When one door closes, another opens. That might well describe the path state Rep.-elect Brianna Titone of Arvada took to become Colorado’s first transgender lawmaker.
In an interview with Colorado Politics, Titone described running for office as “the toughest job interview I’ve ever had.” But it allowed her to put into practice skills gained from her experience in the mining consulting field, like helping parties find common ground.
“I learned to focus on those strengths” in running for the General Assembly, she said.
She recalls telling voters: “If we don’t agree, let’s talk about it. I don’t want this to be the last time we talk.”
In January, she’ll become one of four openly transgender people in the nation elected to a statewide Legislature; three of the four won first-time races on Nov. 6.
Titone won a close race in House District 27 – by just 422 votes – over Republican Vicki Pyne in the November election, after trailing on election night. The next day, Titone was ahead by just nine votes. Pyne conceded four days after the polls closed.
District 27 is a district that last had a Democrat as its representative in 2010, before district maps were redrawn. The district covers the northwestern portion of Jefferson County, including Arvada west of Wadsworth Boulevard.
You could see the change coming. Four years ago, Republicans and unaffiliated voter registrations were nearly equal, at just over 19,000 each, with Democrats lagging behind by some 4,000. Spring forward to October of this year: Unaffiliated voter registrations had surged to 24,454, with Republicans at 19,551 and Democrats with 17,759 active voter registrations.In 2018, voter turnout in the district was just shy of 79 percent, well above the statewide turnout of 75 percent among active voters.
Titone’s win suggests support from many unaffiliated voters as well as Democrats in the district, given that it’s a district that, in 2016, went 53 percent to 40 percent for Republican state Rep. Lang Sias. The seat was open because Sias was picked by state Treasurer Walker Stapleton as his running mate in Stapleton’s unsuccessful bid for governor.
Titone holds degrees in physics geology from State University of New York at New Paltz, a master’s degree in geochemistry from Stony Brook University, and her latest, a master’s degree in information communications technology from the University of Denver. The latter ties into the changes Titone has made in her life in the past decade since moving to Colorado.
That includes coming out as transgender.
A native of New York’s Hudson Valley, Titone says she dreamed of becoming an FBI agent. That dream was in part due to living in New York when the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks occurred. Titone had already been a volunteer firefighter, starting as a junior firefighter in high school.
The attacks took place while she was in college, and that drove her to consider how else she might serve. But the path to becoming an FBI agent is a difficult and lengthy one, and Titone believed she lacked the necessary work experience.
So she got on with her life, becoming a geologist and working for various companies around the world, from Africa to South America to the Philippines.
Ten years ago, one of those doors began to close. The company she worked for was downsizing, and at the same time, she was offered a scholarship to Tulane University to work on a doctoral degree, as well as a job offer in Colorado in mining consulting.
She chose Colorado.
That’s when another series of doors began to open. Titone had kept her transgender identity secret – she’s known since she was 7 that she was female, she said – because of her FBI dream. But that dream came to an end when she turned 37, too old to become an FBI trainee.
The realization hit her when she was in Mexico on her birthday.
“It was a very sad time,” not getting into the FBI, but it was also the catalyst for making big changes, including coming out, she told Colorado Politics.
“I didn’t have to pretend who I was anymore.”
It also meant changing jobs. Mining consulting is a male-dominated field, Titone said. So she began looking at software development for geology and realized she could do it anywhere. It’s a field in which transgender people are succeeding, she said. Software development “felt like a safe career.”
But Titone still wanted to serve. She joined the board of her homeowners’ association, becoming its president in 2014. She’s also volunteered at the Denver Botanic Gardens and became a member of NecroSearch International, a nonprofit that helps law enforcement with the search for and recovery of human remains and associated evidence.
She also began testifying regarding legislation at the state Capitol on bills to ban conversion therapy for LGBTQ minors and a bill that would allow a transgender person to obtain a new birth certificate that reflects their gender change. Democrats have been trying to pass both bills for the last several years but have faced a roadblock in the Republican-controlled state Senate.
What moved Titone from witness to lawmaker was something that happened in Virginia in 2017. Delegate Danica Roem, the nation’s first openly transgender lawmaker, was elected to the Virginia Legislature. Like Titone, Roem won in a district that is fairly conservative.
Titone began thinking about running for Colorado’s General Assembly, and Roem mentored Titone on that path. Roem canvassed Titone’s district with her and fundraised for her.
“I plan to pay it forward,” Titone said. “We can both be mentors.”
Titone put on her running shoes (she runs half-marathons) and started walking the district – some 32,000 homes. She heard from some voters that her predecessor hadn’t been responsive to constituents, leaving voters frustrated and losing faith in government, she said.
Now that she’s been elected, Titone says she will focus on environmental and water legislation.
“I’m concerned about the future of Colorado’s water supply,” she said, adding that Colorado’s water rights law may not be sustainable during dry conditions predicted over the next several decades.
She said she wants to look at these issues from an objective, science-based approach.
“If there’s something preventable, why not do it?” she said.
District voters also identified concerns such as the cost of living, how to keep seniors in their homes and veterans’ issues. She also hopes to sponsor a net neutrality bill, one that she worked on in 2018 with Rep. Chris Hansen of Denver.
But don’t expect her to carry bills on transgender birth certificates or conversion therapy in the 2019 session, she says. While she will definitely be an “aye” vote, sponsoring those measures is not a priority for her district, she told Colorado Politics.
“I don’t want to be polarizing or a one-trick pony.”