03/07/2011 03:36 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

A Fresh Start for Colorado Democrats

Something magical happened yesterday.

Parking at the Colorado Convention Center involves driving up a narrow, tight, concrete spiral at a very low speed -- again and again and again, until one reaches the first level of the parking structure. While cranking the wheel to the right, one can see the tread marks and scrapes from all the cars that previously passed through, some leaving a little of their paint job behind. Not normally claustrophobic, I am always relieved when I see sunlight again at the top. The experience reminds me of the spiral of the Democratic Party after a period of political divisiveness. When there is a light at the end of the tunnel, it is glorious!

The 2011 reorganization was my first time serving as a voting member of the State Central Committee. Although I had attended in the past to participate in my Congressional District meeting and stayed to mingle or to volunteer, this was the first time I had credentials for "the big show."

The room was packed. As Congressman Ed Perlmutter pointed out in his speech, John Kennedy's first rule of politics was to get a slightly smaller room than your event requires, in order to give the appearance of having a full house. Clearly, Colorado Democratic Chair Pat Waak knew this rule. Chairs were linked together closely convention-style, forcing people who needed more room to use in-between seats for their purses and notebooks. The seats were strewn with candidate ads, copies of the Colorado Statesman, platform change fliers, and proposed rule suggestions. The walls were lined with Democrats visiting with each other, and VIPs waiting for their turn at the podium.

CDP Chair Pat Waak welcomed the group of nearly 500 Democrats and gave a touching, teary speech about how proud she was to have served for six years with such inspiring people. One after another, each speaker praised her for her ability to keep the party united under times of great stress and change in Colorado, and nationally. Pat retold a story I thought I had heard before -- after the 2010 election, she sat grieving the loss of Betsy Markey's and John Salazar's Congressional seats, when she received a call from the Democratic National Committee Chair Tim Kaine, who called Colorado the "bright spot in the middle of the country" for having elected Democratic US Senator Michael Bennet, and Democratic Governor John Hickenlooper. (Senator Bennet tells a similar story of a phone call he received from President Barack Obama hours after his election, referring to Colorado as the "one bright spot" of the 2010 elections.) Several speakers attempted to explain the success of Colorado's Democrats -- we heard everything from the use of Facebook and Twitter, to the effective ground-games in our elections, as well as an efficient and user-friendly voter data-base.

One of the first things on the agenda was the election of the new chair. Former State Senator and former Andrew Romanoff campaign co-director Polly Baca spoke first. Behind Polly were hand-made signs reading "Polly for Chair" covering the walls. A row of approximately twenty community leaders stood with her -- among them, former Denver Mayor Wellington Webb. Polly was nominated by Arapahoe County Young Democrat Chair, Andrew Bateman, who gave a fiery and impassioned testimonial for his friend and mentor.

Polly, who first interned in a Democratic office during the 1960s, spoke of the need for the Democratic Chair to be bold and principled -- to speak out against the regressive policies of the Republican Party, while bringing in and empowering young Democrats. She sounded tough as nails, and prepared to fight whatever lied ahead. One of her closing remarks was about her advancing age. "I dare anyone to keep up with me," she reassured the crowd. Supporters leapt to their feet waving signs when she was finished. It was clear to all that the Colorado icon, whether she won or not, was beloved by Colorado Democrats for her long history of public service to the state.

Next was Rick Palacio. Former Speaker of the House Terrance Carroll stepped up to speak for him and said, "I'm Terrance Carroll and I used to be somebody," followed by lots of laughter. Rick had a large, professionally-made banner behind him urging committee members to vote Palacio.

Rick started out telling his family's story, while pointing out his father was in the room. A sixth-generation Coloradan, Rick's grandmother was a leader in the Las Animas County Democrats, and both of Rick's grandfathers were union mine workers. Rick's father was a union steelworker in Pueblo, where Rick was born and raised. Growing up, Rick learned the value of hard work at his family's plant nursery. A graduate of Denver's Regis University, his political career started when he took a job as assistant to CO House Majority Leader Alice Madden. From there, he went on to work for the Minority whip, Congressman Steny Hoyer.

Though his political resume is impressive, Rick's family story was the most compelling. He spoke of the generations before him who risked their lives so he could have the American Dream. He conveyed the very emotional story of a grandmother, who as a little girl, survived the Ludlow massacre. He spoke of the Democratic Party that always stands with those who toil and sweat and work hard for something more -- the Democratic Party that believes he has a right to love who he wants to love. He said, "My ancestors knew more hardship and adversity than I will probably ever know. It is because of them I stand here today asking for your vote," touching an emotional chord with everyone in the room.

Last was Adam Bowen, Chair of the Larimer County Democratic party. Despite Adam's equally impressive resume as a leader, fundraiser, strategist and uniter, Adam's speech never hit the emotional buttons that Polly's and Rick's did. In stark contrast with Camp Baca and Camp Palacio, the supporters who stood behind Adam, with the exception of one African-American woman, were all white (they reflected the demographic reality of Larimer County, I suspect).

