History-making politician staying out of new races
BOULDER ” She’s practically a household name in Colorado ” a woman who over the last eight years climbed some of the state’s highest political peaks and helped bring Democratic hegemony back to the legislature.
That kind of political ascension was why many felt Joan Fitz-Gerald was naturally poised to catapult from state politics to the national stage, namely as U.S. Rep. Mark Udall’s successor in the 2nd Congressional District.
Then the Aug. 12 Democratic primary results rolled in: Fitz-Gerald got nearly 2,000 fewer votes than her chief rival, Internet entrepreneur and multimillionaire Jared Polis.
Suddenly the 60-year-old New York native, the first woman state Senate president in Colorado history and the chamber’s minority leader for several years ” representing Summit County as part of her district ” had nowhere to report for duty.
She packed up her Westminster congressional campaign headquarters, bade farewell to her staff, and retreated to her home deep in Coal Creek Canyon to spend time with her husband, read the rare fiction novel (John Grisham’s “The Appeal”), get rid of nearly a decade’s worth of legislative paperwork, and clean out her garage.
“It’s meant lots of trips to Goodwill,” she said.
Now, a month after her searing defeat at the polls, Fitz-Gerald agreed to sit down at a downtown Boulder coffee shop to ask ” and answer ” the very question many have been pondering about the woman who once tackled the big issues of the day as head of the Colorado Senate.
“What’s next?” she ruminated.
To start with, not another stint as an elected official.
“I just spent 16 months raising $1.8 million ” basically sitting in a room,” Fitz-Gerald said of her fundraising obligations in the 2nd Congressional District race. “I don’t want to do that again.”
Despite her impressive fundraising totals in the three-way $10 million primary battle, she said she couldn’t compete with her opponent’s virtually bottomless financial resources.
Polis injected a record $5.3 million of his own money into the race, turning it into one of the most expensive congressional primary contests in the country.
“I think the repetition of the message with millions of dollars behind it is persuasive,” Fitz-Gerald said of Polis’ aggressive TV ad campaign. “It was like a tsunami building ” you just don’t know how big it’s going to be. No matter what I did, there was always more money to overcome whatever advantage I got.”
She said she felt she let down her supporters, both political and financial, with her loss.
“The race is not about you. The race is about all of those people who are invested in you,” Fitz-Gerald said.
Her name has been bandied about as a replacement for Colorado Secretary of State Mike Coffman, a Republican who will likely win a seat in November in the GOP-safe 6th Congressional District.
Fitz-Gerald said several county clerks from around the state called her to ask if they should rally in favor of her appointment to the post by Gov. Bill Ritter. She told them no.
Despite her eight years running elections as clerk and recorder in Jefferson County in the 1990s, Fitz-Gerald said she has no interest in the statewide office.
“Every job I’ve done, I’ve done 110 percent because I wanted to do the job,” she said. “If I don’t feel that it’s something that I want to do with 110 percent of my time and effort, I shouldn’t put myself in the running for it.”
Fitz-Gerald is casting her eyes more toward national and international matters, like women’s rights and health care in the Third World, and sees herself in some capacity advocating for those issues.
Former State House Majority Leader Alice Madden said she could see her old friend and colleague running a nonprofit organization.
Or simply taking it easy for a while.
“She deserves some down time,” Madden said. “She’s had a nonstop, grueling life since 2004.”
That was the year that Democrats seized control of both the Colorado Senate and House for the first time in more than four decades, and Madden gives Fitz-Gerald a big portion of the credit.
“The most amazing thing she did was to bring the Democratic majority back to the Senate ” that is a legacy that many years from now will be remembered,” Madden said. “And she kind of did it single-handedly.”
“I would rather be a statesman, I think that’s better for the body,” Sen. Shawn Mitchell, R-Broomfield, said. “Then again I’ve been accused of harsh partisanship myself. She was a formidable opponent, a serious legislator, and she can be proud of her contributions to Colorado government.”
Among those contributions, Fitz-Gerald counts as her proudest her work sponsoring bills on renewable energy and working with former Republican Gov. Bill Owens on an agreement on Referendum C, which temporarily lifted state spending limits.
“I think my record in real time ” making decisions fast and furious on the floor of the Senate ” while negotiating things like Ref C, I think they’ll stand the test of time,” she said. “I think I left Colorado better than I found it.”
As much as legislating suited her ambitious and high-energy personality, Fitz-Gerald said she doesn’t necessarily miss the hustle and bustle of state government. And she certainly doesn’t miss the incessant demands on her time and family of running for office.
She’s headed to New England this week to spend time with her aunt and then off to South Africa next month for a safari with her husband that she had to postpone last fall because of campaign demands.
“For the first time in eight years, I have free time,” Fitz-Gerald said, with afternoon plans to have lunch with a friend in Denver and help clean out her son’s home. “I have time for me, I have time for family and friends, it’s amazing. There’s a certain happiness in that.”
Fitz-Gerald won’t use the word retirement to describe the newest chapter of her life ” partly because she doesn’t know what opportunities may lie ahead and partly because she doesn’t really know how to retire.
She has no grandchildren to dote on and she’s got an inquisitiveness that won’t allow her to stand still for long.
“It’s who I am,” she said.
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