gloria tanner

Gloria Tanner encouraged a generation of Black women and elected officials to take on leadership roles in government and the private sector. (Colorado Women’s Hall of Fame)

Gloria Tanner, Colorado’s First Black Female State Senator, Dies

By Lisa Ryckman | April 6, 2022 | State Legislatures News | Print

Gloria Tanner, the first African American woman to serve as a Colorado state senator, died on Monday. She was 86.

Tanner, who grew up in Atlanta, worked for Colorado Lt. Gov. George Brown and state Sen. Regis Groff before launching her own campaign for the Colorado House of Representatives, where she represented Denver’s 7th District for five terms starting in 1984.

You have to take a positive attitude. And my attitude was, I can do it—I don’t care what the obstacles are. —Gloria Tanner

“When I first got to the House, I thought, ‘I’m here and have no experience,’ but then I found out 95% of them knew less than I knew, so it worked out OK,” Tanner told her alma mater, Metropolitan State University of Denver, where she earned a political science degree in 1974. She also held a master’s in urban affairs from the University of Colorado.

Tanner was appointed Groff’s replacement when he retired in 1994, making her the state’s first Black woman senator. She retired in 2001.

State Rep. Leslie Herod, the chair of the Black Democratic Legislative Caucus of Colorado, called Tanner a trailblazer who improved the lives of Coloradans.

“Gloria’s tireless devotion to serving our community uplifted the lives of so many Coloradans and families. Gloria was a mentor to us all,” Herod said in a statement. “As the founder of Colorado Black Women for Political Action and the co-creator of the National Organization of Black Elected Legislators, she fostered an entire generation of leaders who will continue her legacy and make their mark on our state and nation—just as she would have wished.”

Commitment to Community

When Tanner was inducted into the Colorado Women’s Hall of Fame in 2002, she said she was proudest of her work on passing legislation addressing marital discrimination in the workplace, parental responsibility and the 2000 “Safe Haven” baby law, which allows mothers in crisis to surrender their newborn anonymously at a fire station.

In a statement, Gov. Jared Polis and Lt. Gov. Dianne Primavera noted that Tanner was also the second Black woman to be elected to a leadership position in the Colorado House, where she chaired the Minority Caucus.

“Beyond her storied career spanning 17 years at the Capitol—fighting to pass landmark legislation to improve the lives of women and families—former Sen. Tanner’s undying love for her community is manifest in her mission to shape emerging leaders,” they said.

In 2001, Tanner established the Senator Gloria Tanner Leadership and Training Institute for Future Black Women Leaders of Colorado, which helps to prepare Black women to take on leadership roles in government and the private sector. Tanner co-founded Colorado Black Women for Political Action, chaired the Colorado Caucus of Black Elected Officials and served as president of the National Organization of Black Elected Legislators.

“I just think you need women at the table when you make public policy,” Tanner told the Colorado Women’s Hall of Fame. “I think to make good public policy, you need to have the input of everybody.”

Tanner said overcoming obstacles requires facing them with the right attitude.

“If you keep thinking things are there because I’m a woman and I’m Black and I’m this and I’m that, I don’t think you’ll ever do it,” she said. “You have to take a positive attitude. And my attitude was, I can do it—I don’t care what the obstacles are.”

Lisa Ryckman is NCSL’s associate director of communications.

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