Colorado House to be led by all-female leadership team, a historic first

When Colorado lawmakers return to the Capitol Monday, they will do so in historic fashion.

A record number of women will fill state House and Senate seats — a majority, making Colorado the second state in the country to hit that mark. The state will have the largest LGBTQ caucus of any legislature in the country, according to the caucus chair. Nearly two-thirds of the House’s 65 members will be women, many of them people of color. And for the first time in the state’s history, the House’s top three leadership positions will all be held by women.

“I wasn’t sure how much longer it was going to take,” laughed Morgan Carroll, the chair of the state Democratic Party and a past president of the state Senate. “Sooner or later, it was going to happen.”

It took work to get here, Carroll and four top House lawmakers said. An ascendant Democratic Party had to buck historic midterm election trends in November to grow their majorities in the statehouse. Women had to win competitive races across a redistricted map. Newly elected Democrats in the House had to, in the words of Rep. Jennifer Bacon, “be about what we say we’re about” and elect women to leadership. People like Carroll had to be “extra combative” to defend women’s presence in the Capitol. Organizers had to build political infrastructures that encouraged women to run and pushed voters to support them.

In hindsight, having female leaders in a caucus that’s dominated by women seems inevitable, said Bacon, a Denver Democrat elected as House assistant majority leader in November. But it was intentional. It took work, she said. “And so in that way, we built it to be inevitable.”

Political organizations have worked for years on recruiting women — and women of color — to run for office, Bacon said, and she had risen through that base. An educator with a law degree, she was first elected as a member of Denver Public Schools’ board before earning a seat in the statehouse in 2020. She joins Rep. Monica Duran, the incoming majority leader, and Rep. Iman Jodeh, the co-whip and the legislature’s first Muslim lawmaker, as women of color elected to help lead the House’s Democratic supermajority.

Next to them stands Rep. Julie McCluskie, a Dillon Democrat stepping into her third term in the House. McCluskie will officially become the chamber’s next speaker Monday, two decades after the House elected its first female speaker. She described participating in the Women’s March several years ago as a “defining moment.”

“The three of us in the top leadership seats in the House, I believe that we’ve created an environment where those voices that have often been marginalized can be not only heard but recognized in our policymaking,” McCluskie said. “A diversity of voices, a diversity of opinions, I think is incredibly important to solving the problems that we face as a state.”

The election — and the leadership picks — are historic, but they’re not just checking a box, leaders said. An increased number of women — particularly of color — will have a tangible impact on policy and legislation. They pointed to the passage of the Reproductive Health Equity Act last year, which protects abortion access, and the elimination of taxes on feminine hygiene products and diapers as evidence of past influence.

McCluskie beat out two other veteran lawmakers to become speaker in November, after serving as the chair of the legislature’s powerful Joint Budget Committee. She and her counterpart in the Senate, Boulder Democrat Steve Fenberg, have described this session as a continuation of Democratic priorities from previous years.

McCluskie said three of the party’s priorities for this year — housing, health care and child care — were women’s and family priorities. The party’s victories in November, Duran said, showed that Colorado voters are in step with those goals, too.

“Colorado is saying, ‘This matters, this is important, we are going to fund this, we are going to prioritize this,’” she said. “And that’s what I think really makes a difference. We can talk about things that matter, but we’re putting our money where our mouth is.”

That’s not to say there will be full political alignment. The Democratic caucus in the House is big, and its diversity also comes from its broad political bearings. McCluskie is viewed more as an experienced moderate leading a caucus with a growing progressive wing. She held that line, Bacon said, and the majority of the caucus fell in behind it.

There are layers beneath the surface-level diversity, too, Duran and Bacon said. Duran brings the perspective of a Latina woman, “a domestic violence survivor and a homeless mom.” Bacon said her role in leadership will bring a new, emphasized voice on criminal justice to the top of legislative debates. She pointed to the fentanyl bill passed last year — which, among other things, tightened criminal penalties for possessing certain amounts of the drug.

She was a no-vote on that bill. The Democrats’ approach to criminal justice was a major theme of the Republican push to unseat Democrats in 2022, in Colorado and across the country. Democrats were expected to lose seats, in part because of crime. They didn’t, and now Bacon’s in leadership. There’s a lesson there, too, she said, about what Coloradans believe and value versus what politicos expected them to believe and value.

“When I’m in a room, I will ask the question: ‘How many people are going to go to jail for a misunderstanding of the root causes of crime?’” she said. “That was also why a lot of us ran for leadership because we felt like our themes were expressed in isolated experiences. And so that’s something I think motivated, quite honestly, a lot of us to want to run for leadership, to want to be able to open that up more.”

Carroll said there was a balance, between the novelty of a historically diverse legislature and a sense that this should just be normal. She felt the shift slowly during her years in the legislature, starting in 2006 and stretching over a decade. She had to be combative and felt more challenged than her male colleagues. She saw the same aggression levied at female committee chairs. Attitudes slowly changed. More women were elected, the novel became routine.

The election of McCluskie, Duran and Bacon — as well as Rep. Brianna Titone, a transwoman, as the co-caucus chair — to leadership positions is a further sign of that shift from novelty to normalcy, Carroll said.

Bacon isn’t quite sure what broader conclusions to draw just yet. Every Coloradan who cast a ballot in November voted for one House candidate, she said. They didn’t elect Jennifer Bacon as assistant majority leader or Iman Jodeh as co-whip. But most of them elected Democrats, who share common goals around housing, health care, criminal justice, around governance. The importance of diverse leadership and membership, she said, is in how those voices are included in shaping the pursuit of those goals.

The impact on policy matters. But there are implications beyond that, too.

“Honestly, when you see someone who looks like you in a position like the speaker’s in, myself and Rep. Bacon are in, then you feel like, ‘OK, there’s someone who looks like me,’” Duran said. “That fear kind of goes away, in all honestly. It really does. ‘I can say something. I can be part of that.’”

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