Colorado women reflect on state’s history of electing men for higher office

By Jenna Thomas

//Colorado State Capitol. Photo from Shuttershock. 

The year was 1876, the birth of Colorado’s statehood. The rush for gold was in full swing, the creation of railroads was running hot, and life by candlelight was the norm. John Long Routt served as Governor. Henry Teller and Jerome Chaffee represented the Centennial State as U.S. Senators. All were white males. 

Most things have significantly changed since the 1800s. Smartphones are a long way from what Alexander Graham Bell probably had in mind. Elon Musk’s electric cars are a far cry from the Wild West’s horse-drawn covered wagons.  

But one thing has remained the same since Colorado’s early days. 

For 144 years, white men have exclusively served Coloradans in the Governor’s mansion and the U.S. Senate. That record will be extended regardless of who wins November’s Senate race between Republican Cory Gardner and Democrat John Hickenlooper.

“It’s pathetic. We should be ashamed,” said former Lt. Governor Gail Schoettler. 

Schoettler was the first woman to run for Governor in Colorado, losing to Republican Bill Owens in 1998 by less than 7,800 votes. Twenty years passed before a female followed in her historic footsteps. 

In 1997, Democrat Dottie Lamm lost a senate race to Republican Ben Nighthorse Campbell. Again, it was more than twenty years before a woman sought out the same seat.  

To date, Colorado remains one of only five states, the others being Idaho, Indiana, Pennsylvania, and Virginia, to never elect a female as Governor or U.S. Senator. 

“It’s really odd, especially since Colorado is so progressive,” said Beth Hendrix, executive director of the League of Women Voters of Colorado.  

What makes Colorado’s membership in that group more of an enigma is that our state has the second-highest percentage in the entire country of women serving in the state legislature at 44%. 

Schoettler said Colorado has an incredible array of smart and talented women who could run for the office. She said the fact that the state is among very few that have not had a female Senator isn’t a good look. 

“It’s a dismal group of states to be a part of,” Schoettler said.

Six women campaigned to become the Democratic nominee for Senate in 2020, but none made it onto the primary ballot. 

Lorena Garcia, a Democrat was one of those to run for Senate, crisscrossing the state to talk with voters. She hoped her 16-year track record of leading advocacy organizations and drafting legislation to support vulnerable communities would earn her support. 

She was inspired by meeting Coloradans passionate about her progressive campaign but stunned by the rough-and-tumble politics.  

“It’s a cut-throat sport,” Garcia said. “That was a sad wakeup call for me.” 

Rather than feeling supported by her female opponents, she faced intimidation tactics. Garcia felt tricked when a female candidate invited her to meet for a friendly coffee.   

“Her coffee was all about intimidating me out of running,” Garcia said. “Her last comment was ‘when you don’t make it, feel free to join my team.’” 

As for the male candidates, Garcia said they didn’t waste their time. 

“The men never took any of us seriously,” Garcia said. “They couldn’t care less about us. It’s a horrible, vicious cycle of oppressed communities.” 

Before Hickenlooper entered the race, Schoettler says some female candidates were somewhat pressured not to run by Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. 

“He simply didn’t give any credibility to women. He basically said don’t do it, ‘I’ll make sure you won’t have any money, and you won’t have access to the best consultants,’” Schoettler said. “That is a national failing of Schumer and our party.” 

Garcia said the Democratic Party needed to prop-up a puppet that wouldn’t make too many waves. “They did not want anyone in office that was going to challenge their status quo policies,” she said.

Fundraising is another challenge faced by women candidates, for one fundamental reason—many women earn less than men and have less wealth to share, according to the Center for American Women and Politics. The center’s research shows that women often receive donations in smaller amounts compared to men. 

In Schoettler’s case, many businessmen showed up to support her 1986 run for State Treasurer, but that wasn’t the case when she ran for Governor more than a decade later. 

“They dropped away. They just could not picture a woman Governor, and I don’t think that has changed all that much,” Schoettler said. 

Since then, Schoettler has founded the national Electing Women PAC. The organization works to raise money for pro-choice women running for Governor and Senate seats around the country. The organization is already thinking about 2022 and beyond. 

“We need to have a couple of strong candidates now for the next open Senate seat. I just think it’s time to have more women running and winning, and it’s discouraging when you’re outspent,” Schoettler said. 

The media is unquestionably a major force in politics. In general, women do not get a fair shake, Garcia said. 

“When describing candidates—the favored, the newcomer, the lesser-known, [the media was] already pigeon-holing us in these boxes that were really hard to get out of. That was a huge uphill battle.” 

While at candidate forums, Garcia asked attendees to repeat her name seven times before she would answer their questions. She explained to the audience that if she didn’t push for people to remember her name, no one else was going to due to media bias.

“After I did that, then I started getting more phone calls for a quote,” Garcia said.

Schoettler faced the same challenges in 1998 during her bid for Governor.  

“The press treats women candidates as trivialities,” Schoettler said. “Instead of talking about women and their accomplishments, they write about how they look, something petty and negative. That has not changed.” 

Garcia says she’s unsure about her future political ambitions but is determined to see females at the head of the table.    

“I hope that something changes, that we can actually vote for something that we can be excited about,” Garcia said. 

Hendrix stated that when the state finally does elect its first female Senator, the League of Women Voters of Colorado will be there to celebrate. Schoettler added that when the glass ceiling finally shatters, it will send a strong message to young girls.

“I think it gives girls a huge amount of self-confidence to see women leaders, and how she sees her own opportunities for the future,” Schoettler said.


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