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Keeping the Faith: Baptist preacher Terrance Carroll brings passion and humility to his “other” job—Colorado’s Speaker of the House

Terrance Carroll

Terrance Carroll began his legislative career in 2003 representing House District 7. Photo: Wayne Armstrong

Deep in the stacks of Penrose Library are seven volumes of biography about the Founding Father who owned Terrance Carroll’s great-grandfather.

The books have plenty to say about the owner, but the only place you might find Carroll’s ancestor mentioned is in the slave manifests in the appendix, where 330 people are inventoried.

There’s nothing in the books about how Great-Grandfather Carroll came to be freed, or why he kept the name of his owner as his own. They don’t tell about his life sharecropping with his son. Nor do they hint at how decades later, this freed slave’s granddaughter, Corine Carroll, came to live in a tough neighborhood of Washington, D.C., where at age 51 she bore Terrance and struggled to raise him as a single mom.

The biographies don’t explain how Terrance Carroll immunized himself against the sickness of the streets of southeast Washington and made his way to Colorado to pursue a PhD. They don’t tell about his run for state legislature or how in 2008 he was elected speaker of the House of Representatives—one of the four most powerful positions in Colorado government.

None of the books point out that 266 paces north of the Penrose stacks, where the biographies sit unnoticed, Terrance Carroll earned a law degree from the University of Denver in 2005.

Or that in Magness Arena, some 250 paces farther on, Carroll addressed the Sturm College of Law’s 2009 spring graduating class as Commencement speaker.

Or that 80 years before Carroll became House speaker, the job was held by a Klansman.

The dusty biographies don’t tell any of that. They do speak of Charles Carroll of Carrollton, a 19th century “conservative abolitionist” who was one of the signatories of the Declaration of Independence and who represented Maryland in the Continental Congress and the U.S. Senate. They speak of how the famous statesman argued with Thomas Jefferson, wrangled with Ben Franklin and might have been the nation’s second president instead of John Adams had he pursued the job.

They tell of Charles Carroll’s importance as a Founding Father and his influence on Maryland. But then they stop, unaware that five generations later and 1,658 miles away Carroll’s famous name is carried by another to new acclaim.

That the great-grandson of a Carroll plantation slave is courageously steering Colorado into the future.

That the Carroll story is still going on.

“I ran because I thought I would be a good speaker and would be able to do a good job for Colorado,” Terrance Carroll says. “And my colleagues thought the same. When someone said, ‘Oh, you’re the first black speaker,’ I said, ‘Really?’

“As Dr. King said, we’ve moved toward looking at the content of a person’s character as opposed to the color of their skin. That says a lot for Colorado.”


The strong arm of the General Assembly

To find Speaker Carroll’s story you need to read the newspapers and check the political blogs. Mostly, you need to sit in the gallery at the Capitol. From that historic balcony you can see Terrance Carroll’s leadership in action, the strong arm of the 65-member House swinging the gavel to reform education, involve parents in schools, attract businesses to the state, cut unemployment, fine-tune criminal justice, ease the effect of foreclosures and trim state spending as revenue streams run low.

Terrance Carroll in the House chambers

Terrance Carroll was elected speaker of the Colorado House in 2008. Photo: Wayne Armstrong

“I judge myself very harshly at times because I want to do well,” Carroll says. “I understand the position I’m in, and I understand the times, and I don’t want to fail in the tasks ahead.”

Those tasks require one more year as speaker, the cap to a career in the legislature that began in 2003 representing House District 7, a stepladder of communities in northeast Denver that includes Stapleton, Montbello, Green Valley Ranch, Montclair, Mayfair and parts of Park Hill.

“I think House District 7 is one of the most diverse districts in the state,” Carroll says. “By looking at the microcosm of my House district, it gives me a better perspective of how we should improve the state at the same time.”

Which is why Carroll put so much muscle behind bills to regulate mortgage brokers, create jobs and ease the impact of foreclosures.

