‘It’s been a good ride’

A conversation with Josie and Rollie Heath on life and their decision to retire

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Joel Dyer | Boulder Weekly

Although both are retiring at the end of the year, don’t expect Josie and Rollie Heath to retreat to a secluded beach on a remote island for any extended period of time.

“We’d last probably a couple of weeks,” Rollie says.

“You’d start organizing the government structure,” Josie jokes.

“We haven’t figured it out yet to be honest,” Rollie continues. “It’s a little scary. I’ve been working since I was 10.”

As a term-limited state senator, Rollie is leaving the Colorado State House after the session ends in December. And Josie announced her retirement after 21 years at the helm of The Community Foundation in July. But beyond their most recent roles, the Heaths have been an integral part of the Boulder County community since they moved to the area in the early ’70s. As long-standing members of the Democratic Party, both have shaped the political landscape of the County and the state, in many ways helping to give Boulder the liberal identity it holds dear.

They have represented Boulder at several Democratic National Conventions, most recently in Philadelphia in July as strong backers of Hillary Clinton. They have both been strong advocates for public education as a way to ensure success for all members of the community. And both are gregarious beyond measure. The couple has given their lives to public service, in many ways institutionalizing their ideals in the process.

“People say to me, ‘Oh, now you can do what you want to do,’” Josie says. “And I’m like, ‘Well I’ve been doing what I want to do.’ Both of us. … We’ve been so fortunate to really do stuff.”

Neither one points to family influence for their civic involvement. Rather, each cites an inherent awareness of inequality and personal conviction that later led them to the Democratic Party.

Because of frequent references to Franklin D. Roosevelt, Josie always knew her family was Democratic but it wasn’t something they talked about.

However, growing up in Oregon she noticed the adverse working conditions of farm laborers from a young age.

“You would see all these migrant workers sleeping in their cars and I would be really troubled by that, that sense of injustice,” Josie says. “I don’t think I knew to call it being a Democrat but I always had this strong sense of justice. So that was this sense of values I had long before I knew to make it partisan.”

Rollie, on the other hand, grew up in a more conservative and traditional home, he says, although they also never really talked politics as a family. But he had a junior high and high school basketball coach who not only helped him get treatment for scoliosis but also did whatever he could to get all the kids on the team scholarships to college. The coach also supported five kids at home on a public-servant’s salary, often supplementing his income by stuffing tissue boxes at gas stations after work.

“It taught me how unfair this was,” Rollie says. “What he was being paid and what he had to do [to make up for it.]”

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Regardless of their somewhat apolitical upbringings, both Rollie and Josie served in student government at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where they met as House Fellows, the equivalent of today’s resident advisors.

“That’s probably something that attracted us because of civics and we were both interested in things going right,” Josie says. The couple married in 1961.

In college, Rollie was the chair of the campus “Dolgrin” party, which stood for Dorms, Greeks and Independents, a catch-all organization for everyone on campus, Rollie says. “It seemed to me that if you were going to be on a campus, you needed to have everybody together. You couldn’t just do it from the fraternity/sorority point of view, even if I was very much a fraternity guy,” he says. “That’s more who I am, it’s how my brain was already working and I just ran with it.”

Subjected to the draft, Rollie began his public service career in the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) in college. He continued with the program all through college and law school before entering the Judge Advocate General’s (JAG) Corps as an Army lawyer.

“I had no intention of making a career of [the military], and I ended up doing 23 years,” he says.

Always intending to go into business, he was considering a job with Proctor & Gamble in Cincinnati when he received an urgent message from a General asking him to call. Josie was working as a teacher at the time.

“We were sure we were going to Vietnam,” Josie remembers. Instead, the General assigned Rollie to complete German-language school in Monterey, California, before sending him to become a liaison officer with the German government. The Army also paid for Josie to complete the language course, which she did the same week their first son was born. They moved to Germany shortly after.

“I think, like a lot of Americans, the military opened up opportunities for us that we never would have had otherwise,” Josie says.

