Last November's election changed the country’s political landscape, and a year later, it seems that landscape is changing again, on both a national and local scale. A hotly contested gubernatorial race in Virginia ended in a victory for the Democratic candidate, and in Colorado, three progressive candidates — Nicole Johnston, Crystal Murillo and Allison Hiltz — nabbed seats on Aurora’s historically conservative city council.
Murillo’s election is especially noteworthy: At 23, she’s the youngest councilmember, the daughter of Mexican immigrants and the first in her family to graduate from high school, much less college. She will be featured in an upcoming episode of She’s the Ticket, an online show that followed five female candidates around the country during their campaigns.
This week, Murillo talked to us about her surprisingly personal campaign, her motivation to enter politics, and how she’ll translate her passion into policy. (This Q&A was edited for clarity and length.)
Westword: What motivated you to enter politics?
Crystal Murillo: A couple of things. I think it’s important to say I never considered a career in politics. I graduated from the University of Denver with a bachelor's in business and felt that I could do more to help my community. I’ve always been raised to give back to my community. When I didn’t feel like I was having enough of an impact on people in what I was doing right after college, I decided to explore a little bit. I ended up working with Crisanta Duran, the first Latina Colorado Speaker of the House, and did Emerge Colorado [a training program for women with political aspirations] at the same time.
On top of that was what was happening in the background. The presidential election happened, and I had this awful feeling, because here was somebody who did not represent my values and who was attacking different communities, like the Mexican community in particular. I come from an immigrant family from Mexico. I was hurt and defeated, and I sat on those feelings for about a week and could not come to terms with the reality I was experiencing. On election night, I knew I was going to have to do something, and I wasn’t quite sure what that was. But talking to different people about Aurora, about what had happened, I got a call from [Emerge executive director] Jenny Willford. She asked me, Would you consider running? I was so shocked that somebody thought I could do the job! Somebody had faith that I could be a great representative. That further solidified my decision to run.
I started looking at the facts, demographics and statistics in Ward 1. It became increasingly clear that people in Aurora lack representation; people are being left behind. About 50 percent of Ward 1 is Latino, and there are no — well, were no — Latino city council members. The median age in Ward 1 was early thirties, and our councilwoman [Sally Mounier] was 79 and a Trump supporter. I went to one of her ward meetings. I hadn’t filed to run; I just wanted to see how the meeting went and get a better understanding of what that looks like. This was when the sanctuary-city status conversation/debate was happening in Aurora, so I asked her her position. I was shocked by her answer. She didn’t directly answer my question. Secondly, there was a lot of aggression behind her answer. She felt very strongly about saying "illegals," not "undocumented people." She said, and I’m paraphrasing here, that illegals broke our country’s law and should be penalized and that they should be fined for breaking our laws. Money we collect from them should go into our public education system as well as immigration enforcement. I was completely shocked by how she felt about our immigrant communities and by the policies she feels we should enact to support and not support them. I filed shortly thereafter.
There has to be a reason to want to do this. Not just for notoriety. It’s my home town at a time when people are scared to leave their home, and all around people are not being represented. Who better to represent the community than somebody who’s lived here all her life and offers different perspectives? A Latina young woman, the first in my family to graduate high school and college?
Did your campaign turn out like you expected it would, or were there a lot of surprises?
I didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t realize how deeply personal the experience was going to be. My concept of politics is not so great, so again, some of the most challenging parts were having to solidify my own values in ways that were meaningful: policy-wise and talking to people. I was having to deal with my own insecurities, too. I grew up primarily speaking English, and there were people who were monolingual Spanish speakers who wanted to talk to me. I’d do my best to talk to them. People assumed I’m fully bilingual, but I don’t necessarily consider myself bilingual. I wanted to communicate with people, and that required me to have a better understanding of language. I surprised myself: I was able to connect with people. It was a really big part of my identity that I was very insecure about that I had to deal with front and center.
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Then there were battles I had to fight even within my own circle. Maybe people had expectations of what my candidacy would look like because I’m a young person of color. Maybe they thought I’d be the loudest and the one leading the march. I participated in marches, and I can be loud, but that’s not necessarily my style. I think people thought that maybe because I wasn’t those things maybe I wasn’t authentic or that great of a candidate. There was also a lot of intra-party fighting — the old guard and new guard — and I got caught up in that. I had no idea that would come my way.
What does Ward 1 look like? What are some of its strengths and challenges?
There are about 43,000 residents. About 13,000 are registered to vote, and in the last election cycle, less than 3,000 voted. It’s 57 percent Latino and has a very high concentration of immigrants and refuges. It’s a more affordable part of town and also original Aurora, so it has Colfax, the Anschutz Medical Campus. It also has Stanley Marketplace and at one point was very military-heavy. But that’s slowly evolved. Communities change. The median age is in the thirties, and we border Denver.
A really great strength is our diverse community. I don’t mean just racial and ethnic. I mean in terms of age, life experiences, immigrant, refugee. People work hard and are very resilient. But I don’t think we’ve done enough to harness and tap into that. Our challenges are the priorities of city council, and it's not translating to the local community. Housing is expensive and people are moving. People from Denver are moving to our neighborhood. I don’t think we’re being intentional about how that impacts local community. Ward 1 residents’ cost of living has increased, but wages haven’t. That’s going to be the challenge: managing growth that’s inclusive of the community that lives in Ward 1.
What are you priorities as a councilwoman?
Home ownership. It’s a process, and we need to identify people and give them the right resources. With city council, I’m excited to expand my repertoire to give people the resources they need. We have a strong city-management form of government, and we rely on a lot of professional staff to disseminate and come up with solutions and manage resources. I’m excited to work with our community.