In the June 4 runoff election, Denver Mayor Michael Hancock was elected to a third term even as an unexpected shakeup on Denver City Council resulted in the ouster of three incumbents and the arrival of five new members.
Included among the latter is Candi CdeBaca, whose defeat of District 9 councilman Albus Brooks, widely seen as a potential successor to Hancock, established her as a new Denver political star. Indeed, her victory so enthused supporters that there's already talk of her as a mayoral candidate in 2023 — although not from her.
"That's absolutely putting the cart before the horse," says CdeBaca, who admits that even a position on city council "was not on my radar" until fairly recently. She stresses that "for me to do a good job in this role is paramount, so I'm not focused on four years from now. I'm focused on right now and what we can do."
In our pre-runoff Q&A with CdeBaca, she characterized herself as a "social worker, youth educator, policy expert and fifth-generation native of northeast Denver," not a politician. Her status as an outsider, as well as her forthrightness and disinterest in mincing words, proved to be a big part of her appeal, particularly to those who'd grown cynical about the system.
"I think we really brought in a lot of first-time voters or people who'd stopped voting because they stopped believing in the process or the candidate," she notes. "In my community, we more than doubled voter turnout, and many of the people I sat down with I actually taught to vote, because they'd never voted before. One man was 71 and said he'd never voted because he didn't believe in politics and the candidates who were running. But after our conversation, he said the first vote he would ever cast was for me. So I think the excitement in the community is because they met a candidate who truly represents them."
As CdeBaca sees it, this last description no longer fit Brooks.
According to her, "there were several reasons that had the cumulative impact of me deciding to run. [Brooks] represented my community, and I had been trying to work with him for many years before I made the decision to run against him. I also recognized that his negligence and true ignorance of what was happening in our neighborhoods was going to be extremely problematic if the rumors were true that he was being groomed to be mayor. To be elevated to that level of government without having proven you can represent a single district, that would have been a mistake on our part to allow that to happen."
She adds: "It just came to a point where I couldn't sit back anymore and continue to watch the train wreck. So I jumped in because I know and love our community. It sets the tone for all the surrounding communities in Denver, and I wanted to make sure we didn't elevate someone who hadn't proven he truly represents us."
The incoming Denver City Council members — CdeBaca plus District 1's Amanda Sandoval, District 3's Jamie Torres, District 5's Amanda Sawyer and District 10's Chris Hinds — will take officially assume their council seats on July 15, and political observers are curious to see if they develop into a voting bloc capable of teaming with the likes of District 2's Kevin Flynn, District 6's Paul Kashmann and at-large members Debbie Ortega and Robin Kniech on certain issues.
When asked about her ability to forge alliances, CdeBaca replies, "I don't think it's going to be a challenge at all to get things done, because I operate from a place of evidence and best practices. When smart people are presented with facts and best practices and evidence, it's hard to look away and do something else. And I think that's one of the great things about the new people who are coming onto council. They're all very thoughtful and intelligent."
Still, she doesn't see all the newbies as being indistinguishable from each other.
"I really hope we can all work together," she says, "but I don't think Jamie Torres and Amanda Sandoval represent the same fresh vision and perspective that Chris Hinds and Amanda Sawyer and myself represent. Jamie's been pretty entrenched with city politics from the inside, and Amanda Sandoval as well. So I think it will be interesting, and if we can work together, it could be helpful. It could present an even stronger fight against the status quo."
She's especially excited about collaborating with Hinds, a disability activist who uses a wheelchair. "Chris and I don't agree on everything," she acknowledges. "But my mother was a double amputee and my grandmother was blind, and I worked for a long time on federal compliance for students with disabilities in D.C. So I think Chris brings a perspective that is extremely needed in our city, even beyond the broader politics. I'm so happy to be a part of this new movement to get real representation across social identities."
The progressive nature of CdeBaca's positions on topics such as the urban camping ban, which Brooks originally championed, has already led to typecasting in certain quarters; KNUS talk-show host Peter Boyles recently referred to her as a "hard leftist" before making an allusion to the Mensheviks, a Russian political faction during the run-up to the early-twentieth-century revolution. But she shrugs off efforts to paint her into an ideological corner.
"Denver is very liberal, but we had many people on the right who supported us," she allows. "I think fear-mongering is trickling down from the federal level, and it's really not necessary. I think people in our city, whether they're liberal or conservative, can see that whatever revenue we're generating is not being used for the needs we have, and that we need to be more fiscally responsible. I believe form follows function, and if I do a good job in a nonpartisan role, people will be satisfied."
As for Hancock, she has been consistently critical of his approach to development and plenty more, but she doesn't reject the prospect of cooperation out of hand. "Not a lot of people know this, but Michael was my first boss; I worked for the Urban League when he ran it. I've known Michael all of my life, and at some point, I had a very strong relationship with him. So perhaps that's something we can rebuild to get the work done. But we need to push him in a more leftward direction and to be more accountable. One of the functions of city council is to be that check and balance."
For the runoff race between Hancock and former RiNo Art District director Jamie Giellis, a native of Iowa who moved to Denver in 2006, CdeBaca states frankly that "I think we had two poor options. Neither one was very exciting, neither one really reflected our values, and neither one had a real vision. I think people were more comfortable selecting the devil they knew rather than the devil they didn't know. It was just an easier thing to do for many people. And Jamie was not the right messenger, especially because she was running against an incumbent mayor who was a hometown guy. He knew he had people who would be loyal to him even if he's messed up."
In her view, "We needed somebody who could at least represent a diverse cross-section of our city, and Jamie was not that person. Unfortunately, in the rich lineup of candidates we had in the primary [including Lisa Calderón, Penfield Tate and Kalyn Heffernan], our city sat on the sidelines, and we didn't get a candidate with a vision. We know the majority of our city wanted a new mayor, but when we got down to it, we didn't have the right options. So we went with him."
Not that she sees Hancock's mayoral stint as beyond redemption. "I think he's just experienced the fight of his life," she says, "and he'd be smart to start listening to the community that truly felt ignored by him. He's got an opportunity — four years of an opportunity — to leave a legacy that's meaningful and that he can be proud of. This is his chance to course-correct, as he promised throughout the campaign. And my role is to make sure those promises are fulfilled."
CdeBaca is eager to start tackling top priorities, including affordable housing, government accountability and "what in my campaign I was calling traffic and pollution — but what it really amounts to is ecological sustainability." However, she encourages those who expect her to immediately turn city government upside down to be patient. "I'm definitely someone who sits back and watches what the dynamics are and what relationships are going to emerge. The first task we're going to have when we get in there is to elect a city council president, and I think that election is going to be telling. But I want to sit back and watch what happens and understand my role and what's possible, and then get to work. That's what hitting the ground running looks like to me."
Regarding the future, she doesn't know quite what to expect. "I may find that local government is not movable, and I'm not the kind of person who will spin my wheels for too long. So let's see how these four years go and what we can accomplish and what kind of coalitions we're able to build and go from there."
Until then, CdeBaca says, "I'm really honored to have won this historic race — historic for many reasons. And I want my community to know I'm here to serve them. Whoever wants something done, however they want it done, I consider myself to be very open and accessible and would love to invite them to the table so we can make sure we get things done — and that we do it in a way they want them done."