Polly Baca (B.A., ’62) picked up the phone one day in 1974 and unexpectedly changed her life. A reporter had called wanting her thoughts about the vacancy that had opened up in the Colorado House of Representatives.
“Polly, I talked to the vice chair of the Adams County Democratic Party, and she said you might be interested in running for the vacancy. Are you going to run?”
“I had no intention of running at that time,” Baca explained. “When I hung up the phone, I said, ‘What in the world did I just do?’ All of a sudden, I’m a candidate for the state House of Representatives.”
Baca went on to win the general election with 67% of the vote and became the first person of color from Adams County to be elected to the Colorado State Legislature.
Just four years later in 1978, she became the first woman of color and first Hispanic woman elected to the state Senate, where she served through 1986. That made her the first Latina in the nation to serve in both houses of her state legislature.
Prior to her 1974 election, there had been only five women serving in the Colorado House. That year, the number more than doubled to 11, and Baca was the only Latina.
Baca has worked for three U.S. presidents: Lyndon B. Johnson, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama. She has been inducted into the Colorado Women’s Hall of Fame and was named by the Denver Post as one of the 75 Most Influential Women of Colorado in 2012.
She now serves on the Colorado State University System Board of Governors.
Blossoming into politics
When Baca graduated high school in Greeley near the top of her class in 1958, she was offered a scholarship to attend a state university and chose Colorado State University for its excellent physics program.
As Mexican Americans, she and her family faced the brutal arrows of racism, but her shield growing up was a determination to effect positive change.
“The racism we experienced really burned a flame in my heart that created a passion to help my community,” Baca said. ”Because of that scholarship, I felt this burden – I was one of the few people who looked like me to get this opportunity, so I owed my community to do well, and it wasn’t acceptable to fail.”
Baca’s activism on campus – as secretary of the freshman class, vice president of the Young Democrats, and a member of the International Relations Club – captured the attention of John Leo Cefkin, a political science professor. He suggested that political science might be a better major than physics, and Baca agreed.
As a sophomore in 1960, Baca was awarded an internship to work with John F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign in Colorado.
“I was able to meet all the Kennedys,” Baca recalled. “That internship changed my life, because from the network in that campaign, I was able to get my first job out of college. I credit CSU for putting me on the path to achieve what I was able to do and live the life that I lived.”
Agent of positive change
As vice chair of the National Democratic Party throughout the ’80s, Baca attended meetings in Washington, D.C., where she usually sat next to U.S. Secretary of Labor Bill Brock. One day, she asked him a question that harked back to her parents’ earliest years in Weld County.
“Would it be possible for you to require farmers to have toilet and sanitation facilities for their workers to use?”
“Let me look into it,” said Brock.
Baca had attempted to get such a bill through the Colorado State Senate, but it failed.
“It took him a year,” Baca said, “but Bill Brock did issue an executive order requiring farmers throughout the U.S. to provide sanitation services for the farm workers. That was so exciting because it was more than Colorado, it was the entire country.”
Baca’s determination to make positive change throughout her career allowed her to move important issues forward, including legislation to help victims of domestic violence, immigration reform, and rights for mobile home owners.
“Change happens incrementally, it doesn’t happen overnight,” Baca said. “I started the process on so many different issues, and some of it got passed, and some of it is still being worked on.”
Whenever Baca comes back to CSU, she feels optimistic for the new generation of Rams.
“I encourage young people to take risks and to follow their hearts, and don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do something you want to do. Just go ahead and try it; if you fail, it’s OK, just keep going forward.”