'Strong Sisters'

 More than a dozen current and former women legislators pose on the steps of the Colorado Capitol to promote the locally produced 2016 documentary “Strong Sisters,” the story of women elected officials in the state, which has the first parliamentary body in the world to seat women lawmakers. 

Voting in Colorado's primary doesn't begin until mid-June, but now that the ballot has been set, one thing is certain: the state is on track to continue its 144-year tradition of sending men to the U.S. Senate.

Since statehood, every Colorado senator has had one thing in common.

There have been Democrats and Republicans and even, for a few  years around the turn of the last century, a Silver Republican. Several have worn beards and more than a few sported impressive mustaches, though for the last 90 years, they've all been clean-shaven.

But all 36 of them — including a couple who served non-consecutively — have been men.

And whichever candidate wins in November — Republican incumbent Cory Gardner or one of the two Democrats running in a primary to replace him, John Hickenlooper or Andrew Romanoff — that won't change after the next election.

No one is declaring that it's a proud tradition, though it is an enduring one.

The same goes for Colorado's two other most powerful elected offices, governor and mayor of Denver, neither of which have ever been occupied by a woman.

It's an electoral version of the Colorado Paradox, that vexing state of affairs that finds Colorado with one of the best-educated populations in the nation while ranking among the worst states for funding higher education and sending its own home-grown students to college.

In many ways, Colorado has been a leader when it comes to women in politics and elected office, making the glass ceilings under the three most prominent state positions all the more perturbing.

Colorado was the first state ever to give women the right to vote by public referendum, in 1893, and the year after that, Colorado's legislature became the first parliamentary body in the world to seat women lawmakers, after three women legislators were elected.

For most of the last decade, Colorado has vied with Vermont, Oregon, New Hampshire and Nevada as the state with the largest share of women serving in the legislature, currently ranking second, behind Nevada.

Until recently, more than a dozen states shared Colorado's distinction of having never elected a woman senator or governor, but after Iowa voters sent Republican Joni Ernst to the Senate in 2014 and Mississippi voters elected Republican Cindy Hyde Smith in 2018 to the seat she first filled by appointment, the number has dwindled.

It's not for lack of trying.

Until about a month ago, Democrat Trish Zornio was among a record number of women who were seeking the Democratic nomination for Gardner's seat — and the day the primary ballot was finalized on May 7, another woman, Lorena Garcia, was still in the running for the nomination until she lost a ruling in federal court.

Other Democrats who made a go of it this cycle included Michelle Ferrigno Warren, Diana Bray, Stephany Spaulding, state Sen. Angela Williams, Ellen Burnes and former House Majority Leader Alice Madden. A handful of others announced their candidacies but didn't stay in the race for long.

Zornio, who withdrew from the contest just days before the Democratic state assembly, said in an online post Thursday that she's counting on the party's nominee to commit to "build the bench" to help increase the likelihood Colorado elects a woman as senator, governor or Denver mayor in the next decade.

In addition to calling on the winner of the Democratic primary to bring a scientific perspective to Washington, fight for younger Americans and listen to what she calls the state's underserved rural areas, Zornio says it's imperative that the nominee "hire, promote and mentor women," work to improve conditions for working women and boost women candidates at all levels.

Her directive sounds a lot like a vow U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette made in 2014 at a panel discussion on women’s professional advancement, when the Denver Democrat pointed out the same lack of women in Colorado's roster of senators, governors and Denver mayors.

DeGette was the second woman from Colorado to win election to Congress — following Denver Democrat Pat Schroeder, who occupied the same seat for 24 years before she retired and DeGette won it in 1996. Since then, two other women won election in the 4th Congressional District, Republican Marilyn Musgrave and Democrat Betsy Markey, though both lost bids for reelection, leaving DeGette as the only woman in Colorado's delegation.

“I’m on the warpath now,” DeGette said. “Our next governor is going to be a woman. And when one of our fabulous senators decide to step down, the next one is going to be a woman. And our next mayor is going to be a woman. Why not?”

As it turned out, some women candidates came close to fulfilling DeGette's promise, but they all fell short.

Former state treasurer Cary Kennedy and then-Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne both made it to the 2018 Democratic gubernatorial primary, and urban planner Jamie Giellis made it as far as the runoff against Denver Mayor Michael Hancock in last year's municipal election.

It's been more than 20 years since a woman has won the nomination for the two prized statewide offices, when then-Lt. Gov. Gail Schoettler won a close 1998 Democratic primary for governor but lost an even closer general election to Republican Bill Owens.

Before that, three Democrats and one Republican woman won their parties' nomination for senator, but none was elected.

In 1980, Republican Secretary of State Mary Estill Buchanan survived one of the toughest paths to the ballot in memory — her own party bosses fought to keep her out of the primary — and then came close to unseating Democratic U.S. Sen. Gary Hart.

Four years later, then-Lt. Gov. Nancy Dick was the 1984 Democratic nominee to go up against Republican U.S. Sen. Bill Armstrong but proved unable to deny him a second term.

After Armstrong decided against seeking a third term, the Democrats picked former Boulder County Commissioner Josie Heath to run against Republican nominee U.S. Rep. Hank Brown, who won the seat by a wide margin.

Heath sought the Democratic nomination again in 1992 but came in third in a primary against former Gov. Dick Lamm and U.S. Rep. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, who went on to win in November. Campbell switched parties two years later, and when he sought a second term in 1998, the Democrats nominated Dottie Lamm, a newspaper columnist and women's rights advocate who also spent a dozen years as Colorado's first lady.

Lamm, who lost to Campbell by a nearly two-to-one margin, and Schoettler, who lost in a squeaker to Owen, were the last women nominated by either party for the top statewide offices.

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