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Politics and Government

From the sidelines to the march, and now to the Capitol: One woman’s journey in the Trump era

Lisa Cutter helped organize the first Women’s March in Denver, and now she is part of Colorado's pink wave of new Democratic lawmakers elected in 2018

State. Rep Lisa Cutter, center, talks to her colleagues on the opening day of the 72nd General Assembly session Jan. 4, 2019 (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The first in an occasional series. This is part of The Colorado Sun’s Capitol Sunlight project. See more Capitol Sunlight stories here. And read part two and part three in the series.

In between briefings and meetings at the Capitol this week, first-year state Rep. Lisa Cutter received a phone call from a young woman she met on the campaign trail.

The woman asked a question that just two years ago Cutter asked herself: Should I run for public office?

Cutter’s mind flashed to her campaign — the long days, the attacks from Republicans, the excruciating wait on election night — and she offered a blunt answer.

“It’s really hard. It’s not that I enjoyed every day,” she told the woman. “But it’s also incredibly rewarding.”

Later, as she recounted the call, she added: “I feel really strongly that if you have something that you think is a calling — if something is calling to you — you have to go down that path or you’ll regret it.”

The conviction is what pushed Cutter, 55, from the political sidelines to the organizing committee for the first Women’s March in Denver to the campaign trail, and now, to the Colorado House of Representatives.

She is the first Democrat to win her western Jefferson County district and is part of the historic blue — and pink — wave that gave the party complete control at the Capitol and elected the most women ever in the House.

“I think Lisa is a great example of women across the country who are fed up with a political structure and government that is essentially failing working families and women,” said Michal Rosenoer, the executive director of Emerge Colorado, a nonprofit that trains Democratic women to run for political office. “Women are really stepping up to the plate and deciding: If anyone is going to fix their communities, it’s them.”

Colorado state Rep. Lisa Cutter listens with fellow colleagues to the State of the State address in the House chambers Jan. 10, 2019. (Kathryn Scott, The Colorado Sun)

The House adjourns after a brief session Monday and Cutter returns to her office in a building across Colfax Avenue from the state Capitol. Her legislative aide offers a rundown on the week’s schedule and latest correspondence from constituents.

Cutter makes a note to talk to another lawmaker about his medical marijuana bill after getting a call from a constituent and wrestles with how to respond to the numerous emails she’s received on the issue of safe injection sites for drug users.

The briefing ends, and she reaches for a screwdriver to finish assembling a desk in her office. As she adds a handle to a drawer, a bracelet that reads “the future is female” rattles on her wrist.

MORE: A citizen’s’ guide to lawmaking and lobbying in Colorado from The Colorado Sun.

Two weeks into the 2019 legislative session, Cutter — like most first-timers — is still orienting to the new demands of a job that pulls her in a dozen directions at once.

“I anticipated it being very busy, but you don’t understand until you get into it how all-consuming it is,” she says. “I don’t think you can really comprehend that until you are in here. It’s even more of a whirlwind than I could have imagined.”

Later that afternoon, in between two other meetings about her bills, Cutter heads to a cafe across the street from the Capitol to get coffee with another new lawmaker, Rep. Mark Baisley, a Republican from Roxborough Park. She set a goal to meet with every Republican lawmaker in the House and started alphabetically.

The two lawmakers talk about their backgrounds and share family snapshots on their cellphones. Soon, the conversation steers toward policy and the ideological divides on spending and education become evident.

Baisley, a former vice-chairman of the state Republican Party, describes himself as “typical conservative Republican, market-based guy.” Cutter doesn’t offer much about her political views and tries to direct the conversation to common ground.

“We all are here because we thought we could do something better for good reasons,” she tells him. “Listen, honestly we are not going to agree on tons and tons of stuff, I mean, that’s the reality. But there’s got to be things we can agree on.”

The two agree the nation’s infrastructure needs upgrades and Colorado teachers need better pay, but fundamentally disagree on how to approach the issues.

At the end, Cutter offers a compromise: “Let’s make a deal to listen to each other.”

Rep. Lisa Cutter stands to applaud with fellow colleagues during the State of the State address. from Gov. Jared Polis on Jan. 10, 2019. (Kathryn Scott, The Colorado Sun)

Her journey from business owner and mother to community organizer and now lawmaker began to take shape about two years ago this month.

Cutter, who manages her own strategic communications firm, loaned her expertise to the women organizing a march in Denver on the day after President Donald Trump’s inauguration in 2017.

The speakers at the event — which takes place Saturday — encouraged women to become active and change the political system. Six months later, Cutter filed paperwork to run in House District 25.

She often thought about running for office in the past — so much so that her three adult children reacted to her decision by saying, “Geez, it’s about time.”

“Most women need to be invited to run five to seven times. We don’t wake up in the morning, put our tie on and say, ‘I look a lot like the president, I should run,’ ” said Rosenoer at Emerge Colorado, which helped train Cutter and 14 other women who won their elections in November. “The more women at the Capitol that our community advocates and that voters can see, the more likely they are to see themselves in that role.”

Cutter said the factors that ultimately motivated her to make a bid for office fit in eight words: “Me Too, the Women’s March and Donald Trump.”

The decision came down to “the idea of action — the idea of not now, when?” she added. “I thought this is a time to be an example.”

From the start, the polls showed Cutter behind in a district with a majority of unaffiliated voters but more Republicans than Democrats.

She remembers the baseless attacks from Republicans — the mailers that read, “Cut your commute time. Vote against Lisa Cutter” or the one that asked, “Is Lisa Cutter’s vote for sale?” And just hours before a big debate against her Republican opponent Steve Szutenbach, she learned her husband was diagnosed with lymphoma.

On election night, Cutter went to watch vote returns at a Democratic Party event held in the same ballroom where she had her wedding reception. She waited for hours but the race appeared too close to call. She went home at 10 p.m. without knowing the result.

Just moments after she turned out the lights at midnight, her phone rang. A state party official called and told her she won. The final margin was 2,701 votes.

Cutter woke the next morning wondering if it had been a dream.

Rep. Lisa Cutter, left, prepares for her official portrait from photographer Donn Bruns at the Colorado Capitol. (John Frank, The Colorado Sun)

The fact she’s a lawmaker is still a bit surreal to her. The other day, as she walked through the Capitol she once toured as a child in grade school, she thought, “Wow, everyday I get to come here and do things that are going to make a difference in some way.”

Cutter is admittedly idealistic. She pairs it with a positive, sociable personality and plenty of laughter. “It’s a big learning curve, but I haven’t seen her so excited about doing anything ever,” said Brett Cutter, her husband.

She approaches her role as a lawmaker much like she did as an organizer of the Women’s March, believing that she can make an impact even as a small part of a larger movement.

“I think change comes from a whole lot of people doing a whole lot of work,” she says.

MORE: The top 10 issues to watch in Colorado’s 2019 legislative session.

One of the first lessons she learned — as all new lawmakers do — is the vast difference between campaigning and governing. “It’s easy to have opinions, but it’s hard to solve problems,” she says.

Her legislative priorities will test that proposition. She plans to introduce legislation to require media literacy in school, address lawsuits that are designed to quiet public critics and move the state toward a goal of eliminating trash and reaching zero waste.

The legislation is a reflection of the advice she received from her mentor in the House, Rep. Dafna Michaelson Jenet, a second-term Democrat from Commerce City.

“I’m a person who likes to get in and figure out the lay of the land and fit in,” Cutter says. “But she said just get out there and be bold.”


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