Both adjusted to life in Germany, quickly getting to know neighbors and becoming involved with the military community. Josie became the head of the German-American club and president of the Officer’s Wives Club, while teaching English as a Second Language. After about a year, Rollie began traveling up and down the Rhine River as the General’s translator.

“It was more darn fun,” Rollie says, “[and] gave me the entrée into the political [arena] and I took Josie along with me.”

But while skiing in the Austrian Alps, Josie severely broke her leg and had to wear a brace for almost three years. After the accident, the family moved to Virginia where they bought their first home and Rollie began teaching at the military law school at the University of Virginia campus, until he decided to retire from the military and go into business.

Rollie’s new job was in Denver with Armco Steel, and the Heaths moved to Boulder in 1970. Fresh out of her leg brace, Josie was attracted to the landscape and the community associated with the university.

“We kind of came to Boulder and started over,” she says.

But Rollie’s job required him to travel several weeks a month and Josie found herself at home with small children.

“We had always been together before, and I had never had a time when he was gone so much and that was very isolating for me,” she says. “The lifesaver for me was being engaged.”

She quickly became involved with the YWCA, especially since they had childcare, and was quickly surrounded by strong women leaders in the community. Having read The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan with a small book club in Germany, Josie quickly identified with the growing women’s movement in Boulder.

“I saw they were really interested in issues at that time, taking the sales tax off food and closing Rocky Flats, and I got right into that,” she says. “And from that the Democratic Party became a great vehicle. And that became for me a very satisfying engaging way [to be involved].”

In 1972, Josie went to her first Democratic caucus in Boulder. She didn’t know anyone, but says she enjoyed every minute of it. Then it came time to elect people to attend the county assembly, and the leadership realized they needed to have at least one woman in the delegation.

When no one else at the caucus volunteered, Josie raised her hand.

“And so it was that sort of moment with [people] I didn’t know, who made me feel, as a woman and a total newcomer, that this is an open party,” she says. “And I’ve embraced that because I feel like it was always the place for me, as [someone] who saw it as a very transparent party trying to do the right thing.”

Then, in 1973, Rollie was offered a job at Armco Steel’s headquarters in Middletown, Ohio, and he took Josie back east to house hunt.

“We’ve been married 55 years and that’s the only night Jose cried all night,” Rollie says.

“I was just like, ‘I can’t be here. It’s too traditional,’” Josie recalls.

So she encouraged Rollie to find another job in Denver, which he did at Johns Mansville Corporation, where he worked until 1990.

“So while he’s doing that, I was circling Rocky Flats. So we were in these two very different worlds,” Josie says. “We were really living two different lives. He was in the corporate world and in that time corporate wives were not working or involved in things. They pretty much played bridge.”

Josie, however, continued to work with the Democratic Party in Boulder, following in the footsteps of other women role models she found inspiring.

“They did their homework, they had no self-interest that was going to be commercially beneficial, and they just really cared about what was good for the planet, what was good for families, and they were very active around issues of open space,” she says. “We just felt like if we wanted to do something, we could do it.”

The Heaths never hired a nanny, and Josie relied on a Boulder babysitting co-op to remain involved while raising three young kids. At one point, Josie walked in on her two oldest kids, somewhere around the ages of two and five, sitting in chairs with name tags on. When she asked what they were doing, “They said, ‘Oh, we’re in a meeting,’” Josie says, with a laugh. “And I thought, ‘Oh brother, is this child abuse?’”

But her hard work paid off. She chaired the Get out the Vote campaign in 1974, the year Boulder County first flipped from Republican to Democratic.

“We ran all these volunteer phone banks and that was astonishing to me, that all of us volunteers could flip the county to Democratic,” Josie recalls. “I think Boulder County, at least the City of Boulder was really just beginning to see an in migration of people, or an unrest of people here saying, ‘We want more. We want environmental sustainability. We want to really plan our future.’ … I was here at the right time and things were open and I felt like there was an opportunity if you were willing to work hard.”

