Four months ago, Colorado won national media attention for becoming the first state to have African-Americans at the head of both houses of the state Legislature.
But soon, both Senate President Peter Groff and House Speaker Terrance Carroll–the only two African-Americans currently serving in the Legislature–will be gone. And changing demographics in traditionally black legislative districts open the question about whether African-Americans will continue to have a voice in state government.
Last week, Groff announced he’ll resign to take a job as director of the U.S. Department of Education’s Faith-Based and Community Initiatives Center. Carroll will have to surrender the speaker’s gavel after next year because of term limits.
Right now, it doesn’t seem like African-Americans will be completely absent from the state legislature–in the near future, anyway. Former state Representative Rosemary Marshall appears likely to be appointed to finish out the rest of Groff’s term (2008 Democratic National Convention delegate Anthony Graves, like Marshall an African-American, is also looking to fill Groff’s soon-to-be-vacant seat). As for Carroll, two of the three people being talked about to take over his House seat are African-American–though the third, professional pollster Mark Mehringer, may have a shot at the seat.
But in recent years, political posts that have been traditionally African-American for decades are becoming more up for grabs. In 2007, Carla Madison, a white political neighborhood activist, surprised many by winning a City Council seat that had been held by an African-American since the 1950s. None of theÂ three Democratic candidatesÂ that ran for Rosemary Marshall’s House seat in north Denver last year were African-American (no Republican ran in that race).
And as other ethnicities move into traditionally African-American neighborhoods in Denver, black political bases in the city could continue to erode. And that means less of a voice on issues such as health care, education, and economic development.
African-Americans make up about 4 percent of Colorado’s population and about 11 percent of Denver’s population. At least one African-American has served in the state legislature since the mid-1950s.
“It’s a real concern that we are starting to make strides on (African-American representation), but there are scenarios where there’s going to be less black diversity than there has been in previous years,” says Michael Huttner, of the liberal group ProgressNow Colorado.
Marshall agrees on the importance of African-American representation, but she says she’s primarily running because she thinks her legislative experience would help her represent the residents of Senate District 33.
“I do think it’s important to keep some representation, but that’s not the primary reason to run,” Marshall says.