By Joel Warner
By Michael Roberts
By Joel Warner
By Michael Roberts
By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
Andrea Merida blows through the back door of the sunny conference room at Denver Public Schools' Balarat Outdoor Education Center. She's in a huff. She's spent the past few hours in the car, hunting for the place, which is an hour and a half northwest of Denver and is perched atop a steep, winding dirt road marked only with a tiny sign.
"No directions!" she says, tossing her oversized white handbag on the U-shaped conference table and heading toward the bathroom marked "Girls."
While it's true that Merida and fellow boardmember Jeannie Kaplan, who carpooled, are the last to arrive, they aren't the only ones who got lost. None of the other five boardmembers were given directions, either, and most showed up late, ribbing each other and joking about whether the center is actually a top-secret military testing site.
But Merida is offended by the perceived slight. It's typical of the powers-that-be at DPS to withhold crucial information, she says, on everything from a controversial pension deal, to its policy on "unsatisfactory" teachers, to test scores — and it's one of the reasons she considered not even showing up to last month's day-long retreat.
The official purpose of the get-together was to strengthen the board's "capacity to practice good governance." But there was more to it than that. This board, which has been working together since December, has a reputation for being dysfunctional. The members are divided, with four on one side of many issues, and three, including Merida, on the other. The minority has been pegged as confrontational, ornery and loud — and Merida herself is often the loudest, the orneriest and the most willing to pick a fight.
It's landed her in hot water a couple of times over the past nine months, and now it has put her at the center of a recall attempt led by a community activist.
"She doesn't play well with others," says fellow boardmember Theresa Peña, who is not involved in the recall attempt. "Since she chooses to operate as a lone ranger rather than as [part of] a governing board, she can't achieve the goals she wanted to."
But others love Merida's approach. Rather than a bully, they see her as a bulldog who fights for her constituents and does her research. She asks tough questions, they say, and isn't afraid to ruffle bureaucratic feathers in an attempt to get answers.
"There's that quote: 'Well-behaved women rarely make history.' She reminds me of that quote," says Cindy Lowery, chair of the Democratic Party of Denver. "She's got a lot of guts and she's got a lot of balls, for lack of a better term. She's definitely willing to state her opinion. I respect that."
True to form, Merida is the first at the retreat to interrupt the outside facilitators. She asks a question. Then another. And when one of them posits that the board's role should be to craft district policy and leave the day-to-day work of running the schools — including responding to parent and teacher concerns — to the administration, Merida speaks up again. "This is great in theory," she says. "But the reality is, things are not fair. Things are not equal. For some of us, it's like pulling teeth to get information, and I have no reasonable assurance that's even going to happen.
"So I have no choice but to push."
Merida's tenure on the school board started with a bang.
Elected on November 3, 2009, Merida and two other new members, Nate Easley, and Mary Seawell, were scheduled to be sworn in on the evening of November 30 — after a regularly scheduled school board meeting. But just before 4:30 p.m. that day, Merida walked into DPS headquarters at 900 Grant Street and informed her predecessor, outgoing boardmember Michelle Moss, that she had found a judge to swear her in early.
A few minutes later, Moss, an eight-year veteran of the board, was in tears, and Merida had taken her seat at the dais. It was supposed to have been Moss's last meeting as the representative for southwest Denver, but Merida didn't think it was right to wait.
The meeting, after all, was controversial: The board was scheduled to vote on "turnaround" plans for the city's six lowest-performing schools. In several cases, the plans included closing the schools. In the case of Lake Middle School in northwest Denver, it meant co-locating a branch of the high-performing West Denver Prep charter school in the same building, a plan opposed by several vocal community members. Moss was for it. Merida opposed it. It was one of the issues she had campaigned on.
She also believed that, in addition to being unfair, it was illegal for the district to wait until after the vote to swear in the new boardmembers. State law says new school boardmembers should take office no more than ten days after the election results are certified, which had happened on November 19. That made November 30 day eleven.
