Few Colorado women in top spots in politics, but that could change
DENVER – Colorado’s major-party candidates for governor, U.S. Senate and U.S. House this year are named John, Tom, Greg, Scott, Steve, Mike, Jason, Mark, Ken, Owen, Randy, Victor, Floyd, Jared, Scott, Cory, Doug, Andrew, Mike, Ed and Don.
Also Diana, Amy, Liane and Roni.
Forty-two years after Colorado elected its first woman to Congress, women remain a rarity in the state’s highest political offices, with little chance of change in 2014.
New Hampshire’s governor and entire congressional delegation are women. Twenty women serve in the U.S. Senate and 78 in the House. Yet in Colorado’s history, it has elected only men to serve as governor and U.S. senator. Only four women have ever represented Colorado in the U.S. House.
Pat Schroeder was the first. The Democrat won election in 1972 and represented her Denver district for 24 years.
“I was so excited when I won,” she said in an interview with The Durango Herald. “I thought that this is a really big change, and we’re going to see a lot of women coming into Congress.”
But four decades later, Congress is still 82 percent male. It’s even more skewed in Colorado, where less than 10 percent of members of Congress have been women since Schroeder was elected.
It’s all the more vexing because Colorado is a national leader in the number of women who serve in the Legislature, the traditional launching ground for higher office. With 42 women in its 100-person General Assembly, Colorado ranks second in the country. Vermont overtook Colorado for the top spot last year.
The situation will not change significantly this year. Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Denver, is the only woman serving in Colorado’s congressional delegation. She could be joined by at most three women – state Rep. Amy Stephens, R-Monument, who is seeking the GOP nomination for Senate; Liane “Buffy” McFadyen, a Democrat who is challenging U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Cortez; and Roni Bell Sylvester, a Weld County rancher who just entered the crowded GOP field in the governor’s race last week. Aside from DeGette, all are underdogs in their races.
When Schroeder talks to college women, she senses enthusiasm for working behind the scenes but not for running for office. In part, she blames changes in the media and the loss of the “fairness doctrine” that gave her equal time on television to answer charges leveled by her opponents. Candidates today face a barrage of personal attacks, which turns off both good women and men from running, she said.
“In many places, they’ve cut down the tall trees and left the monkeys,” Schroeder said.
Colorado has been a national pioneer in electing women to the Legislature, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. The state has never dropped out of the top 10 since the group began counting in the mid 1970s.
“You have a bench, but it doesn’t seem to be playing out,” said Debbie Walsh, director of the center.
Colorado women have been successful in winning the state’s second-tier offices, with four lieutenant governors, five secretaries of state and four treasurers since the late 1960s. But none has gone on to higher office.
“We don’t see necessarily that lieutenant governor is a path to the governor. Sometimes that can be a dead-end,” Walsh said.
It’s hard to say why opportunities for women abound at the Legislature but disappear at higher levels.
Senate President Morgan Carroll, who is the second woman in state history to hold the Senate’s top post, thinks the money explains part of the paradox.
Candidates for the state Legislature don’t have to be rich or well-connected. But it’s a different story for higher office.
“You are talking orders of magnitude of different money,” said Carroll, an Aurora Democrat.
To raise money, candidates need to attract fundraisers and campaign professionals from the relatively small – and mostly male – class of political consultants in Colorado, she said.
State Rep. Amy Stephens, R-Monument, is fighting that battle right now. She is running for the GOP nomination for Senate, but her fundraising last year lagged far behind Ken Buck, who lost the 2010 Senate race to Democrat Michael Bennet.
Bennet ran a campaign that overtly courted female voters and painted Buck as out of touch with Colorado women. It worked. Bennet won narrowly, thanks to a large gender gap in his favor.
Stephens thinks her presence on the ballot could help neutralize Democratic attempts to woo women’s votes.
“As a party, we have the opportunity to do something different and new. The question is, will we do it?” she said.
Stephens said men are much more likely to volunteer to run for office than women, who often need to be convinced they are qualified.
“Very often, women need to be asked to run. Men don’t,” she said.
State Sen. Ellen Roberts of Durango is one of just two Republican women in the Senate. But there are now nine GOP women in the House, more than double from just a few years ago.
Roberts said House Republican leaders concentrated on recruiting women to run.
“It was a party priority, not just for electability but to speak to the issues that are on people’s minds. I think it’s pretty undisputed that women come at the job a little differently than men,” Roberts said.
The business community and grass-roots groups that play such a large role in picking candidates could pay more attention to recruiting women, she said.
Today’s elected women can help by serving as mentors to younger women, Stephens said.
“I can tell you as the first (female) House majority leader in my party in a long time, there were no women ahead of me to help me along,” Stephens said.
Carroll agreed that the doors are opening, slowly.
“I do think it is a question of time. But it has, temporarily, hit a cliff,” she said.