Decades of Empowering Women and Her Community
State Senator Polly Baca, daughter of Mexican American farmers, grew up in Greeley, Colo. in the 1940s and ‘50s. And if you ask her today who her own role models were back then, her answer is brief: “None. There weren’t any.”
But there was plenty of negative “inspiration.” Polly says, “When I was growing up, everything was segregated. Signs said ‘No Mexicans or dogs allowed.’ I always knew how wrong that was.” The pain of that bigotry stayed with her. “But God gave me an opportunity to change it. That’s why I worked so hard. To prove that women and Mexican Americans were as good as. Yes, I had to try twice as hard. But it was my calling.”
She would prove that over decades.
Inspiration and Dedication
College work at CSU determined the course of Polly’s life. An outstanding student, originally a Physics major, Polly made the switch to Political Science. And there she found her voice, becoming the first Mexican American woman to be named a CSU Pacemaker, the highest award a student could achieve.
But although she graduated with honors, Polly couldn’t find a job in Colorado. She says, “Denver’s quota of Mexican American teachers was already filled. And women’s jobs were limited.” So she went to Washington, D.C., where her student work for John F. Kennedy’s campaign had brought her a network of friends and supporters. She began her career as the editor of The Pulp & Paper Worker, an international labor union newspaper located in D.C. And she found lasting inspiration in her work for liberal causes, even attending Martin Luther King’s 1963 March on Washington.
Friends and Legends
Polly went on to work for President Lyndon Johnson as a public information officer for the White House Inter Agency Committee on Mexican Americans. And later, she became National Deputy Director of the 1968 Viva Robert Kennedy Presidential Campaign. She was assigned to Los Angeles where she worked with Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta and Bert Corona, to win California for Sen. Kennedy.
What was it like to know these legendary figures at such a young age? Polly replies simply, “They were all young too.” She says, “Cesar wasn’t famous yet, he had just gone on strike. I went to hear him speak because my father had been a farm worker. We became friends. When his people came to D.C., they would sleep on my couch. Dolores became a good friend and still is. We were all young, struggling, trying to make things better.”
And as for Bobby Kennedy? “OK, Bobby was famous! But he cared about all the things I cared about.”
Winning her District
Polly Baca’s career began to take off. She organized the first Hispanic Caucus of a major political party (1972). And she became the first woman and person of color elected from Adams County to the Colorado State Legislature (1974).
Polly says, “I never intended to run for the State Legislature. But the opportunity came up and I went for it.” Going for it—working every opportunity—became a theme of her career. She won in a district where less than 15% of voters were minorities. “Because of the bigotry I had experienced, I knew I had to run. I didn’t want anyone else to go through that.”
But serving was definitely different for her, especially as a young woman. Polly says, “When I was in the State Legislature, I became pregnant. I was one of the first, and everyone was so kind. We adjourned on July 1, and I gave birth the next day. The Denver Post headline said, ‘Miguel comes down with the gavel!’”
So Many Firsts
Polly became the first Latina to co-chair two National Democratic Party Conventions (1980 and 1984). She says, “Bill Clinton helped me get elected. At that time, he had lost his bid for governor. But he showed me that it’s OK to lose. Good things can happen if you learn from it.” She says, “When he ran in 1991, Hillary asked if I would co-chair in Colorado. Even though I didn’t believe he would be president, I went for it.” Those words again. She says, “Do what you think is right, and things work out.”
Indeed they did for her. Polly went on to be the first woman and first person of color to serve as Rocky Mountain Region VIII Regional Administrator of the General Services Administration (1994-1999). She was the first Latina to serve as an election night analyst for an English-language commercial TV station (2006). And she was the first Latino in Colorado to be elected to the Electoral College four times (2008, 2012, 2016 and 2020).
Looking Back. Paying it Forward.
Today, Polly is a certified spiritual director and has facilitated a weekly centering prayer course at the federal prison in Englewood, Colo. since 2000. She is currently the President and CEO of Baca Barragan Consultants, a consulting firm specializing in public policy analysis, media communications, multicultural leadership development and motivational presentations.
But she says the secret to her success is all about the basics. “It’s networking. It’s hard work. Do your homework, get to know people and take those opportunities when they come.”
Even if you feel you’re not ready? “You’re never ready. There are always things you didn’t plan for.” And once more, her famous words: “When opportunity presents itself, go for it.”