If the highest-ranking newly elected official of the Arapahoe County Democrats is any reflection of state party leadership, then Black Democrats could be in big trouble.
When asked about a racial remark that has dogged the Dems for years, Arapahoe County Chair Mary Ellen Wolf answered, “I have no personal knowledge of this at this time. Moving on to our agenda.” Her dismissive response at the March 14 Arapahoe County Democrats executive session aggravates concerns held by many who wonder how inclusive the party is and whether Blacks are welcome in leadership.
The “this” Wolf claims no knowledge of was an insensitive remark made in 2014 by then Secretary of the Colorado Democratic Party Carolyn Boller. “I don’t mean to be crass,” she told Naquetta Ricks, who was running for University of Colorado Board of Regents, following a February 4 candidate training workshop. “They say, too many African Americans are running for office in Arapahoe County.” Ricks and House District 37 candidate Marlo Alston were two Black women at the training seeking party guidance.
“I was shocked and angry that such a racist remark would be made,” Ricks said. “A few days later, a small group of African Americans confronted Boller at a county meeting. She made no apology and [then] County Chair John Buckley, who was present when the statement was made, said he did not remember the incident.”
The group was told by the state party that it was working with the state’s legislative Black Caucus to resolve the matter. That was the last they heard of it.
Alston was also shocked because Boller had always been nice to her. She even offered to support Alston in her race. The comment caught Alston off guard and she believed the others in attendance seemed unbothered by it. The political hopeful was given the impression that Black people, including her, were not welcome in Arapahoe County as candidates.
“I was angry because we were in 2014 when I heard these comments and I thought the Democratic Party was a welcoming party, and no matter what your race, you would be helped by leadership,” Alston recalled. Yet, she [Boller] being a leader and associated with the party for years was the person who wasn’t welcoming everyone.” Alston was further disappointed when no apology came from anyone in county or state party leadership.
Boller’s apparent racial intolerance surfaced again the following year, insulting not only Blacks but also people with disabilities while serving as House District 42 chair.
The incident happened in April 2015 as Representative and now Senator Rhonda Fields was hosting a House District 42 meeting. By many accounts, it was praised as one of the most well attended Arapahoe County meetings in recent memory. But Boller was apparently displeased with who turned out.
“Did you only invite Black people to the meeting?!” she said to Fields in a fit of anger about attendees. “Are you trying to stack the deck with only Black people?!”
Making a bad situation worse, Boller apparently asserted that people in wheelchairs could not serve as a Precinct Committee Person, an elected party neighborhood representative. “How is that disabled woman going to canvass and go door to door?” a guest reported hearing her say.
Senator Fields is a fighter and the first Black to be elected in Arapahoe County. She is also one the highest-ranking Blacks in Colorado politics. Her tenacity led to the successful 2010 conviction of her son and daughter-in-law’s killer. Turning her pain into policy, Fields became a victim advocate and elected official. This time, Boller’s intimidation and anger would not go unaddressed.
At great risk to her political career, Fields filed a formal complaint with House District 42 Chair Patricia Shaver based on multiple rule violations of professional conduct based on cultural norms and respect for all races and those living with disabilities.
“I forwarded the complaint to State Democratic Party Chairman Rick Palacio who said he would be required to convene a state central committee or a five member panel to address the situation,” said Shavers, the first Black elected to Arapahoe County chair. “Rhonda was asked how she wanted to proceed? Because the country was in a presidential year and lots of party work was going on, she extended an olive branch and requested diversity training and an apology from Boller in front of everyone.”
Arapahoe County Dems responded by holding a May 16 diversity workshop where Boller apologized. Wolf was in attendance. However, based on her “no personal knowledge of this” response, Wolf seems to have forgotten about her colleagues demeaning behaviour and racial remarks.
Unfortunately, Boller’s combative behavior continued into 2016, causing Fields to file another formal complaint. At the February 9 Arapahoe County executive committee meeting, the report claims Boller used vulgar and inappropriate language directed at Fields and the committee as a whole while they were discussing a matter of caucus procedure. The report also claims Boller confronted Barbara Groves Jones for saying that she was out of order. Jones, a Black woman, was the state party 2nd vice chair. “The manner in which Carolyn confronted Barbara was threatening and inappropriate. After the incident, Carolyn stormed out of the room into the adjacent office, and continued to shout expletives that directly demeaned my character [Fields], the character of Barbara Jones, and the body as a whole,” the complaint reads.
“As I hope you will agree, this type of behavior is unbecoming of a party officer, and should not be tolerated,” Fields wrote in her complaint. “This is not my first complaint against Carolyn Boller, and I encourage leadership, whether at the county or state level, to take appropriate action to address this inappropriate behavior.”
Party Chairman Rick Palacio deemed the incident “deeply troubling” and promised to “deal with this appropriately.” Fields focused on her successful senate race while nothing came of the complaint.
Colorado Democrats are currently completing their 2017 Party Reorganization and electing new officers to hold two-year terms. Boller was elected to serve on the central and executive committees. In her leadership capacity, her antagonism continues. At the March 14 Arapahoe County executive session meeting, Boller’s racial remarks were a topic of heated discussion. Longtime party volunteer Bernie Rogoff, who also attended the diversity workshop, dismissed complaints about Boller’s remarks as hearsay.
“It’s not hearsay. It is real,” Fields told Rogoff. Then, turning to those in attendance, she said, “Don’t act like it doesn’t exist. It did happen. It happened to me. It happened in my House District. It happened to my neighbors and friends that showed up to a meeting. It happened. I didn’t make it up.”
After being called out as the person behind the ongoing controversy, Bollar stormed to the middle of the room. “I am sick and tired of this rumor floating around,” she shouted in a raspy voice insisting her words were instructive and not meant to be harmful.
Then came her latest offensive remark.
“If you got anything to say to me,” Boller exclaimed while leaving though the back door, “by God pick up your balls and come see me!”
The room fell silent and Wolf moved on with their agenda.
“In my 50-years in the party I have worked to support diversity and will continue to do so,” Boller stated in a text response following the March meeting when asked about her leadership, past remarks and formal complaints. “I gave my apology and stand by it.”