Throughout her 14 years representing a broad swath of Arapahoe County in the General Assembly — three terms in the House, two terms in the Senate — Nancy Spence was something of a rarity among her peers at the Capitol. A Republican woman — a bit unusual in its own right at the legislature — who voted against the grain of her caucus on hot-button issues like abortion and civil unions. A politician whose straightforward style and real-world sensibilities — she’d just as soon talk movies as policy — were anything but political. And for this humble blogger, who once served Spence and her fellow senators as a legislative staffer, she was arguably that rarest of rarities: an elected official who not only picked up her own lunch tab but who insisted on picking up yours, as well.
She was born and raised in south Denver near DU, in a labor-Democrat family. Her dad was a car salesman at one of the dealerships along South Broadway, a fact she would reference as a lawmaker when explaining her vote to uphold Colorado’s blue law against Sunday car sales. “We loved having our dad home on Sundays,” she once said. She went to Denver’s South High, where she met her future husband, Pete. She enrolled in Colorado State University — Colorado A&M at the time — and dropped out after a year because she couldn’t afford the cost of college any longer. Pete gave up a football scholarship to Dartmouth and went to CSU, as well; he played football there, separated his shoulder and decided to become a dentist. The two married in 1958. They went on to have four kids; lived in Germany, where Pete was stationed as a dentist in the Army; then returned to Denver 1965, and Pete started a private practice.
Now 80, Nancy Spence is still fully engaged on her No. 1 passion, education, four years after leaving the legislature. She serves on the board of the Colorado League of Charter Schools and chairs the board of the Ridge View Academy, a charter school in Watkins for adjudicated boys placed there by the juvenile justice system.
How did your political life begin?
We used to have watch parties in presidential years, and I always went to my neighborhood caucus and put up yard signs. In 1980, I was asked to fill a vacancy on the Cherry Creek school board. A dozen applied, and they picked me. I always had attended board meetings and was involved in my kids’ schooling. My kids went to Smoky Hill High School. I wound up serving on the board for 13 years. The Republican Party then asked me if I would run for the state House when (former Republican Rep.) Paul Schauer had to leave in 1998 under term limits. I was well-known in the district from my service on the school board. They thought I would do a good job in the legislature. I served three terms in the House and two in the Senate (including a stint as assistant Senate minority leader). I served until I was too old and cranky to run for another election. Fortunately, I was term-limited. Politicians have big egos. If they have a chance to run again, they will — even if they have a foot in the grave.
You are currently on the board of the Colorado League of Charter Schools; you started out in politics years ago on the board of the Cherry Creek School District. Along the way, education policy and, eventually, education reform came to define your political career. You’ve worked with education issues from almost every policy-making angle — as a school board member, a state representative, a state senator and most recently as a board member of an education advocacy group and a board member of a charter school. How did you become so committed to educational choice and other education issues?
It has been a journey. When I was on the board at CC, I couldn’t imagine why anyone would want a choice other than what we had in our district because I thought so highly of our schools. That changed when I was in the legislature and (then-GOP House Speaker) Doug Dean appointed me to chair the House Education Committee. That’s when I realized a responsibility for the whole state, not just my district. I saw the way we were delivering education wasn’t working.
But it’s not just about choice, it’s about what happens in the charter program. That’s why I love charter schools. They have diversity in their populations, and different kinds of charter programs are able to serve the needs of different children in different ways.
Why are you a Republican?
I used to be a Democrat. I was raised in a Democratic household. Then I had children. I realized I wanted my children to have different values than what the Democratic Party was offering by that point. My husband Pete applauded the change because he came from a Republican family.
What’s the biggest challenge now facing your party?
The biggest challenge I have is defending President Trump from his critics. That’s the biggest challenge all Republicans have. I am trusting he’s going to do a good job. We can’t talk about Trump with any of our friends, even some of our Republican friends.
What elected leaders in Colorado politics did you admire most over the course of your decades in public office?
(Former Democratic Senate President) Peter Groff is one. He serves on our League of Charter Schools board. I’ve always admired his style of leadership. Another is (Former Republican Senate President) John Andrews. I think he was one of the brightest, funniest, most engaging people in politics.
What’s your favorite pastime?
I love movies; my son Greg is a producer on HBO’s Game of Thrones. Pete and I go to movies a lot. In the afternoons, nobody is in the theater except us. Movies have replaced golf in our old age. And we also travel a lot. We went to India a year ago to meet the parents of our daughter’s new husband. It was beautiful; the Taj Mahal was incredible. Other than that, I play with my cat.
What were the best and worst parts about serving in the legislature?
The best part was walking into the Capitol every morning and feeling the sense of responsibility we all had. The worst was the times I had to vote against my party because my conscience and my constituents felt another way. Like when I voted to support civil unions. (Former Republican Sens.) Jean White, Ellen Roberts and I all voted for it.