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Politics and Government

Why are so many people riled up by Jena Griswold?

The young secretary of state who has taken on President Trump is criticized for self-promotion and politicizing the office. But her fans call it sexism.

Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold speaks to reporters in Denver about the 2020 election on Wednesday, Oct. 15, 2020. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)
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Secretary of State Jena Griswold has threatened to refer President Donald Trump for prosecution for encouraging voter fraud. She’s called him “lying, litigating Donny” on Twitter and more than once has tried to bait him into explaining why voting by mail is good enough for him but not everyone else.

“I’ll wait,” Griswold tweeted. Trump never answered.

After the president’s press secretary responded to questions about whether Trump would accept the results of the election if he lost, Colorado’s elections chief tweeted at her: “Don’t you tire of doing verbal acrobatics for a living? Asking for … a country.”

Trump’s election in 2016 spurred Griswold, along with hundreds of women across the country, to run for office in the first place. The 36-year-old Democrat was elected secretary of state in the “blue wave” of 2018 and is currently the youngest person elected to that job and the highest-ranking woman elected to statewide office in Colorado. 

She’s a self-promoter, an Ivy League-educated lawyer who grew up in an Estes Park cabin with an outhouse, and she isn’t shy about her aspirations for higher political office. She upstaged presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg at one of his Denver rallies by talking about her working-class upbringing and accomplishments in office, and she’s appeared on CNN, MSNBC, Good Morning America and even The Daily Show with Trevor Noah to discuss mail-in voting. Six months after becoming secretary, Griswold formed an exploratory committee for a potential U.S. Senate bid, a move that raised questions about whether she really wanted her current job. She ultimately decided against it.

Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg speaks to 9-year-old Zachary Ro, center, of Lone Tree, as Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold looks on at a campaign rally Feb. 22 in Aurora. The boy questioned Buttigieg on how to tell people that he is gay. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

Now criticism of the state’s top election official is piling up just as Coloradans are filling out ballots for one of the most polarizing contests in U.S. history. Her critics say she’s too partisan and inexperienced for the job, and suggest she takes credit for her predecessors’ achievements and the work done by the county clerks who are responsible for running elections in Colorado. That lack of cooperation has led to a rift between Griswold and some county clerks, who say she has made their jobs harder.

The public strikes are leading the secretary and her defenders to ask a question long fraught with tension in politics: Would Griswold get all this backlash if she were a man? 

On top of that, they point out, no other secretary of state has held the job during a pandemic while the U.S. president is attacking mail-ballot voting, a chain of events that has thrust Colorado’s successful, six-year track record on mail voting into the spotlight.

“She’s a dynamic young woman, and that opens her up to attacks. Progressive women are scary,” said Alice Madden, a former majority leader for the Colorado House of Representatives who was vying for this year’s Democratic U.S. Senate nomination until being forced to the sidelines when former Gov. John Hickenlooper jumped into the race. 

Madden said Griswold’s talk-show circuit and tweets at the president are part of her job description.  

“Donald Trump has just changed the nature of the conversation on what is OK to say out loud. The attacks on everyone, particularly women, have gotten broader and uglier,” said Madden, who was once screamed at on her front lawn by a man who found her home address and confronted her as the legislature debated immigration policy.

Gender politics is a major issue at the highest levels of Colorado government. It is one of the few states that’s never had a woman hold the office of governor or U.S. senator. In 2018, the leading woman candidate for governor — former state Treasurer Cary Kennedy — was the party favorite but got run over in the Democratic primary by Jared Polis, a millionaire self-funder who spent big on the race. And Madden was one of a handful of women whose U.S. Senate bids were quashed when the national Democratic Party lured Hickenlooper into the race and anointed him the favorite.

WATCH: Secretary of State Jena Griswold and top election experts bolster confidence in election, warn against misinformation at Colorado Sun forum

But the secretary’s critics, including county clerks from both parties, contend that blaming sexism for her faults is a cop-out. And they say there is a better way to counter the president that doesn’t involve partisan tweets or self promotion. 

“Sometimes you just need to focus on your job,” said Polly Lawrence, a former Republican state lawmaker who ran for state treasurer in 2018 but lost in the GOP primary. 

“If you are going to run for an office you should at least know what it is. She didn’t have any experience,” Lawrence said. “At the end of the day, you have to be responsible for your own actions and know the job that you have taken on.” 

Griswold had worked as an elections attorney but had no direct experience running elections when she ran for office. 

Lawrence ran into her fair share of “men and women who don’t like women running for state office” during her campaign for treasurer, she said, but sexism in politics is no excuse for not being good at your job. Griswold should spend more time building relationships and learning from county clerks across the state, Lawrence said. 

