Colorado Senator Angela Williams is among the nine (yes, nine) Democrats who've declared their intention to defeat U.S. Senator Cory Gardner in 2020, with former Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper likely waiting in the wings — and she understands why so many folks want to take him on, and take him down.
"This is one of the top three seats in the country that we need to win in order to flip the Senate," Williams says. "It's going to be under a large microscope. I had a long conversation with [U.S. Senate minority leader] Chuck Schumer about this, and he understands my commitment to get this seat back into the hands of someone who represents the values of Coloradans."
Gardner's apparent vulnerability, as the most prominent elected Republican in a state that was swept by a blue wave in the 2018 election, has inspired a slew of notables to step up. At present, they include former state senator Mike Johnston; onetime speaker of the state House Andrew Romanoff; Alice Madden, who also served as the state house majority leader; ex-U.S. Attorney John Walsh; former U.S. ambassador Dan Baer; Stephany Rose Spaulding, who gave District 5 Representative Doug Lamborn a spirited race in 2018; plus Denver's Lorena Garcia, Englewood's Diana Bray and Superior's Trish Zornio. (Another candidate, Grand Junction's Keith Pottratz, withdrew in July and is now endorsing Garcia, and both former Boulder Democratic Party chair Ellen Burnes and Denver's Dustin Leitzel recently dropped out as well.) Moreover, fresh reports state that Hickenlooper will abandon his flailing presidential bid today as he considers a Senate run.
Nonetheless, Williams believes she has a skill set that makes her stand out in the crowded field. "I've had the honor of serving in the Colorado legislature for the last nine years — six in the House of Representatives and three in the state Senate," she points out. "That's almost a decade of service. And I have a good track record of bringing people together, creating coalitions and working across the aisle to solve the toughest problems we face in order to make Colorado a better place."
Williams grew up in rural Oklahoma in a family of seven children. "We lived on a farm, and my parents raised us on the values of honesty, hard work and helping others. My dad raised cattle and my mom had a garden and raised fresh vegetables."
She subsequently attended Oklahoma's Northeastern State University, and after graduating with a degree in criminal justice, she goes on, "I moved to Colorado and started working in human resources for a nonprofit. I worked at a larger nonprofit in Providence, Rhode Island, too, before I entered the private sector. For several years, I worked in telecommunications in Phoenix before relocating to Colorado to work for US West. And after that, I started my own small business — an Allstate insurance and financial-services firm."
The twelve years she spent in the insurance world inspired her first run for public office, she concedes. "I didn't see a strong Democrat representing small-business voices at the State Capitol. I understood the challenges you needed to face in order to succeed."
In addition, "Back in ’09, we faced the possibility of not having any African-American representation at the State Capitol. The speaker, Terrance Carroll, was term-limited, and the community was speaking to me about running. I thought, 'Let me go do my public service.' And even though I missed my small business, it was a true honor to serve, whether it be to help small businesses grow or increasing trust between police officers and our community. I found that I could roll up my sleeves and get a lot of good things done."
The long list of Williams's proudest achievements as a legislator begins with "passing the ASSET bill that allowed undocumented students to attend college here in Colorado. I also worked hard to get compensation for the wrongly convicted. If you know Robert Dewey's story, I'm the one who led the charge on that. And I passed eleven pieces of legislation over a two-year period about rebuilding the trust between the community and the police, and I did it in bipartisan fashion. The Democrats were in the minority when I helped pass some of that legislation — everything from implicit-bias training to improving hiring practices to updating the racial-profiling law. I got national recognition for that. And we got collective bargaining for firefighters when we were in the minority, too. That was a tough one."
Earlier this year, she goes on, "we passed the climate-change action bill, which is probably one of the most aggressive and historic pieces of legislation we've passed in Colorado. It's about reducing greenhouse gas emissions in Colorado, which was a huge victory. And we also passed the lemonade-stand law, after someone called in two kids who are my constituents because they were selling lemonade in front of their home. I was appalled, so I introduced a piece of legislation about legalizing the businesses of minors. Now, any type of business — not just a lemonade stand — that someone seventeen or younger is running doesn't need to have a license if it's operating under 84 days out of the year. We're already seeing it duplicated at legislatures in other parts of the country."
While this was happening, the line of Gardner challengers reached double digits before Williams entered the fray. But she stresses that the number of competitors "didn't feel daunting to me. We understand as candidates that we've got to take this seat back for the people of Colorado. But I decided to move forward because I am the only person in this field who's articulating a message about how we support working families and small businesses. And I'm the only seated legislator, so I have the most recent experience with solving complex problems for Coloradans. If you talk to anyone, they'll say, 'She likes to take on complex issues,' and I do. I bring proven leadership to restoring faith in our democracy and faith in the future of our country and our state."
Aiding her in these efforts will be the experience she's gained representing District 33, which encompasses part or all of northeast Denver neighborhoods such as Curtis Park, Cole, Whittier, Five Points, East Colfax, Park Hill, Stapleton, Green Valley Ranch and Montbello.
"It's probably the most diverse district in the state — and that's not just ethnically," she maintains. "We have children, we have millennials, we have middle-age people, we have the elderly. We have low-income populations and very high-income people. The socioeconomic statuses in my district are very, very diverse, but I'm able to move in and out of these populations because I understand that most of the issues are really the same. Everybody wants a good education, everyone wants to make a good living. So the question is, how does policy affect these populations differently? For example, our education and funding affects kids in Montbello differently than it does in Park Hill and Stapleton. That's something I understand, because I've been in the trenches and met with parents at all kinds of different schools and talked to kids to learn how these issues affect diverse populations."
To put it mildly, Williams doesn't see any of these attributes in Gardner. "In watching his career since he's been in this position, he has spent more time worrying about what's best for Trump and not what's best for the people of Colorado," she contends. "He's voted with Trump over 90 percent of the time. He supported the repeal of the Affordable Care Act, which has provided coverage to millions of people across the country. If you look at our Supreme Court and appointees to lower courts, he's voted to confirm more than 100 Trump-picked judges, and I think we know that Trump has done more than his share to divide us rather than to bring us together. As a country, we're better when we work together — where we can work for fair wages, so that everyone can achieve the American dream. Cory Gardner's not representing that."
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Given her background, it's no surprise that Williams hopes to become a powerful Senate advocate for farmers and ranchers in Colorado and beyond. Among the other key issues she cites are the environment (she wants the U.S. to re-enter the Paris climate agreement) and immigration. "Can you believe what's occurring right now?" she asks. "Trump has created a humanitarian crisis. We need to restore an orderly, fair system and create a path to citizenship for asylum seekers. I feel like immigration is our civil-rights issue now."
As for health care, she says she's "still evaluating all of the different plans that are out there: single payer, the ACA, Medicare for all. But we need to make sure everyone has access to affordable health care and that they're all covered. Health care is a human right."
Running a competitive campaign won't be cheap, but Williams isn't concerned. "I've raised enough money to win races four times, and my team and I have a robust campaign-finance plan to raise money. I'll be looking to fund-raise on a grassroots level and with some of the donors I've built up over the years. And I haven't taken the PAC pledge" — in which candidates promise not to accept resources from political-action committees. "What's more important to me is what these committees represent — if they serve women and small businesses and working people."
She plans to tour throughout Colorado — "Big towns, little towns, everywhere" — and she shrugs off the suggestion that the other candidates' head start gives them an advantage. "I know there's the perception that I got in late," she admits. "But I feel I have plenty of time. I'm in a good space."