Polly Baca had been the favored candidate in the race, but it was apparent Rick Palacio was a far stronger contender than we had previously believed. While votes were tabulated, Pat Waak spoke about the 50th anniversary of the Peace Corps and honored those who also served, as she did. She shared the microphone with Senate Majority Leader Brandon Shaffer, House Minority Leader, and Boulder Senator Rollie Heath, among others.

When the results were finally in, Pat unceremoniously yet joyfully said, "I now pass the gavel to Rick Palacio." Rick looked shocked and stumbled through the next few items on the order of business. Rick will be serving with an otherwise all-female new Board:
1st Vice-Chair: Beverly Ryken
2nd Vice-Chair: Vivian Stovall
Secrtary: Carolyn Boller
Treasurer: Sherry Jackson

A number of people I spoke to at lunch expressed surprise that Rick Palacio must have won more than fifty percent of the vote in order to have avoided a run-off. One of them said she had arrived intending to vote for Adam Bowen, yet switched her vote after hearing Rick's speech. Another person said she was a Baca supporter, and was disappointed in Polly's angry tone. "I want a leader who is ready to forget the Romanoff/Bennet primary, and Polly still seems to be living in the past", she told me. Two of the Central Committee members mentioned they had received calls from Adam Bowen and Polly Baca, but neither received a call from Rick Palacio. One older gentleman I spoke to wondered if Rick had the wisdom of enough election cycles under his belt at the tender age of 36, yet believed Palacio may bring newer, younger members into the party as its spokesperson. All of the people I spoke to said something to the effect of, "Rick Palacio represents a fresh start for the Democratic Party in Colorado."

In the afternoon, I attended the annual meeting of the Colorado Progressive Democrats, where elections were also held. Dennis Obduskey and Andrea Merida were elected co-chairs to replace Hether Ayers and Mark Benner, despite the fact Merida was not in attendance. Merida's husband Jason Justice nominated her and spoke on her behalf, leaving immediately after she was elected.

The annual CDP Jefferson-Jackson dinner is always a "who's-who" of union leaders, current candidates, campaign managers, business executives, community leaders, non-profit directors, and members of the interfaith community. This dinner was no different. Rabbi Stephen Foster attended with his wife, Senator Joyce Foster, and a group of interfaith clergy friends. Each Denver Mayor candidate came with their entourage, some with t-shirted, enthusiastic college-aged supporters working the crowd. Senator Chris Romer's campaign assembled cheerleaders into human pyramids at the top of the large stairway to the ballroom.

The evening started out with the usual speeches from former Governor Bill Ritter, current Governor John Hickenlooper, Congresswoman Diana DeGette, Congressmen Ed Perlmutter and Jared Polis, Senators Mark Udall and Michael Bennet, and many others. The Volunteer of the Year Award went to Cindy Avram, and the Lifetime Achievement Award given to recently deceased Arapahoe County's Dan Candelaria, which was tearfully accepted by his family. The Rising Star Award went to newly elected House Representative from Aurora, Rhonda Fields, who became active in politics after her son and his fiance were killed while due to testify in a murder case. Rhonda is one of only two African-Americans (both Dems) currently serving in the Colorado legislature. The Democrat of the Year Award went to Alan Salazar. All throughout the dinner, each speaker showered Pat Waak with praise for her years of service, and spoke of the ability of Democrats to come together, even after policy disagreements, or divisive primaries.

The highlight of the dinner was a rousing keynote speech by Massachusset's Governor Deval Patrick. Gov. Patrick, an African-American man, told of growing up poor in Chicago -- so poor, he did not own a book of his own until he was fourteen years old. He spoke of the importance of education in building a country that gives everyone an equal opportunity. He urged us to press on, never to be satisfied when there was still work to do to provide every American a bright future. As Denver Post columnist Lynn Bartels later tweeted, Colorado Democrats "wondered if our Governor was listening."

Leaving the party, I reflected on the long day of speeches, speeches and more speeches, and the faces of the leaders of the Colorado Democratic Party. Our new chair is a young, pro-union, openly gay, Latino man. Many of our elected officials, both at the state and federal level, are openly gay as well (Jared Polis, Lucia Guzman, Pat Steadman, Mark Ferrandino, etc.) Colorado has more women in the state house than any other state. A number of our Colorado leaders are Latino/Latina, or have lived in other countries. Some have been ranchers, farmers or teachers. Many of them tell stories of growing up poor. One tells the painful story of being dyslexic and misunderstood by his teachers. One was the first Latina state senator. All of the personal stories of the Colorado Democratic Party share a compelling theme -- stories of working hard, fighting adversity, and believing in the American Dream.

The Colorado reorganization meeting was a reminder of why we are Democrats and why it is important to never allow ourselves to be divided. We are the party of the people, the party of the big umbrella, and the party of the American Dream. We believe in the potential of every American -- regardless of skin color, race, religion, gender identity, sexual preference, primary language, bank balance and place of birth.

The drive down through the parking structure's cement spiral didn't seem as dark and foreboding as the drive up it had been. Even at ten o'clock pm, there was a light at the end of the tunnel. The sparkling lights of the city of Denver lit up my path home and reminded me why I am so proud to be a Democrat in Colorado.