This was the first of what Josie calls “great victories,” but she also experienced defeat.

In 1976, she ran for the Colorado State Senate but lost to incumbent Republican Les Fowler. Josie took the loss particularly hard, since had she won, the state senate would have flipped Democratic as well.

However, Jimmy Carter won the presidential election that year and Josie was named the Rocky Mountain regional director for ACTION, the federal agency for voluntary service at the time. She was also named to the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals nominating committee, one of the few non-lawyer members to be appointed. At the first meeting Josie and the other members were told by the chairman that he would review all the applicants and then ask them their opinion on his finalists.

“Well that didn’t sound right,” Josie says.

She insisted that everyone on the committee saw all the applications and also volunteered time to do some of the clerking work herself. In her time with the committee, they nominated judges in Kansas, Utah and Oklahoma.

Given her background, each time Josie thought to herself, “Can I be fair when a woman is being considered? Could I really be objective?”

However, in Kansas and Utah no women applied. But in Oklahoma, Stephanie Seymour was one of the applicants, and Josie’s top pick based on credentials alone, she says.

As the committee met to discuss their nominations, each member was allowed to throw out a candidate, no questions asked. The chairman started and immediately disqualified Seymour. Josie asked for the chairman’s reasoning. According to Josie, he said, “Well, Mrs. Heath, I know you’re not a lawyer but the circuit court requires traveling. And if you see here, Mrs. Seymour has three children and couldn’t make all those trips.”

The room fell quiet and no one else would meet Josie’s gaze. When it came around to her turn, she eliminated the Chief Justice of the Oklahoma Supreme Court. “There was a gasp and [the chairman asked], ‘Why?’” she recalls. “And I said, ‘Based on the exact criteria that you have established. As you can see, he has five children and I can’t imagine he can travel.’”

In the end, the chairman agreed to consider Seymour if Josie would consider the Chief Justice. Eventually, President Carter nominated Seymour as the first woman judge on the Tenth Circuit. She later became the first woman to be Chief Judge as well.

But this victory was followed by another loss, this time of national significance. Josie says she could hardly believe it when Ronald Reagan beat out Carter in his re-election bid, a fact that also cost her her job.

However, the Democratic Party soon urged her to run for Boulder County Commissioner in 1982, a position she held for the next eight years.

Meanwhile, Rollie was operating in the corporate world as a member of the Denver Chamber of Commerce and the founder of the Rocky Mountain World Trade Center. He was also still traveling consistently with Johns Mansville, making his way to senior vice president of the entire company and president of the international company. Their lives were over-the-top busy. Rollie recalls celebrating one of his major promotions by taking his youngest son to Chuck E. Cheese’s. It was just the two of them and a thin pizza because Josie was at a Commissioners hearing and the older kids were busy.

Regardless of the crazy schedules, he’s always been very supportive of his wife’s career and his pride is apparent as he smiles while listening intently as she recounts her stories.

“I show up during this whole time, after being in God-only-knows somewhere off in the world,” says Rollie, who was often away for two or three weeks at a time, “And hear all these stories and just live vicariously through it all.”

And every once in awhile, Rollie and Josie’s worlds would collide and the seemingly disparate public lives they led seemed to make sense. At one point, Johns Mansville had a joint venture with the Icelandic government and Rollie brought Josie along on one of his trips.

At a business dinner, “Josie gives this speech basically comparing Iceland and Boulder County,” Rollie says. “It was an incredible speech, and she one-ups me as usual. It was one of those magical nights where all of this stuff came together.”

As Josie prepared to run for the U.S. Senate in 1990, Rollie decided it was time to leave Johns Mansville and help with her campaign. To announce his retirement, he wrote a letter to his 1,800 employees explaining his decision to leave in order to support his wife.

“It is the ultimate love letter in our relationship,” Josie recalls.

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But that doesn’t mean the role of campaign spouse came easily for Rollie. “I think it was one of the much more difficult things that I have ever done,” he says. “Her campaign managers just didn’t know what to do with me. Here I had just come off a major role and had some sort of reputation in my own mind.”