"It seemed, among my advisors and me, that there was something funny, something rotten in Denmark," Merida says. She suspected the delay was so DPS could be sure it had enough votes to carry out its plan for Lake.
"So I went and had myself sworn in," Merida says.
That afternoon, she appeared before now-retired Denver District Judge Larry Naves and took the oath of office. Merida says she tried to call Moss before the meeting to tell her, but couldn't reach her. So she arrived early, pulled Moss aside and showed her paperwork certifying that she was now the boardmember for southwest Denver.
Moss was shocked and angry. "I felt totally ambushed," she says. "I thought we had a relationship. I thought she respected me. I didn't see any of that in that action."
In the end, the Lake plan passed anyway, in a four-to-three vote that split the board along now-familiar lines, with Merida, Kaplan and Arturo Jimenez voting no. Even so, Merida says she felt justified. She thinks her presence on the board prevented other members from offering an amendment to the Lake plan that would have closed the beleaguered but beloved school altogether, a scenario she feared would happen.
Several people applauded her. "Andrea, you are a profile in courage," a Lake parent named Janine Vanderburg posted the next day on a blog she started dedicated to saving the middle school's International Baccalaureate program.
"You are our heroine!" posted former state legislator Polly Baca. "With eloquence and fidelity you demonstrated a commitment to doing the 'right thing' in the face of extreme hostility."
Others saw it differently. A Denver Post editorial called Merida's move "shameful," "embarrassing" and "unprofessional." Online newspaper Education News Colorado was even harsher: "Before you pull a nasty, mean-spirited, back-stabbing stunt, make sure something substantially beneficial will result," wrote editor Alan Gottlieb. The fact that the Lake plan passed regardless made Merida look selfish, he added, like "a four-year-old ripping open her Christmas presents on December 23."
Former city councilwoman and political consultant Ramona Martinez says she might have done the same thing. "I'm not going to judge her on what she did that night," Martinez says. "I'm going to wait to see what she does in her whole term."
Merida's supporters say Denver has been too quick to label her as a troublemaker. If people knew the real Merida, they say, they'd think differently.
At 43, Merida is short and stocky, with black hair that falls just past her shoulders and a keen sense of fashion. She's articulate and well-read. Her voice is loud, and so is her laugh. While Merida is often the first to disagree, she's also the first to make a joke. And when she greets people she knows well, even city councilmen and school principals, she kisses them on the cheek. When she says goodbye, she adds, "Love you."
Merida is also proud. She's proud to be Latina. She's proud to be from southwest Denver. And she's proud to have learned the kind of tough lessons that come from hardship, struggle and making mistakes.
Born in Rochester, New York, Merida is the daughter of Latin American immigrants who came to the United States in the 1960s as economic refugees. In the early 1970s, her father, Jorge, came to Denver for a conference on community organizing. At the time, Jorge, a smart man who finished high school at age eleven, worked with local school districts on busing issues and had spent a year helping migrant farm workers who were living in slave-like conditions stand up to their employer.
Although Jorge was supposed to stay in Denver for only two weeks, he liked it so much that he extended his visit to a month. One day, he heard John Denver's "Rocky Mountain High" on the radio. "I thought, 'This is my theme song,'" he says now. A year later, in 1973, he quit his job and moved his family with him. Merida was six years old.
Her parents settled in west Denver and worked two or three jobs each so they could afford to send Merida and her three younger brothers to Catholic school, because they believed religious schools were better than public schools.
Merida was a whiz, having learned to read and write in English and Spanish at age three. But that made her different than other Hispanic kids at school, most of whom didn't speak any Spanish. "There was this culture of suppression," she says. "Anything that seemed too immigrant, anything that wasn't Americanized, was something very negative." Merida spoke Spanish proudly. "That was the identity of my family."
Merida excelled in school and was accepted to the exclusive Bishop Machebeuf High School, then located in Park Hill. She says she was one of three Latino kids in the school. She was also a few years younger than the other freshmen, having started school early in New York. But after tenth grade, Merida decided to leave Machebeuf.
