Feb 262007
Authors: J. David McSwane

State Rep. John Kefalas, D-Fort Collins, announced a challenge Thursday night to former Democratic congressional candidate and former state Rep. Angie Paccione. But the challenge, though as serious as they come, has nothing to do with state politics.

Kefalas proposed a one-on-one showdown with Paccione – on the basketball court.

“You let her know that I’m ready anytime,” Kefalas told the Collegian. “I’m ready anytime she’s up for the challenge.”

But Kefalas, who stands at 5 feet and 3 inches, would be wise to know what he is getting himself into. Paccione played in the pros, and she’s got more than one game plan.

A class act

Last fall, Paccione gave Republican incumbent Marilyn Musgrave quite a scare after catapulting her campaign into “a dead heat” over the historically conservative 4th Congressional District. But the former professional basketball player lost the match in the final seconds by only 3 percent of the vote.

Running a political campaign is no easy task, Paccione says, and losing one is even harder. But the former CSU student and assistant professor is no benchwarmer when it comes to adversity.

Growing up in a poor New York City neighborhood with a black single mother prepared her for anything, she told the Collegian Thursday.

“Living in what we call the working poor of the south Bronx, I didn’t know my father. I grew up in a real disadvantaged environment,” she said.

Determined to escape that environment, Paccione sweated enough in school and on the court to win a full-ride athletic scholarship to attend Stanford University in California.

But the affluent beach community of Palo Alto, seemed a world away for an aspiring young basketball player from the Bronx. But with a lot of determination and a little fast-food grease, Paccione packed quite a game.

“When I went to Stanford, it was a real culture shock because I was coming out of a completely different environment than most of the people who were attending Stanford,” she said. “The first year or two was really hard for me to make that adjustment.”

“My classmates were driving BMWs and Mercedes,” she added. “I didn’t even have a bike.”

To make up for what her scholarship couldn’t afford her, Paccione worked the graveyard shift at a local Jack in the Box restaurant in the off season while still attending classes.

“I’d clean the milkshake machine and the fry machine, and I worked with people who were not going to Stanford,” she said. “I worked with community people. and being exposed to the people who really work for a living always kept me grounded.”

After graduating with an honors degree in political science in 1983, Paccione moved on to play in the now defunct Women’s American Basketball Association.

But professional sports would soon fall to the wayside as her other passion, teaching, took over.

“I’ll always have a heart for higher education and K-12 education because that was my ticket out of an impoverished environment,” she said.

After receiving a teaching certificate from the University of Denver, Paccione taught at Smoky Hill High School in Denver for eight years, where she would also become the first and only female to coach men’s varsity basketball in Colorado history.

Paccione received her master’s degree in education from CSU in 1995, when she began teaching and working toward her doctoral degree.

But in 2000, Paccione again found herself at a turning point. Excited to fulfill her civic duty by casting her vote, she was disappointed that no Democratic candidate was listed on the ballot.

Paccione says she then saw an opportunity to do what she had been encouraging young people to do for years: “step up, step in and step out.”

Empowered, Paccione ran a successful campaign in 2003 for Colorado’s District 53. As a representative, she sponsored a bill that raised the fine for underage drinking after CSU sophomore Samantha Spady died from alcohol poisoning. The bill included an exemption – a “safe haven” – for minors who call 9-1-1 in a medical emergency involving underage drinking.

And in 2006, Paccione began her quest to replace two-time incumbent Musgrave from office – a pursuit she says is far from finished.

Filling a need

Although Paccione was reluctant to make any official campaign announcement, she said her main concern now isn’t so much finding a job or running for office, but more a desire to serve.

“That’s what I’m looking to do, not find a job, but fill a need,” she said, whether it be in political office, as a teacher or a civic servant.

Paige Noon, a close friend and former campaign staffer, says that’s the woman she’s come to admire.

“I’m impressed with how sincere she is,” Noon said. “She’s the real thing. She’s just a fantastic person.”

When Paccione isn’t trying to win over votes to unseat prominent politicians, she spends a lot of her time enjoying movies like “Whale Rider” or “Rocky,” movies that inspire people, she says – movies that tell a story of overcoming great odds to achieve greatness – mo that resonate in her personal life. vies

“Never, ever, ever, ever give up,” she said. “Never give up the pursuit of your dream.”

And Anne Marie Merline, a CSU sociology professor and long-time Fort Collins Democrat, says she voted for Paccione in the last election season because she felt Paccione was in-tune with what the district needs.

“It’s obvious she stands for more progressive ideals,” Merline said. “More so than Musgrave.”

But Merline, a good friend and neighbor of Kefalas, says she would stand on Kefalas’ side of the court when it comes to competitive sports.

“I’d be rooting for John because he’s the underdog in that situation,” she said, laughing. “I think for it to be fair (Paccione) would have to be in her high heels.”

Standing up to the Challenge

“She’s a hard act to follow,” Kefalas admits, speaking mostly of Paccione’s political game, but adding nothing of her skills inside the paint.

In the short term at least, Paccione has a less serious need to fill – Kefalas’ need for a competitive game of basketball, and he’s calling her out.

“She’s from the Bronx, and I’m from Brooklyn, so we have a little competition,” he said, laughing. “Only I come from the better burrow, but I won’t hold that against her.”

Kefalas did say, however, that the game would have to wait until the state legislative session is over, as he’s got a few plays to make on the House floor.

“I’ll have to warm up a bit. The only exercise I get now is walking up and down the stairs here at the capitol.”

Associate news managing editor J. David McSwane cane be reached at news@collegian.com

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