During her formative years, Crisanta Duran, Colorado’s current Speaker of the House, was instilled with the idea that the government continuously failed to stand up for hardworking and disenfranchised people. She would sit through hours and hours of her father, the labor union boss of the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 7, and her mother, who worked on affordable-housing development for the State of Colorado, bashing the local government and those who filled the seats under Denver’s golden dome.
Those conversations sparked something in young Duran—a drive to fight for equality. That spark followed her through her time in undergrad at University of Denver, through law school at CU Boulder, and through eight years of sitting in the Capitol.
In 2010, 29-year-old Duran jumped into state politics and filled the House District 5 seat vacated by Representative Joel Judd. Since then, the sixth-generation Coloradan was re-elected three times and is the first Latina to be appointed Speaker of the House in state history in 2016.
“It’s been the honor of my life to serve as the first Latina speaker of the house,” Duran said. “Not only in Colorado but in the country.”
What is it like going into work every day as the Speaker of the House?
My day-to-day work is to figure out what issues [people are facing, and] make sure people have opportunities to be able to have economic security and provide for themselves and their families. For the last several years, I’ve worked to produce results so we can make sure we have an economy that works for all and not just those at the top.
I’ve worked on a lot of measures when it comes to education or transportation, fighting for equal pay and equal work, and of course fighting to protect Coloradan’s civil rights. That is something that has been very, very important to me in this last legislative session. We had quite the debate and we fought for, and won, [the opportunity] to reauthorize the Colorado Civil Rights Division.
That was a shock to so many people. Can you talk about what the atmosphere was like when that was happening?
I think we have to be very careful, and we push back against the elevation of hate and fear. We are seeing that elevation in ways that we have never seen before in this country. And it has been very disturbing to me, to see some people who try and cast others out based on their background, their religion, their race, their sex, or who they love.
What is so great about America and Colorado is that we are an inclusive state and country. Now, more than ever before, we need to make sure we are standing up to continue having an inclusive country.
When you think about our democracy and our country as a whole, we are a very young country. We cannot take that for granted, that we are going to continue having the freedoms and rights that we have had in years past. We are seeing, like never before, such an attack on people’s fundamental rights—including who they choose to love.
We are in the moment where we need to make sure people are part of the political process. Too often people think that there is nothing they can really do to make a difference, but the first step in making sure we go where we need to is believing in ourselves and believing in our ability to create change.
In this last legislative session, there was a vote by some of the republicans on the Joint Budget Committee to defund the Colorado Civil Rights Office. We wanted to make sure that all workplaces are free from harassment and discrimination, and we stood firm to make sure that the civil rights division was funded and that it was reauthorized. But, that was not easy.
We had several moments and tough, tough negotiations that we didn’t know which direction the conversation was going to go into. But there are times that you have to have the courage to lead and stand firm. We need to make sure that we never, ever lose sight of civil rights protections in our state and in our country, because they are needed now more than ever.
What should Coloradans take away from the Masterpiece Cake Shop decision? Is there anything positive we can take from this?
One thing we take away from the decision in that case is that there are many civil rights protections that are still in place.
That said, politics is all about power.
When I first ran for office, I was 29 years old. When I got elected in the state House, I thought I was going to come forward with the best bills, with good data, and best arguments. I was a young attorney at the time. But when you get there, you soon realize that politics is all about who has power and who doesn’t. Because whoever has the power is able to set the agenda and determine which issues can actually come forward in a meaningful way.
As we are going into this upcoming election, we can’t lose sight of the fact that we need people in power who truly represent us, who represent our values and our vision. Too often people think that their vote does not make a difference. Well, if there is anything that we have learned in the last couple of years, it is that we cannot take anything for granted. We need people to turn in their ballots to make sure we have the right people in office leading us forward.
What does power mean to you?
To me, there is so much frustration right now in politics. I know a lot of people feel frustrated and angry at what they see coming out of Washington, D.C.
There is a Supreme Court nominee that is sure to take away the rights of many if he is seated. We’ve seen a tax break bill that would benefit the most wealthy in our country rather than the hard-working Colordans. There is a lot to be concerned about, but the only thing that is more powerful than this special-interest money that is coming into our elections is the power of people.
It is a right for us to be able to get involved with our communities, to vote for the right candidate, or run for office yourself. I think that we need to make sure we are exercising our power to make sure we are moving forward in the right direction in our state and that we continue to hold up the idea of being an inclusive state and country.
The elevation of hate and fear that we have seen is awful; it is heartbreaking on so many different levels. We have to come together, whether you’re an immigrant or refugee, a member of the LGBTQ community, a woman, or a person of color, to unite around the agenda that will advance us all together.
If one of us is able to rise, we must lift others up with us.
In comparison to the rest of the country, is Colorado a special place for people?
I think Colorado has an amazing quality of life.
I grew up here in Northglenn, in all the hardworking communities. I went to University of Denver for undergrad and CU Boulder for law school. And our community is growing and changing in ways I would never even have imagined, and I think it is amazing.
I think it is amazing so many people from all over want to come to Colorado because of our quality of life. I think in many ways it is a very, very special place.
When we see some of the attacks that we have on people’s rights, we need to do what Colorado has always done: bring people together. Our strength is in being able to work together and fight to improve the challenges and struggles people face every, single day.
At the Capitol, how important is listening?
Listening is a great skill, especially in this day and age. Some may feel that there is a lot of divide in politics, so being able to find common ground and have tough conversations [is important]. You have to truly listen and focus in on what different people want to be able achieve in public discourse.
By being able to listen to others, we all grow in different ways and evolve. We can truly get a better understanding of what others face. To be able to open yourself up and listen to those is key.
I am a true believer that there is more that binds us together than that divides us.
What inspires you?
There is so much that inspires me. When I look back at the last eight years serving in the state house, the moments that have meant the most to me are when I met people that have been impacted by the work that we’ve done under the gold dome.
When I met an undocumented student who said ‘I would not have been able to go to college if you didn’t pass Colorado Asset,’ or I’d meet somebody who has had a very challenging time finding a job and they tell me, ‘I would have not been able to get a good paying job had it not been for the workforce development measures that you brought forward.’
Those things inspire me.
Photo by Veronica L. Holyfield