"I remember walking through the halls, going to classes and people purposely sticking their feet out, trying to trip me, calling me 'spic,' and just being really racial and ugly with me," she says. For eleventh grade, she enrolled at Abraham Lincoln High School in her neighborhood in southwest Denver.
Lincoln was much different, both socially and academically, but Merida stuck it out, throwing herself into academics and becoming the editor of the school newspaper, The Lincoln Log. She graduated two years later, at age sixteen.
Throughout her childhood, Merida's father made sure she also got an education in social justice. He took her along to political meetings and union rallies, and she did her homework while he organized. He recalls that at a rally of Coors Brewing Company workers, when Merida was about nine years old, he momentarily lost track of her. When he asked a worker if he'd seen his daughter, the worker pointed to the podium.
There she was, standing on a beer box so she could reach the microphone, about to read a poem she had just written about the struggles and rights of workers. "They all said, 'There's the future president of the union,'" he says.
After graduating from high school, Merida enrolled at Metropolitan State College of Denver to study journalism. But after nearly two years, she dropped out and, to the shock of her family, joined the Army. "The rationale that I gave my dad at the time was that I needed more structure, I needed more discipline," Merida says.
At nineteen, she fell in love with a fellow soldier named Cody, got married and had a son, Devin. The family was then transferred together to a military station in Germany in the mid-1980s, where Merida did electronics work on Army computer systems. Merida left the Army before her husband, who was transferred again, this time to Texas.
Merida and her son went with him, and the three sometimes made trips to Denver to visit her family. On the drive back to Texas on Memorial Day weekend in 1990, Cody fell asleep at the wheel, and their car collided with a semi truck full of cattle. Merida and four-year-old Devin survived, but Cody didn't. At 23, Merida was a single mother.
She moved back to Denver to be closer to her family and to deal with her grief. But she also had to support her small family, so she enrolled at the now-defunct Barnes Business College to study accounting, and later returned to Metro to pursue her passion for music, becoming a classically trained singer.
Over time, Merida pieced together a living. For the past fifteen years, she's worked as a church choir director at two different Catholic churches in Denver. She's also worked as a web designer and social media consultant, and for a Chinese handbag company that scouted American designers.
About three years ago, Merida took a page from her father's book and decided to get involved again. She began volunteering for the House District 2 Democrats and was soon precinct captain for the western half of the district, the same one where she'd grown up. In that role, she tried to boost civic engagement and voter turnout, and spearheaded neighborhood projects such as graffiti cleanup.
"She's really helped get that group organized and a lot more active," Cindy Lowery says. In the past, "at caucuses and assemblies, it was like pulling teeth to get people to attend. Now we have competition for activities and volunteer work in that community."
But Merida wanted to do more. She says she wanted to make sure the historically disenfranchised people of her district, many of them poor and Latino, had the same opportunities as everyone else — and she decided the place to start was the schools.
Her father, who works as a parent liaison for Wyatt-Edison Charter School in the Cole neighborhood, tried to dissuade her from running for school board. "I said, 'Are you crazy?'" he says. He'd seen the way DPS operates — and he wasn't thrilled by it.
But with boardmember Moss's term set to expire, Merida threw her hat into the ring. "I ran because of social justice," she says. "The public education system is the great equalizer. It makes the poor man just as powerful as the rich man. When kids don't get a good education, we cheat them of their right to take advantage of this democracy."
When Merida spoke at forums and in interviews about her vision for DPS, she emphasized accountability and community involvement, and vowed to work to improve neighborhood schools rather than push for more charter schools. Her opponent, Ismael Garcia, was a founding boardmember of the wildly successful West Denver Prep charter school. Garcia didn't return phone calls or e-mails seeking comment for this story.
