Baca-Barragán, Polly: 1941—: Politician, Media Relations Specialist
Polly Baca-Barragán: 1941—: Politician, media relations specialist
Polly Baca-Barragán (known also as Polly Baca) was the first Hispanic woman to win a state senate election in Colorado. She was elected to the state house of representatives in 1974 and the state senate in 1984. Baca's life has been marked by a passion for public service. As a young woman she worked as an editor for trade journals; she combined this experience with her passion for politics and activism throughout her career. Although much of her focus has been Hispanic issues, her strong belief in the value of multiculturalism has been a key element of her life inside and outside politics.
The oldest of four children, Polly Baca was born in 1941 (some sources say 1943) in Greeley, Colorado. Her parents, Jose Manuel and Leda Sierra Baca, were migrant farmers who worked hard to support their family. Baca remembered in particular that her mother instilled a deep sense of pride in her—pride in her heritage and in her ability to succeed.
Showed Early Interest in Politics
As a teen-ager, Baca became an orphan; her father was killed in an accident and her mother died not long afterward. She was suddenly faced with the responsibility of caring for her three younger brothers—but she was determined to stay in high school and finish her studies. A bright student, she won a scholarship to Colorado State University and planned to major in physics, even though she was more interested in political science and had aspirations of becoming a politician. Part of her decision to major in physics came from a science teacher who told her that a science career would be better for her because as a Hispanic and a woman her chances of success in public life were twice as slim. This was something that Baca would remember throughout her career. Knowing that as a Hispanic and a woman she would have a harder time achieving success was hardly a detriment; actually it gave her the impetus to try harder. It was perhaps not surprising that although she did enter college as a physics major, before long she had switched to political science.
While in college Baca became active in campus politics, serving as freshman class secretary. She also became active in her campus chapter of Young Democrats (a group she had been involved with in high school), becoming vice-president and then president. She did volunteer work for the Democratic Party and helped with the campaigns of local candidates; she was also active in the Viva Kennedy clubs that promoted John F. Kennedy to the Hispanic electorate.
At a Glance . . .
Born in 1941 (some sources say 1943), in Greeley, CO; married Miguel Barragán, 1968 (divorced); children: Monica, Michael. Education: Colorado State University, BA, political science, 1962; American University, graduate courses, 1966-67.
Career: International Brotherhood of Pulp, Sulfite, and Paper Mill Workers, AFL-CIO, editorial assistant, 1962-65; Brotherhood of Railway and Airline Clerks, AFLCIO, editor and assistant director of research and education, 1966-67; White House Cabinet Committee on Opportunities for the Spanish Speaking, public information officer, 1964-68; Robert F. Kennedy presidential campaign, Hispanic division, deputy director, 1968; National Council of La Raza, director of research services, 1969-70; Democratic National Committee, Spanish speaking affairs, director, 1971-72; Colorado Committee on Mass Media and the Spanish Surnamed, director, 1972-73; Colorado state House of Representatives, 1975-78; Colorado state senator, 1979-86; Sierra Baca Systems, president, 1985-89, CEO, 1999–; Colorado Hispanic Institute, executive director, 1989-94; General Services Administration, Rocky Mountain Division, regional administrator, 1994-99.
Memberships: InSites; Latin American Research and Service Agency (LARASA).
Awards: National Hispanic Hall of Fame, 1988; Colorado Women's Hall of Fame; honorary doctor of laws, Wartburg College, Waverly, IA; honorary doctor of humane letters, University of Northern Colorado, Greeley, CO.
Address: Home— 1777 Larimer, Unit 510, Denver, CO 80202.
Upon graduation in 1962, Baca moved to Washington, D.C., where she worked on the editorial staff of two trade unions (both branches of the AFL-CIO) that represented paper mill workers and rail and air employees. In addition to giving her valuable experience in writing and editing, these jobs also gave her the chance to see how public policy was made both within the union and the federal government.
Began Political Career
In 1967 Baca landed a job in the White House, working as a public information officer in the Cabinet Committee on Opportunities for the Spanish Speaking. This job involved research and speechwriting, but it also required her to help coordinate events and speeches that were brought to Hispanic communities. A year later, she became national deputy director of the Hispanic division of Robert F. Kennedy's presidential campaign. Kennedy's assassination that summer left Baca and so many of his supporters feeling shocked and lost. Baca took a two-month tour through Latin America, and when she returned she resumed her career, this time as research and information director for the National Council of La Raza in its Phoenix office. She was married briefly to Miguel Barragán, a Chicano activist and former priest. The couple had a son and a daughter. In 1970 she moved back to Colorado and opened up a small public relations business in Denver, Bronze Publications, which she operated for the next 14 years in addition to her many other commitments. Bronze specialized in publicity materials—everything from brochures to press materials to annual reports. Among the organizations she worked with were the National Institute of Mental Health, the Chicano Mobile Institute, the Colorado State University Chicano Studies Program, the National Institute of Education, and VISTA.
