckenridge. He also reached out to others, pushing for education for freed slaves who came to Colorado, and holding up the territory's bid for statehood until blacks were ensured the right to vote. "Born a slave in Virginia, Ford escaped servitude by way of the Underground Railroad when he was still a young man," Carroll tells the crowd. "Once in Colorado, he capitalized on the opportunities provided to him by the New West.... Barney Ford saw that Colorado was a place where opportunity knew no bounds, a place where hard work, a willingness to take a risk, and personal sacrifice can lead to a better life. The task before us is to ensure that opportunity is available to this generation of Coloradans and the next. And while the path to prosperity will be challenging, and at times fraught with controversy, our journey must be successful."
Colorado's new speaker knows all about following challenging paths to prosperity. Raised by a single mother in one of the worst neighborhoods in one of the most dangerous cities in the United States—Anacostia, Washington, D.C.—Carroll's only way out was education. In his youth, drug dealers held court on the street corners and gangs roamed the neighborhood. His mother, Corine, was 51 years old and unmarried when Carroll was born. He never knew his father. Like so many kids born in tough areas, he had a better chance of getting shot or going to jail than he did escaping from his surroundings.
Corine couldn't afford daycare, so Carroll would accompany her after school to the swanky D.C. mansions where she worked as a maid and do his homework while she cleaned. The homes were filled with expensive art, and Carroll found himself drawn to the culture, so different than that of the street. "This is how some people live," he thought. "In nice houses on safe blocks with fancy art."
Though Corine was the daughter of a Southern sharecropper and a granddaughter of slaves, who never got past the third grade, she always preached education as the key to success. She demanded good grades from her son while he downplayed his academic success. "The biggest fear," he says of Anacostia, "was someone saying you were 'acting white' because you spoke with good diction or did well in school. I did well in school, but I didn't tell anybody about it." He kept his swagger on the streets, covering up his A grades with success on the school's track team. He was also hiding a much darker secret, one that would alternately haunt him and drive his determination to succeed: When he was seven or eight years old, a female family member started to sexually abuse him, an ordeal that went on for years. It would be decades before Carroll told anyone, even his mother, about what he'd endured.
When Carroll was in eighth grade, he first used the levers of education, ones he'd use time and time again to elevate himself, by earning a scholarship to a military school in Virginia. A few years later, he was awarded a scholarship to study abroad in Italy for his junior year of high school. "Over there," he says, "nobody cared where you came from." After high school Carroll enrolled at Morehouse College in Atlanta, a longtime incubator for black leaders, including Dr. King, former Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson, and Congressman Sanford Bishop Jr. At last Carroll was able to be himself—getting good grades and speaking well weren't frowned upon at Morehouse; such achievement was expected and honored. He threw himself into his classes, graduating cum laude with a degree in political science.
The Morehouse experience whetted his appetite for education and adventure, and after graduation Carroll headed west to get his Ph.D. in political science at the University of Colorado. Lily-white Boulder was a culture shock, and after his favorite professor left the school, Carroll dropped out and began working as a police officer on campus.
It was a momentary distraction, however, because Carroll knew he was drifting. He had escaped Anacostia, gone to one of the most prestigious black colleges in the country, and now he was a security guard? When memories of his childhood abuse returned, he started to finally deal with the scars it had left, reading books about abuse and seeking therapy. Finally, at age 28, he called his mother to tell her. Almost immediately, the weight of the abuse disappeared. "It was freeing to get it off my chest," he says. "It allowed me to become the man that I am now."
Reinvigorated, he moved to Denver and enrolled at the Iliff School of Theology. Though he liked reading and studying, he felt he'd been called to practice religion. While in school, he met a woman named Marilyn Koerner, and they married in 1998. He graduated in 1999 and became a Baptist minister, serving at several churches with a particular focus on the younger church members. He began to volunteer at political races, spurred on in part by friends he met at Iliff and by a desire to increase his community involvement.
He soon supplemented his day job with night courses at the University of Denver College of Law. "Terrance was well thought of by the student body," says Tanya Bartholomew, one of his professors. "He was always championing the underdog in class and wanted to make sure everybody made it." While in law school, though, his marriage was falling apart; by 2005, the couple filed for divorce. Carroll, who loves to debate issues and talk policy, refuses to talk about his marriage, offering only, "It's something that didn't work out."