The media painted the entire race as a battle between so-called reformers, who favored charter schools and "turnarounds," and those, like Merida, who preferred to fix the schools DPS already had rather than start new ones. The election was also marked by the biggest fundraising donations of any school board race in recent history. Merida knew she wouldn't have much money to spend, so she decided to focus on knocking on doors and racking up endorsements from people such as Baca, HD2 representative Mark Ferrandino and even Moss. Garcia raised nearly three times as much as Merida, but the lion's share of the $30,116 she did pull in came from labor unions, including the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, which endorsed her over Garcia.
"She shares our values," says DCTA president Henry Roman. "She has a deeper understanding of teaching, and...she knows it's not just looking at the test scores." Roman was also impressed by Merida's work ethic and knowledge of her district. "She had done an extensive, well-researched study of her district, and she knew the work that needed to be done. She was almost on autopilot. We did very little to help her."
On election day, Merida won by 116 votes.
One of the first things the new DPS school board did was meet with a marriage therapist. The session had been scheduled much earlier, but it garnered more media attention given Merida's controversial swearing-in. According to Education News Colorado, the session appeared to forge closer bonds on the board, a hodgepodge of four old members and three new ones. At one point, while members were discussing the sometimes-disputed role of Superintendent Tom Boasberg, they seemed to come to a momentary understanding — and Merida joked that she wanted to give Boasberg a hug.
But over the next several months, that didn't happen. Through her votes and her website and in interviews, Merida increasingly questioned and criticized the decisions of district officials. She also accused them of withholding information from her. ("This is simply not true," says DPS spokesman Mike Vaughn. "We work very hard to respond to all board inquiries and provide answers to all boardmembers.")
Meanwhile, the divide on the board — with Merida, Kaplan and Jimenez on one side and Peña, Easley, Seawell and Bruce Hoyt on the other — deepened.
On January 11, Merida and Jimenez voted against supporting the state's first Race to the Top application, for $377 million in federal education reform grant money. Merida doesn't like Race to the Top; she sees it as a way for the federal government to "hold cash-strapped school districts over the barrel." But in voting no, she also criticized DPS for not gathering enough input from parents before asking boardmembers to support the application.
In February, she disagreed with Boasberg's proposal to limit the "forced placement" of veteran DPS teachers in low-performing schools, arguing instead that the entire DPS teacher-evaluation process was flawed. She introduced a resolution that would have required the district to come up with a new process in ninety days, but retracted it after Peña issued an amendment to Merida's resolution that would have negated it.
In March, she hit "reply all" to an e-mailed DPS press release about how twice as many students had signed up for the new sixth-grade options at Lake Middle School than the number of sixth-graders who currently attended school there. The press release hailed the "turnaround" at Lake, but Merida wanted to make sure the media didn't give all the credit to DPS. "Let's be clear that the reason these numbers are strong is because of the intense grassroots organizing of the Lake IB community," she wrote.
That same month, she, Kaplan and Jimenez asked DPS for more information about a complicated 2008 financial deal that refinanced its pension debt.
Kaplan wouldn't comment for this story, despite numerous calls and e-mails; neither would Jimenez. But Kaplan had been asking about the deal since 2008 because she said she feared it was a financial trap that was causing the district to lose tens of millions of dollars.
Crafted and pitched by former DPS superintendent and current U.S. Senate candidate Michael Bennet and Boasberg, who served as DPS's chief operating officer, the deal was supposed to fully fund the district's pension fund, which had a shortfall of about $400 million at the time. It involved putting up some DPS school buildings as collateral and issuing what are called Pension Certificates of Participation, or PCOPS.
But instead of issuing fixed-rate debt, DPS decided to issue variable-rate PCOPS coupled with what's known as an interest rate swap. When the financial market crashed and interest rates plummeted, DPS wound up paying $64.4 million in payments and fees in 2009. Boasberg has argued that the payment was a wash. If the district hadn't refinanced its pension debt, it would have ended up paying $64 million in costs anyway, he says. Plus, he claims the deal will save money in the future and has already saved the district more than $20 million compared to previous pension obligations — which he says has allowed it to avoid the teacher layoffs and furlough days other districts have endured.
Boasberg declined to be interviewed for this story.
