After nearly four decades of public service, former state Sen. Gloria Tanner, a Denver Democrat, says she’s almost ready to slow down a bit — but not until next year, or maybe the year after that, not until she helps launch another group of African-American women into the civic realm.
“When the next class graduates, the one we’re starting in September — I’m hoping next year will be my last year,” she says with a wide smile that looks ready to break into a wink. “I think I need to retire.”
Since a heart attack three years ago, Tanner says, the many miles and long days are more wearing than they used to be.
“I’ve always been involved and probably always will be,” says former state Sen. Gloria Tanner, D-Denver, who served 16 years in the Legislature before stepping down in 2001, during an interview on April 6 at her Park Hill home in Denver.
During an interview on a sunny afternoon at her Park Hill home last week — a peach tree overlooking a row of raised gardening beds had just exploded in bloom in her backyard — Tanner reflected on her years at the Capitol, how politics has changed since she ran the office of Colorado’s first black lieutenant governor in the 1970s, and her belief in the importance of seeding the community with future leaders.
“I’m a little hesitant about all the traveling,” she says. “I think I need to pull back.” But then, with a determined shake of her head, she dismisses the possibility, at least for now. “I’m still active in the community, so I stay busier than I really should be.”
Still, for a woman whose career has been filled with firsts, Tanner doesn’t sound very convincing declaring that she’s approaching the last of anything.
“I grew up active in the community,” she says, recalling a childhood spent in Atlanta, in the same neighborhood where Dr. Martin Luther King preached.
“My parents were that way,” she says. “They always taught us, if you keep your hands closed, nothing comes in, but if you let them open —” She demonstrates by spreading her palms wide, ready for anything.
“I’ve always been involved and probably always will be,” she adds with a shrug and then tosses off a musical laugh.
The hearty 76-year-old spends three full days a week, plus grueling chunks devoted to conferences held as far-flung as Anchorage, Ak., and Baton Rouge, La., as the part-time national executive director of the National Organization of Black Elected Legislative Women — dubbed NOBEL-Women — a Rutgers-affiliated nonpartisan, nonprofit group that trains African-American women to run for office and helps steer them toward positions on boards and commissions.
Then there’s her own, homegrown project, the Senator Gloria Tanner Leadership and Training Institute for Future Black Women Leaders of Colorado, though she hasn’t run a class through that organization for a few years.
During her 16 years in the legislature — five terms in the House, starting in 1985, and most of two terms in the Senate, finishing in 2001 — Tanner left a legacy beyond her historic selections as the first African-American woman to serve in the Senate and the first to win a House leadership position, when she chaired the Minority Caucus.
Though she never served in the majority — Democrats won control of the Senate the year after she stepped down — Tanner counts a number of landmark bills among her chief accomplishments. She sponsored legislation that established parental rights for adoptive parents, required health benefit programs to cover screening for prostate cancer, and created Colorado’s abandoned-baby law, which allows mothers to drop off newborns at fire stations and other emergency locations, no questions asked.
“I think we’ve saved a lot of lives with those bills,” she says, allowing herself a faint smile of satisfaction for the marks she’s left on the state.
“I think I was able to get some pretty significant things through that improved the quality of life of all the people in the state, not just people in my district,” she says. Then she pauses and considers her accomplishments. “I’m busy — I don’t have time to miss the Capitol, but I enjoyed it while I was there.”
A history of work at Capitol
Tanner showed up for work at the Capitol for more than a quarter century, starting as the executive assistant to Lt. Gov. George Brown, which she terms an “enjoyable job, all the celebrities came through all the time,” she recalls, because of his distinction as one of the first black lieutenant governors since Reconstruction.
She later ran the communications office for Sen. Regis Groff, and then, after narrowly losing a bid to unseat Rep. Arie Taylor — the loss comes with an asterisk — Tanner was elected to represent northeast Denver’s House District 7 in 1984. She won appointment to fill out Groff’s Senate term when he retired in 1994 and won election to a full term two years later.
Does she miss working under the dome?
