Colorado Pioneers: Peter Groff and Terrance Carroll Broke Ground by Being the First African Americans to Lead Both Chambers of a State Legislature at the Same Time. but They'd Rather Keep the Focus on the Work Than on Race

By Sealover, Ed | State Legislatures, July-August 2009 | Go to article overview

Colorado Pioneers: Peter Groff and Terrance Carroll Broke Ground by Being the First African Americans to Lead Both Chambers of a State Legislature at the Same Time. but They'd Rather Keep the Focus on the Work Than on Race


Sealover, Ed, State Legislatures


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Two months into their historic tenure as the first African Americans to lead both chambers of the legislature in one state at the same time, Colorado House Speaker Terrance Carroll and Senate President Peter Groff would talk to anyone who would listen about budget deficits, constitutional spending limits and higher-education funding.

There was just one subject the two Democrats from northeast Denver did not want to discuss: Their historic tenure as the first African Americans to lead both chambers of the legislature in one state at the same time.

"I said to my brother-in-law: 'How many more of these do we need to do?' "Groff said during an interview in his office in March, three days alter yet another celebration dinner honoring the duo for their accomplishment. "He said to me: 'You need to think about what is being accomplished here.'

"I understand the historic nature of it. I understand how important it is for people of color to see a person of color hold these positions. But I do think you get to the point where you say: 'OK, we've done that, and now let's get on to the business at hand.'"

Looking at the Colorado legislature as it stood upon adjournment in early May, it could be viewed as both natural and yet impossible to overlook what the men had done.

Consider this: Groff and Carroll were the only African-American legislators in the 100-person body in 2009, making their historic combination both a triumph of their race and, in some ways, proof that their race had nothing to do with the positions they occupied.

DIFFERENT PATHS

Though the men are both attorneys and live less than 10 blocks from each other, they come from very different backgrounds.

Groff, 46, is the son of a state senator. He attended college in California, came home to get involved in politics, and worked his way up from a councilwoman's legislative aide to a senior adviser for a mayor.

As a governor's office ombudsman, he would sit in the Senate gallery and watch his dad until he was told to get back to work. He naturally jumped at the first opportunity to serve in the House, winning election in 2000.

Carroll, 40, grew up in the poor and violent Capitol Hill and Anacostia neighborhoods of Washington, D.C., the only son of a single room who was a sharecropper's daughter. He came to Colorado to get a doctorate in political science, worked as a police officer, a chaplain and a youth counselor. He won appointment in 2003 to the House seat that opened when Groff left to fill a Senate vacancy.

Their reputations grew early as party leaders, yet mavericks. They led charges with fellow Democrats on criminal-justice reform and bucked their political cohorts by fighting for school choice. In 2004, they co-sponsored a bill creating a state institute to help establish charter schools in districts that were not friendly to the idea.

Groff ascended to his chamber's top post first, winning election as president in late 2007. He served until the end of this session, when he resigned to take a job as director of the Faith-Based and Community Initiatives Center in the U.S. Department of Education.

Carroll, meanwhile, expected to be House majority leader, but after Representative Bernie Buescher, the heavy favorite to succeed the term-limited speaker, lost his seat in the general election, Carroll stepped up two days later and won the post.

CONTRASTING STYLES

During the past session, Groff and Carroll had breakfast once a week. Though they are close friends, Groff says the morning meetings were mainly about communication.

For the most part, the planning led to a symbiotic relationship in backing and advancing the legislation both viewed as important for Colorado. Over opposition from Republicans and even from some Democrats, they shepherded through one bill that eliminates a key spending limit in the state budget and another that generates some $250 million annually for state roadways by raising registration fees on vehicles. …

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