The year was 1974, and Polly Baca (B.A., ’62) picked up the phone one day 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. With Baca’s extensive political experience, it was natural for the reporter to be curious.
“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 percent of the vote and became the first person of color from Adams County to be elected to the Colorado State Legislature. It was one of the many glass ceilings she had broken throughout her career. Just four years later in 1978, she broke another one as the first woman of color and first Hispanic woman to be elected to the Colorado State Senate, where she served through 1986.
The 1970s were a different era, and Baca was on the forefront of a changing society. Prior to her 1974 election victory, there had been only five women serving in the state House of Representatives. That year, that number more than doubled to 11, and she was the only Latina.
“It was a challenging time, because as women we were doing something that had never been done. But it was an exciting time as well.”
Blossoming Into Politics
When Baca graduated high school near the top of her class in 1958, she was offered an exciting opportunity to attend a state university through a scholarship. Her parents, who emphasized the importance of education throughout her childhood, were thrilled. She ultimately chose Colorado State University, known for its excellent physics program.
Baca felt that being a physicist was her path to making a meaningful difference in society. As Mexican Americans, she and her family faced the brutal arrows of racism, but her shield growing up was a determination to affect positive change and be a role model for her community, no matter what the odds.
“The racism we experienced really burned a flame in my heart that created a passion to help my community. 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 immediate 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, adviser of the Young Democrats and a political science professor. He suggested that political science might be a better major than physics, and Baca agreed.
New horizons, opportunities, and connections opened up that Baca never imagined. She campaigned for Byron Johnson, running for the Colorado House of Representatives – and he won! As a sophomore in 1960, Baca was awarded an internship to work with the State Democratic Party and John F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign.
“I was able to meet all the Kennedys. 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 in the ‘80s, Baca had the opportunity to be a member of the National Endowment for Democracy, which was funded by the State Department. She usually sat by the Secretary of Labor Bill Brock and got to know him pretty well. At one of the meetings, she had a special question for Brock.
“Would it be possible for you to issue an executive order that requires farmers to have toilet and sanitation facilities for their workers to use? This is an important health and human rights issue.”
“Let me look into it,” said Brock.
Baca had previously attempted to get a farm sanitation bill through the Colorado State Senate, but with her party in the minority at the time, it wasn’t able to pass. After a while, Brock had some good news.
“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 tenacity to make positive change throughout her career never let an obstacle get in her way. She moved issues forward that were deeply important to her, including legislation to help victims of domestic violence, immigration reform, rights for mobile home owners, and so much more. She has done much in the nonprofit world too, including leading as executive director of the Colorado Hispanic Institute.
“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.”
Take a quick glance at Baca’s extraordinary resume, and it’s clear she’s not slowing down anytime soon. She currently serves on CSU’s Board of Governors and is president and CEO of Baca Barragan Consultants, a firm specializing in public policy analysis and multicultural leadership development.
Whenever Baca comes back to CSU, she can’t help but feel optimistic when she sees the new generation of Rams on campus. When asked if she had any words of wisdom for them, it didn’t take long for her to offer some insight based on her own life story.
“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 okay, just keep going forward. So take those risks and follow your heart – and work hard while you’re doing it.”
When you join the Colorado State University Alumni Association, you become part of something bigger – a global community of green and gold that keeps alumni connected to the University and each other. As a Life Member, Polly Baca is making an impact on current students and future Rams through scholarships; providing support for alumni programming, outreach, and engagement across the nation; and preserving time-honored traditions that bind us together as Rams. You can make a difference too, and gain access to benefits such as exclusive invites, bookstore savings, career services, and more. Become a member today!