Those commitments were drawing her closer to a run for public office. From 1971 to 1972 she served as director of Spanish speaking affairs for the Democratic National Committee. In 1974, the state representative seat in her district (Adams County, Colorado) became vacant, and Baca decided to take a chance and seek the nomination. She won the nomination and was elected that November.
Baca's experience with both politics and communication served her well during her tenure as a state representative. In her first year there, she introduced nine house bills and brought six senate bills into the house. This was a surprise to the legislators; usually laws were introduced by members with more seniority. Baca felt that as a public servant she had a greater obligation to her constituents than to political tradition. Of the nine house and six senate bills she brought before the legislators, five were passed by both houses and signed into law. During her term in the house, Baca served as chair of the house Democratic Caucus (the first woman to hold the position), and she sat on a special joint study committee on school finance.
In 1978 Baca made a bid for a seat in the state senate and won, making her the state's first Hispanic senator. As senator, she was responsible for numerous pieces of legislation, including a 1985 bill to allow the state district courts to enforce subpoenas, a 1985 bill regulating the operation of non-state post-secondary schools, and a 1986 bill to protect deposits of public money held by state and national banks. In 1985 Baca was elected chair of the senate Democratic Caucus. She was the first Hispanic woman to hold that position in the state. In fact, she was the first Hispanic woman in the United States to hold a leadership position in a state senate.
During her state senate tenure, Baca also interacted with the international community. She was one of eight state legislators chosen by the American Council of Young Political Leaders to visit the Soviet Union for a study tour. In 1981 the German Marshall Fund selected Baca and 14 other Americans to participate in a "Successor Generation" seminar in Brussels.
Created Strong Ties as Politician
Part of Baca's success as a politician was her visibility among her constituents and throughout her state. Another element was her good relationship with the Democratic party leadership in Washington, D.C. Her years in Washington, coupled with her hard work and her expertise in public relations and communication, made her one of the best connected Democratic politicians in Colorado. From 1981 to 1989 she served as vice chair of the Democratic National Committee, and she was co-chair of the 1980 and 1984 Democratic National Conventions. The Denver Post went so far as to suggest that Baca had more influence in Washington than then-governor Richard Lamm.
In 1986 Baca decided it was time to try for the U.S. Congress. She fought a hard battle and was defeated despite her popularity and track record. She decided to retire from politics and devote her time to Sierra Baca, a management consulting firm she had begun in 1985. Sierra Baca focused on many of the same issues that Baca had tackled while in politics: education reform, the role of women and minorities in society, understanding public policy. She ran the company until 1989 when she accepted a position as executive director of the Colorado Hispanic American Institute. The Institute's mission was to develop multicultural leadership and develop programs that would benefit Hispanics and other minorities. One of the projects she worked on during her five years at the Institute was the direction of Visiones, a leadership development program that brought community leaders from different racial and ethnic groups together and helped them to understand one another's cultures more completely.
In February of 1994 Baca was back in Washington briefly. This time she was a special assistant to President Bill Clinton and director of the Office of Consumer Affairs. As part of her duties, she chaired the U.S. delegation to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) Committee on Consumer Policy conference.
From November of 1994 to May of 1999, Baca was regional administrator for the Rocky Mountain Region of the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA). In that capacity she oversaw GSA activities for an area covering six states and 48,000 government employees working in 43 government agencies. In 1999 she went back to her consulting business, Sierra Baca. Her civic activities include serving as executive director of the Latin American Research and Service Agency (LARASA), an advocacy group for the Hispanic community; and InSites, a nonprofit organization that conducts research and evaluation programs for educational organizations.
Meier, Matt S., Mexican American Biographies: A Historical Dictionary, 1836-1987, Greenwood Press, 1988.
Denver Post, October 21, 1979.
Vista, February 4, 1992.
"Polly B. Baca" 9 News, www.9news.com/latino/baca_resume_long.htm (June 4, 2003).
—George A. Milite
Elected to the Colorado House of Representatives and, later, to the state senate, Polly Baca-Barragán (born 1943) was the first Hispanic woman elected to those offices. She remains active in politics working on behalf of Mexican Americans and dealing with housing issues.