“Montbello and Green Valley Ranch were hit tremendously hard by bad mortgages: stated-income loans, balloon payments, adjustable-rate mortgages,” he says. “It’s a shame what some of those folks did up in that neck of the woods.”

Carroll has no illusions about the number and magnitude of problems at the General Assembly’s feet. He believes firmly in the legislature’s ability to right wrongs and provide relief, and he is cautious about legislative “tinkering” that can drown progress in a wave of reform. Which is why he comes at his job not as an ideologue, but as a pragmatist, applying a lawyer’s reasoning, a scholar’s intellect and a preacher’s passion to the mission at hand.

It’s a self-confidence ignited by a tough upbringing and hardened by his mother’s cold-steel courage.

“I learned how committed my mother was to my success when she went to school for a parent-teacher conference. The teacher said, ‘You know, Mrs. Carroll, your son’s never going to amount to much because of where he grew up. He doesn’t have a father; you’re raising him and you don’t have a good education.’

“And my mother, a very religious woman who didn’t have any formal education but who was spunky and had a world of wisdom behind her from growing up on a sharecropping farm, looked at this teacher and said, ‘My son will do great things because God has touched my son.’

“I’m maybe 7, 8 years old, [but] that story never left me. Despite our limited resources, my mother still had faith in me that I could do great things.”

Karen Steinhauser doesn’t need convincing. The Sturm College of Law adjunct professor taught criminal procedure and trial advocacy classes when Carroll was working in the legislature by day and taking law classes at night.

“He’s a natural leader,” she says. “He always had a smile and time for his classmates. He inspires confidence in people.”

Steinhauser, an attorney with Denver-based Isaacson Rosenbaum, believes Carroll’s perspectives benefited her classes greatly, even though Carroll says he tried not to dominate class discussion. He didn’t want to be seen as “the politician who talks on everything.” But it was hard. Carroll was chairman of the House Judiciary Committee in his last year at DU, so he’d often arrive at class still dripping with key state issues.

“It was a tough balancing act, especially after the Democrats took the majority,” Carroll says. “I would constantly come into class late, especially on nights when my committee met.”

Steinhauser didn’t mind, nor did DU law Professor Tom Russell, who taught American Legal History.

“The last two speakers of the House [Carroll and Andrew Romanoff] were students of mine,” Russell laughs. “So I like to think that the road to the speaker’s office comes through my class.”

Carroll isn’t certain about that, but he is convinced that what he learned at DU has helped him in the General Assembly. Law school gave him an understanding of how lawyers look at law, he says, which helped in drafting bills and making sure the legislature’s intent was clear.

“The other benefit law school gave me was that I was able to have an analytical understanding of the law that went along with the policy and political perspective of what we did crafting law. I think that combination was very helpful.”

It’s what you might expect from a lawyer, but not necessarily from an ordained minister, which Carroll is. He also earned a master of divinity degree from the Iliff School of Theology in 1999.

“I always felt like there was a call for me to the ministry,” Carroll says, noting that he preaches about four or five times a year at Baptist churches throughout Denver.

Carroll doesn’t impose his religion, but if you ask for his favorite Bible passage, he doesn’t have to think very hard to come up with one. It’s Micah 6:8: “What does the Lord require of you but to do justly, to love mercy and to walk humbly with the Lord your God.”

“That’s what I use as my guiding principle in dealing with people,” Carroll says. “I try to be as humble as I possibly can. Do justice and love mercy.”

And in his spare time ride bikes, both road and mountain; or relax with a copy of Jesus and the Disinherited, by role model Howard Thurman; or zone out with a favorite TV show, which until it was canceled after 15 seasons was “ER.”

Carroll’s favorite character? Dr. Peter Benton, played by Eriq La Salle and described on the “ER” Web site as “a talented surgeon with a hot head.”