It didn’t help that Josie was the only female candidate for the Senate that year, and there were only two female Senators at the time, both unmarried. At one point in the campaign, Rollie was asked to be on a TV show pitting him against seven U.S. Senate wives. In preparation, Rollie studied up on all of Josie’s policies to be prepared to answer any question.

“And the first question was what was my favorite recipe, to which I had absolutely no idea,” he says. “The show was designed to make me feel how they had all felt. Here were seven very bright women in their own right, who were never asked anything other than, ‘What does your husband think?’ … For one hour I just felt absolutely horrible.”

Not only that, but it was the first time Rollie’s corporate career and Josie’s position in the Democratic party were at odds with each other. In the primaries, for example, her opponent used Johns Mansville’s environmental record to attack her candidacy. She was also subject to various unfounded character attacks.

“I had enjoyed tough races but never things that were below the belt,” she says. “This Senate race was just bruising.”

Although she eventually won the primary, she lost the election to Hank Brown, whom President Reagan personally campaigned for.

“We ran our sloganless politics as it ought to be,” Josie says. “We ran a very grassroots campaign in 1990. What you learn is that despite the fact you have 1,000 people going door to door, big money wins.”

Josie says she was outspent roughly six-to-one, “And that was only the money you can track.”

Ever the resilient one, Josie ran again in 1992.

Although unsuccessful for a second time, Josie’s campaigns for U.S. Senate gave Rollie an idea of his own.

“It was very disappointing to me basically that there was no credibility given to anybody in the Democratic Party who was a businessperson,” Rollie says. So he began gathering former colleagues and friends and started the Democratic Business Coalition, with the goal of engaging mostly Republican business leaders with Democratic politicians elected to office in Colorado.

“People can’t make good decisions unless they understand how the resources of the community come together, how they get allocated,” Josie adds. “And it just felt like we didn’t have that economic piece. That [politicians] couldn’t make good decisions without the whole spectrum. [They] might not be more pro business but [they]’d understand.”

Plus, it was a way for Rollie to utilize the breadth of his background to make a positive contribution. “And it worked for at least a little while,” Rollie says. Although the coalition is no longer around, the business influence in the Colorado Democratic Party is still evident.

While Rollie became increasingly involved in politics, Josie took a step back from public office and became the president of The Community Foundation of Boulder County in 1995. Since then, she has overseen the granting of roughly $69 million in local grants as well as a growing endowment of more than $52 million.

Among other programs, the Foundation focuses on addressing the education gap, a major motivation for Rollie’s 2002 bid for Colorado Governor, his first attempt to hold a public office. As a staunch opponent of Colorado’s Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights (TABOR), Rollie challenged Bill Owens in the hopes of restoring education funding by reforming spending limits. But Josie was hesitant about another public campaign, even if it was Rollie’s.

“I felt like I personally, and our family, was still kind of bruised and the idea of picking ourselves up and beating ourselves up one more time was not appealing,” Josie says. “But he was determined.”

“Naïve as all get out,” Rollie quips. “But don’t forget I had the experience of doing two Senate campaigns for her and I really admired so much of what Josie did. Even though she lost, I know she changed the debate and I thought I could do the same thing at this level.”

Two close friends advised against the campaign, saying they didn’t want to see Rollie get hurt. “And I said, ‘You know when I’m on my death bed, the only way I can get hurt is if I had a chance to run for governor and I didn’t do it, then I’d get hurt,’” he remembers, with a hint of emotion in his voice. “I said, ‘You know if I lose, the sun will come up the next day and I will be on my way doing something else. I’ll still have a wonderful wife and kids and a lot of friends. So you lose. It’s not the end of the world.’ And I lost and it wasn’t the end of the world.”

Although Rollie lost the election, Owens did propose Referendum C to restore education funding a few years later, something Rollie says he never would have done before he challenged him on it during the debates.