Polly Baca-Barragán is a pioneer in the growing field of Hispanic woman politics. A Colorado State Senator for 12 years, Baca-Barragán was the first woman chair of the House Democratic Caucus, and in 1985 she was elected chair of the Senate Democratic Caucus. She was the first and only minority woman to be elected to the Colorado Senate and the first Hispanic Woman to serve in leadership in any State Senate in the United States. A long-time activist at the local, regional, and national levels with civic groups, she is nationally known for her leadership skills and motivational presentations.
Baca-Barragán was born in Greeley, Colorado, in 1943. She is the daughter of Spanish Americans José Manuel, a former migrant farm worker, and Leda Sierra, a strong and fiercely independent woman. From her mother Polly learned that "a woman must be her own person, independent and able to care for herself," Baca-Barragán stated in a 1988 interview contributor Gloria Bonilla-Santiago.
Encounters Racism as a Child
One of Baca-Barragán's early memories is from grade school, where she first began to notice racial discrimination. She and her family went to church and saw little girls inside in white dresses; somehow, Baca-Barragán knew she wanted to be seated with them. But the ushers came and told her family they had to sit on the side aisle because they were "Mexican Americans." The center aisles were reserved for the Anglos who went to that church. In her interview, Baca-Barragán recalled clearly the experience: "They assumed we were Mexican American from the other side of the tracks. They didn't want us there. My mother forced my father to move into a low-income, racially mixed neighborhood, but it was not the Spanish neighborhood. We called it the Spanish American colony because we were from Colorado and from the old Spanish families. My mother was the strength in my family."
At fourteen, Baca-Barragán's father was killed in an accident, and shortly after her mother died. She literally had to assume the role of an adult even though she had no role models. She raised her three younger brothers using common sense. She loved them and she did what she thought her mother would have done. Motivated by her neighbor, Baca-Barragán finished high school and won a scholarship to attend college. She recollected in her interview that she "wanted to go to Colorado State University and major in Physics. My chemistry teacher told me about Madame Curie and told me I couldn't succeed in public life because I was 'Mexican American,' but I could in the scientific field because they had to judge you by what you were. So that's what I decided to be, a physics major. The principal at that high school was very bigoted. She tried to discourage me from applying to the state university."
Although Baca-Barragán began university studies with a major in physics, she was soon drawn back to her ninth-grade desire to enter a field of power—law and politics. She plunged into campus politics, taking the vice presidency, and later the presidency, of the university Young Democrats; she was also secretary for her freshman class. Active as a volunteer for congressional campaigns, Baca-Barragán was a student volunteer of the Viva Kennedy Clubs for John F. Kennedy and worked as an intern for the Colorado Democratic Party.
After receiving her B.A. in political science in 1962, Baca-Barragán was recruited to work as an editorial assistant for a trade union newspaper in Washington, D.C. Shortly after, she was recruited to work for President Lyndon Johnson's administration as a public information officer for a White House agency. Next she joined the national campaign staff of the late Senator Robert F. Kennedy in his bid for President of the United States in 1968. That same year she served as the director of research and information for the National Council of La Raza in Phoenix, Arizona, where she met her husband, Miguel Barragán, a Chicano activist and former priest. The marriage produced two children, Monica and Mike, before ending in divorce. A few years later, adding to a long list of "firsts," Polly became an assistant to the Chairman of the Democratic National Committee. Shortly after, she opened a public relations business in Adams County after returning to Colorado, where her professional experiences blossomed into her political career.
Wins Election in Colorado
In 1974, Polly Baca-Barragán won Colorado's 34th district seat in the state's House of Representatives, and four years later she was elected to the Colorado State Legislature as the first Hispanic woman senator. In 1977, she was elected the first woman chair of the House Democratic Caucus, and in 1985, she was elected chair of the Senate Democratic caucus. She was the first minority woman to be elected to the Colorado Senate and the first Hispanic woman to serve in leadership in any State Senate in the United States.
In her interview Baca-Barragán recalled a personal note Senator Edward Kennedy sent to her with his best personal wishes during her Legislative campaign, saying, "We need more representation of the Chicano community in public office as we need more women, and Polly's the best of both. … She will represent a progressive, bright, and effective addition to the state legislature, one who will speak for all the people of her district."
