At 67, longtime Dem Polly Baca is still running at 70 and shows no signs of slowing

By Chris Bragg
THE COLORADO STATESMAN

It’s a few minutes before 9 a.m., and Polly Baca is already in a huge hurry. She’s heading to her second Democratic National Convention event of Tuesday morning — and it’s about to start without her.

Denver City Councilman Paul Lopez mans the wheel of his black Honda while Baca rides in the backseat. Lopez rubs his eyes after a late night of convention parties. Baca was out late, too, at a party thrown for New Mexicans by Gov. Bill Richardson.

“Oh, manitos!” Lopez exclaims, using a familiar term for Spanish-speaking residents of New Mexico. “They really know how to party!”

Baca, a Colorado DNC delegate, is attending her 12th straight Democratic National Convention. Her first was in 1964 in Atlantic City, when she was 23 years old. Now that she’s 67, the convention has finally landed in Baca’s backyard.

Baca, head of the Latin American Research And Service Agency in Denver, has seen a lot of history in the past four decades. She was there when Bobby Kennedy was assassinated in 1968, and there for the riots at the 1968 Dem convention in Chicago.

With the group Recreate 68 in town (whose name has created fears about a repeat of the ’68 riots), the recently ill Ted Kennedy speaking at the convention the night before, and Latinos considered a key voting bloc this year, you might imagine Baca has more than a few demands on her time this week.

“Oh God, this isn’t as busy as Sunday or yesterday,” she says.

Lopez wheels over to the “Big Tent” set up for convention bloggers at 15th and Wynkoop, where Baca will sit on a four-person panel discussion on Latino voting issues. Baca was supposed to sit on another panel here on Sunday afternoon, but missed it because she was taping a segment for “Good Morning America.”

“It’s just way too much. I can’t do it all at my age,” she says.

Lopez lets Baca out, and she quickly heads up the back steps of the tent, hitting the tent’s green room approximately 30 seconds before the panel is about to start. She appears unfazed.

While other guests on the panel talk about the current situation of Latino voters, Baca speaks with a sense of history — her own. She starts off with Hank Lopez running for secretary of state in California and the “Viva Lopez” movement, which turned into the “Viva Kennedy” movement in 1960, which led to more than 90 percent of Latinos voting for John F. Kennedy, helping him beat Richard Nixon in that closest of elections.

Clearly, not many here in Denver can offer this kind of historical insight into Latino voters — which is part of the reason every TV station in town has had Baca on at some point this week.

After the panel discussion is over, it’s time to walk over to the Pepsi Center for an interview with Channel 7. Baca says her knees are hurting a bit as she takes a long walk through the scorching August heat. She chalks the pain up to too much sitting around in her current job running LARASA. Baca says she’ll be retiring in September.

Baca doesn’t strike me as someone who can sit still very long, so I ask her what she’ll do when she retires.

“Oh, I’ll be writing three books,” she says. One of them will be an autobiography. Another will be about the growth of Latino political muscle from Kennedy to Obama.

Retirement gets Baca thinking about how she started out.

“As a child, I never would have dreamed that I would have had the life I’ve had,” she says.

Baca was born in Greeley and grew up in a house at Fifth Street and 21st Avenue, the daughter of a migrant farm worker. She graduated from Colorado State University as a political science major, then moved to Washington, D.C., to work as a labor organizer. Then she took a position in President Lyndon Johnson’s administration.

Baca says the turning point in her life, however, was winning a vacancy appointment to the Colorado Senate in 1978 that made her the first Hispanic woman in the upper chamber’s history.

The vacancy committee gave her the victory over a “machine candidate” by just a single vote, she recalls, and that vote came from a committee member who had reservations about appointing a Hispanic.

Nevertheless, he’d promised to vote for the candidate with the most policy expertise — and that candidate was Baca.

“I would never have had the life that I led except that one person voted for me,” she says. “So one vote can make a difference.”

We enter the fairly empty Pepsi Center and head toward the Channel 7 studios on the second floor.

Alas, the up escalator is broken.

Baca sighs — and charges up, regardless.

“It’s easier going up than going down,” she says.

Channel 7 is filming from a skybox on the club level of the Pepsi Center, and Baca is greeted by anchor Bertha Lynn, who tells Baca she is going on at 11:30 — not 11:00 as Baca had expected.

“Oh, I’m supposed to be at a Latino leadership lunch by 11:30,” Baca says. “It’s really a big one.”

“OK,” Lynn says. “I’ll make a phone call. I’ll make it work for you.”

Sitting in seats above the Pepsi Center stage as a blues band does a sound check, Baca discusses Ted Kennedy’s inspiring speech the night before on the same stage. There had been doubts Kennedy would be able to appear so soon after brain surgery.

“It reminds me of Bobby’s speech in 1964,” Baca says, referring to Bobby Kennedy’s emotional speech about the recently deceased John F. Kennedy at that year’s convention. “At that speech there wasn’t a dry eye in the crowd. It’s amazing what we go through in this life.”

Baca gets an OK to start the Channel 7 interview at 11:15, giving her a chance to make it to the leadership lunch on time.

“How does my hair look?” she asks, having not had much of a chance to tidy up today. She puts on some lipstick and chats with Colorado Democratic Party Chair Pat Waak, who will go on after Baca.

It’s a wonder that Baca can hear anything during the four-minute interview, what with the nearby blues band challenging decibel records.

“It was loud, and on that stick mic it was coming through,” says the Channel 7 sound engineer. “But it came through clear.”

“It was hard,” Baca says, “It was hard hearing Bertha.”

Next, we hustle towards an invitation-only lunch for Latino leaders at the Denver Performing Arts Center. As we take the long walk, through the heat, around security — at the end of a hectic morning —Baca reflects on the sheer number of conventions she has attended.

It’s quite possible that no one else here has been to every convention since 1964. At least Baca doesn’t know of anyone. She says at one point, though, she thought the 2004 convention in Boston maybe would be her last.

“Last time, I thought, ‘40 years is enough,’” she says. “And then it came to my front yard.”

And what about future conventions? Could the streak end at 44 years?

“At these things, you reconnect with folks you haven’t seen in decades. We’re all a little older, but we’re still coming,” Baca says.

“So,” she adds, “I guess as long as I can make it, I’ll be there.”