Peter Groff made history Wednesday the way Barack Obama is trying to.
Offering a message of unification, inspiration and spirituality, Groff introduced himself as the first African-American president of the Colorado Senate in much the same style Obama uses in trying to become the first African-American president of the United States.
Groff’s speech on the opening day of the General Assembly mirrored his public style as a gentleman who rarely raises his voice. It incorporated a quiet eloquence that hopefully signaled a change in the often acrid atmosphere of the Senate — or at least a change in the tone of voice in which barbs are flung.
Before a chamber packed with African-Americans dressed as if they were going to church, Groff, a liberal Democrat, even quoted scripture.
He chose a verse from Isaiah: “You shall be called the repairer of the breach.”
Groff was talking about breaches in education and health care, and a state constitution hewn by an increasing number of conflicting mandates. But he could also have been talking about the partisan breaches in an election-year legislative session. Those stand to be frequent and ugly.
Groff warned his colleagues not to finish the 120-day session wondering, “What if we had worked together?”
He asked them to show “the political courage and political will that people need and the future demands.”
“Colorado’s mountain tops are great sources of inspiration,” Groff said, calling on fellow legislators to “ascend the summit” of bipartisanship.
If you closed your eyes, you could almost hear Obama.
And like Obama, Groff is the kind of politician who can overcome the legacy of racism that too often holds back America. You listen to his message; you don’t look at his skin.
Groff’s style is decidedly different from Denver’s first black mayor, Wellington Webb. Webb, who watched Groff’s speech from a seat on the Senate floor, talked a lot about the politics of race during his three terms as mayor.
Yet it is because of Webb’s ability to get elected, then re-elected, that Groff will not have to focus so much on his ethnicity.
Groff’s dad, Regis Groff, preceded him as Colorado’s first black senator. Like Webb, Regis Groff also paved the way for his son. And like Webb, the elder Groff watched his son from the Senate floor on Wednesday. He listened as his son told the packed house: “I understand that it is the hands of my relatives who toiled under the overseer’s whip on the red clay of Georgia that take this gavel today on the red carpet of the Colorado Senate.”
Then it was left to Groff’s good friend and loyal opponent, Republican minority leader Andy McElhaney, to explain what the future truly demands.
“When I got married in 1963 and moved to Texas,” McElhaney said, “I used to go to Louisiana on business. I would go to facilities and see drinking fountains marked `white’ and `colored.'”
Since then, McElhaney said, he and other Americans had seen a remarkable string of “firsts.” First black this and first black that.
“I soon hope to be past that point in this country,” McElhaney said.
On Wednesday, people saw the first black Senate president in Colorado sworn in. Then they heard him invite them toward a vision that is not just non-partisan, but at long last, colorblind.