“I liked Dr. Benton because of the nature of how he grew up. He was an African-American character who managed to get out of a tough neighborhood. His mother had Alzheimer’s; my mother had Alzheimer’s. I could identify with him, being a successful black man and how people misconstrued him as being possibly arrogant.”

These days, Carroll’s shows of choice are “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Kings,” a dramatization of the Book of Kings.

“Most people don’t get that I’m actually quite shy,” the divorced 40-year-old says. “I love nothing more than to sit at home by myself on the couch watching TV.”

But his Baptist faith won’t let him. Listen to him preach and you’ll hear both urgency to action and abiding faith. His words sound like evangelism but they wear the cloth of the intellectual, not just the passion of the true believer. No TV-preacher tricks here. Carroll’s message is a pledge to do more than wave Bibles at a “wretched, nasty, broken world”; it’s a promise to embrace life with diligent, consistent, zealous faith.

“I preached my mother’s funeral from this very pulpit,” he tells followers at the New Hope Baptist Church in Denver on a bright morning in June. “That was probably one of the darkest times in my life.”

Carroll tells of his mother’s love and guidance and the loss he felt at her passing. He speaks of his search for meaning, his quiet, heartfelt words touching listeners, connecting deeply.

Terrance Carroll saying Pledge of Allegiance

From left, Colorado House Rep. kathleen Curry, D-Gunnison, joins Speaker of the House Terrance Carroll and the Rev. James Peters during the Pledge of Allegiance at the opening session of the Colorado Legislature on Jan. 7, 2009. Photo: David Zalubowski/Associated Press

“Amens” pepper the sanctuary.

“I learned by my mother’s death that I had to untether myself from what the world thought,” Carroll says, “and tie myself explicitly to what God thought.”

The “amens” grow more earnest. Carroll presses his message. Proclaiming faith is hardest when times are rough, but that’s when it’s most essential.

“Anybody can be a witness when things go good.” It’s when there’s turmoil “that you have to.”

You think back to the $1.5 billion the legislature had to cut in 2009 and you worry what’s in the cards for 2010. Sales tax revenue is down and further cuts may be needed. How will Carroll’s evangelistic fervor echo in the Statehouse in January when the 120-day clock starts ticking and lawmakers bend to fixing an already-lean state?

“The whole [2009] session could have blown up very easily,” recalls House Majority Leader Paul Weissmann, D-Louisville. “When you’re fighting over limited resources, it’s easy for things to get nasty real quick. That they didn’t is a testament to [Carroll].”

Charisma helps, Weissmann adds. Not the John Elway kind that stops traffic, but the quiet, confident charm you warm to then count on. The kind of relaxed, free-flowing temperament that characterizes Carroll whether he’s running the House, preaching the gospel or exhorting DU law grads to go out and fight for liberty and opportunity.

The kind of leader who isn’t afraid to try a new idea or make a mistake, who calls himself an intellectual but regrets having spent “way too much time in school”; who reads theology, quotes Thomas Jefferson and uses Twitter; who jokes that his mother never forgave him for weighing 10 pounds, 10 ounces at birth; and who affectionately tweaks friends like former state Senate President Peter Groff (JD ’92), now a member of the Obama administration.

“My life was much easier when I wasn’t speaker,” Carroll tells the New Hope congregation. “I could actually sit down in a restaurant and eat a meal in peace and quiet. No one would come up to me. Now folks walk up to me wherever I am and say, ‘I know you.’ Sometimes I pretend they don’t know me. I say, ‘I’m Peter Groff.'”

The congregation roars. They’ve heard Carroll joke before—about being “long-winded” in sermons; about church politics being rougher than politics at the Capitol. They know that behind the jokes is a leader who fights hard. For principle. For faith. For opportunities for others.

“I’ve been given so much in my life,” Carroll told DU’s 2009 law grads. “I once heard Dr. King say that the true measure of a person is where they stand in times of great challenge and controversy. So I feel a special obligation to go out and fight … for opportunity, for liberty, for justice.

“To stand tall.”

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