Even all these years after Peter Groff left the Colorado General Assembly, and Colorado, for bigger things in the nation’s capital, he needs no re-introduction. But just for the record: He served as the 47th president of the Colorado State Senate and was the first African-American in Colorado to hold that post. He was only the third African-American in the nation’s history to be a state senate president. The unflappable and, in the eyes of his peers, unerringly principled Groff is still thought of as the “Conscience of the Senate.” A Democrat, he served a total of nearly 10 years in the state House and Senate from 2000 to 2009 and passed landmark legislation in education, criminal justice and health care. Now 53, the attorney, husband and dad has added to his resume a presidential appointment and years in Washington helping craft public education policy nationwide. With all that under his belt, could there be anything missing from his life? Yes: the Broncos — and a whole lot of other things about Colorado, as he acknowledges below.
To say the least, your life has been eventful since you stepped down as Colorado Senate president in 2009 to head President Obama’s faith-based-initiatives center for the U.S. Department of Education. What have you been up to since then?
Since I left the administration in 2011, I’ve been working on a variety of things, including advocating for public school transformation and empowering parents; lecturing on public leadership, policy and education; providing political commentary for Baltimore and Philadelphia radio stations; offering political and policy advice for elected officials and candidates from across the country, and consulting on politics and policy for several clients.
Almost everyone who leaves Colorado — or any other state — to work in the political cauldron of the nation’s capital says it’s an eye-opening experience, both for better and for worse. Sometimes, it’s downright disillusioning. How was the journey for you in that regard, especially serving in a Cabinet-level agency?
I was shocked at the level of bureaucracy you had to maneuver through to obtain a stapler and a tape dispenser! The level of “politics” and the willingness to put party above country, and constant policy decisions based on the next election but not the long-term view, were truly eye-opening.
Expanding educational opportunity is one of your life’s passions. In your time in Colorado’s General Assembly, you worked tirelessly to advance education reform. After your appointment to an education post in the Obama administration, were you able to move the ball down the field at the same pace? Washington notoriously puts a damper on many an enthusiastic newcomer. Do you feel you accomplished what you set out to accomplish in that post?
The great thing about working for President Obama was his steadfast and very public support to transform public schools and give parents choices. With that support and (U.S. Education) Secretary Arne Duncan’s encouragement, I traveled the country and engaged a variety of people and organizations in a dialogue around the president’s education agenda. I think we were able to move the ball forward on a progressive education agenda, and you can see that in the increase in charter school enrollment, decrease in dropouts, increase in graduation rates and growing support among political leaders of color for public school transformation and empowering parents.
Educational choice — particularly the charter-school movement — was once a fairly narrow policy initiative associated mostly with the Republican Party. Over time, the support base for charters has become bipartisan. What changed?
Charters were created by Democratic legislators in Minnesota and were initially championed nationally by then-Gov. Bill Clinton while he was campaigning for president. It was the Clinton administration that created the three buckets of federal funding that led to the explosion of charters across America. In Colorado, New Mexico and Georgia, three of the first states to pass charter legislation, it was a Democratic governor who signed the legislation, and the last six Democratic candidates for president have supported charter schools. Charters have a very rich history within the Democratic Party, so it was not a reach from a policy standpoint for the president, me and other Democrats to support charters and answer the growing requests from our constituents for high-quality choices within the public school system.
What drew you to politics in the first place? Perhaps that question asks and answers itself given how you were elected to represent the same northeast Denver state Senate district once represented by your father, Sen. Regis Groff. Yet, not all children follow in their parents’ footsteps.
Certainly, it was my father’s 20 years in the Senate that first peaked my interest in politics, but it was the classes I took for my political science minor at the University of Redlands that solidified the thought that I could make politics a career or part of my career. Those classes offered so many perspectives and deepened my understating of how government and politics could work for the least among us.
You now live full-time in the D.C. area. What do you miss about Colorado, where you grew up, went to law school and entered the political world?
EVERYTHING. The most annoying part of living in the D.C. area are the hoops I have to jump through to follow my Broncos, Rockies and University of Colorado Buffaloes sports teams. But I took great joy in wearing every stitch of Bronco clothes I owned for the past year to celebrate the Super Bowl win! I also miss the relatively slow pace of life in Colorado. Here on the east coast there is a frantic pace of life, which is odd because nothing is happening or getting done. It is really a whirlwind of inactivity.
You were known for rising above partisanship. Can you name some Republicans you enjoyed working with in your time as an elected official?
The bulk of the most important pieces of legislation I passed in my career was with bipartisan support, and I’m very proud of that. (State Sens.) Ken Kester, Norma Anderson, Josh Penry, Lew Entz, Greg Brophy, Keith King, Mark Scheffel, Nancy Spence and Andy McElhany are some of the Republicans that worked with me on a variety of different policies that I think have made Colorado a great state. During my tenure there were times of high partisanship, because elections do have consequences, but more often than not statesmanship prevailed.