Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Groff's Election Marks Historic Day at Capitol

Colorado experienced a historic "first" this morning as Peter Groff became the first African-American to be elected president of the state senate.

Groff, 44, was unanimously elected to the post by colleagues of both parties at 10:12am. The gallery, with many of Groff's friends and family members present, erupted in sustained applause as the Denver Democrat waved the ceremonial gavel.

Former Sen. Regis Groff, who served in the senate for 20 years, could be seen wiping away tears as his son acknowledged his election to the third highest position in the state government.

Meanwhile, the new president's sister, Traci Jones, said her brother's political rise is a result of his ability to focus on the needs of the public instead of exclusively partisan concerns. "I think what Peter realizes is, we all want what's best for our state," said Jones. "His strength is that he doesn't care about the glory."

Jones was accompanied by Groff's seven-year old son, Malachi, and five-year old daughter, Moriah. Both said they were proud of their daddy and enjoyed watching him swing the gavel, though they denied having to call him "Mr. President" at home.

Herman Malone, a longtime Denver resident and friend of the Groff family, said that Groff's ascension to presiding officer of the senate owes more to his skill as a legislator than to his race. "We're extremely proud because he's done a tremendous job and is continuing the legacy of his dad," said Malone. "He is senate president for a reason, and that is because his colleagues recognize his leadership abilities."

During his address to start the 2008 session, Groff paid tribute to his ancestors who were slaves in Georgia.

"I understand that it is not just my hand that takes the gavel today," said Groff. "I understand that it is the hands of my relatives who toiled under the overseer's whip on the red clay of Georgia that take this gavel today on the red carpet of the Colorado Senate."

He went on to quote the Book of Isaiah in encouraging his colleagues to tackle problems in education, healthcare, transportation, economic development and constitutional reform.

"You shall be called the repairer of the breach and the restorer of pathways to dwell," said Groff, who then encouraged his colleagues to adopt "the long view and the pathway to a greater Colorado."

During his address Groff urged the legislature to pass legislation assuring insurance coverage for all children in Colorado.

"It is the morally right and responsible thing to do," said Groff. "While adults can make decisions about whether they accept coverage, our most precious and vulnerable resource cannot make those decisions."

Groff also made the case for continued improvements and reforms to the state's public education system.

Malone agreed that Groff is right to focus on educational reform. "I'm a business owner, and have been for over 30 years here in the city," said Malone. "Education is the key. As a state, if we going to move forward in business, in economic development, in social achievement, we've got to have an educated workforce. That's the only way, so his priorities are right on time."

Senate minority leader Andy McElhany, R-Colorado Springs, also indicated sympathy for Groff's decision to focus on educational improvements while offering mild criticism of proposals to fundamentally re-structure the state's healthcare system and seek more funding for transportation.

Former Denver mayor Wellington Webb and his wife Wilma were among the many admirers of Groff present in the chamber today. Both are also former legislators.