As state lawmakers convened the 2007 legislative session at the Capitol on Wednesday, Stella Garza Hicks stood perhaps as the most unlikely representative to take the oath of office.
It was only a week ago that a small group of Republicans chose Garza Hicks a 53-year-old who didn't finish high school and never has previously held office to replace Mark Cloer, who resigned suddenly last month, as the House District 17 representative.
"Of course, being so new right now as an elected official, and going in so late with the session starting, I'm not sure what bills I will be able to do and so forth," Garza Hicks said from her home late last week, while congratulatory messages rolled in from the likes of House Minority Speaker Mike May and former Sen. Ed Jones of Colorado Springs.
"I'm having to learn everything in a day or so that others have had four weeks to work with," she added.
Democrats were suspicious of the timing of Cloer's announcement, giving his former aide two years to prove herself in the position before running for re-election.
"[Garza Hicks] can't claim that she represents her district," says John Morris, chairman of the county's Democratic Party. "We don't know what her policies are. We don't know what her positions are on major issues. We don't know anything about her."
Cloer stepped down Dec. 26 after six years in office.
"My youngest son has some issues that he needs me there for, and I'm going to be there for him," Cloer, married with two young boys, told the Independent last week. He declined to elaborate.
On the rise
The resignation left a 32-member GOP district vacancy committee, chaired by Garza Hicks, tasked with finding a replacement. At a meeting last week, Cloer nominated Garza Hicks, his former campaign manager. She was chosen without a challenge.
Morris says he's "still outraged" by the handoff of power. Had Cloer stepped down before November's election, Morris contends, Democratic challenger Christine Varney might have made better inroads. She lost by 14 percent in a district evenly divided between Republicans, Democrats and unaffiliated voters.
Meanwhile, Garza Hicks is looking forward to meeting constituents and working with Democrats.
"I would like to include them, of course, and see what their issues might be," she says.
Garza Hicks, who also speaks Spanish, will be among a small handful of female Hispanics in the Legislature.
She spent most of her youth in Kress, a small west Texas town 60 miles south of Amarillo, where she dropped out of the ninth grade to become a cosmetologist. She found work in nearby Plainview before moving to Colorado Springs as a young woman to be with her first husband, a soldier based at Fort Carson.
She divorced him more than 30 years ago, and says he abused alcohol. She later married Ray Hicks, a Navy veteran, who adopted her three boys.
Garza Hicks sold vacuum cleaners door to door before deciding to stay at home full-time to rear the family.
In the early 1990s, she became active in politics, inspired by a conversation with then-Rep. Barbara Phillips, known best, perhaps, for supporting an English-only amendment to the state constitution.
"She's just a phenomenal person," Garza Hicks says of Phillips. "I never dreamed back then about being involved in politics."
Garza Hicks delved into local caucuses and eventually became a district division leader. About six years ago, she ascended to district chairwoman.
Among various political activities, she was a campaign manager last year for Linda Pugh, who was elected to the Harrison District 2 school board. She also was active in Marc Holtzman's failed gubernatorial bid.
Bob Loevy, a Colorado College political science professor, can't recall the last time El Paso County sent a representative to the Capitol by appointment. However, he remembers a few similar examples and noted such appointments are "one of the best ways ever invented to begin a political career."
Without being vetted by competition, public forums and press scrutiny, such politicians rise through work with their parties, making connections with big players.
"They tend to be party loyalists," Loevy says.
Garza Hicks now has a tremendous advantage if she seeks election in 2008, Loevy adds, with two years to meet constituents, build a record and raise money.
Democrats hope to wrest control of the district from Republicans in 2008. Until then, Morris says Garza Hicks will face scrutiny.
"There's a lot of doubt, and we're going to keep watching her," he says.
Garza Hicks is vague discussing her top issues.
Speaking generally, she says the military, police and small businesses need solid representation. She's also concerned about the link between alcohol and drug dependence and the region's crime.
"We need to look into programs to make it where it's a lot easier for someone to come in off the street and say, "I need help. Can you help me?'" she says. "We need programs that will perhaps reduce crime."
Illegal immigration is another concern.
"We welcome anyone and everyone from anywhere as long as they're in the United States legally," Garza Hicks says, "and that's my view on immigration."