Colorado Poised to Make History With Latinas in Charge of Legislature
By David Montero
In January, Lucia Guzman hopes to do what she's done each of the last three times she's been elected to the Colorado Senate.
She'll fly to Houston. She'll drive a bit west to the Katy Magnolia Cemetery. She'll walk to the two graves beneath the scrub oak tree where her parents are buried and will fill them in on the upcoming legislative session. She'll be clutching a small trowel.
But this trip, the daughter of Mexican immigrants hopes to tell them one more thing: She hopes to tell them she made history.
If the Democrats win big in Colorado on Tuesday, they could take control of both state legislative chambers. If that happens, the state would become the first in history to have its legislature led by two Latinas -- Guzman as the Senate president and Crisanta Duran as the House speaker.
Guzman, 70, said the thought of what that moment might feel like made her cry.
"It is a long line dating back many years when my grandparents crossed the border from Mexico to Texas and brought my father over as an infant," Guzman said. Her success, she said, would give "such a sense of pride and do justice for many of those Latinos in Colorado who came from similar backgrounds."
The Colorado Senate is currently controlled by Republicans by a one-seat majority, while Democrats hold a three-seat edge in the House. Nothing is guaranteed, but Democrats appear to have a good chance of holding the House while flipping the Senate.
Guzman is Senate minority leader and Duran is the House majority leader.
The early voting trend gives a slight advantage to the Democrats. As of Thursday, Democrats had cast about 14,000 more ballots than had Republicans.
And like many swing states in a presidential election cycle, the Latino vote here is seen as crucial to victory. GOP candidate Donald Trump alienated that demographic with anti-immigrant rhetoric that included calling Mexicans coming across the border rapists and talking about building a wall along the border.
Eric Sondermann, a Denver-based political analyst, said Trump "seems to have done all he can not to win the state" with a campaign that has also put down-ticket Republicans at risk and given Democrats a shot at big wins in Colorado.
"The Democrats are hoping -- despite current polling showing the presidential race narrowing -- this becomes a wave year in Colorado," Sondermann said.
Colorado has the country's eighth largest Latino population -- about 1.1 million -- and there are 555,000 eligible Latino voters in the state, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.
That's a long way from 1974, when Polly Baca was the state's first Latina to be elected to the Colorado House and the state's Latino population was under 340,000.
It was unforgettable to her for two reasons.
"I didn't know I was pregnant when I got elected in November. I found out in December," Baca said. "So I was ... not only the first Hispanic-American woman in the state House, but the first pregnant woman to be in the Colorado Legislature. It was rather hectic."
The '80s brought more gains for Latinos in Colorado. Denver became one of the first major cities to elect a Latino mayor when Federico Peña won his race against long-time incumbent William McNichols Jr.
Peña said the state has a rich tradition of electing minorities and it's not surprising Colorado could have two Latinas heading up the Legislature.
"I still think it could be a close election," Peña said. "But I think Trump may be having the same effect on Colorado that Pete Wilson did on California."
Wilson, as governor of California in the '90s, backed Prop. 187, which sought to strip public benefits from immigrants here illegally and sowed seeds of mistrust toward the Republican Party. The GOP in California has never recovered.
Duran said she never imagined seven years ago when she was first elected to her seat that she'd be poised to be House speaker.
The 36-year-old said her parents were the first in their families to go to college and instilled in her a desire to work in public service, but it's her grandmother she'll be thinking about on election day.
"My grandmother only had a third-grade education," Duran said. "She had such great pride and honor in being a wonderful mother and phenomenal grandmother, but at times I think she was embarrassed she didn't know how to read or drive."
Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, said seeing two Latinas be the first to simultaneously head two state legislative chambers, along with a number of other possible firsts -- most prominently, Hillary Clinton as the first female president -- shows how much the political landscape is shifting.
"It's been a process. It didn't just all happen this year," Walsh said. "This is all part of a continuum and it's part of seeing our democracy evolve and expand to become more inclusive."
Cesar Blanco, interim director of the Latino Victory Fund, said that while Colorado's possible history-making moment is something to be applauded, "we still have a lot of work to do." There are 7,383 state legislators nationwide and fewer than 5% are Latino, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
When the Colorado General Assembly convenes in January, each of the elected lawmakers will get a pin to wear to commemorate the 70th regular session. Most will put it on a lapel or on a blouse -- a point of pride and a piece of history -- that will identify them in the Capitol as they start the work of passing a budget, crafting bills and making laws.
Guzman, however, will not be wearing that pin. She will take it back with her to Texas and leave it where she believes it belongs.
She'll take the small trowel in her hand and dig a little hole in the fresh earth near where her previous three general assembly pins are buried. Guzman will then place the new pin carefully in the freshly-dug hole to be with her parents. To be a part of her history.
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