Colorado voters have spoken, and once again the women have lost.

That Denver’s next mayor would be a man was nearly a given if the state’s history was any indication. Since achieving statehood in 1876, Colorado voters have never once elected a woman to any of the state’s highest political offices. This includes the governorship, two U.S. Senate seats and mayor of Denver, the state’s largest city.

Given each of these positions holds a four- to six-year term, women won’t even get another shot at the top until the state celebrates its 150th anniversary.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s not as if I thought that breaking a century-and-a-half-long political glass ceiling was ever going to be easy. Of course it wouldn’t. But damn, does it really have to be this hard?

With all we’ve experienced in the past several years, have we learned nothing? The Republican front runner for president still brags about grabbing women by their genitals, and the Supreme Court is rolling back decades of women’s rights. If we can’t elect women now, when can we?

It’s easy to jab at Mike Johnston’s win as the most recent example of sexism-in-action in Colorado politics. After two failed races, Johnston’s run for mayor was a last-ditch effort to save his political career. As men tend to do, he failed up.

Big donors weren’t deterred by his two recent losses in a row. The media didn’t flog Johnston repeatedly for losing to Gov. Jared Polis in 2018 by over 20% of the vote. Voters didn’t care if Johnston was clearly too politically ambitious, jumping from race to race seeking a crown. Even progressives who claim to put identity ideology above all suddenly didn’t seem to care about Johnston being a man flush with out-of-state cash.

Nope, none of that mattered. Instead, Johnston got a hall pass and a tip of the hat to proceed. Donors flocked to his campaign even as he competed in a field of a dozen-plus candidates that included multiple equally or more qualified women. Voters followed. And once again Denver has a man at the helm. 

But lest we get bogged down on one race, rest assured that Johnston’s win is merely a blip in the long line of missed political opportunities for Colorado women.

In 2022, Colorado voters re-elected U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet. Like Johnston, Bennet is a good guy. But let’s dig a little deeper.

Bennet was originally appointed by then Gov. Bill Ritter, despite that Bennet was in no way the obvious choice and there were plenty of talented women to choose from. Of course, Ritter didn’t opt to break the glass ceiling, and once someone is in the seat, it’s much harder to get them out. So for Democrats, that’s Bennet’s seat, and no one, let alone a woman, can primary him without risking it all — just ask Andrew Romanoff. 

Then there was the 2022 governor’s race. Similarly to Bennet, for Democrats, Polis’ wealth and incumbent status made it all but impossible to run against him. And while he did run against a Republican woman, her regrettable insistence on cat litter conspiracies proved that just as not all men should be in power, neither should all women. So voters marched on with Polis, and women learned to wait some more.

Going back two more years, in 2020 Colorado voters had two big and fairly easy chances to elect women to top positions. They soundly rejected both. 

The first was in the U.S. Senate Democratic primary. The race featured a rare open seat and a majority of women candidates including established names such as Reps. Angela Williams and Alice Madden. Like clockwork, the Democratic establishment, donors and voters proceeded to pass over every single woman, with even Emily’s List — a group dedicated to electing women — endorsing the candidacy of John Hickenlooper while women remained in the race.

Colorado Democrats’ second embarrassing moment in 2020 came as they failed to elect a woman in the presidential primary. Here again, a plethora of extremely qualified women ran. And here again, voters turned a cheek. In fact, Colorado primary voters can boast that they picked only men to land among the top three finalists, with support for U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, former Vice President Joe Biden and former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. 

Nationally, voters ranked one woman, U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, to finish third.

So here we are. It’s 2023, almost 147 years into our statehood. And what do Coloradans have to show for it? Polis. Hickenlooper. Bennet. Johnston. That’s a near Royal Flush of wealthy white men in each of Colorado’s highest political offices, and it’s not a coincidence. It’s systemic.

I don’t care how many excuses you try to cook up for why you just couldn’t vote for a particular woman. Was she too ambitious like Johnston? Was she untested like Bennet was at his appointment? Had she already lost too many races like so many men who fail up?


Electing only men for over a century and a half is the very definition of systemic inequity, and collectively we suck at overcoming it. And the worst part is that not one of the men elected to these positions seems to truly understand how they keep magically winning, as if they are just God’s gift to politics. 

Voting for women’s reproductive rights or child care isn’t enough. If these men in power truly understood how their wins were in part fated by generations of sexism, they’d move mountains to ensure a qualified woman won the next big race — even if it meant risking or giving up their own to do it.

Of course, it’s not only Colorado. The bleak trend of underrepresenting women in top political offices persists nationwide. Despite making up over half of the population, women still represent only 24% of all governorships, 25% of U.S. Senate seats and 32% of mayors in the 100 most populous cities. We’ve also never elected a woman president.

That Colorado’s state legislature briefly achieved a majority of women is a bright spot on the blank canvas. Also, half of our U.S. House representatives are now women, and the men mentioned above have made it a point to boost women’s roles and representation on their staff. These are all good strides.

Except building the bench didn’t help any of the women in the races above cross the finish line. Voters still turned them down, titles, degrees, experience and all.

A wise person once said that equality will feel like oppression to those who have held the privilege. It’s never been enough for women to check more boxes on a resume; we need the men in charge to make the change. In other words, for women to have a seat at the table, men must practice trusting us and giving up theirs. 

After nearly 150 years in power, so far Colorado men haven’t been willing to make a seat at the table for women at the top. With the higher aspirations expressed by each of our current men in power, there’s little sign of change on the horizon unless voters can finally learn to buck the deeply ingrained sexism that got us here in the first place. I challenge voters to do just that, and for each of the men in higher office to prove me wrong.

Trish Zornio is a scientist, lecturer and writer who has worked at some of the nation’s top universities and hospitals. She’s an avid rock climber and was a 2020 candidate for the U.S. Senate in Colorado. Trish can be found on Twitter @trish_zornio

Trish Zornio

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Trish Zornio is a scientist, lecturer and writer who has worked at some of the nation’s top universities and hospitals. She’s an avid rock climber and was a 2020 candidate for the U.S. Senate in Colorado. Trish can be found on Twitter @trish_zornio