Colorado’s Rhonda Fields overcame personal tragedy, violent threats and a relentless NRA to succeed where the U.S. Senate failed.
On March 20, the day her gun control bills were signed into law, Colorado Representative Rhonda Fields could only feel numb.
Her colleague, Colorado Prisons Chief Tom Clements, had been shot and killed by a former inmate at the front door of his home just the night before. “I felt really insignificant,” she says. “I’m still not saving lives at the level that I want to.”
Yet, given the U.S. Senate’s failure to pass gun background checks – backed by 90 percent of the nation – Fields’ achievement is remarkable. She sponsored two of the three bills that became laws in March, limiting gun magazines to 15 rounds and establishing universal background checks. The third law required gun owners to pay for those checks. Only New York and Connecticut have managed similar feats since Sandy Hook.
To be sure, Colorado has lived through Columbine and the movie theater rampage in Fields’ Aurora District last July. But it takes courage to stare down angry Republicans, the NRA and threats on your daughter’s life – for Fields, gun reform has always been personal.
At 58, Fields is the first African American woman to represent the Aurora District. She speaks naturally, has an easy smile and accessorizes her unshakable composure with tailored jackets, low heels, and pearls. Her approachability makes it easy to forget that Fields was ranked by 5280 Magazine as one of Denver’s 50 “most powerful” people. But it’s the contradictions that seem to best define her.
She is tireless in her advocacy, but bone-weary of gun violence. She is friendly, but fierce in her determination to seek justice for victims. She is gracious, but never far away from grief.
In 2005, Fields lost her only son. Just 12 days after graduating from college, Javad Marshall-Fields and his fiancée Vivian Wolfe were shot to death in his car in the middle of an Aurora intersection. Javad, who witnessed the murder of a friend, planned to testify at the trial the following week.
“There’s not a day that I don’t think about him,” says Fields. “I’ll never see him get married or age into an old man, and those things are difficult.”
She sat through five trials for the murders of Javad, Vivian, and his friend Gregory Vann, but never considered giving up. “I felt like I had to be Javad’s presence in the courtroom,” she says. “I wanted to be a constant reminder that there was a victim.” Some days she had to leave the courtroom because the testimony was too painful.
Born in Baltimore, Maryland, Fields had raised Javad and older sister Maisha as a single parent. She sought inspiration from her mother, a military wife who was often alone while her father served three tours of duty in Korea and Vietnam.
“I never saw any weakness from her,” says Fields. “I think quietly, she was showing me how to continue on despite adversities.”
Fields dealt with her grief by launching a quest to solve her son’s crime. She held a press conference to find information about his killers, sponsored Crime Stoppers ads on local bus benches, and held regular meetings with the Aurora Chief of Police.
Her efforts lead to convictions of the men who murdered her son: Two of those killers now sit on death row.
When Fields realized Colorado had inadequate protections for witnesses, she also pushed for new laws: The Javad Marshall-Fields and Vivian Wolfe Witness Protection Act passed in 2006. She also created the Fields Wolfe Memorial Fund to help send kids to college. And in 2010, Fields ran for the State House, where she’s now serving her second term.
“Everyone should use their personal power and their voice to address any wrongs they see in their communities. Never be shy of that,” she says.
On July 20, 2012, Fields was woken at 1:00 am by a call from a constituent. Fields learned that James Holmes had opened fire in a Century Movie Theater in her Aurora District, killing 12 people and injuring 58.
Fields helped organize a prayer vigil for the victims. Then she got to work. Although the new House Session hadn’t even started, she told constituents her next bills would be about gun reform.
“A lot of people were frightened,” she says. “They push you out there, but they don’t want to be on the limb with you.”
Fields says she underestimated the reach of the NRA. “They swarmed on us like locusts. It was overwhelming, and it was tense,” she says. But losing the next election was nothing compared to the threats. Fields received a series of profane and racist e-mails suggesting someone should “Giffords” her with a gun (a reference to the 2011 shooting of Gabrielle Giffords).
Then came the letter sent to her home address, threatening both Fields and her daughter. “There will be blood!” it said. The sender has been arrested for harassment.
Fields was also attacked by gun supporters for a 20-year-old arrest record that she disclosed before running for office in 2010. Fields was arrested on a larceny charge in 1976 and a shoplifting charge in 1991. “It’s a very embarrassing dark, desperate time in my life,” she told the Denver Post. “I’m so glad I’m not the woman I was back then.” Opponents also highlighted more recent traffic violations, including charges that were dismissed.
Despite Fields’ accomplishments, advocacy has not been a panacea for her grief. “What I’ve accomplished after my son’s death amazes me,” she says. “But I am absolutely fatigued, because what I have not allowed myself to do is touch the pain and the loss and the grief.”
Still searching for balance, Fields yearns for a balcony where she can look out at the ocean below. “I want to travel to a remote location where I’m not assigned to be a champion, and I can just be reflective on what’s next,” she says. “I think I’m going to get to that place.”
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