Inside the Successful Plan to Shake Up Denver City Council

Carlos Valverde, seated at far left, with staffers and supporters of the Colorado Working Families Party.
Carlos Valverde, seated at far left, with staffers and supporters of the Colorado Working Families Party.
The June 4 election of five new members promises to shake up Denver City Council and potentially make life more challenging for Denver Mayor Michael Hancock, who handily won a third term in office.

But while there are many specific factors behind each of the council triumphs, there's also plenty of common ground. Note that three of the victors — District 3's Jamie Torres, District 9's Candi CdeBaca and District 10's Chris Hinds — were endorsed by the Colorado Working Families Party, an affiliate of a national organization whose local approach proved exceedingly successful.

The party's hardly the only progressive group to have thrown its weight behind winning council candidates. Colorado People's Action, another of CdeBaca's major backers, is among numerous outfits that made a significant impact. But CWFP stands out in part because it scored a clean sweep.

"Our committee is very selective," notes Carlos Valverde, the party's state director. "We only endorsed in those three races. So we were pretty lucky."

Perhaps — but CWFP also had a plan that builds upon one described in 2010's The Blueprint: How the Democrats Won Colorado (and Why Republicans Everywhere Should Care). The book outlines how politicos, activists and well-heeled philanthropists such as Pat Stryker, Tim Gill and current Colorado governor Jared Polis combined forces in a way that allowed Dems to take back control of the Colorado legislature circa 2004.

"Our strategy is similar," Valverde allows, "but there's a subtle difference between what The Blueprint prescribed and what we're doing with the Working Families Party. The Blueprint was about winning a particular election and building up progressive and blue infrastructures for a candidate or campaign — and as soon as the campaign was over, that infrastructure left. All those paid canvassers and phone bankers went on to other things, and there was nothing left in that community to hold that candidate accountable."

In contrast, he continues, "what we're doing is building a permanent organization and a movement. Instead of hiring a bunch of part-time canvassers or phone bankers, we're recruiting a base of volunteers that grows with us from election cycle to election cycle. The volunteers are here, and they're becoming well trained in how to do this."

This concept has been refined over the two decades-plus since the Working Families Party's founding in New York state circa 1998. But the Colorado branch has only been in operation for about eighteen months, and it had limited resources for the June 4 runoff. Valverde estimates that "we spent about $110,000 for our three candidates. Although that's a lot of money for us, we know that in the grand scheme of electoral politics, it's chump change. But it was enough to help create these margins. Some of the races were pretty close, and when the margins are slim, we know that every little bit helps."

click to enlarge Graphics celebrating the victories of Denver City Council candidates Chris Hinds, Candi CdeBaca and Jamie Torres. - COLORADO WORKING FAMILIES PARTY
Graphics celebrating the victories of Denver City Council candidates Chris Hinds, Candi CdeBaca and Jamie Torres.
How did the process work for the runoff? Because of campaign finance laws, Valverde explains, "we basically ran two kinds of campaigns. On the one side, we coordinated with the candidates and called our list of thousands of folks who agree with our values, including folks we meet at events around the city. And when we talked to them, we did what we call 'agitate and inspire.' We reminded them that our city is the most expensive non-coastal city in the United States, and that gentrification has completely displaced some black and brown neighborhoods."

The pitch also included criticism of Hancock, including the claim that "in his administration, it's hard to see where the government begins and the lobbyists end," Valverde asserts. However, the CWFP didn't offer an endorsement in the mayor's race for the runoff because, he says, neither Hancock nor challenger Jamie Giellis "rose to the level of ideology we were looking for. And we didn't have a ton of funds, so we decided to focus them on races we thought we could really win."

Next, Valverde goes on, the potential volunteers were informed about CdeBaca, Hinds and Torres — "these amazing candidates who needed their help. We said, 'We need you to knock on doors, send text messages, make phone calls.' And then we trained them about how to talk to voters in an effective way," including the right phrasing to use. For example, "We would suggest that they say, 'We need a city that works for everyone — white, black and brown, and not just wealthy special interests.' That gives people who may not be comfortable talking about race a way to show that this was about working-class folks all working together, across the entire spectrum, and not wealthy interests that have used things like race, misogyny, homophobia and xenophobia to divide working people."

The other half of the equation involved, in Valverde's words, "running an independent campaign," sans any coordination with the candidates. "I was in charge of that for this cycle, and we did mailers, digital ads, text messaging and paid phone banks when we needed to. It was run more like a traditional campaign — not as big as the establishment can run, but we think that because of our grassroots organizational background, our mailers hit a little harder. People typically spend three to five seconds looking at a mailer, but we think they spend double that time looking at ours, because our wording and messaging seems to be a little better. We hope that one day, we can get publicly funded elections and won't have to do that — but in the meantime, we need to do those kind of independent campaigns."

The CWFP isn't looking to take on the Democrats or Republicans, Valverde stresses. "Sometimes when people see the word 'party' in there, they think we're a third political party. But in truth, we're building political party infrastructure. That's our goal: We envision one day having multiple parties that are viable in this country. But we live in the world as it exists today, so we're kind of like the Tea Party of the left. The way the Tea Party made Republicans more conservative, Working Families is pushing Democrats to be more progressive."

The Colorado Working Families Party is hoping to replicate the results of the runoff in "municipal elections all across the state" this November, Valverde says. "In particular, many of our members have become very interested in school board races, which is another place where we have this kind of epic battle between the haves and the have-nots. It cuts across blue lines here, because a lot of education reformers are quietly trying to privatize public education through the use of public dollars for charter schools. And we're also interested in the Aurora City Council election. We're hoping to elect a couple of members to that city council."

From there, Valverde's vision expands. "We started in Colorado with the 2018 primary. We grew a little bit bigger in the 2019 primary and grew larger in the runoff — and we'll continue to grow for the November elections, using this base of grassroots supporters who are part of the community and who won't leave the community. That's how you build a movement. The hope is that by 2020, we'll have an army of these volunteers to make change — including changing who's in the presidential office."