Colorado Dems Chair on Party Politics and Resistance in the Trump Age
After being defeated by incumbent Mike Coffman in the 6th Congressional District race last November, former state Senate president Morgan Carroll would have been forgiven had she decided to take a break from politics. Instead, she's jumped back into the fray.
Last month, Carroll was elected as chair of the Colorado Democratic Party, a high-pressure gig that's even more key in the age of President Donald Trump.
In a wide-ranging conversation with Westword about her new role, Carroll acknowledges mistakes made by the Democratic Party at the local, state and national levels and talks about the need for innovation and fresh thinking during a period when cynicism about the political system is rising at a rapid rate. But she also exhibits enthusiasm and optimism about channeling anti-Trump energy into practical action, as seen in the party's planned participation in the Denver March for Science on Saturday, April 22 — Earth Day.
Here's the full Q&A.
Westword: After the election, how did you move from candidate to head of the Colorado Democratic Party? And what was the appeal of that for you?
Morgan Carroll: The appeal for me of being chair of the Colorado Democratic Party is that every race around this state at every level really hinges on the Democratic Party modernizing and adapting to the times. And frankly, every policy issue I care about, which is really where I come from, is in profound jeopardy at the moment. So rather than focus on one race, to me, we're at a turning point in the institution of the Colorado Democratic Party. There's certainly been a lot of things we've done well and done right. But if we continue with the status quo and don't take this moment in history to look at what we're doing and see if there's an opportunity to learn, listen and do it better, then I feel like both parties risk being left behind.
The majority of the public at this point doesn't identify with either party, although the majority of the public is actually with us on most issues that the Democratic Party advocates for. You can get too clique-ish, too internally focused on what you're doing — and the whole point of the party is really about engaging and empowering people to make a difference, both in elections and in advocating on behalf of the policies they care about. So the important thing for me was that we can improve the landscape. We can modernize the Democratic Party, and the party itself.
My background has always been really strong on the grassroots. So I believe in the power of volunteers, I believe in empowering voters, I believe in opening up the legislative, judicial and executive processes and making sure that everybody knows how they can have a voice in the process.
In this moment of resistance, the question is: Can we make the party a facilitator? Can we make it easy for people to know when, where and how to be engaged on every issue they care about? I think that's helpful to our democracy overall, and I'm excited to be a part of it.
As you mentioned, it seems that a lot of people are suspicious of the two-party system. Given that, how do you convince them that they can make more of a difference by being part of the Democratic Party as opposed to remaining independent?
I guess a couple of things are true at the same time. We're actually seeing new participation and new interest coming into the Democratic Party now. But what we need to understand is that we need to be partnering with our allies. It's not realistic for everyone to identify with a political party — and that's okay. We can be out there on things like the Women's March and the March for Science. There will be certain things we can all agree on, and the important thing is being out there shoulder-to-shoulder as allies for people, for the planet, for the issues that are in deep peril right now. And we can become a strong ally, a strong voice and a vehicle for people who felt shut out of the process — really be a resource to show people when and where and how to participate.
Some of these folks are going to find their way into the Democratic Party, because we're going to be working together on issues, and some won't. But at the end of the day, I think the important questions go beyond whether it's a D or a U after their names. Obviously, my job is to grow the Colorado Democratic Party. But I think what we saw after the elections is a lot of people who didn't vote and who actually have buyer's remorse now, because they didn't think their vote would count, didn't think their vote would matter. They're realizing: "Oh, wow." So we're getting people who hadn't been participating in the political process at all and seeing them start to participate.
So our goal is to really make broad outreach anywhere and everywhere we possibly can and make sure there's a home for people who care about the future of the state and the country. A lot of people share solid progressive policies even if they don't necessarily identify with the Democratic Party. What we want to do is become a place where we can recruit and train good people to run and let them know how to participate in the process. It's really about allies, partnerships, empowering people. I see it as a really strong opportunity for the Democratic Party to reinvent itself and try new things.
Back in the day, people tended to think of political parties as really getting active around elections. It sounds as if you feel that kind of idea is antiquated and you think the party needs to be engaged all year long.
