When the Colorado General Assembly reconvened Wednesday, great fanfare accompanied the election of Sen. Peter Groff as the first African-American Senate president in Colorado. However, Groff’s leadership has the potential to construct a legacy that is more than symbolic.
For three years, Groff and I served together in the Colorado Senate. We stand on opposite sides of the political spectrum, but his integrity, his well-considered principles and his unapologetic advocacy of those principles set him apart from even many of the most respected legislators.
He cast the lone vote against a resolution condemning Ward Churchill’s hate-filled remarks about 9/11 – not based on the substance of Churchill’s insipid comments but based on the principle that he had a right to say it.
"I understand what you’re saying, and in a way I agree with you," he said in debate. "But we have to stand up for freedom. (Churchill) has the right to shout his ignorance and his arrogance."
He cast the lone vote against confirming John Suthers as attorney general because he wasn’t satisfied with Suthers’ response to a police shooting in his Denver district.
I disagreed with the substance of both of his votes, but I knew that Groff was doing what he believed was right and that he prized a clear conscience more than a politically expedient record. That’s the mark of a true statesman, regardless of ideology.
Groff’s roots within his own community give him the breadth and the backbone to speak the truth with compassion and to buck the establishment within his own party when it stands against opportunity for the inner-city families he knows and works to serve.
Last year on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, he passed up the occasion to rant against a war halfway around the world and instead spoke of a crisis much closer to home.
"We’ve created cultures that run counter to the legacy of Dr. [Martin Luther] King," he said. "Cultures of death, disrespect, division and materialism; cultures resulting in a self-imposed genocide, where we are killing each other at an alarming rate, where you receive street credit for being shot and no credit for graduating from the finest universities in this country; a culture that embraces and glorifies mediocrity and anti-intellectualism."
Instead, he champions "a culture of hope and hard work" and "a culture of excellence," knowing that without these so many of his constituents will be enslaved in cycles of poverty, crime and dependency.
Although he doesn’t support unfettered school choice, he is nonetheless a fierce defender of choice within the public school system. He leads Democrats who are bold enough to buck teachers’ union efforts to force all students into the same dysfunctional, top-heavy mold that today fails more than half of its students.
"My neighbors want to know why they can’t have the same (education) choices as parents in Cherry Creek," he once told me. This session, he advocates a process for local schools to escape government and labor union bureaucracies so they can get back to challenging students with a rigorous education.
Just as important as his integrity is his willingness to listen to and reason with others – a marked change from the bare-knuckle, irascible demeanor of his always-calculating predecessor, Sen. Joan Fitz-Gerald.
That’s a nice going-away present for Speaker Andrew Romanoff, an affable pragmatist who regularly found himself at odds with Fitz-Gerald. In the final year of his last term, Romanoff will undoubtedly find a more suitable ally in his new Senate counterpart.
Republicans aren’t likely to find any more success advancing their agenda under Groff, and they may not be able to so easily exploit the fractures within the majority party to halt objectionable bills.
However, so long as the new Senate president holds true to form, Republicans will find their ideas heard and respected. Democrats might rediscover the prerogative to vote their conscience without continual trips to the president’s woodshed. And Coloradans should take a measure of satisfaction at the prospect of a legislative process that’s more even-handed, accessible and deliberative.