Nancy Spence, on her own

The Colorado Statesman

The first bill she ever carried was on education, and it’s a safe bet that the last bill she’ll carry at the General Assembly will be on education, too.

Sen. Nancy Spence, R-Centennial, was first elected to the House in 1998, to the Senate for the 2005 session and re-elected for her final term in 2008.


When Spence came to the Senate in 2005, she and Senate Minority Leader Norma Anderson, R-Lakewood, were the only women in the Senate Republican caucus. Anderson resigned her seat a year later, just before the start of the 2006 session. She was replaced by Kiki Traylor, who resigned at the end of the year, after losing to incoming Sen. Mike Kopp, who was picked to temporarily fill the seat. And then Spence was alone.

And she remained the solo woman in the Republican Senate caucus for four years, as well as the state’s highest-ranking Republican woman in elected office, until January, when Sens. Jean White, R-Hayden and Ellen Roberts, R-Durango, were sworn in, and Rep. Amy Stephens, R-Monument, became the House Majority Leader.

Sen. Nancy Spence, R-Centennial, puffs on a cigar at the Independence Institute’s Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms party in Bennett in 2009, as her husband, Peter Spence, looks on.
File photo by Jason Kosena/The Colorado Statesman

In a 2007 speech to the Independence Institute, Spence talked about being the solo woman in the Republican Senate caucus, and the dearth of Republican women in the General Assembly.

“I’m the only Republican woman in the state Senate. There I am — without a single female colleague — and 14 men to keep me company. Now, I’ve never objected to spending time with 14 guys, but sometimes I get a little lonely for female companionship on my side of the aisle. The guys are pretty cool about it — they try to keep the blonde jokes to a couple a week. And they did elect me Assistant Minority Leader,” Spence said.

“Being the only woman hasn’t been a huge challenge for me in the Senate. I was one of just two women for 13 years on [the Cherry Creek] school board. I’ve always been treated with respect and always as an equal partner with the guys.”

But Spence also pointed out that at that time, in the Republican side of the House, there were just five women and 21 men. “The number of elected women is not what we want it to be,” she said. “Although there are many well-qualified Republican and Democrat women serving at the local and national levels of government — women serving as mayors, city council members, county officeholders and on boards of education — Republican women are still not equally represented in Colorado.”

That was 2007.

Spence remained the sole woman in the Republican Senate for another three years, while the numbers in the House have grown to nine, with the 2010 election.

Spence told The Colorado Statesman recently that while she appreciates and likes having female colleagues, she’s more concerned with how people vote than their gender. That said, she’s found a number of issues that she shares with her new Senate colleagues and at times she’s observed that the three Republican women will vote one way and their male counterparts will vote another.

The votes, however, aren’t all that different from last year, Spence pointed out. She found herself voting with Sen. Al White and Sen. Ken Kester, whom Jean White and Ellen Roberts replaced, respectively.

As to being the only woman in the Republican Senate, Spence said she always has felt appreciated and respected, even though she didn’t always vote with them. And she noted that she was elected to leadership twice, as Assistant Minority Leader in 2007 and Caucus Whip in 2009.

Spence was well prepared for being alone.

In her 13 years on the Cherry Creek School Board, she was one of two women. “You get used to dealing with male school administrators and school board members,” she said. And being the highest-ranking Republican woman in the General Assembly for four years didn’t “pay any better or give me any more credibility,” she said, laughing.

In the 2007 speech, Spence reached out to Republican women who might be thinking of elected office, telling them to get started at the community level. “Serve as a precinct leader and attend political town meetings; work for candidates or be a volunteer lobbyist or an aide for a legislator at the state Capitol,” she suggested. And “read about current events: know what’s going on in your community, state, and nation.”

Spence told The Statesman that women often come to political or elected office along a different path than their male colleagues: through involvement with school boards, as she did; as city council members, or as volunteers.

“Elected office isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but I think men tend to jump” into political office at different places than women do. Women tend to go through the city council, school board, water board or other lower-level stages, and eventually get to the legislative stage “if we’re not too discouraged or burned out,” she said.

“When women begin a campaign,” she told the Independence Institute, “we almost always come across well because we just tend to listen more carefully to what people say. We are thoughtful about problem solving tough issues. Voters see this and they like, and these are qualities that voters today want in their elected officials.”

What women bring to the table, Spence told The Statesman, is “our ability to collaborate, to form coalitions. We speak to constituents in a thoughtful way that says we’re good listeners. We want to hear what your issues are.”