That's right. I think the idea that we wait for the election and activate at the last minute is antiquated. I also think the idea that we're a kind of club and everybody's in their comfort zone is antiquated. For us to attract millennials and young people, we need to be leading on issues. We're not in an era where we can simply say, "Vote for a Democrat just because they have a 'D' after their name." Team Blue and Team Red isn't the most effective way to get out and reach the majority of voters out there.
If you think about modernizing, think about how workplaces have changed, where there's crowdsourcing and people can come in and find a place at work tables. The conventional ideas of what an office is are changing. We're in an era when every institution is being reconsidered. Less top-down, more bottom-up. Less about internal process and more about making meaningful connections with people, voters and volunteers.
We have to make the case why we're better on the policies that are going to affect people's daily lives, and what I'm excited about is that I think we actually are better on the policies that affect people's lives. I think we're going to be the party that will focus on economic opportunity and educational opportunity and protecting people's constitutional and civil rights — and the planet. I think those things really bode well for a variety of reasons — for the daily life issues people are facing. So it's a real opportunity to rethink how we engage.
Morgan Carroll accepting the position of Colorado Democratic Party chair in March.
You mentioned the Women's March earlier. That event got a lot of people really excited — but some people have been frustrated when it comes to channeling that energy into tangible action. Is that a challenge for the Democratic Party?
It's not always easy for people to know when certain votes are coming up or what you can do about them. We've seen a record number of people on their own contacting members of Congress and visiting their office and deciding they have a right to see their elected officials and they have a right to have town hall meetings, where they can have direct access to their elected officials. The idea that we're going to be a kind of dormant and sleeping electorate — well, there's been a real awakening of people who feel that their elected representatives work for them.
Because of the experience of being in the state legislature and running for Congress and seeing close up how the process works, I know there are a lot of tips and insights that we don't really teach in school. And I want to democratize that. I want to make that open. I want everyone to realize how powerful they are. And that's fun to be part of. The numbers don't look good for us federally at the moment because basically there's fringe, one-party control at the national level. But people are realizing that even despite that, they can have a voice and have an effect. That's a turning point. I think when people wake up to how much power they have, they don't go back.
What are some examples of the tips you mentioned?
Resistance at the local level is more important than ever, and while we have a split chamber in Colorado, did you know that any one of you can run a bill without being elected? People don't know that. You don't have to be eighteen to run a bill. You don't have to be eighteen to contact a member of Congress. At sixteen or at fourteen, youth can do the same things adults can: pick up a phone and call someone in an office or introduce state legislation. We have some features at the state level where every bill must get a public hearing. We've got a constitutional right in this state for people to testify, and most people don't realize it, and anyone can introduce a bill. We can show that you can introduce a bill, and here's how you do it.
On the federal level, we can give tips about the most effective way to contact your member of Congress. Up until this last year, I think it's safe to say that most people probably never contacted their member of Congress. But now we're creating a different culture and a climate out there, because people are so upset and fearful about what's going on that we now have people who have their members of Congress on speed-dial.
We used to do town hall meetings because I think it's your responsibility as part of civic engagement. So I've done over 200 town hall meetings. But the idea of a town hall meeting is now in the common vernacular, where people expect their officials to give access to the public, where people can give their opinions and seek input. That really, fundamentally, isn't part of a campaign. It's about our institutions of democracy, and I feel like the more people that are included and empowered in the process, the better the Democratic Party will be.
There's a perception that the best recruiting tool for the Democratic Party is named Donald Trump. Is that too simplistic? Or is he one of the main reasons people are looking at the Democratic Party again?
There's no question he's been a big motivator for a lot of people to get involved. But I will say, before Donald Trump, Congress was at record un-popularity. So while he is a factor, right now people are looking between Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, Donald Trump and what many people see as a stolen Supreme Court. They feel like all of the federal institutions of our democracy have been hijacked not just by one party, but by a fringe element of one party that has no compunction about being reckless, about doing things that will aggressively, actively hurt people and their lives, for ideological reasons.
