Today, July 15, will mark the swearing-in of five new Denver City Council members elected as part of a surprising vote that resulted in the ouster of three incumbents, including District 9's Albus Brooks, who was widely seen as the mayoral heir apparent to the recently re-elected Michael Hancock.
Prominent among the fresh faces is Candi CdeBaca, whose victory over Brooks established her as a new Denver political star. But she won't be going it alone. Joining her will be Lisa Calderón, the activist and educator who finished third to Hancock during the Denver mayoral contest in May. Calderón has agreed to serve as CdeBaca's chief of staff in what has the potential to be one of the most powerful progressive partnerships in recent city history.
"Candi and I are both Denver natives, and we've seen the changes the city has gone through over our lifetime," Calderón says. "We've always taken more of a community activism and organizing approach to changing the way that city government works. So we're going to bring that spirit into the kind of work we do, but also understand that we have a lot to learn in the process."
Calderón narrowly missed qualifying for the June runoff, but she was a prominent presence in the race's second phase anyhow because she combined forces with fellow candidate Penfield Tate by way of endorsing the silver medalist, former RiNo Art District president Jamie Giellis.
During the May 14 press conference at which she and Tate formally announced the coalition, Calderón denied that she'd been promised a role in a possible Giellis administration and said her dream job was actually to serve as a dean at a university. But when CdeBaca came calling, any resistance to an administrative city government gig melted away.
"We were talking after Candi won her race," Calderón notes, "and we thought, 'This is a no-brainer.' It just made sense for us to work together."
Politically, Calderón points out, the pair's "trajectories kind of came about together. You'll remember the Ink! Coffee controversy," triggered in November 2017 when the retailer faced protests over a supposedly humorous sign reading "Happily Gentrifying the Neighborhood Since 2014" that was displayed at its 2851 Larimer Street location. "That's where a lot of our activism started as far as wanting to bring about political change. And since I live in District 9, we've worked closely together on issues such as gentrification and I-70 expansion and the health impacts around that."
Their kinship doesn't end there. According to Calderón, "Our values are really in sync in how we look at wealth, racial and gender inequities, as well as the way we see this administration in terms of over-development and the lack of getting community input."
Another thing Calderón and CdeBaca have in common is the way they're portrayed by political opponents as inflexible ideologues whose alleged unwillingness to compromise will make it difficult for them to make practical gains. In an interview with Westword last month, CdeBaca forcefully rejected this thesis, saying, "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."
For her part, Calderón sees a racial component in such criticism. "I push back on the narrative that strong, vocal women of color can't get along with others. Not only do Candi and I have a background as organizers, but we also have a public-policy background. We've run organizations, we've been educators — and that whole spectrum of experiences often gets dismissed when you see us being vocal and taking on oppressive authority."
She adds, "We know how to work effectively with different groups. I did it working with law enforcement and revising use-of-force policies. You have to sit down at the table even with those you most disagree with, and Candi and I have a long history of doing that. People want to label us as radicals, but radical means 'going to the root of.' So we are going to the root of problems, so we can create comprehensive solutions."
When asked about the topics CdeBaca plans to tackle first, Calderón begins with "learning the procedures of city council. Candi wants to do an effective job, first and foremost; she wants to represent her district well and fully. So she is concentrating on learning the job over the next couple of months. And I will not only be supporting her in that, but I'll help her by being a voice in the community to rebuild the coalitions we had over the course of the campaign and transition them into real community power."
Along these lines, "we want to ensure that the community has a voice at every stage of large development projects," she goes on. "That's something we both advocated for when we ran for office and something we're going to make sure happens. And we're also going to focus on accountability and transparency for this mayoral administration. There are so many issues that still need to be addressed, and just because the incumbent mayor won the election doesn't mean those issues around fairness have gone away. We will work with stakeholders to make sure this administration is much more transparent and open to the public."
On top of that, Calderón cites "homeless rights issues. The tensions between the homelessness crisis and gentrification are at ground zero where we live, so that will absolutely be a priority. But it will also be a priority to be solutions-oriented. We know what the problems are. We heard that in the fight for and against 300," also known as the Right to Survive initiative, which was roundly defeated in May. "So now is the time for solutions, and we're going to take that head on."
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