“I miss my parking space when I go downtown,” she says with a laugh. “I miss some of the people,” she adds more seriously. “I miss working on both sides of the aisle. I miss some of it, but not enough to ever do it again, I don’t miss it that much, but I enjoyed it while I was there.”
She says her last two years in office were particularly enjoyable because she served on the powerful Joint Budget Committee, one of only two Democrats.
“You feel like you’ve got a little power there, because you work with some dynamic people. Elsie Lacy was on there, Steve Tool, Gayle Berry, Dave Owens,” she recalls. “We got a lot of work done without partisan headaches — our caucus got mad at us, but we got the work done.”
Times have changed since the late 90s, when Colorado was flush with cash and the biggest budget problems involved how to refund the excess.
“Some of the things I was able to accomplish, I don’t believe now could happen. I got a quarter of a million dollars to renovate Dearfield” — the legendary black settlement that now boasts a museum commemorating its place in Western history — “and I don’t believe that could happen today. There’s just no money there anymore.”
She got used to serving during the decades when Democrats constituted what seemed destined to remain the permanent minority party in the Legislature.
“Whatever you got through, you were pretty lucky to get through,” she says. “I think what you do when you serve in the minority party is, you don’t carry five bills, or even if you do, you pick one or two that you really work on, and you work with people on that, and you can be successful.”
It also helped, she notes, “if you don’t mind who takes the credit, as long as your bills eventually get through.”
One example of a bill she championed that didn’t pass until after she left the Legislature — and then with a Republican sponsor — is the Senior Property Tax Exemption, which she first proposed in 1999, though in a slightly different form than the bill later adopted.
“I’ve only used it once,” she laughs, “they haven’t had enough money.”
The Legislature anticipates restoring the $98-million tax break this year for seniors who have lived in their home at least a decade, though the measure was subject to plenty of partisan back-and-forth until last month when the state reported a more optimistic revenue projection.
“My bill was different,” Tanner recalls. “I had a certain income level. I don’t know if that’s why it failed, it probably failed because I was a Democrat,” she grins. “The Republicans didn’t want an income limit on that, so that’s how they got it through, and I think that’s why we’re having all these problems now. To be honest about it, I don’t really need a tax exemption, I’m comfortable.”
She says there used to be clear differences between the legislative bodies, in the days before term limits, but wonders if those have been erased over the years.
“I’m not sure now, I don’t know from hearing people talk if there’s much difference between the chambers anymore, but we used to say the statesmen were in the Senate and the politicians in the House,” she says with a chuckle. “I felt like I had ascended into heaven when I got into the Senate because there weren’t as many petty politics in the Senate.”
Still, she wonders if something else is missing in the Senate these days.
“We don’t have an African-American in the Senate at all now, and that’s kind of sad, because, some of the things that happen there, if you haven’t had that life experience, you’re not going to keep bringing bills back,” she says, citing the time after time that former state Rep. Wilma Webb introduced the Martin Luther King Day bill until it became law.
“I don’t know if I’d have brought it back as many times, but she stayed there and she hung with it,” Tanner says.
It was pioneering black lawmakers like Webb who established a tradition Tanner says she felt a part of at the Capitol.
“There wasn’t a day that passed I didn’t walk through that Senate and know there were other people who laid the groundwork,” she says. “I came in on the shoulders of a lot of great people. I think President Obama will tell you that — there were others before me who laid the groundwork. Our young people need to realize that, we need to give back to keep it going.”
Still active in the community
That’s why a typical week for Tanner starts with a trio of full-time days working for NOBEL-Women out of her basement office, with the help of a staff assistant who joins her. She makes time for a couple hours of cardio exercise twice a week and gets in time working her garden when it’s growing season. She loves to travel — Tanner has seen the world, from South Africa to the capitals of Europe, with Paris a particular favorite destination — and gets to Atlanta to visit her surviving sisters every chance she gets. Add in the occasional get-together with her bridge club, a group that’s met regularly for more than 40 years, and Tanner’s week fills up quickly.
“I’m pretty active — more than I want to be. I think I need to pull back, spend some time with my grandkids out in California. I think when you’re in your 70s, you need to pull back, it’s time to do whatever you damn please, and I intend to be at that point in a couple years.”
