There are reasons that Joan Fitz-Gerald is the early favorite to win the Democratic nomination for Congress in the second congressional district to replace Mark Udall. She’s a proven political campaigner whose confidence, intelligence and good humor are on display in her response to every question.
She shows an easy, informed familiarity with a wide range of issues that she’s become familiar with as the president of the Colorado Senate. Fitz-Gerald knows her way around the legislature, from politics to procedure. She’s comfortable brokering a deal.
“Politics is hard. Working in leadership has all of its own challenges,” she says. “I think I’m good at it.”
Fitz-Gerald and her family moved to Colorado in 1977 when her husband John was offered a job here. “It seemed so far away,” she says. “We all came with much trepidation about being alone, and starting over. It’s worked out very well.”
Her first political activity came even before that, when as a high school student she and some friends volunteered for Robert Kennedy’s 1964 U.S. Senate race. “I remember being so honored that they would let us sit at phones and make phone calls,” she says, laughing. “I had no idea how hard it was to get people to make phone calls.”
But her real political education began in 1984. She was inspired in part by the nomination of Geraldine Ferraro as the vice presidential nominee on the Democratic ticket with Walter Mondale. Ferraro and Fitz-Gerald had both been raised by single mothers, both gone to the same small women’s college, Marymount Manhattan (though not at the same time) and both had gone to Fordham law school at night. “It was such an interesting parallel, I thought, ‘Wow, you may be raising children and doing lots of other things, but you’ve got to get out of what you’re doing.’ So that started an interesting journey.”
She became vice chair of the Jefferson County Democrats, in charge of recruiting qualified candidates for elective positions. When she couldn’t find anyone willing to run for the county clerk’s office, she decided that if she was going to ask other people to run for things, she had to have the courage to put her own name on the ballot.
“A Democrat had never held the seat in the county’s hundred-some-odd-year history,” she says. “I met my opponent. He was a retired federal employee. And I thought, ‘Wait a minute. I have a plan for this office and he has none. I don’t want to lose this race.’ Nobody gave me a prayer. The Jefferson County Democrats gave me $500. I gave it back to them, I said, ‘Give it to somebody who can win.’
“But I just kept plugging along. I walked and walked and walked, a lot of lonely streets, a lot of precincts. We’d find people working on their cars in their garage and say, ‘I’m running for county clerk and recorder. What do you want out of that office? Here’s what I think we should do.’ People were stunned. People didn’t campaign for that office. I think I won by 2,500 votes.”
Fitz-Gerald still pounds the pavement for votes in her state senate district, but the task will be more daunting in the race for the House. The senate district has about 125,000 people in it, while the congressional district is three times larger. But this door-to-door work is helpful to a candidate, she says, letting people get to know her and to say to themselves, “‘This is someone I would trust with a vote.’ In essence you’re casting a vote for the district and they want to know … They may not agree with you on everything, but they want to have a sense of who you are.”
Fitz-Gerald recently completed a term as the chair of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee. The committee turned a total of 310 new seats to the party in 2006, and helped provide new Democratic majorities in 10 state legislatures, including the New Hampshire House and Senate, which hasn’t had a Democratic majority “since Buchanan was president.”
At the DLCC she was in a position to deal with some major funders, including the potent Emily’s List, “a network for pro-choice Democratic women.”
“I worked with Emily’s List over the last three years,” Fitz-Gerald says. “I have a very good relationship with them. They don’t do their formal endorsement process for another couple of months. But I’ve been in close contact with them, they are aware of my candidacy, and I am someone who I think is the epitome of an Emily’s List candidate.”
Fitz-Gerald sees many of the issues facing the nation and her campaign turning on the war in Iraq.
“Bob Beauprez and I did this thing in Louisville, we did a Flag Day ceremony. I was invited as President of the Senate. Bob launched into an a-little-bit-jarring support of the Iraq war,” she says. “Everybody else was trying to keep their comments more neutral as to the history of the flag and what it meant.
“The Post called me and said, ‘What did you think?’ I said, ‘I don’t think it was the time or place for that conversation. But I hope he realizes that the flag belongs to those of us who oppose this war just as much as it belongs to him.'”
Asked why she decided she wants to run for Congress, Fitz-Gerald says, “Every day at the Capitol we deal with all the shortfalls of the federal government. I’ve found it increasingly frustrating to try and steer a state that has dwindling revenues from the feds due to the siphoning off of our dollars.
“I just think it’s a time that leadership is needed, federally. This is such a good congressional seat for someone to not only cast good votes, but to articulate the message and bring change federally.
TOMORROW: Fitz-Gerald talks about the issues, from Iraq to I-70.