Sep 23, 2019

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Meet Bob Connelly, Esq: A Champion of Economic Justice

by | Sep 23, 2019

For an attorney who has given so much of his life and work to the causes of social and economic justice, Bob Connelly’s career took several unusual — and often fruitful — detours. Connelly’s experience, passion and dedication are what distinguish him as a true Champion of Economic Justice – an honor that he’ll accept during Colorado Center on Law and Policy’s annual Pathways from Poverty Breakfast on Oct. 17.

A graduate of Thomas Jefferson High School in southeast Denver, Connelly earned his bachelor’s degree from Dartmouth College in 1969 before becoming the first-ever recipient of an Honors Degree in Economic History from London School of Economics. In 1974, he completed his Juris Doctorate at Columbia School of Law.

“I grew up as a middle-class kid from south Denver in a house of Eisenhower Republicans,” he said. “It was only when I went away to college and broadened my horizons that I developed a social awareness.”

Influenced by the social movements of the 1960s, Connelly said he went to law school “fully intending” to become a civil rights lawyer. Between his first and second year in law school, he worked for a legal services organization in Harlem. After his second year, he provided research assistance for civil rights lawyers in Manhattan. As a staff attorney for the Atlanta Legal Aid Society, his work emphasized litigation in housing and education law, including trial work at the federal level and appellate work at both the state and federal levels.

Connelly chose the road less traveled among attorneys who gravitate towards civil rights and legal aid work and joined a large law firm in Atlanta — with the hypothesis that it would sharpen his litigation skills to serve his convictions.

“It worked out as I thought,” he said. “After three years, I feel I had better-developed litigation skills than legal-service lawyers at the Atlanta Legal Aid Society who had practiced for far longer. I did line legal work on evictions and small-loan defenses, but also a lot of impact work.”

He returned to the big law firm for “a variety of personal reasons” before taking a sabbatical with his wife and traveling to India, Sri Lanka, Bhutan, Myanmar, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, China, Japan, Korea and Taiwan.

“One can’t get enough experience with other people from other cultures to help inform how you live your life, how other people live and respect for other cultures,” he said.

Returning to work in the western U.S. in 1985, Connelly went on to head the litigation department at the firm of Isaacson, Rosenbaum, Woods, Levy & Snow in Denver. He was recruited by US West – then the Rocky Mountain region’s dominant phone and telecommunications company — in 1988. At US West, Connelly held a variety of positions, including Chief Counsel of Colorado and Wyoming, Corporate Counsel in London and eventually Senior Vice President of Law and Deputy General Counsel. His reporting groups had more than 500 employees and total expense budgets of approximately $90 million.

After a brief stint as a “retired private investor” when US West merged with Qwest Communications International Inc., Connelly returned to private practice where he ended up getting a lot of business from the highly regulated telecommunications arena. He was again recruited by the phone company and served at Vice President and Deputy General Counsel for Qwest (which was acquired by CenturyLink) before making a – seemingly permanent – attempt at retirement and private investing in 2007.

But Connelly’s retirement is far from retiring. He’s been actively involved in a number of nonprofit boards and startups, including the ACLU, Denver Botanic Gardens, the Alliance to Lead Impact in Global Human Trafficking and many more.

After serving on the ACLU’s board during an often-turbulent leadership and organizational transition, Connelly said he was ready for more “hands-on stuff” when he approached CCLP about volunteering his skills and expertise to the organization.

“The primary reason I sought out CCLP was that I have very strong feelings about how economics and material well-being – or lack of material well-being – affect the way that people live their lives,” he said. “I also have very strong feelings about inequity in this country in terms of income and wealth. Given what CCLP’s mandate was – as I understood it – I felt it was an organization I’d like to help any way that I could.”

For example, Connelly helped CCLP by researching the use of the unclaimed property trust fund to give the state the ability to fund affordable housing – a policy that saw the light of day earlier this year when House Bill 1322 was passed into law. He also served as one of CCLP’s legal representative in the acquisition of the nonprofit Rocky Mountain Health Plans by the for-profit United HealthCare to ensure the fair-market value of the nonprofit continues to serve communities in need.

Last year, he was called to help CCLP with legislation in reforming wage-garnishment laws that essentially drove Colorado debtors deeper into debt. He worked with a number of community groups in drafting 2019’s House Bill 1189. The legislation requires more-timely notice of garnishment and will help Coloradans whose wages are garnished to meet their household needs while paying their debts. Passed with bipartisan support and signed by Gov. Jared Polis earlier this year, Connelly will continue to work to ensure that the rules are consistent with the new state statute.

Moving forward, Connelly may help CCLP develop other consumer-friendly policies in the near future. He’s chairing the CCLP litigation working group among other things. Combined with his other interests in traveling, bicycle racing, stair-climb racing, skiing, reading and art and book collecting, it’s difficult to fathom how Connelly is “retired” by any stretch of the imagination.

We at CCLP are grateful that Connelly has generously contributed his significant intellect, time, energy and other resources to the cause of making Colorado a more equitable and just state. For those and other reasons, we’re honored to bestow upon him the Champion of Economic Justice Award.

Join us in celebrating Bob Connelly’s accomplishments and the work of Colorado Rep. Dominique Jackson during the Pathways from Poverty Breakfast, Oct. 17. The event will also feature a keynote from author and law professor Mehrsa Baradaran, Esq. on the racial wealth gap. Seating is limited, so RSVP now.

– By Bob Mook

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