We see that in the cutting of the arts budget, which we'll see a lot of in Trump's budget. It doesn't do anything to reduce the deficit, but it sends a symbolic message. And meanwhile, we've undone what has been supported on a bipartisan level in the past. It's a radical move just to make a point, and we're just getting started with that. So we have a culture in D.C. that has no interest in negotiating with Democrats, that's profoundly out of touch with everyday voters, and that is willing to play Russian roulette — excuse the expression — with any issue and anyone's life without regard to the consequences. That's motivating people. So is Trump, but there's also a whole culture of radical recklessness that's going on now.
People can be scared and just watch harmful things happen. Or they can fight back. And right now, we're seeing a whole lot of people who want to fight back.
Morgan Carroll with former senator Ken Salazar; Governor John Hickenlooper is at right.
You mentioned earlier the importance of people running for office. Is that one of the key messages you want to get out there?
There are so many different ways people can get involved, and one of those ways is to decide to run for office. But you can also decide to work on a campaign, or to do voter registration drives or civic advocation and empowerment issues. The menu of ways people can get involved is so broad that the mindset we're coming from now is, leave no talent on the table. In other words, everyone has something powerful and important to contribute, and we need to plug them in so that everybody has the most to contribute. It's this all-hands-on-deck moment, and that's where you engage people at the grassroots level. So it could be running for office or it could be helping with translation services, or it could mean graphics design or web work or staffing rallies or doing traditional canvassing and phone-banking. But we've wildly expanded the ways people can get involved in the process.
We hear about protest fatigue. Do you fear the people are going to rev themselves up during the early days of the Trump administration, and by the time an election rolls around, they're going to throw their hands in the air and walk away?
Once you learn how much power you have, you don't unlearn it. But it's emotionally exhausting and very time-consuming, because the pace of the news cycle — of bad news happening not just daily, but hourly — can be draining. So I think one of the things that we have to be mindful of — and anyone who's engaged in social change has to be mindful of — is pacing yourself and taking occasional breaks along the way so you can make it in the long run and you don't burn yourself out. The volume of challenges coming at people is at a pace that's so difficult to sustain, and it would be very easy for people to burn out. So it's okay to say, "This week, we're taking it off."
But one of the things we say is, "One issue, five minutes a day." There are so many issues out there. How do you pick one? It can be overwhelming, because what's at stake is so overwhelming. That will vary for each person. But we're all human beings at the end of the day, and we are facing unprecedented challenges. It would certainly be possible for people to burn out, and we need to make sure that doesn't happen.
For all the issues we're fighting right now, one of the best ways to maintain resources is to recruit and train candidates that are going to vote our values and get into office and be representative of the needs of the larger community. In two years from now, or four years from now, that may be one of the best investments of our time, because it could help put society on a track of progressing and not dismantling itself.
There's been a view not just in Colorado, but nationwide, that the Democratic Party focused so much on urban areas that it gave short shrift to folks in agricultural or rural areas. Was the Colorado Democratic Party guilty of that, too?
I think overall, we didn't do a good enough job in Colorado or around the country in reaching out to voters. And that means young voters, that means rural voters, that means African-American voters, that means Latino voters, that means workers. We saw that in the Rust Belt, we saw that in Pueblo. I just don't think we did a good enough job of reaching out and connecting in an authentic way.
We recognize the importance of all 64 counties. We've been doubling down on efforts to partner with all 64 counties to make sure we're not just concentrating on the Front Range. People are different depending on where they live and what communities they're a part of, and we're mindful of that. So we definitely put a lot of increased attention and effort into making sure we're supporting our counties. We understand this isn't a one-size-fits-all state, and we need to partner differently in each of the counties.
One of the things every party faces is, there will always be a lot of consultants and a lot of money spent. But the moment we're in right now, people are looking for authenticity. They want to connect on a meaningful level. There has to be head, heart and soul put back in the party and the campaigns. You can go through a lot of motions on a campaign and still not connect well. So I think we have to recognize that we didn't do a good enough of a job as we could have of making sure we're listening and adapting and making sure we're being relevant and responsive to the real-world issues that voters are facing.