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Colorado Has the Most Women Leading Local Governments

The Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers ranked the state first in terms of the share of women who serve in municipal government, at 46.1 percent. The center also ranked Colorado second among states for women legislators.

Council members and Mayor Linda Montoya sit during a business meeting at Federal Heights City Hall in Federal Heights, Colorado
Council members and Mayor Linda Montoya sit during a business meeting at Federal Heights City Hall in Federal Heights, Colorado on Tuesday, July 2, 2024.
(Photo by Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post)
When the city council in Cortez, Colo., seated its first pregnant councilwoman a couple of years ago, the seven-member body scrambled to provide arrangements for mother and baby.

“We set up a room in case we needed to stop the meeting to allow her to pump,” said Rachel Medina, who was appointed mayor of Cortez by her council colleagues in 2022.

The council — made up of three women and four men — had to figure out how many meetings the new mother, Mayor Pro Tem Lydia DeHaven, might miss and what steps should be taken to ensure compliance with the city charter regarding attendance.

“She’s actually building her family while on council,” Medina said of her colleague. “What are our rules around that? How do we deal with that?”

Considerations like these are becoming increasingly commonplace in Colorado, where women have swelled the ranks of local and state government in recent years. This year, the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University placed the state at the top of a national list for the highest share of women serving in municipal government — at 46.1 percent. It limited its analysis to municipalities with a population of 10,000 or more.

Of Denver’s 13 city council members, nine are women. And a couple of years ago, the Federal Heights City Council marked a Colorado-first distinction: the first all-woman city council.

The Rutgers report also ranked Colorado No. 2 for the proportion of women serving in the state legislature, representing 49 percent of all House and Senate members under the Gold Dome. The state trailed only Nevada, where the legislature is just over 60 percent women. At the bottom is West Virginia, with fewer than 12 percent of state lawmakers women.

Nationally, women in state legislatures in 2024 hit a high of 32.9 percent — still less than a third of all lawmakers in the country.

“Colorado is ahead of the pack — it’s pretty close to parity,” said Jean Sinzdak, associate director of the Center for American Women and Politics. “It’s a pretty good representation.”

Certainly better than 44 years ago, when Wilma Webb was first elected to represent a state House district in the heart of Denver. Webb, who is married to former Denver Mayor Wellington Webb, was one of 19 women in the Colorado House in her first term.

There were 36 women in the House in the 2024 legislative session, constituting the majority of the 65-member body.

“We’ve come a long way from where we began,” said Webb, 81, who was just the second African-American woman elected to the Colorado General Assembly. “I know people respect women more now than they once did.”

“Dipping Their Toes”

Women are “very engaged in the governance of the community,” said Colorado Municipal League Executive Director Kevin Bommer. They often start at the ultra-local level, serving on boards and commissions, “then they’re hooked,” he said.

That’s what happened to state Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, who sat on the board of the Arvada Center for the Arts and Humanities, Arvada’s citizens capital improvement committee and the city’s transportation committee.

“Women start by dipping their toes into public service and testing out the waters and seeing if it’s something they are qualified to do,” she said. “Women are less presumptuous when taking these big leaps.”

Zenzinger, a Democrat, helped local candidates in runs for fire district board, school board and mayor. And then she realized: “If I could get these people elected, why couldn’t I get myself elected.”

She did, winning a seat on Arvada City Council in 2009 and again four years later. But less than a year into her second term, she was appointed to replace state Sen. Evie Hudak, who resigned in the face of a potential recall by gun rights activists.

Her initial tenure in the Senate was short-lived, ousted by Republican Laura Woods in 2014. But Zenzinger, 49, didn’t let that end her political life.

“I filed to run two weeks after I lost,” she said.

Her determination paid off, with a victory over Woods just two years later. After two Senate terms representing Arvada and Westminster at the state Capitol, Zenzinger is now running for Jefferson County commissioner, a post she sees as the “perfect blend” of state and local government.

She credits the now-defunct White House Project, a nonprofit formed in the late 1990s to help boost women representation in government and business, with providing critical guidance on how to run a campaign.

“It was really good to get validation from this group,” Zenzinger said. “There is value in creating that network of support.”

State Sen. Lisa Cutter went through an intensive candidate training course seven summers ago with Emerge Colorado, another candidate training program for women that was jettisoned by the national group last year amid dueling accusations of mismanagement and power grabs.