But Boasberg's math doesn't jibe with the calculations done by Kaplan, Jimenez and Merida, who have continued to push for more numbers, more spreadsheets and, most recently, an independent financial advisor for the board.
Merida doesn't think Boasberg and Bennet set out to lose money when they crafted the deal. But she does think that because both men have a financial background — Bennet formerly worked for the Anschutz Investment Company and Boasberg was in acquisitions at Level 3 Communications — the two were used to taking financial risks. You can't do that with public money, she says. Even though the deal, which extends for thirty years, may prove beneficial in the end, she says, "we're losing money on the deal right now." In her view, DPS should shift to a "straight-up fixed-rate refinance."
But first, she wants Boasberg and DPS to provide the answers that she, Kaplan and Jimenez have been after. "We're going to fight. It's going to be war," she says.
In the end, Merida got more war than she bargained for.
On July 21, she wrote an op-ed in the Post blasting Bennet and fellow boardmember Peña over comments they had made about local neighborhoods.
At that point, it was well known that Merida was a supporter of Bennet's Democratic primary opponent, Andrew Romanoff. So were Kaplan and Jimenez. It was also well known that Peña volunteered as Bennet's campaign treasurer, that Seawell, Easley and Hoyt supported him and that Boasberg was his lifelong friend and political ally.
What wasn't known was that Merida had been working for the Romanoff campaign for two months, earning $2,500 a month as a consultant on issues such as education and immigration. Merida says she also helped the campaign translate documents from English to Spanish and did some field organizing.
That information came out two days later, setting off a firestorm of controversy. Moss called Merida's position with Romanoff a "secret arrangement" that "suggests she is not interested in serving our community so much as in advancing her own financial interests and those of her political patrons." Romanoff did not return e-mails or calls placed to his staff for this story.
All of a sudden, Merida had given her opponents invaluable ammunition. Her questions about the pension fund could now be seen as nothing more than political posturing, perfectly timed at the height of a heated primary battle.
Merida insists that wasn't the case. She chalks up the non-disclosure of her paid position to political naiveté and says she never let her position influence her work with DPS. Still, a few days after the story broke, she resigned from the campaign.
"I don't want anybody to think for a second that I don't take my job [as a school board member] seriously," she says. "They elected me to do something for the kids."
It's back-to-school night at Castro Elementary School, 845 South Lowell Boulevard, a bright, handsome building in a working-class neighborhood in southwest Denver. Merida, dressed in black suit pants, a white suit jacket and black heels, is wandering through the busy hallways. The school is swarming with excited kids and their parents and grandparents, many of whom are pushing baby strollers. Most of the families speak either Spanish or Vietnamese; at Castro, more than 90 percent of the students are minorities, and more than 60 percent are English-language learners.
Merida stops into a kindergarten classroom that is momentarily empty save for the fresh-faced teacher. "Hi, I'm Andrea Merida, your school board representative," she says, then starts asking questions about the ethnic makeup of the incoming class.
"Now, do you speak Spanish?" she asks. The teacher, who is white, says no.
Merida's question, which she asks several more teachers that night, epitomizes what some say is her greatest strength: her tireless advocacy for what she thinks is best for the children of her district, many of whom are poor and come from homes where English isn't the primary language.
"Andrea represents her constituency," says Denver City Council member Paul Lopez, who represents some of the same neighborhoods. "She's very passionate about what she fights for. These are schools on the brink of going into the red. In advocating for those families, you have to be bold."
At board meetings, Merida often asks questions about how the district's policies will affect ELL students, which is DPS's acronym for English-language learners. Though she's not alone — it's a major concern for DPS, where 31 percent of students fit that criterion, and questions about it are common — some say she's especially in touch with the issues affecting those families.
"She's great with our Spanish-speaking parents," says Amber Tafoya, an attorney and former candidate for state representative in House District 4. Whenever Tafoya heard a complaint or concern about DPS while going door-to-door during her recent primary campaign, she referred it to Merida, who she says always responded promptly.