Criticism of Griswold grew so heated recently, in part after stories in The Denver Post and on Colorado Public Radio, that the secretary’s supporters started a new Twitter hashtag: #WhatILikeAboutJena. 

Over the span of a few days, fans on Twitter called her “unflappable,” a badass, and someone “who doesn’t take crap from a president who vomits lies.” A detractor responded by calling her a “hack.” And Lynn Bartels, a communications consultant for the Colorado County Clerks Association and communications director for the previous Republican secretary of state, alleged the photo Griswold distributes to the media is airbrushed. 

For Griswold, the past few months have been about protecting the integrity of the election and voters in Colorado and beyond. She’s trying to ignore “the noise” and doesn’t care much what political types think of her, she said in an interview with The Colorado Sun earlier this month. 

“I’m not in elected office to become part of the establishment. I’m not here to be part of a club,” she said. Then, raising her voice, she added: “I love talking to everyday people because I am a normal person!” 

Griswold doesn’t apologize for self-promotion. The fact that she gets asked about her ambition so frequently reveals a double standard in politics, she said. “Young women leaders are treated differently,” Griswold said. “There are always accusations of ambition. I just find it really telling when people ask women about their ambition.” 

I’m not in elected office to become part of the establishment. I’m not here to be part of a club. I love talking to everyday people because I am a normal person!

Jena Griswold

People don’t like Griswold’s tone, her tenacity or her willingness to explore running for higher office because it’s threatening, said former Lt. Gov. Gail Schoettler. 

“When a woman does that, it’s considered too ambitious, too abrasive, non-feminine,” said Schoettler, a Democrat who was elected state treasurer in 1986 and lieutenant governor in 1994. Schoettler, 76, has been a mentor to Griswold. “It’s a threat to the old order,” she added.

“One thing about Jena, she never gives up. Until you write her a check, she will call and call and call,” Schoettler continued, speaking about Griswold’s campaign fundraising. “Women my age never thought we could ask for ourselves. Young women, those in the legislature too, they are fearless.”

Elections initiatives rolled out “every other day” 

Griswold stepped into her first political mess not long after her surprise win over Wayne Williams, a Republican with bipartisan support who was praised for collaborating with county clerks. Williams won the office in 2014 after serving as El Paso County Clerk.

A few months after she was sworn in, Griswold announced that because of Alabama’s strict abortion law, she was boycotting the state and would no longer send employees to election training there. Emails obtained by 9News showed that Griswold’s communications director had asked Planned Parenthood to review a news release from the secretary and offer edits prior to sending it to the media.

Opinion writers at The Colorado Springs Gazette wrote that Griswold had “functioned as a partisan hack from Day One.” But Griswold defended the consultation of a women’s reproductive rights group, saying it made sense for her office to reach out to Planned Parenthood since the organization is an expert on women’s health care. 

She also made headlines when the state legislature passed the Clean Campaign Act in 2019 and an accompanying campaign finance enforcement measure, two key reforms that Griswold had campaigned on

Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold defends the state’s voting system at an event Aug. 17, 2020. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

The new law targets “dark money” contributions by requiring organizations that donate to Colorado SuperPACS to reveal their funding sources, although it still isn’t always easy to follow the money. It also prevents foreign corporations and nations from contributing to campaigns in Colorado or spending money on political communication. 

The package is at the top when Griswold lists her accomplishments so far in office. The list is long, but county clerks and other detractors accuse Griswold of claiming the credit for herself, even when she has expanded programs created before her tenure.

Another new law Griswold pushed for expanded voting locations and longer poll hours on Election Day. Griswold also worked with the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe and Southern Ute Tribe in southwestern Colorado to push for a new state law that guarantees polling centers and drop-off boxes on their reservations.

In June, Griswold’s office announced funding for 100 additional ballot drop boxes ahead of the general election. Counties received up to $10,000 for each box they agreed to install, through funding from the federal coronavirus relief package. It was one of a handful of initiatives paid for through the bipartisan CARES Act, including personal protective equipment for elections workers. 

Last month, Griswold announced an expansion of Colorado’s BallotTrax system, making the state one of only five in the nation with a statewide notification program. Voters receive texts and emails about when their ballot has been mailed, received by their county clerk and when it’s processed. 

This month she announced expansion of the TXT2Cure effort, which allows voters to use their smartphones to fix a discrepancy with their ballot signature. Voters get a text telling them about the discrepancy, and can sign an affidavit on their phone and submit a picture of their ID to “cure” their ballot. 

