Milestone: 2 blacks at top Denver posts at same time
Ryan Summerlin January 3, 2009
DENVER, Colorado – In the same grand Denver chambers where the Ku Klux Klan once held sway, two black men will assume the most powerful positions in the Colorado General Assembly.
When the legislature convenes next week for its 2009 session, Peter Groff will again be elected Senate president, while Terrance Carroll will assume the post of speaker of the House.
Colorado is the first legislature in the nation to have two blacks holding the top posts at the same time.
Not Illinois, or South Carolina or any other state where blacks come much closer to being the demographic majority.
It’s Colorado, where blacks make up only 4 percent of the population.
Carroll and Groff – both Denver Democrats and the only black members among the 100-member assembly – say they are grateful for that chance to be a part of history.
Groff said he was struck by his situation when he attended the recent National Black Caucus of State Legislators in Washington, D.C.
During roll call, dozens of conference-goers would stand up as their states were called: Alabama . . . Georgia . . . Maryland.
“Then they say ‘Colorado,’ and it’s just me. I’m on the executive committee, and I stand up and say, ‘Here.’ “
Colorado, known for its flinty and independent political ways, may have been the perfect place to make history.
“It’s always been my spiel that here in the West we look at things differently,” said Wellington Webb, who in 1991 became Denver’s first black mayor.
“We’re more interested in results than in social or historical pedigrees like in the South or the East. We have more of a wagon train philosophy. We only want to know, ‘Can you get the wagon train over the mountains?’
“If you can deliver and you do a good job and work hard, people will take a chance on you.”
It’s not exactly a stretch to see how Groff came to politics: He is the son of former lawmaker Regis Groff, who served from 1974 to 1994. The elder Groff said he often mentioned the Ku Klux Klan’s presence in Colorado during the 1920s on the floor of the Senate in the years he fought to make Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday a state holiday.
“I used to teach social studies in junior high, and one of the books we used had a picture of the KKK marching down Colfax Avenue,” Regis Groff said.
The Groffs moved to Colorado from Illinois when Peter was just 3 months old. He graduated from Denver’s East High School and eventually went to work for former Gov. Roy Romer and former Mayor Webb.
He was first elected to the House in 2000 and later was appointed to a vacancy in the Senate.
Groff has never been shy about making his thoughts known, including in 2006, when Rep. Jim Welker apologized on the floor of the House for forwarding an essay criticizing New Orleans hurricane victims as “immoral, welfare-pampered blacks.”
Other lawmakers accepted Welker’s apology, but Groff questioned the Loveland Republican’s sincerity.
“Maybe he should go to Sears and see what size sheets and hoods they have,” Groff said at the time.
Groff made history by becoming the first black president of the Senate in late 2007, when then-Senate President Joan Fitz-Gerald stepped down to run for Congress full time.
Peter Groff’s official election to the post came on the opening day of the 2008 legislature before a standing-room-only crowd in the Senate chambers. Black women cried in the balcony, and Groff was feted at luncheons and banquets.
He knows that when the session opens Wednesday the focus will be not on him, but on Carroll.
For that, Groff is relieved.
“Thank goodness,” he said. “I was so over me by the time opening day came around last year. I’ll be glad to have him take all of the attention.”
Carroll hadn’t planned to run for the House majority leader post. But on Nov. 4, Rep. Bernie Buescher of Grand Junction – expected to be elected speaker – was upset in his re-election bid. Carroll went for the post, defeating two other speaker contenders.
“It’s something, isn’t it?” Carroll said.
“When I have an opportunity to slow down and think about it, I’m absolutely amazed that this kid who grew up in the ghetto would be part of history in Colorado. It’s amazing to me.”
Carroll grew up in Washington, D.C.’s drug- and violence-ridden Capitol Hill and Anacostia neighborhoods, the latter of which was known as “Dodge City within Dodge City.”
He was the only child of a single mother who was a sharecropper’s daughter, a domestic who scrubbed floors to make a better life for him. She took her son to Boy Scouts and to church on Sundays.
Carroll won his election to the House in 2002 and became chairman of the House Judiciary Committee in 2005 after Democrats won the majority.
Carroll recently was trying on overcoats at a store when an elderly black man approached him.
“He said, ‘I know you. You’re that guy in politics. You make us all feel so proud.’ That touched me,” Carroll said.
Webb, who served in the legislature before becoming Denver’s three-term mayor, will be in the House when Carroll takes his oath of office. So will Webb’s wife, Wilma, a former lawmaker instrumental in making King’s birthday a holiday.
“It is unbelievable to think that in 2009 there will be a person of color as president of the United States, president of the Colorado Senate and speaker of the Colorado House,” Wellington Webb said.
“This is off the map.”
Perhaps. But it’s on the wagon train.