Tanner and her husband, Ted, moved to Denver when he was stationed at Lowry Air Force Base and the couple decided to stay, first living near City Park and then, ever since, in Park Hill.
She graduated magna cum laude with a bachelor’s degree from Metro State College in 1974 and followed that with a master’s in urban affairs from the University of Colorado in 1976. She later completed the Women in Leadership Program at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.
After her husband died in the early 1980s, she took up gardening on her doctor’s orders.
“He said, if you have the space in your yard to grow something, you need to put your hands in the soil,” Tanner recalls. “I started gardening, and each year I got a little better, and now I love eating out of my garden,” adding that she makes it through the winter with a freezer full of tomatoes and greens.
With a nod to her childhood in Atlanta, she planted peaches and claims her backyard tree yields “the best peaches you’ll ever eat — Georgia couldn’t do as good, they’ll just melt in your mouth.”
An occasional treat, Tanner says, is a trip to the mountains for some gambling, though she laughs that she tries to keep it in check lest she succumb to temptation.
“I like to gamble, but I don’t do it that often because, they say, if you enjoy gambling, you shouldn’t go gambling.”
She considered trying to win an appointment to the Colorado Gaming Commission but changed her mind “when I found out you’re not allowed to gamble if you’re on the commission — then that was a deal-breaker,” she laughs.
After a while, Tanner’s reminiscences circle back to the Capitol politics, which she laughingly describes “like Peyton Place down there, everyone knows everything.”
A few months ago, when political circles were all abuzz over state Rep. Laura Bradford’s brush with Denver police — the cops pulled her over on suspicion of drunk driving but rather than haul her in after she failed a curb-side sobriety test, they called her a cab, citing an obscure provision in the state constitution that forbids detaining legislators on the way to or from Capitol duties — Tanner says a group of former lawmakers got a kick out of the story.
“All of us laughed so hard, we’d never heard of that law before,” she says. “‘Why didn’t we use that?’ Everybody was laughing when we heard of that. ‘Where did that come from?’ This was news to us.”
She says lawmakers didn’t expected special treatment when she served in the Legislature.
“In Colorado, you don’t do some of the things other states do,” she says, remembering a trip some lawmakers took once to Alabama.
“They picked us up at the airport in a limousine and the cops were in front of us to take us to the meeting, they put the siren on — and we said, in Colorado, taxpayers would have a fit if you did that!”
It was that sort of imperious behavior by California legislators that led to the term-limits movement, she speculates, quickly adding that she never supported the idea.
“If people get tired of you, they’ll put you out,” she says with a firm nod.
Tanner’s first run for public office nearly turned out Taylor, a long-term incumbent, but a misplaced box of ballots that showed up days after the election — “the boxes were torn, the tape was all around where they had messed with it,” Tanner grins — flipped the results weeks after her election-night triumph.
“They said I had won for two weeks, and then they got that box of votes they found with the tape on it and everything, and I ended up losing by 18 or 21 votes — it was a mess, but I was in no condition to be down there, so it’s probably good that it happened,” she says, adding that she didn’t challenge the results because her husband had only recently died, in the midst of the campaign.
“I needed to get myself together, I had lost the love of my life.”
Though she recalls that the campaign had turned into “a bitter, nasty race,” including a rock — wrapped with a threatening note — that found its way through her living room window, she says that by the next election she and Taylor had reconciled and remained good friends.
“Sometimes in campaigns, it’s the people that surround you that cause more problems than the candidates cause,” she muses.
Still, she says she has no regrets about her life in politics.
“Not too many people get elected — a hundred people out of this whole state down there at the Capitol,” she says. “I think you need to drop the ego and think about why I’m here, what’s my purpose, and do the best you can, giving back to this community and this state. There’s nothing wrong with some ego, if you’re going to run for public office you need it, but you need to put it in its place.”
It’s why Tanner spends her days cultivating future leaders, encouraging people to get involved.
“If you sit back and say you’re not going to do that, then what happens to you, happens to you,” she says.