March 20, 2023 3:23 am

Local News

Largest Black Caucus in Colorado History Goes To Work at the Capitol

iStock

by Sara Wilson, Colorado Newsline

When state Sen. Rhonda Fields began her first term as a representative in the Colorado General Assembly in 2011, she was one of two Black lawmakers, alongside Angela Williams.

Now, more than a decade later, she is part of the largest Black Democratic Legislative Caucus in Colorado history, with 11 members.

“Now I have people who are willing to help pat my back and lift me up when it comes to legislation that’s important to our community,” she said at a caucus legislative preview in January.

In an interview with Colorado Newsline, Fields said the increase in caucus numbers “shows the progression as it relates to the state of Colorado, once being red and now being purple. I think there’s been many more opportunities for people of color to run for office.”

Though there have been over 40 Black members of the Legislature in the past century — with Joseph Stuart being the first Black legislator in the state at the turn of the 20th century — the caucus officially formed in 2012 to foster common policy goals. The record number of caucus members this session includes seven women in the House and two women and two men in the Senate. Rep. Iman Jodeh, who does not identify as Black and is the first Muslim to serve in the Legislature, is a member of the caucus. There are no Black Republican members of the Legislature.

Members of the Black Democratic Legislative Caucus include:

  • Rep. Jennifer Bacon, D-Denver (Chair)
  • Sen. James Coleman, D-Denver (Vice-Chair)
  • Sen. Janet Buckner, D-Aurora
  • Sen. Tony Exum, D-Colorado Springs
  • Sen. Rhonda Fields, D-Aurora
  • Rep. Regina English, D-Colorado Springs
  • Rep. Elisabeth Epps, D-Denver
  • Rep. Leslie Herod, D-Denver
  • Rep. Iman Jodeh, D-Aurora
  • Rep. Junie Joseph, D-Boulder
  • Rep. Naquetta Ricks, D-Aurora

The caucus includes Rep. Regina English, the first Black woman to represent El Paso County.

“Representation is important and representation matters, especially for people who look like me,” she said at the January legislative preview. “I’m in this space providing hope to let people who look like me know it is possible, and that we definitely belong in this space.”

It also includes the first Black woman to serve as assistant majority leader, Rep. Jennifer Bacon.

“There was no road to leadership for any of us that did not come with acknowledgement of the urgency and the acknowledgement of what’s possible. Because I think what binds us as well is knowing that these things are possible. That’s half the battle. The other half is us doing the work every day in those committee rooms,” Bacon, who is also the caucus chair, said in January.

A bigger impact

The caucus works to advance policies that benefit communities of color, as well as all Coloradans, in areas like education, economic development, health care, housing, public safety, social justice and voting rights.

“The impact of having a formal organization is how they can assemble different strategies for our community and try to work with other legislators to create a better understanding about the needs of the community. Sometimes when you’re a lone wolf, people might not listen to you. But when you have several people who can speak from different perspectives … it makes a bigger impact,” said Terri Gentry, History Colorado’s Engagement Manager for Black Communities.

A third-generation Black Denverite, Gentry has deep ties to the legacy of Black legislators — her aunt is former state Rep. Rosemary Marshall and her uncle was a former legislator and lieutenant governor, George Brown.

“To a lot of folks, unfortunately, what’s happening in our community, is irrelevant to them. It doesn’t affect them. So our Black legislators are working hard to make sure that we are relevant, that people hear us, that people stand up for our communities and make sure that our voices are heard,” she said. State Sen. Rhonda Fields attends an event hosted by Colorado’s Black Democratic Legislative Caucus to provide a 2023 legislative preview at Cleo Parker Robinson Dance in Denver, Jan. 25, 2023. (Kevin Mohatt for Colorado Newsline)

Like other states, Colorado saw an increase in Black representation that began in the 1970s and 1980s with gains coming at a slower pace in recent decades, according to Robert Preuhs, the chair of the political science department at the Metropolitan State University of Denver.

“We’re still seeing a record amount in aggregate in state legislatures, as well as in Colorado,” he said.

You can’t tell me that a state that sent those four Black women to represent Boulder, El Paso County, Denver and Aurora — you can’t tell me that a state that does that can’t fix affordable housing.

– Rep. Elisabeth Epps

The Colorado population is about 5% Black, according to census data. The Black caucus makes up about 10% of the 100-person Legislature.

That representation extends into direct policy impact.

“We know that African American legislators typically have unique policy preferences. They tend to advocate for policies such as judicial reform and criminal justice reform and health care to a greater extent than even their white Democratic colleagues,” Preuhs said. “They also bring a new perspective to those issues in floor speeches, committee hearings and informal conversations.”

That translates into power, he said, especially when members of the Black caucus are also part of a strong majority in the Legislature. Democrats hold large majorities in both the Senate and House this session, and every statewide elected office is currently held by a Democrat. State Rep. Jennifer Bacon speaks with guests during an event hosted by Colorado’s Black Democratic Legislative Caucus at Cleo Parker Robinson Dance in Denver, Jan. 25, 2023. (Kevin Mohatt for Colorado Newsline)

Still some gaps

Members of the Black caucus spoke about some of their policy victories during the January legislative preview. That includes the 2020 bill that aims to prevent hair-related discrimination in public education, public accommodations, employment practices and advertising sponsored by Fields, Rep. Leslie Herod and Sen. Janet Buckner, who was a representative at the time.

It also includes a 2020 police accountability law that puts greater restrictions on when law enforcement can use force and requires more extensive data collection and reporting. It was sponsored by Fields, Herod, Rep. Serena Gonzales-Gutierrez and former Sen. Leroy Garcia.

Last year, Colorado began officially recognizing Juneteenth as a state holiday. Last month, both chambers recognized Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day in a joint session for the first time.

This session, the Black caucus’s priorities mirror many of the ones from the Democratic majority: housing accessibility, public safety and gun violence prevention. Fields is working on what could be a hallmark bill of the session relating to a ban of assault weapon purchases.

Members are optimistic about success this session given how last year’s elections led to a historically diverse and progressive legislative body.

“You can’t tell me that a state that sent those four Black women to represent Boulder, El Paso County, Denver and Aurora — you can’t tell me that a state that does that can’t fix affordable housing. You can’t tell me that a state that can do that can’t fix gun violence, can’t create a system where people stay healthy, safe and free,” Rep. Elisabeth Epps said in January.

Still, there are remaining representative gaps. There are no Black committee chairs in the House of Representatives. There hasn’t been a Black speaker of the House since 2011 with Terrance Carroll or Senate President since 2009 with Peter Groff. A Black woman has yet to hold either position. As the state itself diversifies, there are gaps in Latino and Asian American and Pacific Islander representation.

“For the Black caucus, we’re only as good as the people that support us,” Fields said. “Our support is heavily based on community lending voice to what they want to see us do. We want to serve our communities — that’s what brought us into this work and space.”

This story was written by Sara Wilson, a reporter for the Colorado Newsline, where this story first appeared.

Colorado Newsline is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Colorado Newsline maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Quentin Young for questions: info@coloradonewsline.com. Follow Colorado Newsline on Facebook and Twitter.