Griswold is pushing for a legislative package, which did not get accomplished during the 2020 session, that she says would prohibit campaign “deepfake” videos and help ensure foreign sources are not paying for election messages. In testimony before a Congressional subcommittee this month, she suggested the nation pass similar laws. 

“We’re making sure that we have the best election possible,” Griswold said. “We are rolling out a new initiative literally every other day.” 

“Every single thing I told Coloradans I would be able to do as secretary of state, I’ve accomplished.”

Her leadership “sets the tone” for elections statewide

Griswold acknowledged friction between her office and county clerks, but said that modernizing elections and adjusting to a pandemic has meant significant change in a short time. She said her office holds two weekly meetings with county clerks and that she talks one-on-one with multiple clerks each week. At the start of the pandemic, county clerks and representatives from Griswold’s office began meeting weekly on the online platform Zoom.  

County clerks pushed back on Griswold-supported legislation, called the Colorado Votes Act, that expanded voting hours, saying it was too difficult and expensive, as well as unnecessary in some counties, to put in place this year. 

Then, after coronavirus restrictions settled on the state, Griswold sent county clerks emergency rules for operating the May primary election without taking into account that some counties had no coronavirus cases and that clerks already had their own protocols, clerks said. And when Griswold announced she would spend $1 million to increase pay for county election judges, it put clerks in the tough spot of deciding whether to take the money because it meant election judges in some cases would earn more per hour than other full-time county clerk staff with more experience, they said.

Chaffee County Clerk Lori Mitchell said that in contrast to Williams, her predecessor, Griswold has left county clerks out of the decision-making process. 

“I am the same party as she is, but you’ve got to call them like you see them,” said Mitchell, a Democrat. “I feel like she’s gotten away with some things because people don’t want to look like they are attacking a young woman.”

Mitchell wishes Griswold would spend less time fighting with Trump and more time focused on Colorado. The state’s election process is secure, but it’s the perception of fairness that worries her.

“We are the ones doing the work, but we need her leadership to set the tone for the state,” Mitchell said. “We want people to trust the jobs we’re doing.”

And Tiffany Parker, who has been La Plata county clerk for 10 years, said Griswold has “disregarded the clerks.” Parker contends that Griswold left her out of a meeting with the Southern Ute Indian Tribe and that she found out about it by reading The Durango Herald, though Griswold says she communicated her plans with Parker.

Parker, who is president of the Colorado County Clerks Association, said she has worked with the tribe for years and placed a 24-hour dropbox on the reservation in 2015. She and other clerks are tired of Griswold taking the credit, especially after they’ve worked for a decade to create a smooth vote-by-mail system, she said.

“Change is not the issue,” Parker said. “We live and breathe it. We worked really hard for a long time and we got to where we have the best model in the United States. We wanted to take a deep breath and perfect it.” 

Griswold brushed off the controversy over who was invited to the meeting with the tribes: “I support the ideal that Native Americans living on tribal lands have access to voting,” she said. “This shouldn’t be a partisan issue.”

It’s not just Griswold’s relationship with county clerks that has been criticized.

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

Griswold touted a talented team of top staffers when she stepped into the office in January 2018. Those included communications director Serena Woods, who had handled former state treasurer Cary Kennedy’s campaign for governor; director of government Shad Murib, who had helped elect Gov. Polis; and Deputy Secretary of State Jenny Flanagan, who previously worked for the left-leaning ethics and elections organization, Common Cause. 

All three have already left, in addition to two longtime office employees who were well-regarded. Woods now works on Polis’ health team, and Murib is working on Hickenlooper’s Senate campaign. None of the three would comment for this story. 

Two controversies in just the past few weeks have kept Griswold in the headlines. 

Her office sent out postcards ahead of the election encouraging people to register to vote. Some went to people who are not citizens or had died, although the postcards included language saying that only eligible voters could register. 

Though previous secretaries of state have mailed the same type of postcards, U.S. Rep. Ken Buck, the chairman of the Colorado Republican Party, took the issue out of context and asked for a federal investigation into voter fraud. “We must get to the bottom of this,” Buck tweeted.  

“Russia doesn’t have to worry about spreading election misinformation in Colorado. @buckforColorado is doing it for them,” Griswold responded. 

Later that week, Griswold published a series of tweets asking the national media not to call races on election night because they likely won’t be finalized. Leaders in both parties balked at her “#PressPause” proposal as a major overstep. Griswold later deleted the tweets but said she still supports the concept. 

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“Ambition,” or code for “uncomfortable with a woman in a position of power?”