Since the DPS school year started on August 19, Merida has attended several back-to-school nights at schools in southwest Denver, like Castro, Denison Montessori and the teacher-led Math and Science Leadership Academy. She's also dropped by West Denver Prep's Harvey Park campus, where she observed snippets of several classroom lessons with principal Josh Smith. After watching a teacher mispronounce a Hispanic student's name, Merida turned to Smith. "Are some teachers just having a hard time pronouncing some names?" she asked. "It's 'Heh-rarr-doh.' Not 'Jih-rar-doh.'"
Merida keeps a detailed calendar of her school visits on her website. In fact, she's the only boardmember with an active website. She uses it to recap board meetings and offer her opinions on DPS goings-on. Sometimes she issues calls to action there, as well: In January, she posted Boasberg's e-mail address and phone number and encouraged taxpayers to ask why 45 DPS executives received $344,565 in bonuses last year.
Merida also uses Facebook and Twitter, often tweeting updates from the board's meeting room. She goes to meetings equipped with a laptop and two BlackBerries — a personal one and a DPS one.
She's also accessible in person. On October 4, Merida will host a town hall meeting at John F. Kennedy High School for "an open discussion about district finances, goals for the 2010-2011 school year, board dynamics...and whatever question YOU have."
"Whenever a reformer comes into DPS and tries to make a difference, they are chastised because the cliques have been formed," her father points out. "And the cliques are a bunch of 'yes' people. Somebody like my daughter, like Jeannie Kaplan, like Arturo Jimenez, they do understand, they do research. They don't just swallow what they're given."
But Merida's critics — and even some of her friends — say Merida's problem isn't what she does, but how she does it. "She is a very strong person. She fights for what she cares about," says Ferrandino, who represents Merida's district and for whom Merida worked as an aide this past legislative session. "But I think sometimes she can come across as abrasive and strong-willed."
"I'm not sure it's Andrea's advocacy for southwest Denver that's getting her in trouble," says Moss. "It's that sometimes her verbage comes off as very negative about the DPS administration, about anything previous boards have done, about anything that looks like 'reform.' It's made it difficult for her to work within the system to get what she wants done."
Some of her fellow boardmembers agree. "She's a smart lady. If she wanted to ask the hard questions, I'm sure she could," says Peña. "But asking the hard questions is not the same as asking the gotcha questions."
At meetings, Merida is prone to interrupting and raising her voice. When someone says something she disagrees with, she shakes her head or mutters under her breath. She's quick to draw battle lines, publicly referring to boardmembers Peña, Seawell, Easley and Hoyt as "the other side."
Seawell says it can be challenging to work with Merida because she jumps to conclusions. "If she has a gut feeling on something, it becomes fact for her," Seawell says. "But sometimes life is illogical and counterintuitive, and we can't govern that way." On the other hand, Seawell says, she appreciates Merida's willingness to communicate — even if her communications can sometimes be harsh. "She is the one person on this board who will always call me back, will always answer the phone. She will not duck and cover. At the end of the day, that is such a relief. It makes it that much less complicated."
Sabrina Stevens Shupe is thankful that Merida is such a fighter. Shupe was one of several non-tenured DPS teachers out of 189 up for dismissal, or "non-renewal," in May whom Merida stood up for and voted to keep. Shupe taught at Oakland Elementary School in Montbello for two years. Eager and headstrong, Shupe says she was treated like a star at first; her lessons were videotaped to use in professional development sessions for other teachers, and her classroom was used for demonstrations. She says she got nothing but glowing reviews from her principal — until she started questioning some of the extra testing and interventions the principal was requiring teachers to do.
When Shupe tried to resign, her principal moved to non-renew her instead. In DPS, teachers are considered "probationary" for their first three years and can be non-renewed for any number of reasons if administrators see fit. But Shupe didn't think her principal had a valid reason other than retaliation.
Boardmembers have the final say, and Shupe says she e-mailed all of them a packet of information that included excellent evaluations from her principal, other good feedback she'd gotten and a letter describing what had happened. The union suggested she also contact Easley, who represents Montbello, and Merida, who wasn't connected to the case at all but who the union said was known to ask questions when others wouldn't.
