It only takes a few seconds of conversation with Scott Durrah to notice that he's not from Denver. The Massachusetts native speaks with a refreshingly thick East Coast accent, but he's been calling northwest Denver home for nearly fifteen years.
In that time, Durrah and his wife, Wanda James, have made themselves known in more than one prominent circle, opening businesses in the restaurant and cannabis industries while staying involved in local activism efforts around cannabis reform and racial minority support. Now he wants to help run the neighborhood, putting his brimmed hat in the ring for Denver City Council's open District 1 seat in May's municipal election.
"I've had five businesses in my district, I have a house in my district, and I've employed over 200 people. I've had dreams in my district, but I've also felt the pains that my neighbors and friends are experiencing here," Durrah says. "For my community and district, especially the 80211 zip code, we've been booming as one of the most developed zip codes in the city. But nobody's taking our input."
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A Marine veteran and well-known chef for both his cannabis-infused and "normal" dishes, Durrah hadn't been in the public eye as much as his wife, who worked on a finance committee for former president Barack Obama and managed previous political campaigns for Governor Jared Polis. That all changed one night after Durrah went to bed. "It's been sitting in my head for the last few months," he says of running for council. "When I woke up Wanda and told her, she thought it was a dream."
The couple believes their combination of entrepreneurial experience and political expertise will make for a formidable campaign. They currently own a dispensary in the district, Simply Pure, having sold their restaurant in the area, Jezebel's Southern Bistro, two years ago. After seeing how running on cannabis reform impacted Polis's gubernatorial campaign, James is confident that Durrah's profile within Denver's pot community will raise his chances in a crowded field.
"I think that whole idea behind this race and Scott's candidacy is looking at the new power of pot. The fact that we've elected our new 'pot governor,' according to the New York Times...that bodes well for us and this growing industry," James says. "Scott just exemplifies what this industry is all about."
Durrah also has development experience in Los Angeles and New York, and he says he wants to put it use. About a year ago, he and James had issues with construction closing down the street on which their dispensary is located, and questioned the validity of the developer's permits to do so. James believes such closures have led to the departure of several businesses in the area and decreased foot traffic, and she hasn't been quiet about it.
"It's all of her — her expertise and experience — that I value. I've worked with her on just about all of her campaigns," Durrah says. "We're a team, and we've always been a team. We have similar goals and the same principles."
The campaign will focus on over-development, public infrastructure, transportation, homelessness and cannabis reform, among other issues, according to Durrah. Running on the platform of keeping developers accountable within the Berkeley, Highland and Sunnyside neighborhoods — communities that have seen a rush of new apartments, condos and commercial development over the past several years — he says he wants to create a rent-to-own program for long-term residents and hold monthly announcements about upcoming construction obstacles in public, such as closed roads and sidewalks.
"We need to have a way for these developers to communicate to us. It's not our burden to go to all of these public meetings after work at 6:30 p.m. There should be a way for them to communicate to us, and we should be able to police this and have input on how these projects are done," he says.
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Current District 1 council rep Rafael Espinoza also campaigned on the housing issue in 2015, but he suspended his 2019 run in December in order to become an affordable-housing activist. In a public letter, Espinoza cited his frustration with the lack of accountability that Denver developers face. "And while we have accomplished much in four years, the speed at which self-serving developers are able to dismantle generations of community planning, growth, and relationships cannot afford the snail’s pace of legislative rule making when it's not a mayoral priority," his letter reads.
Durrah believes Espinoza "tried as hard as he could," and says he is the best person to "carry the torch" now that the incumbent councilman has decided he won't seek re-election.
The new candidate is already facing a long list of contenders in District 1: Victoria Aguilar, Raven Porteous, David Sabados, Michael Somma, Amanda Sandoval, Sabrina D’Agosta and Prajwal Kulkarni have all announced that they're running for the seat.
But none of them will get a green boost like Durrah, according to his wife. "We're looking forward to tremendous fundraisers from the cannabis community," James says. "We're also looking forward to not just having people who support cannabis on the city council, but someone who actually grew it."