Colorado Progressives Celebrate Victories at National Conference in Denver

Progressives flocked to Denver for the Local Progress convention.
Progressives flocked to Denver for the Local Progress convention. Local Progress/J Amado Photography
Taking the mic at the Local Progress national meet-up at the Colorado Convention Center on August 5, Denver City Councilmember Robin Kniech highlighted some regressive moments in Colorado's recent history with the progressive politicians, advocates and government workers who'd gathered there.

"In 1992, Colorado was dubbed the 'Hate State' because our voters passed a measure prohibiting anti-discrimination ordinances for gay and lesbian individuals. Now, it was overturned by the Supreme Court, but our divided state government also passed laws targeting immigrants, excluding them from government. And we have also had — we still have — a quasi-right-to-work state that's anti-labor," Kniech recalled.

But then she began to talk about more contemporary progressive victories in Denver and the state: earmarking significant city dollars for affordable housing, enacting a minimum wage in Denver and across Colorado, and giving undocumented immigrants the right to access unemployment benefits.

After two years of Zoom meetings, the return of the Local Progress convention to an in-person format was an opportunity for progressives such as Kniech to share what they've accomplished with people who'd flown in from across the country, including Teresa Mosqueda with the Seattle City Council, New York City Comptroller Brad Lander and Christian Smalls, president of the Amazon Labor Union.

Local Progress, which was founded in 2012, describes itself as a "movement of local elected officials advancing a racial and economic justice agenda through all levels of local government." The organization has a network of over 1,300 local elected officials in 48 states; over 200 people showed up for the three-day convention in Denver, including 24 from Colorado.

The August 5 session focusing on "abusive state preemption" came on the second day of the gathering, and was the only one open to the press.

During Colorado's "Hate State" days, local municipalities were preempted by the state from establishing anti-discrimination ordinances related to LGBTQ individuals. But while that preemption went away when the amendment was declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court, local officials have had to battle against many other measures over the past few decades.

"We were preempted from local minimum wages, inclusionary housing, lots of other things," said Kniech, who'd lobbied for the convention to come to Denver during her last year as an at-large council rep.

In 1999, Colorado passed a minimum wage preemption law that prevented municipalities from enacting their own minimum wage levels. In 2019, however, the Colorado Legislature repealed that law. Led by Kniech, Denver City Council soon approved a new minimum wage, which hit $15.87 per hour in 2022. Starting next year, the city's minimum wage will increase in line with the Consumer Price Index.

Joe Neguse, the Democratic representing Colorado's 2nd Congressional District, was at the event, and praised Kniech for leading Denver's efforts to increase the minimum wage.

"That does not happen. It does not happen without Robin Kniech," Neguse said.

Lizeth Chacon, the founder of the Colorado People's Alliance who recently transitioned to a job as co-executive director of the Workers Defense Project in Texas, discussed the 2016 campaign to raise the minimum wage statewide through a ballot initiative. That effort ultimately resulted in the minimum wage hitting $12 in Colorado at the start of 2020.

"We were really clear that $12 an hour was not enough. We also knew that $15 was not going to do in a state like Colorado," Chacon said. "We made a commitment that we actually needed to continue the fight."

That led to a "big preemption fight" in the Colorado Legislature that lasted three years, until lawmakers passed the preemption repeal bill in 2019. "Local elected officials really shifted the narrative of this campaign," Chacon said, noting that they were able to say what their cities and counties needed.

Many of the elected officials at the conference work in blue cities in red states, where preemption fights are heating up. The issue of abortion, for example, will continue to be a major battle for some states and municipalities.

Throughout the years, state preemption has been used to prevent progressive achievements, according to Courtnee Melton-Fant, an assistant professor in the Division of Health Systems Management and Policy at the University of Memphis. "It’s being used to maintain the tool that’s already there," Melton-Fant said of state preemption being employed to maintain homophobia and racism.

Jamie Torres, who just became president of Denver City Council, told Local Progress members of her sponsorship of a land acknowledgment that's now read at council meetings.

"It would be a disservice, it would be offensive, for these words to be left to symbolism. They have to spur action, or we should not say them. After adopting this acknowledgment, we were able to convert Denver's annual bison public auction to an annual bison donation program, exclusively to tribes re-establishing their bison herds throughout the country," Torres added, noting that she's witnessed two transfers of nearly fifty bison through the program.

But while progressives have enjoyed successes in Denver, Torres and Kniech acknowledged that the city still has issues.

"Denver is not utopia. Police use of force, housing-price increases and displacement, homelessness — these challenges are as bad as they’ve ever been," Kniech said. "We have a lot of work to do. And we have a lot to learn from all of you."

As the session wrapped, Smalls, the keynote speaker for the Local Progress convention, offered one major takeaway.

"We all have to be Davids versus Goliaths," said the man who stood up to Amazon.
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Conor McCormick-Cavanagh is a staff writer at Westword, where he covers a range of beats, including local politics, immigration and homelessness. He previously worked as a journalist in Tunisia and loves to talk New York sports.