Q&A with Karen Middleton: It all comes down to equal treatment for the sexes
Author: Dan Njegomir - March 5, 2018 - Updated: March 28, 2018
The #MeToo movement must seem like déjà vu to Karen Middleton. The former state lawmaker, longtime education policy wonk, self-described “fierce feminist” — and nowadays, point person for abortion-rights advocacy in Colorado — took her seat in the legislature a decade ago in the wake of the Capitol’s last big sexual-misconduct scandal. It was her own predecessor in her state House district who wound up resigning in the face of allegations. And while some things never seem to change, she says the response by some politicians to the latest round of harassment allegations actually has been worse than was the case in 2008. She explains how and also discusses education reform; her first forays into politics — and the therapeutic value of home renovation — in this week’s Q&A.
Colorado Politics: As the executive director at NARAL Pro-Choice Colorado, you are the state’s leading voice for abortion rights. Your organization recently helped defeat two Republican anti-abortion bills in the 2018 legislature; one would have required doctors to offer women seeking an abortion an ultrasound of the fetus 24 hours before the procedure, and the other effectively would have outlawed most abortions. These kinds of proposals represent well-traveled terrain, where battle lines have been clearly drawn for a long time. Yet, are there any areas of common ground on abortion-related issues — where anti-abortion Republicans and abortion-rights Democrats can agree on policy? What’s the outlook for abortion rights in Colorado?
Karen Middleton: Colorado is unique in the abortion debate as the issue of protecting access is largely a settled question. A majority of voters — regardless of party — have affirmed three times that they do not want government to interfere with women’s access to abortion care. We are the only state where this issue has played out over multiple elections. While we see these bills come up year after year, they are run by a small minority and are overwhelmingly unpopular among voters. I think there is bipartisan support for the notion that these issues should remain between a woman and her doctor. Where common ground is difficult is for those who believe that women should never have access to abortion care.
- Executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Colorado since 2013.
- Teaches political science at Metropolitan State University of Denver since 2009.
- Former president of Emerge America, which trains Democratic women to run for elected office and works in 13 states.
- Represented Aurora’s District 42 in the state House, 2008-2011.
- Holds and M.A. in education policy from the University of Denver, an M.A. in political science from the University of Colorado, Denver and a B.A. in politics and women’s studies from Mount Holyoke College.
CP: Speaking of common ground, is there any of it to be found in the perennial debate over education reform? Your extensive history and deep involvement in education policy making, including as a member of the General Assembly and before that on the State Board of Education, have provided you a lot of perspective on the years-long evolution of education policy in our state. A part of that evolution has been the embrace by a faction within your own party of an education-reform agenda once thought to be Republican turf. Indeed, in the state’s largest school district, Denver’s, a pro-charter school, pro-innovation school, pro-testing board — all Democrats — has been driving reform for years. Yet, that rankles another key Democratic constituency, unions and notably teachers unions. Can both co-exsit in your party and even make significant policy advances together?
Middleton: I have mixed feelings about this issue. As a legislator who earned support from teachers unions and education reform organizations, I felt there was solid middle ground and opportunity to leverage the best of education reform – more options – in a way that allowed for local control. My vision was for us to be in a place where a district might initiate an RFP for a type of school they needed to add variety, or choice. The path that “Race to the Top” took, the breakdown around the ‘191 bill’ and the divisions it created lead me to believe we went backwards — where we had common ground I see less. I also think recent challenges to who is being served, particularly the lack of improvement, means we need to rethink how to move ahead. My focus has always been improving outcomes, increasing the graduation rate and making sure outcomes improve for ALL students.
CP: The #MeToo movement has opened a floodgate. A torrent of horror stories about sexual harassment and misconduct has poured out and engulfed politics at every level, including of course in Colorado. It all must be particularly pointed for you; you were appointed to a seat in the state House of Representatives in early 2008 following a sexual misconduct scandal in which your predecessor resigned. Here we are, exactly a decade later, and cascading allegations of harassment have enveloped legislators of both parties. Do you think this time around the controversy finally will lead to a lasting change in the culture at the Capitol?
Middleton: The #MeToo movement is important in creating a space for more women to come forward. As an elected official, I believe the public space you hold and the example you set is unique and important. Remaining in office brings dishonor to the (legislative) chamber, your colleagues and is an insult to the victims. What strikes me as so different from 10 years ago, is how politicians have uniquely refused to step back when they have been accused. While CEOs, media and athletic moguls have been removed, politicians have not been honorable in looking in the mirror and recognizing the right thing to do is step down. For better or worse, my predecessor resigned without a fight. I think there was honor and some grace that is lacking in the current environment.
CP: Tell us a little about your background and how it inspired you to enter a career centering on public office, public policy and public service.
Middleton: My life was profoundly impacted by education. I had the chance to change schools near the end of high school, which created great opportunity, led me to attend a women’s college where I got involved in student government — so education and politics were big themes for me. It led me on a path to serve and give back. My work began with creating opportunities in education. Working in higher education for several years I realized how political it was, which led me to run for the CU Board of Regents in 2002. While unsuccessful, it moved me from education to policy, which led to the State Board of Education and then the legislature. Like most women in elected office, it was a series of happy accidents rather than a lifelong plan. My work at NARAL brings together education, policy and advocacy for women’s rights — which is closely tied to who makes policy. So, the theme of electing women, navigating women’s issues at the Capitol and raising awareness about it in the community is intertwined.
Whether you are being catcalled, following the headlines, wondering why your employer does not offer parental leave, cannot access the form of birth control you want, or can’t seem to get paid as much as your male colleague, women experience access to power differently. I think it comes down to equal treatment, and wanting that is essentially feminist.
CP: Your Twitter bio describes you as a “fierce feminist,” and your immediate previous post was as president of Emerge America, a national political organization that trains Democratic women to run for elected office. Feminism as a concept probably went mainstream in Middle America back in the early 1970s and has been debated, variously defined and periodically redefined ever since. Time and again, there has been talk of its death — only to see it resuscitated and resurgent once again. What does feminism mean to you, and what should it mean to 21st century Colorado Millennials?
Middleton: I have long considered myself a feminist and had a small card from the ERA hanging on my bulletin board in high school that read “we are all from an unratified country” — something I remember and think about even now. I felt pretty strongly from a young age that women are equal, that we are not treated equally in a number of ways, and that I was going to work toward protecting women’s rights and doing whatever it took to achieve equality. A young woman who is re-energizing the ERA debate now, shared that she did not realize women are not considered equal under the law, and once she figured it out she was going to work to change that. I think the message to younger women is to realize this point. Whether you are being catcalled, following the headlines, wondering why your employer does not offer parental leave, cannot access the form of birth control you want, or can’t seem to get paid as much as your male colleague, women experience access to power differently. I think it comes down to equal treatment, and wanting that is essentially feminist.
CP: You’ve spent much of your productive life engaged in some facet of politics. If you could do anything else for a week, just for fun — some job utterly unrelated to politics and public policy — what would it be?
Middleton: I just spent the last two weekends renovating my kitchen, complete with drywall, painting, electrical, the works. We renovated three bathrooms last year. I think getting into real estate fix and flip, or renovating property to better serve our community, would be loads of fun and is a nice break from politics. Removing a wall with a crowbar or hammering for a few hours is a great way to take your mind off the news of the day.
CP: Your party allegiance is of course beyond question, and so is your party preference for Colorado’s next governor. But tell us which gubernatorial candidate in the crowded Republican field you find most compelling and, from your perspective, least troubling.
Middleton: I am Switzerland this year, at least until June.