Cutter, who heads the Democratic Women’s Caucus at the legislature, said her experience training with Emerge Colorado was vital.

“Patriarchy and sex dynamics are still alive and well,” she said. “The system and structure don’t always help women. It’s really important for women to support each other.”

Just six years ago, the state Capitol was rocked by a sexual harassment scandal, culminating in the expulsion of state Rep. Steve Lebsock — the first vote of its kind in more than a century. Five women filed complaints of harassment against the Thornton Democrat, most notably state Sen. Faith Winter of Westminster.

Cutter, 60, said women are attracted to public service by several issues, like equal pay, the cost of child care and abortion rights.

“Women are being elected in large numbers largely because of the conversation that is playing out with abortion,” she said. “We’re seeing abortion play out in all areas.”

Democratic Women Dominant

Sinzdak, of the Center for American Women and Politics, said one notable trend in the explosion of women in politics is the disproportionate number of Democrats in the mix. According to the center’s latest tally, 65.5 percent of all female state legislators nationwide in 2024 are Democrats (1,592) compared to 33.4 percent (812) for Republicans.

In the Colorado House, just five of the 36 women are Republican. The Senate features just two Republican women.

“That’s a huge disparity in the affiliation of women,” Sinzdak said.

One of those two women GOP senators is Janice Rich, whose district covers Mesa County and part of neighboring Delta County. At 72, Rich rose to her position by starting small.

Her first public stint was two terms as Mesa County clerk and recorder, starting in 2003. Then she served eight years as county treasurer. Tapping the encouragement she received years earlier from James Robb, a state representative for whom she had worked in the 1980s, Rich decided to make a run for the statehouse.

“I stepped out of my comfort zone and ran,” she said.

Rich was elected to the House in 2018 and reelected two years later. In 2022, she ran for Senate District 7 and won. She said she works well with Barbara Kirkmeyer, the only other woman Republican senator in the chamber. But issues of gender, she said, take a back seat to her responsibilities on the Senate floor.

“I’m there to do my job and not to try and figure out if I belong there or figure out the dynamics of men and women,” Rich said. “I’m just there to represent my district.”

State Rep. Rose Pugliese, 46, feels similar to Rich.

“I’m less gender-focused and more experience-focused,” the freshman Republican lawmaker representing Colorado Springs said.

Nonetheless, Pugliese said she felt a kinship with the all-woman House leadership in the last session. She assumed the minority leader position in late January after state Rep. Mike Lynch stepped down from the post following revelations of a 2022 drunken driving arrest.

“Our dynamic is a little different,” Pugliese said of her work with Democratic House Speaker Julie McCluskie and House Majority Leader Monica Duran, also a Democrat. “The expectation on the floor is that the majority leader and I manage expectations on bills. We were able to very effectively communicate.”

Women, she said, start with issues they care about and then move up from there. For Pugliese, that rise started in Mesa County with an intense interest in education and an unsuccessful attempt to capture a school board seat in 2009.

Three years later, she ran for Mesa County commissioner and won. She was reelected in 2016. She moved to Colorado Springs in 2020 and was elected to the state House two years later.

“Most women started with grassroots activism — an issue they care about. And they rose through the ranks,” she said.

“More Collaborative”

On the municipal front, where Colorado stands atop the list of states for women in government, the Federal Heights City Council all-woman council is led by Mayor Linda Montoya, a 25-year resident of the city.

Montoya, who was elected in 2019 (she defeated three men) and was reelected last year, said she feels the current council is more prepared for meetings and more efficient. No offense to her husband, Kenneth Murphy, who served on the city council for two terms, she said.

“It seemed like their meetings took longer,” Montoya said of previous councils. “We just go in there and get the job done.”

She also said her leadership style is “less combative” than previous mayors. Perhaps no more so than the last council in Federal Heights, where discord on the body resulted in then-Mayor Daniel Dick sitting alone at the dais as the rest of the council refused to show up for a meeting in the waning weeks of 2019.

Across the state in Cortez, Medina said she has sometimes heard people express wariness about her more cooperative approach to running meetings as mayor.

“A lot of people think you should command the room,” she said. “I have more of a collaborative and listening approach.”

Medina, who grew up in Longmont, thinks it’s only a matter of time before Colorado achieves parity in the gender breakdown of municipal leaders.

“I think women will continue to step up to take ownership, for the future of their communities and families,” she said.

©2024 MediaNews Group, Inc. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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