Former Colorado House Majority Leader Amy Stephens on women in politics and facing down fear, threats, stalking

In Colorado over the past few election cycles, partisan sniping and ideological battles have moved beyond distracting and annoying to become scary. Exaggerated and ugly political speech has reduced political opponents to stereotypes and has helped make them targets for abuse.

Former Democratic Senate President John Morse, quoting Robert Kennedy, famously referred to the deluge of ugliness and threats that came during the 2013 session around a suite of gun-control bills as evidence of “a sickness in our souls,” which drew even more abuse.

“We’ve experienced hatred and vitriol that I haven’t seen since I was on the street as a police officer,” said Morse in the speech. “It has included wishing rape, torture and death on legislators and their families. Sickness,” he said.

Samples of the kinds of messages Morse referred to are still available online. The messages are inarguably ugly and sick. Some of them drew criminal investigation.

On Tuesday, Colorado Independent reporter Tessa Cheek wrote about an anti-harassment bill being weighed this year at the Capitol. In her report, she briefly quotes former Republican House Majority Leader Amy Stephens, who was besieged with threats for sponsoring the controversial bill that established Colorado’s Connect for Health Obamacare insurance exchange. Stephens was talking at an event on women in politics held by the Colorado Independent and her recounting of the experience was riveting and sad.

“I had death threats, I was being followed for running the [Obamacare state-exchange] bill. Did you know we had to have people out in front of my office every day at the Capitol?” she begins. She says she most feared for the women on her staff, one of whom was pregnant. She said she was kept awake at night considering different evacuation routes from the building, about how she could move her staff out safely.

She begins talking about the experience at 11:45 roughly and starts again at 21:00. The other women on the panel are former state Senate President Joan Fitz-Gerald and filmmakers Meg Froelich and Laura Hoeppner, who are producing “Strong Sisters,” a documentary about the rich history of elected women in Colorado.


[blockquote]We had people call my office to say they were going to kill your boss to my aides.Did you know, it was awful? There were crazies, and the honest thing is, that it’s sad. It’s really sad to me because… I’m a Republican, I’m a conservative, a states’ rights person, and so to me running a bill like that, the exchange, so that Colorado could control its own destiny, to me it made absolute sense. But when there are hot issues like that… People are just ‘la-la-la’ — they can’t hear — you can’t even get through to some people in talking about it… So during that time, you just had to say, ‘I know who I am. I know why I’m here. I know how my district would vote…’

I saw a different light of people, because social media is in the age of the angries and the nasties and the trolls and people who just are haters in general. I had to just not read it. I had to just carry on. It didn’t mean my son didn’t hear things and my husband — my husband it grated… He was worried all the time, because he was really concerned for my safety. Look, when you walk to your car, when someone isn’t watching — I had to be aware all the time during that period, and it’s very emotionally and physically draining…. I’ve been followed….

There’s a difference between waking up in the morning and saying ‘I have to put my big girl’s pants on because if you want to be in this game, that’s what’s gonna happen.’ Now, that happens to some men. But I predominantly have seen people think it’s freer and they’re able to take aim at women in ways they wouldn’t to men. I don’t care if you’re Annie Oakley, frankly. They will still do it, and I think it’s a shame. It speaks again about our society and sometimes how we view women in power and in office, and to me it was a big learning lesson.

The only time I really would cry is when I thought about my staff… I was very worried about my staff because the door through the Majority Office — there is a secretary there and an aide there and I would — you know, when crazies are calling, that’s what it is, crazies, and you don’t give them place — but I always had to think ‘What do you do in an emergency? How are we going to respond?’ and those were the things for me — I was like, ‘Okay, do I go to Home Depot and buy the thing that goes over the window?’ This is what would keep me up at night. I would lay awake going ‘[Secretary’s name] has a baby on the way. Oh my god, what if something happens?’ You know, my other aide had just applied to go into the Army and wanted a bright future there. Those were the things that I can remember weeping over, just, you know, during that time, because I just really wanted to secure the safety of our people there… So I hear you about thinking about an exit strategy for a baby, because I would think about those things at night.[/blockquote]

[Photo of Amy Stephens by John Tomasic.]