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Political pioneer devotes her distinguished career to issues of equality
by Tony Phifer | Photograph by William A. Cotton
The daughter of sharecroppers and the victim of racism aimed at her Mexican American heritage, Polly Baca rose above the challenges she faced to become a political pioneer. She broke down barriers in her native Colorado and worked in the national political spotlight for decades.
Last fall, Baca received the Charles A. Lory Public Service Award from the Colorado State University Alumni Association for her distinguished political career devoted to issues of equality.
Baca, 76, smiles and shakes her head when she thinks of the life she imagined as a young woman: that of a physicist, making scientific breakthroughs to change the world.
“I wanted to be the next Marie Curie,” she said, referring to the two-time Nobel Prize-winning physicist. “I was always good at math and science, and I had a passion for physics and engineering.”
When Baca arrived at CSU in 1958, she was the only female freshman majoring in physics. Renowned physics professor Louis Weber was her mentor.
That’s when two life-altering forces collided and changed her course. Baca immersed herself in politics, joining the CSU chapter of the Young Democrats of America; she became friends with Leo Cefkin, a political science professor who admired her passion and work ethic. Then, Weber, her physics mentor, went on sabbatical in Pakistan.
One day, Cefkin asked Baca about her major. When she told him she was studying physics, he was confused and asked how many physics activities Baca had joined.
“None,” she said.
“I think you need to change majors,” Cefkin advised.
So, despite a guilty conscience, Baca switched her major to political science. She graduated with a bachelor’s degree in 1962.
“Isn’t it amazing how things happen in your life?” she asked. “If Dr. Weber had not left for Pakistan, I don’t think I could have changed majors because he had taken such an interest in me, and I didn’t want to disappoint him. But when he left, that’s when I realized political science was where I should be.”
Her decision led to a career of nearly six decades in the Democratic Party, focused on improving the lives of Latinos and others who face prejudice, poverty, or marginalization. She knew the Kennedys well, working to get John Kennedy elected president in 1960 and to get Bobby Kennedy nominated to run for the presidency in 1968.
She was part of the 1963 March on Washington when Martin Luther King delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. She was at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles the night Bobby Kennedy was assassinated.
And she was working in the Democratic National Committee offices in 1972 on the night of the first break-in that led to the Watergate scandal. Later, she worked as director of the Office of Consumer Affairs during the administration of President Bill Clinton.
Closer to home, Baca was the first woman elected to chair the Democratic Caucus of the Colorado House of Representatives; the first minority woman and first Latina elected to the Colorado State Senate; and the first Latina in the nation to serve in both state legislative branches.
Well into retirement, she has continued to promote equality for all, regardless of race, religion, or sexual orientation. She didn’t become the next Marie Curie, but she did help change the world.
“Without CSU, I could never have accomplished what I have,” she said. “CSU literally changed my life.”