Rollie went on to start a private company working as an executive coach, never intending to run for office again. However, in 2008, term-limit restrictions opened up the Boulder State Senate seat and friends asked Rollie to consider running. Initially he declined, but Josie encouraged him to pursue the position.

“Only in her way, she said, ‘Well, I think you ought to think about it,’” he says. “Two weeks later I was running.”

As a Colorado State Senator, Rollie has worked tirelessly in his efforts to increase public education funding by raising the income tax in the state through both Proposition 103 in 2011 and Amendment 66 in 2013. However, Coloradans voted down both measures when they reached the ballot. He tried again with the Colorado Tax Income Increase in 2016, but proponents failed to gather enough signatures to meet state requirements for a general vote. “The biggest frustration for me is that we didn’t get it on the ballot this time,” Rollie says.

Nevertheless, he’s remained determined to see education reforms that give students the opportunity for success. In 2015, he sponsored four out of eight workforce bills that passed, helping to establish concurrent enrollment and technical internships and apprenticeships as part of the educational system in Colorado.

“I think it’s one of the solutions to all this anger,” Rollie says. “If you get people with a decent job and have them be able to live a reasonable life, I think a lot of the anger goes away.”

Josie and Rollie Heath have been two of the state’s most influential politicos over the past four decades and an interesting couple to boot.Joel Dyer
Josie and Rollie Heath have been two of the state’s most influential politicos over the past four decades and an interesting couple to boot.

Neither Rollie nor Josie seems to have any intention for running for public office again, but they don’t explicitly deny the possibility either. In many ways, their careers are perfect examples of the evolution of the Democratic Party and American politics. They’ve had to navigate a changing political landscape, one of increased spending coupled with the decline of both media quality and coverage, which has left many politicians wary of the press.

“There’s not enough of the media to really be able to air the kinds of things we should be having conversations about,” Josie says. As a politician, “It’s a disservice to not let people know why am I thinking that and what brought me to this place. Why did I arrive at this decision?”

Plus, “The external rules have changed,” Josie continues. “And that’s really changed the local party. When you gave so much more power to outside PACs and special interest groups that had the money, it took away the power of the party.”

The best way forward is to overturn Citizens United, Rollie says. But there also has to be a willingness to work with colleagues from opposing parties on issues where compromise is possible, while not focusing on non-negotiables.

“Invariably, about 80 percent of the things you agree on but you only talk about the 20 percent of things that you’re never going to agree on,” he says.

“You figure out where you can go and then hopefully that will lead to other results. That’s the only way we’re going to break out of this. … What you do is you find areas you can agree on and build trust within those relationships.”

“Trust is the word,” Josie adds. “And it’s hard to earn and once you’ve earned it you have to be careful never to betray it. And yet for people who feel like you compromised, how do they not see it as betrayal? And I think trust comes when you all come together and you sort out hard choices.”

But somewhere along the way, Josie says, the political vehicles to build trust have broken down.

“I’ve just learned you can’t take anything for granted,” Josie says. “Even if you’ve earned people’s trust, you have to affirm with people, ‘Are you with me?’ We make assumptions that people are. … In a political sense, one of the most difficult things is when you think people are with you and they’re not.”

These are poignant reflections in a time of political turmoil within the Democratic Party and in the nation as a whole. But looking ahead, what comes next for the Heaths remains undetermined.

“We’re both in a place in our lives where we can say, ‘No regrets,’” Josie says. “If you have a regret in a personal way it may be somebody’s feelings were hurt in an unintentional way. But I feel like we both tried to be principled about what we said and what we did.”

Rollie is a bit more specific, saying he plans on joining some boards and remaining engaged and active in the education advocacy he championed while in the state Senate, although he doesn’t give any more detail than that.

“I’m on my 12th reinvention,” he says. “I’ve had so many varied careers, going from the military to doing what I’m doing now and everything in between. I’ve tried different things and I’m glad I did. It’s been fun. It’s been a good ride.”

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