Merida was the only boardmember who responded, Shupe says. "What struck me about her is she didn't have to stand up for me, but she did because she saw that something was wrong," Shupe says.
Merida insisted to her fellow boardmembers that a handful of teachers, including Shupe, deserved a closer look. Easley, on the other hand, said it was "dumbfounding" to think the board should question decisions made by administrators after a long process. Merida called Easley's view "lazy."
In the end, Shupe and the 188 other teachers on the chopping block were non-renewed anyway. But Shupe appreciates that Merida tried.
"Whatever these people want to say about her, she's standing up for these important things," Shupe says. "She's speaking uncomfortable truths. And I don't think we get to hate on people because they're saying things that make us uncomfortable."
But that hasn't stopped some people from trying.
On September 7, community activist Jose Silva dropped off a petition at the Denver Elections Division to initiate the process of recalling Merida from the board. As grounds, it cited "unethical conduct," "unbecoming behavior" and "failure to perform duties." Merida's main offense, according to the petition, was failing to disclose that she was a paid Romanoff staffer while serving on the board.
"This recall is based on the ethics and moral behavior of Ms. Merida and is not in any way, shape or form a witch hunt or personal vendetta," read a letter from the petitioners.
But the reasons the petitioners gave Westword make it seem like it might indeed be personal. The petition is signed by three voters from District 2, Merida's district. One of them, Anita Banuelos, says she used to be friends — or at least Facebook friends — with Merida. In fact, Banuelos says she admired Merida's work with the Democratic Party and even looked up to her. "I wanted her to be my mentor," Banuelos says.
But when she heard about the Romanoff story, she felt "personally heartbroken." And she said as much when Silva, a friend, called to ask her opinion. Banuelos says she wasn't involved with the petition, though Silva mentioned it to her.
What pushed Banuelos to become involved, she says, was a pair of Facebook exchanges she had with Merida and Merida's husband. (She is remarried.) Banuelos says they accused her of being involved with the recall petition. After defending herself more than once, Banuelos says she decided to sign on to the petition.
Silva had been looking into recalling Merida for months. He says he'd heard from relatives and friends in southwest Denver who said they were unhappy with her. "She continues to be more divisive," Silva says.
But Silva couldn't do anything about it because he doesn't live in District 2. He lives in District 5, where he ran unsuccessfully in the most recent Democratic primary for a House seat. Silva lost to Crisanta Duran, a former union lawyer whom Merida supported. When, during the campaign, Silva posted on Facebook allegations that Duran and her family had mishandled union money, Merida defended her, he says.
Merida thinks that's what set Silva off. She says she suspects he started the petition because she didn't endorse him. "I feel like it's kind of retaliatory," she says. Silva, she says, is "always looking for a project. There are plenty of community organizations where he can put his effort to better use."
Silva denies it — sort of. "This has nothing to do with her not choosing me," he says. If anything, he says, it goes back to Merida's defense of Duran on Facebook. "She put herself on notice when she decided to defend somebody else's actions that seem to be pretty unethical, and then at that point decided to make a series of her own gaffes."
On September 9, the Denver Elections Division rejected the petition on the grounds that it wasn't in the proper format. Silva reformatted it and submitted it again the next day. But last week, the division rejected it again, citing typos and legal errors.
Silva and Banuelos have not submitted the petition a third time, though they are considering doing so.
Merida isn't too worried. "I'm really focused on the kids in my district," she says.
As for whether she's bothered that some people don't like her, Merida says no. What hurts, she says, is that some people don't understand what she's trying to do.
"It is controversial, the way I do some things," she says. "But we are losing our democracy, and anybody who is going to go along to get along is doing nothing more than leading that on. The kids in my district need somebody to stand up for them. So I'm okay with having to take a few pot shots at me and [having people] plotting against me, because at the end of the day, I know what I'm wanting to do and what I'm doing."