Editorial note: March is Women’s History Month. The Colorado Statesman this month will profile four lawmakers who are leaving their marks. This week: Sen. Suzanne Williams, D-Aurora; next week, House Majority Leader Amy Stephens, R-Monument.
While term limits were intended to send legislators home after eight years in the House and the same in the Senate, surprisingly few will do that after the 68th General Assembly.
After the 2012 session, only one will have hit that 16-year mark: Sen. Suzanne Williams, D-Aurora, who was elected to House District 41 in 1997, replacing term-limited Rep. Peggy Kerns, D-Aurora, the House Minority Leader during the previous session.
Williams sat down with The Colorado Statesman last week to talk about the things that matter to her as a legislator, and revealed a few surprises about what being a legislator has meant. In the interest of full disclosure, The Statesman did not ask about Williams’ current situation related to her December auto accident.
In her first year at the Capitol, for the 1997 session, Williams was one of 24 women in the House, and that’s the same number of women in the House this year. But in the Senate, how things have changed. She’s one of 17 women in the Senate, 14 of them on the Democratic side. Democratic women outnumber the men 14 to 6.
Williams said that at the time she began her legislative career, the rule of thumb was that freshmen legislators didn’t get bills passed, especially if the legislator was in the minority party. “If you were in the minority party, forget that in your first year you would pass a bill,” she said. But Williams bucked the trend, and she said that was because she could communicate with and build relationships with the majority Republicans.
Those efforts resulted in Williams’ first bill to get to the governor’s desk, House Bill 07-1125, on penalties for graffiti. The bill had two Republican co-sponsors in the House: Rep. Tambor Williams, R-Greeley; and Rep. Mary Ellen Epps, R-Colorado Springs; in the Senate, it was carried by Sen. Dottie Wham, D-Denver, and after final passage in May was signed by Gov. Roy Romer.
She spoke fondly of some of the Republican women who came into the House in that 1997 session as freshmen: Rep. Kay Alexander, R-Montrose; Rep. Gayle Berry, R-Grand Junction; and Tambor Williams. “My best friends and peers were Republican women,” Williams said. She also spoke fondly of Wham, noting that she, Wham, Alexander and Berry all worked together on a childcare commission, work that Williams continued when she came into the Senate in 2005. “We did great work,” Williams said with pride, in part because of the partnerships these legislators built up with both parties. “We built up the infrastructure” so that Lt. Gov. Barbara O’Brien came along it became a part of the policies and under the direction of that office.
Williams said she got along well with the freshmen Republican women because they had a lot in common. “I’m a moderate Democrat, they were moderate Republicans. They would help me often, I would help them always.”
That only she and Bacon have made it to the 2011 session, and nearing that 16-year mark, is a reflection of what happens in peoples’ lives, she said. Sometimes there are “natural term limits,” she mused, other opportunities come along. Two of the Republican women, Berry and Tambor Williams, got primaried in their districts. U.S. Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., also was a member of that freshmen class, as was Rep. Bill Sinclair, R-Colorado Springs. Udall went onto Congress and Sinclair decided not to go on to the Senate. After three terms, Alexander ran for the Senate, in 2002, but lost to Sen. Jim Isgar, D-Hesperus.
As to the difference between when she first ran in 1996 and today, Williams said it’s being in the majority. She spent all of her time in the House in the minority but her election to the Senate District 28 seat in 2005 gave the Democrats one of the four seats that made the 18-17 difference. Williams defeated a Republican, Bruce Cairns, and was the first Democrat to hold that seat, with predecessors that read like a “Who’s Who” of GOP successes: Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colo.; Elsie Lacy (chair of the Joint Budget Committee) and Gov. Bill Owens.
“When you’re in the majority,” Williams said, “it’s a lot of responsibility. You just don’t say ‘no’ to things; you have to lead the way.” It’s different now, with Republicans in charge of the House, but even there Williams has been able to draw upon her own experience as a member of the minority from her House days. “We partner more with the minority (Republicans), just like when I was in the House, I learned to partner with the majority Republicans.” Back then, Williams said, she was often the token Democrat on education and children’s issues.
The 1997-98 Colorado Press Association legislative directory includes this about Williams: transportation, education and environment as her legislative agenda, and for interests, historical biographies, outdoor activities, travel, tennis, biking and aerobics. Nowhere does it mention her heritage as a Comanche.
Williams told The Statesman that the most rewarding part of her legislative career, and one that she says she will “take with me forever,” is reconnecting with her Native American roots. She never lived on a reservation, growing up in Oklahoma City and later, north of Chicago, during her childhood. “I’ve always been proud of my heritage,” she said, but “I didn’t know a lot about the Comanche, other than tidbits, such as that they were great horsemen, they fought hard, that kind of thing.”
Williams is the only registered Native American state legislator in Colorado, and said the re-awakening coincided with coming into the legislative policy mode at the state Capitol. “I learned more about Native Americans, about reservations, our Ute Mountain Utes and Southern Utes,” she said. That helped her re-connect with her own heritage, and led her to work with the lieutenant governors, who are responsible for Native American relations.
The second bill Williams got to the governor’s desk, in the 1998 session, was to add curriculum on Native Americans to K-12 education. “That connection with my roots, becoming friends with the Utes,” gave her an appreciation of Colorado’s Native American history and some of the attributes of Native Americans. What stands out for Williams is both their spirituality and their sense of humor, something she observed in her own family as a child. “Perhaps that’s a survival technique,” she said. As to the spirituality, Williams aid she learned that every Native American event is opened with a prayer, something she didn’t know before she became a legislator. “I have a connection with that spiritual quality and appreciation for the spiritual heritage that connects so strongly with the earth, the environment, with animals.”
When asked what frustrated her about being a legislator, Williams hesitated. “I’m a person of cooperation; I work in a cooperative mode, and I like to work with people of the other party and to have good policy” that comes from that cooperation. “The frustrating part, at times, is to experience the partisan political ugly head that raises itself from time to time.” She says it’s really no different now than it was when she first came to the state Capitol.
She’s most proud of the legislation she’s helped pass on early childhood education, which she said has made Colorado a leader in that area; and educating legislators and other elected officials that the education of the youngest children prepares them to succeed in school. “I’ve done a lot of education bills. That’s my background. I’ve been an advocate for special education, developmental disability issues, and usually ever year I carry something on education.”
Williams also pointed to 2005 legislation that allowed more public access to the state’s sex offender registry, and a bill this year to place restrictions and require better education and training for use of prone mechanical restraints in jails and mental health facilities.
But transportation is really her love, Williams said. She’s enjoyed her experience on the transportation committees, including as part of the leadership of the Senate committee, and lauds the efforts of the General Assembly on mass transit. “We’ve proven people will ride and the capacity is there, and it’s definitely safe,” and that will always be a highlight, she said. Transportation “is an exciting issue,” she added.
This year, Colorado leads in the number of women in its state legislature, with 41 between the House and Senate. Williams attributes it to the strong women in Colorado’s history. “Women have stepped forward in our state from the very beginning,” Williams said. “We were the first state to have a woman in the Legislature, we’ve continued to build on that, and while it’s fluctuated over the years, this is the era of women in our country, whether Republican or Democrat.”
“Women in the West and in Colorado have been seen as equal partners to men. It’s a natural thing for women in Colorado to be leaders, policymakers, and active in their communities, and then because of term limits they have come into the legislative process,” she said.