Dispensary owner Wanda James has won a close primary race for a seat on the University of Colorado Board of Regents.
James was named the winning Democratic candidate for the District 1 seat late on June 30 after a back-and-forth ballot battle with attorney Johnnie Nguyen, who'd originally had a small edge on election night. As tens of thousands of more votes came in, though, James took over and held on to a slight lead.
The owner of Denver dispensary Simply Pure, as well as a marijuana business consulting firm, James was one of the first licensed Black business owners in Colorado's marijuana industry. She has political roots, too: James managed a congressional campaign for Governor Jared Polis in 2006 before working on Barack Obama's National Finance Committee in his run for president. She also led a 2019 Denver City Council bid for her husband, Scott Durrah, and has maintained an active role in state politics and social equity interests in Colorado's marijuana industry.
But this was the first time she had run for office. A 1986 graduate of the University of Colorado Boulder, James says that her biggest objectives are students' rights and diversity among the faculty and Board of Regents, citing data that shows Black students made up just over 2 percent of CU Boulder's enrollment in 2021. According to James, having a more diverse Board of Regents could have a trickle-down effect.
"When you have Black people on the board and at the table, you can do more to make that experience welcoming. It's not perfect, but it has been 38 years since a Black woman was on the Board of Regents," James says. "When people think of CU, they immediately go to Boulder, but this is a billion-dollar budget we deal with. We're the third-largest employer in the state of Colorado and one of the largest providers of Medicare."
Constitutionally charged with general supervision of the University of Colorado and its funding and appropriations, the Board of Regents oversees tuition pricing as well as a $5.5 billion annual budget that covers CU Boulder as well as the University of Colorado Denver, University of Colorado Colorado Springs, University of Colorado- Anschutz Medical Campus and Children's Hospital Colorado.
At a school where over 41 percent of students come from families in the top 10 percent income category, James wants all students to feel the same inspirational feelings she did at CU.
"I was the first member of my famiy to graduate. In 1981, I remember standing at the Hall of Regents as a freshman. I didn't know anything about what was there and all of the possibilities of life. You could be an activist, marketing director or anything you want to be. College is where you meet people who change your trajectory. Not just students who you're friends with, but amazing mentors, like [former longtime CU professors] Dr. Bill King and [Navy] Commander Greg Young," James recalls. "That's why these seats are so important for women and people of color."
Nguyen, a second-generation Vietnamese-American, says he's excited to see James "continue to be the inspiration that she has been for so many people of color, including myself." Nguyen says he's going to focus on his legal career and his one-year-old niece for now, and is still unsure about running for office again.
"I’ve learned to live life without regret and view any setbacks as just another lesson for growth. We’ve run a thorough campaign and left no stones unturned. I had amazing support from friends, family, volunteers, [elected officials] and organizations. We lost to a very worthwhile and impressive opponent who I have very much to learn from," Nguyen adds. "I just know that my passion in helping first-generation students achieve the American dream remains unchanged."
If elected in November, James would be the first Black member of the CU Board of Regents since Joe Neguse, who is now a U.S. Representative for Colorado representing CD2. While James says she's focused on this upcoming election, she isn't ruling out following a path similar to that of Neguse if the opportunity presents itself.
"I don't want to be coy, but I've never thought about running for office in Colorado until this came up, and I have honestly not thought past this election," she says. "It's exciting to think about possibilities, it really is, but this is a six-year term."
Neguse, who has endorsed James's campaign, issued a statement after her primary election victory.
"Wanda builds on the legacy of the many African-American leaders who have come before her, including Rachel Noel, the first and only Black woman to have served on the CU Board of Regents forty years ago,"
Neguse says. "I know that Wanda will bring a passion and a breadth of experience to the Board of Regents that will benefit our students and universities across Colorado, and as a former CU Regent, I am proud to support her in her race."
James will now face Republican Amy Naes, who ran unopposed.