- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 6, 2009


Terrance Carroll and Peter C. Groff can be forgiven if they’re secretly annoyed with the president-elect for stealing their thunder. The two Coloradans are about to make history as the first blacks to preside over both houses of a state legislature in the same session. When the 2009 Colorado legislative session convenes Wednesday, Mr. Carroll will be sworn in as House speaker and Mr. Groff will resume his role as Senate president.

It’s a historic first in American politics, albeit one that’s been largely overshadowed by the election of the first black man to the presidency. Mr. Groff, who served as Barack Obama’s state campaign co-chairman, hinted that he may be getting a little tired of the president-elect’s limelight-hogging ways.

“Oh, he owes me now,” Mr. Groff said, suppressing a grin. “I was making a speech at the caucus for him, and then his press person interrupted me and announced that he’d won [Colorado]. So that’s twice now.”

Making their accomplishment even more compelling is that Colorado has a relatively small black population - about 4 percent, far less than the national average of 12.1 percent.

Mr. Carroll is the only black member of the state House of Representatives, and Mr. Groff is the only black member of the state Senate. Both chambers are controlled by Democrats.

At the same time, Colorado, which flipped this year from Republican to Democratic in the presidential race, has long exhibited a political independent streak and disdain for moribund traditions.

“I think that says more about the state than it does about the speaker and me. It says this state is willing to look beyond barriers that were there before,” Mr. Groff said.

Mr. Carroll agreed. “Like Dr. [Martin Luther] King said, we’re being judged not by the color of our skin but by the content of our character.”

Though Colorado isn’t known for tense race relations, the state has had its share of past tensions, notably the prevalence of the Ku Klux Klan in the early 20th century.

“It’s a historic year in American history and in Colorado history, especially when you remember that Colorado is a state where the Ku Klux Klan held the House, the Senate and the governor’s seat in the 1920s,” said Meagan Dorsch, spokeswoman for the National Conference of State Legislatures.

It’s safe to say that nobody in Colorado saw this coming. When the 2008 session adjourned in May, the expectation was that Rep. Bernie Buescher would take over the following year for term-limited House Speaker Andrew Romanoff.

However, Mr. Buescher was upset in his re-election bid by Republican newcomer Laura Bradford, who won by just 583 votes. Mr. Buescher’s loss immediately put the House leadership into play.

Mr. Groff admits he gave Mr. Carroll a push. “When Bernie lost, Terrance and I were talking, and I said, ‘You’re up,’” Mr. Groff said. “But I think he was going to run for it anyway.”

Mr. Carroll won a three-way race for the speakership two days after the election. At the same time, Mr. Groff was re-elected Senate president, a post he assumed in the last legislative session.

Mr. Carroll said he had no inkling he and Mr. Groff were making history at the time.

“I had not thought about the fact that I would be first African-American speaker, and I had definitely not thought that Peter and I would be the first African-American legislative leaders,” he said. “When I realized it, it was, wow.”

Mr. Groff and Mr. Carroll both represent Denver legislative districts although they took different paths to power. Mr. Groff, 45, move to Colorado when he was 3 months old and grew up around state politics: His father, Regis Groff, was a state senator who served from 1974 to 1994.

Peter Groff earned a law degree from the University of Denver and worked for a series of Denver lawmakers, including then-Mayor Wellington E. Webb and City Council member Allegra “Happy” Haynes, before being elected to the Legislature in 2000. Three years later, he was appointed to fill the Senate seat previously held by his father.

In 1997, he helped found the Center for African American Policy at the University of Denver, and he serves as the center’s executive director.

Mr. Carroll, 39, arrived in Denver by way of the District. The son of a single mother who worked as a housecleaner, he grew up in crime-ridden areas of Anacostia and Capitol Hill.

He left the District after high school for Morehouse College, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in 1992. His postgraduate pursuits took him to Colorado, where he earned a master’s degree in divinity at Iliff School of Theology and a law degree at the University of Denver.

He is a lawyer at Greenberg Traurig LLP and also an ordained minister in the American Baptist Church.

If Mr. Carroll holds any grudge toward Mr. Obama for dominating the spotlight, he isn’t letting on.

“I don’t care if he steals whatever thunder we’re getting,” Mr. Carroll said. “I’m just glad Barack Obama is going to be our next president.”

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