Meanwhile, his professional star was rising. In 2003, Peter Groff, whom Carroll had met through a friend at Iliff, was appointed to take an open Senate seat, leaving Groff's old House seat available. A 40-member panel would select the replacement. Several colleagues encouraged Carroll to run, but he wasn't sure—he was still finishing law school and didn't know if he'd enjoy such a public profile. All was settled when he got a forceful call from Vivian Stovall, a political activist who had seen Carroll speak at an MLK celebration. "I blame Vivian for me being in politics," he says. "When the seat came open, I wasn't going to run. But she yelled at me."
Colorado's history-making black legislators—Carroll and Groff—have the unenviable challenge of running the state during unusually lean times. "On the one hand, they were elected to great posts with great leadership skills," says Pat Waak, the chair of Colorado's Democratic party. "But their hands are tied because we don't have the resources to do everything they want to do." Carroll strongly believes that the linchpin of much-needed job creation will be education. "We need to expand the circle of opportunity," he says, paraphrasing Dr. King. "The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at a time of challenge and controversy."
The task ahead will require cooperation with Republicans, a skill Carroll has honed as a representative willing to engage in thoughtful debate. "Terrance is cool-headed and pragmatic," Groff says. "He's not as partisan, and that makes him able to solve problems." Rob Witwer, a Republican who served with Carroll in the House for four years, says, "Terrance has enormous respect on both sides of the aisle. Even when you have disagreements on policy, he's always a gentleman and willing to give you a hearing."
Carroll generally votes with his party but is willing to stray—he ticked off Planned Parenthood in 2003 by supporting parental-notification laws for teenage abortions, and he later irritated the teachers' union by helping Governor Owens and the Republicans pass legislation supporting charter schools. "Terrance puts kids ahead of special interests," Witwer says. "He understands, as Thomas Jefferson said, that 'education is the great equalizer.' He's lived that principle—education allowed him to ascend to the level he's achieved."
Becoming speaker in 2009, though, is a thankless job. He'll be forced to cut back programs he believes in, such as education and health insurance, to help the state make up its budget shortage. Only days into the session, Republicans began stonewalling the Democratic bill dubbed FASTER (since approved) that is designed to help fix Colorado's decaying transportation infrastructure. And while Carroll talks about creating new jobs and helping struggling families, there isn't much funding to go around.
Much of Carroll's early tenure will likely involve finding ways to tactfully deliver bad news. A couple of days before he's sworn in as speaker, he meets with a group of senior citizens who are lobbying for more money to help the elderly. He listens thoughtfully, the pain registering on his face when he hears that 40 percent of seniors live below the poverty line. "I'm sympathetic to the issue," he says. "But I'm in a situation that I can't make any promises. Things are bad, but I like to remain optimistic. We need to expand the circle of opportunity in this state. And in the next two years, we have a lot of work to do."
Two weeks after his swearing-in, Carroll is in a more comfortable, intimate environment: The First Baptist Church on Grant Street is hosting about seven dozen people for an 11 a.m. service. MLK Day is tomorrow, and though he's no longer a full-time minister, Carroll preaches annually on this day to honor his hero. The church is a touchstone in his life, and he finds it refreshes his spirit and faith to periodically return and engage the flock.
January has been bittersweet for Carroll. Two days after this service, Barack Obama will become the nation's first black president, nearly 41 years after Dr. King's assassination. Carroll has also reached new heights and is now widely seen as a rising star in the Democratic party; if he doesn't go onto further elected office in Colorado, he may be snatched up by the Obama administration for his political and legal talents. And yet Inauguration Day is also a hard one for Carroll, because it's the seventh anniversary of his mother's death. Every year, January 20th reminds him of where he came from and all he's thankful for, and so he's not going back to Washington, D.C., for the inauguration. It's simply too hard for him to be in that city on that day.
Carroll looks comfortable in the pulpit. Taking the podium in his hands, he smoothly riffs off the first reading from the book of Nehemiah. "Nehemiah was a smart guy. He had the best of everything—a nice chariot, a nice home, he went to all the best parties," Carroll says. "He was in the top rungs of the Persian government, but he knew that [Jerusalem] wasn't safe for the Jews. It was like Anacostia, where I grew up."
The worshippers listen attentively to the young, black preacher bringing the Old Testament to life. "And so Nehemiah goes to the king, and says, 'I need to go see about my people.' He gives up his comfort to go see about others," Carroll says. "Nehemiah and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. were very similar. Dr. King came from a great preaching family, the third generation to go to Morehouse."
Carroll smiles. "I'm not going to say anything about Morehouse—it speaks for itself." The crowd laughs, and he continues, now fully at ease. "Dr. King was a very approachable speaker. He was scholarly, but able to talk to the regular folk in a common language. He was a great preacher. But more important, he always wanted to know, 'What can we do for other people?' "
Patrick Doyle is an associate editor of 5280. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.