Joe Hanel/Durango Herald
Editor’s note: This is the first story in an occasional series about the people who make things happen at the state Capitol.
By Joe Hanel
Herald Denver Bureau
DENVER – For some reason, Rhonda Fields was having trouble sleeping early in the morning of July 20 last year.
So the state representative answered the phone when it rang at 1:30 a.m.
It was a constituent working the night shift at a call center. The business was locked down – something bad was happening nearby. The caller told Fields to turn on the TV.
The Aurora Democrat saw the first scenes of one of the worst mass shootings in American history. About 70 people were injured, including 12 who died, when a shooter sprayed a movie theater with rapid-fire rounds from his semiautomatic rifle.
It wasn’t the first time Fields got world-shattering news.
“It took me back to my own time when I was first notified that my son was murdered,” Fields said.
Since that day in 2005, Fields has had multiple transformations: from working mom to crime victim to activist to rank-and-file lawmaker to the public face of the gun-control movement at the state Capitol.
But the same personal experience that makes Fields a leading voice for gun control also makes her a formidable foe for other Democrats’ efforts to repeal the death penalty.
Two of the three killers on Colorado’s death row are there for murdering her son, Javad Marshall-Fields, and his fiancée, Vivian Wolfe. Both were 22 years old.
‘I was just a mom’
Marshall-Fields was ambushed and killed just days before he was to be a witness in a murder trial. He knew he was targeted by gang members, but he was not offered witness protection.
While mourning her son and future daughter-in-law, Rhonda Fields became an activist. Working with her state representatives, she convinced the Legislature to pass a witness-protection law named after Marshall-Fields and Wolfe.
Then, in 2010, she got another call. This one was from Rep. Karen Middleton, who was leaving the Legislature and encouraged Fields to run for her seat.
“Of course, I had lots of doubts and lots of hesitation about that because I never saw myself as someone who was political. I was just a mom who experienced a tragedy, and I was trying to correct an injustice that was in our public policy,” Fields said.
But she ran and won.
In her first term, Fields was a quiet presence on the Democratic side of the aisle.
She’s not quiet anymore.
On Jan. 28, she stood on the steps of the Capitol, leading a crowd of 200 in passionate chants against gun violence.
“Enough! Military-style assault weapons are not needed in our communities or in our neighborhoods. They’re intended to be on the battlefield. Enough’s enough!” Fields said.
She is sponsoring two of the Democrats’ eight controversial gun bills (House Bills 1224 and 1229). Her bills would ban the sale of new ammunition magazines of more than 10 rounds and require background checks for all gun sales, even from private sellers.
Fields said she’s ready for the storm that’s coming her way.
“I think if you’re ready or you’re not ready, it’s coming. I’m ready to have this kind of debate because I am sick and tired of the bloodshed. I’m sick and tired of us pretending that gun violence doesn’t exist,” she said.
Fields won’t be treated with kid gloves in the coming debate.
Dudley Brown of Rocky Mountain Gun Owners said he always tries to be respectful to victims of violence. But he’s not shy about calling out people who he thinks are trying to rip away his constitutional right to bear arms.
“When I’m looking at the freedoms my family and future generations are either going to enjoy or reminisce about, at some point I don’t care about their feelings,” Brown said.
‘Why I’m here’
While the battle over guns is happening, Fields also will be in the middle of a debate about the death penalty.
Rep. Claire Levy, D-Boulder, is almost ready to introduce a bill to repeal the death penalty, she said in an interview Thursday.
Fields will fight the bill.
“I think that some crimes are so heinous, that they deserve the ultimate punishment that society can render,” she said.
That includes the Aurora theater shooting, she said.
Both Fields and Levy said they respect each other personally and won’t have hard feelings after the debate is over.
Still, Levy knows the character of the debate will be different with Fields in the chamber.
“For me, it is more of an abstract principle of justice,” Levy said. “We all know that for a very important, valuable member of our chamber, it is not abstract at all. It is really personal,” Levy said.
Fields is aware that Colorado’s death row has a population of three.
“And two are on death row for my son. And here I am at the state Capitol. How did that happen? I think it’s for a time like this,” she said.
“When I think about my own personal journey and the scars I have, it reminds me of why I’m here. I think I’m here to have the debate on guns, safety and reform. I’m here to have a discussion about why maintaining the death penalty in our state has merit,” Fields said.
When the legislative session ends in the spring, Fields will go back to work at United Airlines, where she has spent her career and now manages training and development at Denver International Airport. But her views about politics are changed forever.
“I always thought that this was something for an elite group, that you can’t come from the grass-roots like me. I felt like I came from the margins of society, and now I’m on this journey. A common citizen can do this.”