"I really like where I’m going to land, because where I’m going to land is going to change lives," says Stafford, who represented House District 40, which includes parts of Arapahoe and Elbert counties.
Stafford, 55, said she’ll continue her past work counseling those convicted of domestic violence through Colorado MOVES (Men Overcoming Violence Effectively Services) and advocating for broader access to mental health, rehabilitation services for juveniles convicted of crimes, and reforming Colorado’s child welfare system.
"I will probably spend the rest of my life trying to help us find healthier ways to give skills and to intervene and to help families stabilize," she says.
Stafford said she made the "agonizing" decision to switch her party affiliation from Republican to Democrat last year after she was bullied by lobbyists representing homebuilders and some leaders in her own party. She’d also often clashed with her party when she advocated for expanding social services. In one case, she found herself at odds with fellow Republicans because she wanted to move money away from financing Colorado’s sparsely populated death row and instead into investigating murder cases that had gone cold, she said.
After considering a switch to independent status, Stafford decided she needed the support of a political party to make a real difference during her last year in the statehouse and made the leap to the left.
"I felt like I had come home — quite frankly it felt comfortable to me," she says, adding that her view isn’t much different from either side of the aisle. But, in her experience, the Democratic members of the state legislature treat each other with more respect than the Republicans.
Stafford said she officially switched her registration from Republican to Democrat, but also checked a box on her voter registration form identifying herself as a member of the Pro-Life party — which resulted in her official status becoming independent. Once she realized she had a non-party affiliation, she changed to Democrat, but the temporary change altered the course of her future in more than one way.
First, it prohibited her from running for Arapahoe County Commissioner as a Democrat because she had not been registered with the party for the required year. It also prohibited her from participating in this February’s Democratic caucuses, where she would have cast a vote for Barack Obama. But, Stafford said, the status also opened a door.
Her pro-life affiliation resulted in Stafford being contacted by the Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group Democrats for Life, which opposes abortion, capital punishment and euthanasia.
Through her part-time work as Aurora Mental Health’s faith-based coordinator, Stafford said she’s met other pro-life Democrats. She’s sent letters to both the Hillary Clinton and Obama campaign asking how they’ll recognize pro-life Democrats like her. She’s still waiting for a response, she says, leaving open the possibility that she’ll cast her vote for Republican John McCain this fall.
Deciding who to support as her replacement in the Legislature is even more complicated. Cindy Acree, the Republican candidate, has supported Stafford in the past, but she has also worked with the Democrats’ candidate, Karen Wilde.
"They both bring really wonderful skills to the table so I guess my belief would be no matter which one ends up winning that seat, I think House District 40 will be well-served," Stafford says.
Whether she’s a Democrat or Republican, holding elected office or not, Stafford plans to continue working on the issues and people she cares about.
"I’ve never tried to be anybody I’m not, but [the Republicans] didn’t always understand I work in the trenches, all through session, I still work four nights a week. I work in the trenches with people in real life issues," Stafford says.