As a freshman legislator in the Colorado House of Representatives, Baca-Barragán broke an old rule of the seniority system which imposed a "watch and wait" attitude on first termers. In the 1975 session of the Colorado Legislature, she introduced nine House bills and carried six Senate bills in the House. Two of these House bills and three of Senate bills were passed by both houses and signed into law by the governor. Throughout her term she sponsored 201 more House bills and 57 additional Senate bills. Of these, 156 passed both houses and are now law. Some of her most notable bills are Senate Bill 118, providing for the protection of deposits of public monies held by the state and national banks (1986); Senate Bill 87, providing authority to the Colorado district courts to enforce foreign subpoenas, (1985); Senate Bill 139, concerning assessment of civil money penalties by the state banking board, (1985); House Bill 1117, continuing the short-term-loan revolving fund in the division of housing, (1985); House Bill 1336, regulating the operation of non state post-secondary institutions in Colorado by the Colorado Commission of Higher Education, and many others.
As the Denver Post summarized, Baca-Barragán was known in Colorado as "a democratic senator representing 63,000 Adams County resident. On the other hand, she is the Colorado politician who has the closest ties to the nation's Democratic Leadership in Washington, D.C. … In fact, Barragan, has better, more open links to the White House than Gov. Dick Lamm and other Democratic leaders in Colorado." Throughout her work Baca-Barragán won the respect of many leaders in the state of Colorado and nationally. By any standards, she must be judged a good policy maker.
Part of her success is attributable to her many volunteer and civic activities, which she has pursued throughout her career and which she views as a basic training ground for any politician. These activities included Chicano and minority activism, party politics, women's rights, professional and business development, and political and community organizing. Locally, she worked on the Board of Trustees of Labor's Community Agency, the Latin American Research and Service Agency, the Mile High United Way, and she has been on the Policy Advisory Council on the Division of the State Compensation Insurance Fund. On a broader scale, she served on the boards of the National Chicano Planning Council and Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF) and many others.
Baca-Barragán told the Denver Post that she is especially proud of her part in the founding of the National Congress of Hispanic American Citizens, better known as "El Congreso," the country's first and only full-time Latino lobby at the nation's Capitol. Her experience at the state legislative committee level reads like a Who's Who of committee assignments: Rules; Business Affairs and Labor; Finance; Local Government; Agriculture, National Resources and Energy; Transportation; School Finance; State Affairs; Health, Environment, Welfare and Institutions; Legislative Audit; and Education. Baca-Barragán's legislation, moreover, has always been people-oriented. For example, in 1986 Polly Baca-Barragán introduced innovative legislation to correct inequitable financial burdens on Colorado property tax-payers, while still providing quality education. In addition, she introduced legislation to protect public monies in state national banks. In 1980 and again in 1984, she was elected Co-Chair of the Democratic National Convention and chaired the Colorado delegation to the 1978 Democratic Mid-term Conference. Baca-Barragán also gladly shared her extensive foreign affairs experience as a participant and panelist to major international conferences in Columbia, Mexico, the USSR, Israel, Egypt, Lebanon, Canada, Belgium, and West Germany.
It was her track record of performance and success at the national level as Senator that motivated her to be a candidate for the U.S. Congress in 1986. In a personal interview for Hispanic Women Breaking Ground and Barriers, Baca-Barragán commented on the disappointment she felt after losing the race: "I've had two great pains in my life. The divorce was rejection by a male … but that's how I perceived it. The other was when I lost my race for Congress. This was rejection because I was an Hispanic woman. That's the only reason I lost that race. It's a great deal of pain. I don't know of a pain that is greater and that's why people don't take risks. It's a lack of confidence that you can't succeed or the willingness to withstand the rejection if you fail."
After the long campaign, Baca-Barragán retired from public office and became President of Sierra Baca Systems, a consulting firm specializing in program development and assessment, leadership training, issue analysis and motivational presentations. In addition, Baca-Barragán has frequently appeared as a political commentator on both television and radio. She is nationally known for her leadership skills and for breaking ground in the area of politics for Latinas in the United States.
In 1988, she was honored as one of the original 14 members to be inducted into the National Hispanic Hall of Fame and being listed in the World Who's Who of Women. Though Baca-Barragán has no political aspirations at present, she continues to be active with national civic groups and serves on a bipartisan Commission on National Political Conventions. More recently, Baca-Barragán has been devoting her time to heading up the Colorado Institute for Hispanic Education and Economic Empowerment, whose mission is to "create a pool of Hispanic leaders who are sensitive to cultural differences and gender issues, and who will jump on the fast track to leadership positions," according to Mercedes Olivera in Vista. "If we are to have social cohesiveness as a nation," Baca-Barragán related in Vista, "I feel strongly that we have to value the other people, their value system, culture, history. If we honor those differences, then we can look at the human thread that unites us all as human beings." □