Where Griswold excels is connecting with regular folks, according to staff who watched her on the campaign trail and at town hall meetings after her election. Her story resonates. 

Griswold was born in Toledo, Ohio, and when she was 10 moved to Estes Park where she grew up working class. Her mother is a nurse, and her dad held various jobs; the family received food stamps, she said. 

Griswold started working in a cafe the summer after she finished seventh grade, washing dishes and busing tables. She once accidentally dumped ice water on a customer, and remembers hoping that her coworkers would not ask her to make the coffee because she didn’t know how. 

It was the first of many jobs she had throughout middle school and high school: waitressing, selling T-shirts, working at a leather store, selling Colorado specialty foods. Griswold studied Spanish in school and picked up more of the language by talking to native speakers who worked with her in Estes Park. 

“I just always knew things were tight, and I always wanted to help out,” she said. “I had to work really hard running for office. I bring that same work ethic with me every single day.”

Secretary of State Jena Griswold approaches the podium at her swearing-in ceremony in January 2018. (Photo By Kathryn Scott)

Griswold’s mom worked in a nursing home and often cared for people’s relatives during their last years of life. A highlight of growing up in a small town, Griswold said, was that when people realized who her mother was, they would gush to Griswold about how her mother had been there for their older relative until the end. 

“I’m not part of the political elite. I’m not doing this to make political commentators or the establishment happy,” Griswold said. “I’m here to really respond to Colorado voters. I block out the noise and focus on the results.” 

Griswold was the first in her family to go to a four-year college and arrived at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington, without ever having set foot on the campus. She later won the Watson Fellowship, which sent her to several countries to study salsa dancing and culture

During a Club 20 debate for the secretary of state’s race in 2018, Griswold said the reason she had missed voting in an election during college is that she was out of the country studying salsa dancing. It’s a statement that, even two years later, repeatedly gets asked in interviews and thrown out by critics to make her sound frivolous, she said. 

“I am too busy for anything right now,” she said, adding, though, that her boyfriend also likes salsa dancing. 

Griswold graduated from University of Pennsylvania Law School and was a voter protection attorney for President Barack Obama’s campaign in 2012. She also worked for former Gov. Hickenlooper’s Washington, D.C., office, where she fought for federal relief money to help Colorado recover from the 2013 floods.

After leaving the Hickenlooper administration, Griswold enrolled in Emerge, a program that coaches Democratic women on how to run for office. 

The organization, which began in Colorado in 2013, trained 24 women who ran for office in 2018. Of those, 19 won their elections, including Griswold and 14 lawmakers

When I hear people use ‘ambition’ against Jena, what I am really hearing is people who are uncomfortable with a woman in a position of power.

Michal Rosenoer, emerge

“Jena was a very smart lawyer and was thinking about running because of Donald Trump,” recalled Michal Rosenoer, executive director of Emerge and a city councilwoman for the city of Edgewater. 

“When I hear people use ‘ambition’ against Jena, what I am really hearing is people who are uncomfortable with a woman in a position of power,” she said. “We have to thread this impossible needle where we are supposed to be leaders but not intimidating. Folks want candidates who are not lifelong politicians, but then they get upset when folks like Jena have to adjust to the job.”

Plenty of men have been just as young and ambitious as they started their political careers, Rosenoer said. Think Jared Polis, Cory Gardner or U.S. Rep. Joe Neguse, who is 36. None of the three sought to run for higher office within months of being elected to political posts, however. 

Starting on the campaign trail, Griswold was questioned about whether she actually knew how to run elections and the Secretary of State’s Office — questions that have plagued her ever since, she said. 

“That criticism is a very gendered criticism,” Griswold said, because it implies she isn’t smart enough or experienced enough for the job. 

She was an elections attorney before running for office, and although the former secretary of state was a county clerk, that’s not that common across the country. “You surround yourself with people who are knowledgeable, … the exact same people who worked under Scott Gessler and Wayne Williams. I’ve run three really successful elections. I think the results speak for themselves,” she said.

Griswold said she had her sights on secretary of state for a while before deciding to run, realizing that in this office she could tackle campaign finance reform. 

The Democratic establishment was slow to rally around Griswold when she announced she would run for secretary of state. She was an unknown and had few political connections in Colorado. Even Colorado Pols, a Democratic blog, wrote a snippy article about her headlined “Inauspicious start for Colorado SOS candidate.”

Other secretaries of state nationwide aren’t as vocal 

Once in office, Griswold emerged as a vocal critic of Trump. But, she argues, taking on the president’s misstatements on mail voting isn’t partisan. She feels a duty to point toward Colorado’s impressive vote-by-mail system whenever the president says mail voting is rife with fraud.

