Last week’s review of some of the Colorado political superlatives of the last 50 or so years — a selection of the longests, the mosts, the firsts — didn’t include the name of one of the state’s most renowned trailblazers.
Mary Estill Buchanan, the Boulder Republican who served two terms as secretary of state and came within fewer than 20,000 votes of the U.S. Senate, owns more than a couple of the state’s political firsts.
While Virginia Blue proceeded her as the first woman elected statewide, when the Republican won the race for state treasurer in 1966, Buchanan was the first woman to serve as secretary of state, beginning in 1974.
With an undergraduate degree from Wellesley College and an MBA from Harvard Business School, Buchanan and her family moved in 1963 to Colorado, where she worked as a labor-management consultant.
In addition to serving on the Colorado State Board of Agriculture and the Colorado Commission on the Status of Women, she long had her eye on statewide office but lost a Republican primary for CU regent at-large in 1970 before being appointed secretary of state in 1974 and winning a full term later that year.
She was joined four years later when Democrat Nancy Dick was elected lieutenant governor, and four years after that, in 1983, Buchanan was succeeded as secretary of state by Republican Natalie Meyer. For all but four of the ensuing 40 years — from 2011 to 2015 — Colorado could always count on there being a woman in statewide office, even though the state has never elected a woman governor or senator.
From 1995 to 1999, women even held the majority of the major state executive offices: Lt. Gov. Gail Schoetler, a Democrat; and Attorney General Gale Norton and Secretary of State Vickie Buckley, both Republicans, along with Democratic Gov. Roy Romer and Republican State Treasurer Bill Owens.
When Buchanan was elected secretary of state, she interrupted what had been a 98-year stretch of men holding the office. She also kicked off an unbroken run of women secretaries of state — all Republicans, the others were Meyer, Buckley, Donetta Davidson and Gigi Dennis — that came to an end when Republican Mike Coffman won the seat in 2006. (The office’s current incumbent, Jena Griswold, is the first Democratic woman ever to hold the seat.)
Six years after Buchanan became secretary of state, she was the first woman nominated by either party to one of Colorado’s two most prominent statewide offices, governor and U.S. senator. Buchanan won the GOP nomination by notching another milestone, becoming the first major party candidate for statewide office in Colorado to petition their way onto the ballot.
Another distinction held by Buchanan: Nearly 50 years ago, she was the Colorado Republicans’ version of turn of the century Ken Salazar — or, since Buchanan’s situation preceded Salazar’s by a few decades, it could be more accurate to peg Salazar as the latter-day, Democratic version of Mary Estill Buchanan.
The same way Salazar spent some time from 1999 to 2005 as the only Democrat elected to major statewide office — when he was serving a term and a half as attorney general, before his election to the U.S. Senate — Buchanan found herself in an analogous position from 1975 to 1979, when she was the only Republican elected to major statewide office.
After four years, Buchanan got some company when fellow Republican U.S. Rep. Bill Armstrong won a U.S. Senate seat in 1978, the same year she won a second term, though Democrats continued to occupy all the other statewide offices for another four years — Gary Hart in the other U.S. Senate seat, along with Gov. Dick Lamm, Lt. Gov. Nancy Dick, Attorney General J.D. MacFarlane and State Treasurer Roy Romer.
Buchanan’s political trajectory and all its firsts launched into high gear with one of the great — though little-known — right-place, right-time stories.
She tells the story in an extraordinarily detailed and candid 2013 oral history interview, part of the Boulder Public Library’s local history collection.
When Andy Anderson, the incumbent Republican Secretary of State, died in office, Buchanan spent a few days sounding out local party officials to see if she could drum up support for the appointment that would be made by Republican Gov. John Vanderhoof, but wasn't greeted with much enthusiasm.
Buchanan remembered that Vanderhoof had already picked someone to appoint — Robin Johnston, who had just come off the Denver Public Schools board — but kept her identity a secret even while teasing the announcement, saying he planned to appoint "a dynamic, Republican woman … whom the rest of the state might not know as well as he did — and he was very excited about it — and he hoped that she would be welcome and that she would be a wonderful addition to the Republican ballot."
After the governor floated that he would be appointing a woman — and not suspecting that he had already chosen someone — Buchanan set up a meeting with Vanderhoof to discuss whether she might run for the office that fall and to let him know she was open to being appointed. After making her case, Buchanan said, Vanderhoof only responded, "That is very interesting, Mary Estill."
A week passed by and the governor's chief of staff invited Buchanan to the office the next day for a press conference there he planned to announce he was appointing her secretary of state.
After Vanderhoof had leaked his description of the "dynamic woman" he planned to name to the position, Buchanan recalled that Johnston went to scope out the operation. Said Buchanan: "She walked across the hall into the secretary of state’s office" — the office was on the first floor of the State Capitol in those days — "and saw it. And it was chaos. It was rooms and rooms of file clerks, greyfile cabinets, papers blowing around. It was chaos. Lines and lines and lines of people trying to get documents. And the lines weren’t even organized. It was just terrible."
Johnston later told Buchanan that after one look, she walked into the hallway, found the ladies' room "and went in there and vomited," then went home, discussed it with her husband and returned to tell the governor she didn't want the job.
As it turned out, Buchanan said, "She had walked out of the office as I was sitting there waiting to walk in when I was just going in to make my offer — my suggestion — and her appointment had been to tell Johnny then that she could not accept this and was not going to do it. Now, my God, that man was between a rock and a hard place."
A quirk in the state constitution prevented Vanderhoof from appointing one of several prominent Republican women serving in the General Assembly, so, as Buchanan tells it, "In I trot, and so that’s how that appointment happened."