Secretary of State Wayne Williams inspires Inspire Colorado

Secretary of State Wayne Williams with four of the students who attended the Inspire Colorado event Monday night at History Colorado. From left to right: Robin Peterson, 17, Peak to Peak charter school; Torey Wyman, 17, and Tatum Wallis, 16, South High School; and Lila Jordan, 16, Denver School of Science and Technology, Cole campus. (SOS photo)
Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne. (SOS photo)

Should 16-year-olds be allowed to vote? What is Colorado doing about climate change? What do you see as the top priorities in government?

Those are some the issues that arose Monday night when Colorado Secretary of State Wayne Williams, Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne and four state lawmakers talked to a crowd of teen-agers at Inspire Colorado’s youth engagement forum about the importance of voting and being involved.

Inspire Colorado is a student-driven program that focuses on leadership, democracy and community. The students have encouraged their high school peers to register to vote, and others to participate in elections.

Lynne noted that she’s 63 and has never missed voting in an election. She brought up the discussion about 16-year-olds voting, after earlier being asked by a high school journalist if she supported the move.

And she also noted that a number of the participants at History Colorado were female.

“Wayne, what are we going to do about that?” she asked. The secretary of state, the father of two daughters, was cheered when he responded, “Celebrate it!”

Sen. Kevin Priola, R-Henderson, House Speaker Crisanta Duran, D-Denver, House Minority Leader Cole Wist, R-Centennial, and Rep. Leslie Herod, D-Denver, talk to Inspire Colorado. (SOS photo)

Last year, two Colorado high schools, Yuma and Eaglecrest, received awards for signing up 85 percent or more of their senior class to vote.

Colorado allows 16- and 17-year-olds to register to vote so they automatically receive a ballot after they turn 18.  Voter registration figures from the Secretary of State’s office show there are 29,550 Colorado teen-agers who preregistered. Of that, 17,595 are unaffiliated, 5,982 are Democrat and 5,576 are Republican. The rest belong to minor parties.

The lawmakers who spoke to Inspire Colorado were Speaker Crisanta Duran and Rep. Leslie Herod, both Denver Democrats, House Assistant Minority Leader Cole Wist, R-Centennial, and Sen. Kevin Priola, R-Henderson.

The 5-foot-7 Wist, who weighed 140 pounds in high school, got a big laugh when he said he grew up in Paonia, a town so small he made the football team. Herod received cheers when she said she was the first gay black lawmaker elected to the legislature.

Teens at Monday’s Inspire Colorado event line up to ask lawmakers questions at the event at the History Colorado. (SOS photo)

Nervous laughs greeted Priola when he said he didn’t know if it was “cool or pathetic” that he has lived outside of Adams County only one year, when he lived in Boulder as a University of Colorado freshman and he didn’t drink or party. (He should have told them he was a Ralphie handler. Now, that’s cool.)

Duran spoke up when Williams said it’s important to work across the aisle because issues aren’t Republican or Democrat.

“I was a county commissioner for eight years. I never met a road that had a party affiliation. A pothole was pothole, and it didn’t matter which party was in control. What mattered was can we get the pothole fixed,” said Williams, a Republican from Colorado Springs.

“I agree!” Duran called out.

She and Senate President Kevin Grantham, a Republican, are working together to put a measure on the November ballot to finance transportation improvements.

Williams repeated the story he often tells about growing up in rural Virginia in a town that didn’t even have a graduating class of 1959 because the school board decide to close the high school rather than integrate it. By the time Williams enrolled in the late 1970s, minorities were allowed to attend the school but the same party still ran the county, which was economically depressed.

Secretary of State Wayne Williams talks to students at the Inspire Colorado event. (SOS photo)

“They were not interested in progress so I organized a bunch of my friends from high school and we stood outside every single polling place” during an election for county officials.

“For the first time in over 100 years the leadership of Warren County, Va., changed to a new party that tried to make things better,” Williams said. “And I helped make that change when I was your age and wasn’t able to vote. Most of my friends weren’t able to vote.”

He noted he appeared before the school board four times when he was in high school and twice his request was honored because they did not involve money. His campaign manager during his 2014 statewide race for secretary of state was a college student.

“Get involved in your community. Help make a difference. It is easy to complain. It is easy to grouse,” Williams said. “It’s a lot harder to come up with positive solutions. That’s where the real challenge is.”