“We have a president who on a near-daily basis is trying to undermine confidence in our elections but also especially the Colorado election model,” she said. “I push back on the assertion that me standing up for Colorado voters and all voters is partisan.”

In the last two out of three general elections, more Republicans than Democrats voted by mail, she points out. “Vote by mail is the best way to vote during a pandemic,” she said. 

But Griswold’s critics say other secretaries of state across the country, even those with strong vote-by-mail systems, are not as partisan. 

Nevada Deputy Secretary of State Wayne Thorley told Governing his office was turning down requests from national media and instead “focusing on local media that can get information to Nevada voters.” 

Nevada is among the states sending mail ballots to all registered voters this election.

Secretaries of state “can be much more effective when they are nonpartisan because they can build trust on both sides of the aisle,” said Amber McReynolds, who was the director of elections for Denver and is now CEO of the National Vote at Home Institute. “While pushing back on the narrative is important, it’s also important to respect the election. Expect whatever tweet you put out online to be used against you in a court case.” 

Besides, Griswold isn’t the only secretary of state who could counter the president, McReynolds said. “She’s not on an island. She’s not unique,” she added.

McReynolds, an unaffiliated voter, was asked by Democrats to consider running for secretary of state in 2018. She declined, a move that allowed Griswold to run without opposition within her party.

Williams, who lost his reelection bid to Griswold in 2018, said in an election forum hosted by The Sun last week that “maintaining balance” politically is always a challenge in an elected office. “I worked very hard to make sure during my time the Secretary of State’s Office was not partisan, that I didn’t intervene in areas that might be more of a political nature,” he said.

Even many of Griswold’s critics said she isn’t the most partisan secretary of state in Colorado in recent years. They pointed to Scott Gessler, who held the office for one term starting in 2011. During his tenure, Gessler said he suspected that more than 4,000 noncitizens had illegally cast ballots in Colorado and urged prosecutors to bring charges. After an investigation, the Republican’s office found 35, or 0.001% of registered voters.

When Gessler served, and again now, some policymakers have discussed dramatic change to lessen the partisan nature of the Secretary of State’s Office, McReynolds said. About one-quarter of states appoint, rather than elect, secretaries of state. 

Parker, the La Plata county clerk, changed her affiliation from Republican to unaffiliated this year and wishes the secretary of state was a nonpartisan job. She noted that some Republican county clerks with long-time experience lost their jobs amid the big Democratic victories in 2018.

Electing a woman to statewide office is rare, even in Colorado

To Ian Silverii, who leads the liberal group ProgressNow Colorado, the sexism Griswold faces has been obvious, particularly when she considered a run for U.S. Senate six months after taking office. She had just accomplished a rare feat, getting elected to statewide office as a woman, and women’s groups in particular were asking her to consider the Senate.

“Why wouldn’t she see if there was an opportunity for her to serve in another capacity?” Silverii asked. “That makes sense.” Instead, some questioned how “she had the audacity or the nerve to consider it.” 

Since Griswold has taken office, she’s had to “fend off attacks from the president of the United States on the entire concept of mail-in voting” along with personal attacks, Silverii said. 

Supporters of Gov. Jared Polis stand and applaud during a January 2019 speech. From left to right are State Treasurer Dave Young, Secretary of State Jena Griswold, Attorney General Phil Weiser, and Polis’ husband Marlon Reis. (Photo By Kathryn Scott)

But former state Rep. Libby Szabo, a Republican from Jefferson County, suggested Griswold should ratchet back the politics, “put her head down and do her job.”

“The average Coloradan doesn’t want the riffraff of partisanship or the riffraff of politics, especially in the Secretary of State’s Office,” Szabo said. “We are in what is going to be one of the biggest elections of all time.”

Politics isn’t for wimps. You better be tough.

Former state Rep. Libby Szabo

Szabo also recommended that Griswold anticipate a career full of criticism, same as everyone in politics. “What I learned a long time ago, when they spent over a million dollars on me in a small Senate district, is that politics isn’t for wimps,” she said. “You better be tough.”

Griswold isn’t talking about higher office now, though she said more women need to run for statewide positions. What’s next for her, she said, is two more years of her term and then a reelection campaign to serve another four years as secretary of state. 

“I just think our democracy is really broken,” she said. “There should be more people who grew up like me. There should be more women. There should be more women of color.

“You see women, when they become competitive, become treated in a way that is not similar to men.” And, she added, “It’s not just in politics.” 


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