After U.S. Representative Ed Perlmutter revealed on January 10 that he would not be running for reelection
in Colorado's 7th Congressional District, fellow Democrat Brittany Pettersen was among the first public officials to pay tribute to his service — and the next morning, the state senator announced that she was a candidate to fill his seat.
A little hesitancy would have been understandable. Back in 2017, Perlmutter announced that he would forgo a reelection bid the next year in order to run for governor
, prompting Pettersen and several other prominent hopefuls to enter the race for the CD7 office. When Perlmutter changed his mind
a few months later, in the face of a well-funded gubernatorial campaign mounted by eventual winner Jared Polis
, he initially said he still wouldn't seek to keep his seat, only to reverse course again shortly thereafter
— a decision that prompted Pettersen to pull the plug on her own candidacy.
Today, Pettersen, the first Dem to join the fray (Republicans Erik Aadland and Laurel Imer had previously declared), insists that she feels no resentment over Perlmutter's shifts. "I think Ed wasn't done then," she says. "He was stepping up to run for governor, and when he ultimately decided he was not ready to step down, I understood that. It just wasn't his time yet. But ultimately, five years later, he decided it was
time, and I immediately announced and moved forward quickly. I'm not worried that anything is going to change, and I'm excited to have the opportunity to run for the seat."
Pettersen stresses that she's not the kind of politician who's "independently wealthy, with a lot of money. I'm a regular person," albeit one with a dramatic personal story. She was among four kids raised in Lakewood by working-class parents; her father, Brent, and mother, Stacy, earned their living as a construction contractor and a hairstylist. But in 1987, when Pettersen was six years old, she notes that "my mom hurt her back and was overprescribed opioids, like so many people in the ’80s. The effects have continued to devastate the U.S. economy and families across the country, and my mom was one of those people. She struggled with a severe opioid addiction that led to heroin use."
It wasn't until 2017 that Stacy finally got healthy, and she's doing well today. But Pettersen knows how fortunate she is to have escaped a similar fate. "It is highly unlikely for someone with my circumstances to not go on that same path, let alone to have a chance to run for the United States Congress," she says. "I'm living proof of what's possible."
Pettersen is the first member of her family to graduate from high school (Chatfield, in southwestern Jefferson County) and college (Metropolitan State University of Denver), and in 2012, she was elected to the Colorado House. Six years later, she moved to the state Senate, where she currently serves as chair of the finance committee and vice chair of the transportation and energy panel. Among her legislative accomplishments are the 2019 Equal Pay for Equal Work Act
and the same year's bill creating Extreme Risk Protection Orders
intended to restrict access to guns for individuals deemed a danger to themselves or others.
Speculation about why Perlmutter called it quits tends to center on changes to the boundaries of CD7 established during last year's redistricting process
, including the addition of several conservative rural counties that will make victory for a Democrat more challenging. But Pettersen wasn't dissuaded.
"I've spent my entire life in this district," she says. "I grew up in Jefferson County, and some of the new parts of the district are places I grew up visiting." Just as important, she adds, is that "many of the issues facing people in Jefferson County are also facing folks in these new areas. We need to work together, and fundamentally, I believe people want someone to focus on solving problems and not on partisan rhetoric and headlines."
Brittany Pettersen with husband Ian Silverii and their son, Davis.
Colorado's legislature has a much better reputation for bipartisanship than does Congress, as Pettersen acknowledges: "I feel the same frustration that most people do about the dysfunction in Washington. I am very aware of the problems that exist at the national level, and that's why we need candidates who are going to fight for regular people to step up. And Colorado has been a leader on so many things, including our ability to work in a bipartisan way to solve problems facing our state. There are many people whom I might disagree with on most things, but we have come together on significant and impactful policies. These are people I have friendships with because we treat each other with mutual respect. That's the kind of leadership I'll bring to Washington."
The topics she hopes to tackle include climate change and behavioral health. For instance, she says she wants to make sure that people across the country "who are struggling with substance-use disorders have access to the care they need." But the items atop her list generally relate to constituents' pocketbooks. "We're going into the third year of the pandemic," she notes, "and people across Colorado and this district want us to focus on the economy and recovering. People are struggling to afford to buy milk at the store, they're unable to afford housing, to send their kids to college, to save for retirement. So we need to make sure we are impacting people's lives now. These are policy failures that have accumulated over decades of, unfortunately, powerful special interests being the priority in Washington, and not regular people."
Pettersen includes her family in this last group. She's married to Ian Silverii, the former chief of staff for the Colorado House Democrats and onetime executive director for ProgressNow Colorado. Silverii currently runs his own firm, the Bighorn Company, and contributes columns to the Denver Post
. Together, they're the parents of Davis, who turns two on January 19. "Davis is the best thing that's happened to me," Pettersen emphasizes. "He's more adorable and more fun by the day — and this is about his future."
She knows that making that future brighter won't be easy. "We are facing systemic issues, and we haven't had the ability to solve these problems because of the gridlock in Washington and the inability of people to come together, roll up their sleeves and do the job they were elected to do — like Ed Perlmutter did," she says. "He's a public servant who never forgot why he ran for office in the first place and who he is. He's deeply connected to the community and to the people he represents. He has big shoes to fill, but I hope I can. I will always think of him and try to lead by his example."