And once women get to the Capitol, they coalesce around a bill and negotiate differences, and those are qualities that all women bring, be they Republican or Democrat, she said.

As for Republican women, there’s no reason why they can’t be fiscal conservatives, Spence said. She pointed out that many Republican women have their own businesses, and said if she had it to do over, that’s what she’d do — start a small business. That kind of experience is a good lesson for women, since oftentimes they go to work for other people, she said. “Republican women are strong women and strong leaders and ought to think about working for themselves,” she said.

There is a “dark side” to being an elected official, Spence said; being a legislator is not a “family-friendly business,” due to long hours during the session, a fast pace, the low pay, and weekends spent dealing with constituent issues and still trying to keep up family life.

“Women must think carefully about the commitment to run for office,” Spence said in the speech. “It is not recommended for women who have small children or helpless husbands. Women can have it all. It’s just that they just can’t have it all at the same time.”

Spence has had other obstacles to overcome, even within her caucus. When she began in the House in 1999, the perception was that she was a liberal Republican. “I had a tough time getting elected,” she said; for that 1998 election, she faced the only primary challenge she’s ever had in the five state elections she’s won. “Members of the Republican party thought I was just another liberal school board member, so I had to get past that initially.”

And it didn’t help her reputation when she voted for Rep. Russ George, R-Rifle, to be Speaker of the House, over the more conservative Rep. Andy McElhaney of Colorado Springs. She explained that she’d known George from her days of working in Rep. Martha Kreutz’s office, where Kreutz and George shared an office, and Spence considered him a friend.

That liberal perception began to change when she started voting, Spence said. “I surprised quite a few people, I wasn’t as liberal as they’d thought I’d be. I was a fiscal conservative, mostly, I’m a small government Republican and I don’t think the government should do for citizens anything they can do for themselves.”

Her votes even surprised George, she said. “It was kind of a surprise to people how I could vote for the more liberal candidate for speaker and then vote like a conservative.”

The years at the state Capitol have given Spence more confidence in voting her conscience. “I haven’t had to move in any direction over the years, but with years of experience comes the confidence to think for yourself,” she said. While she votes with her party on many issues, sometimes she’s the only Republican to vote with Democrats on issues such as the developmentally disabled and education. “I have the confidence that when I cast a vote different from the way [Republicans are] voting, I’m comfortable with that and I’m doing the right thing,” she said.

Spence has been more successful than many of her Republican colleagues in the Senate in getting bills to the governor’s desk, with 15 last year that were signed into law. That’s due in part to steering away from legislation on social issues, such as abortion, gun rights, immigration or gay rights. “I pick my legislation carefully and then pick bill sponsors carefully,” although she still votes with her caucus on many of the social issues.

The issue closest to her heart is education, and charter schools, and Spence said she makes a difference by working with Democrats on bills that are “important to both parties,” such as a bill on innovative schools that she carried with then-Senate President Peter Groff, D-Denver; and Senate Concurrent Resolution 11-001, which she is sponsoring with current Senate President Brandon Shaffer, D-Longmont.

SCR 1 is currently awaiting final resolution regarding House amendments that Shaffer said recently he doesn’t favor. Spence said she obviously liked the Senate version better, but “when you try to get an important concept passed, you have to think about what you can get passed and what you can’t. I just want to get it through; I obviously liked our version better, but I don’t want to lose it in the House if we have to take another vote.”

As to the newest crop of legislators, Spence said she has been impressed with Sen. Irene Aguilar, D-Denver, whom she called a “rock star” on medical issues, and Sen. Angela Giron, D-Pueblo, who she said is “courageous, bright and very friendly.”

Spence said she hasn’t had time to get together with the newest Senate Republican women, and pointed out that they really aren’t a caucus of their own. The two new members have three committee assignments each, a heavy workload for a freshman legislator. On top of that Spence isn’t prepared to make a commitment to a women’s caucus or voting as a bloc on the Republican side. “If the three of us get too tied to each other, we can’t make an independent vote when we want to,” she said. However, she noted that the three frequently feel the same way on a lot of issues, such as the arts, disabled community and health issues.

If it sounds like Spence is still standing alone, perhaps she is, and she’s okay with that. “I was elected to represent my district,” and she pointed out her suburban district is very different than the rural districts represented by Roberts and White.

“I think we’ll all do fine maintaining our own independence, yet appreciating the fact that there are three of us from the distaff side in the Republican Senate.”

Marianne@coloradostatesman.com