Outgoing Denver Democrat Crisanta Duran on the Past Eight Years at the Capitol

Colorado House Speaker Crisanta Duran.
Colorado House Speaker Crisanta Duran. Westword Staff
Crisanta Duran was raised to be skeptical of politicians. Her father served as the labor union boss of the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 7, and her mother worked on affordable-housing development for the State of Colorado. Every night around the dinner table, Duran remembers, her family would talk about the failures of government to stand up for hardworking and disenfranchised people.

That drive to fight for working people, Duran says, motivated her through law school, her professional career as a union attorney and in her decision to eventually seek office.

In 2010, 29-year-old Duran jumped into state politics and ran a fierce campaign against three other Democrats for the House District 5 seat vacated by Representative Joel Judd. Duran wasn't totally green when it came to politics; she had volunteered for political organizations like the Colorado Young Democrats and New Era Colorado, and she helped former state attorney general Ken Salazar in his bid for the U.S. Senate and was the political director for Mark Udall's 2008 Senate re-election campaign. Duran ultimately won her bid for the House. Since then, the sixth-generation Coloradan has been re-elected three times and was appointed the first Latina Speaker of the House in state history in 2016.

After serving in eight legislative sessions (and running up on her term limit this year), Duran is getting ready to pass the baton to both her District 5 predecessor and whoever gets elected to serve as the Democratic Party leader in the House. But not before she finishes reforming sexual-harassment policy at the Capitol and puts an end to the culture of silence that exists there.

After an in-depth report cracked open the depths of sexual-harassment issues at the Capitol in April, a six-member Legislative Workplace Interim Study Committee was created to comb through the findings and policy recommendations. Duran will chair the committee, which will meet at least five times through the end of this year. The first meeting will be held on July 9.

Colorado House Democrats
Westword: How have things been since the end of the 2018 legislative session? Obviously, you'll be in and out of the Capitol for a few year-round and interim committees.

Crisanta Duran: Well, we'll see. We still have a lot to work on. We have a variety of interim committees that are meeting, but one, of course, is focusing on sexual harassment. We are going to make sure that we work to reform the culture at the Capitol and that we put measures in place to change our policies. We definitely still have work to do. Me, personally, I'm doing great. I just got back from Barcelona and Portugal, so I took a vacation.

That's why you look so relaxed.

Relaxed and a little tan. It was a fantastic time. It was great.

Let's start with your background. Who you are, where you were born and raised.

I was born in Boulder, and I grew up in Northglenn and Arvada. I graduated from Arvada West High School, and I went to the University of Denver, where I studied public policy and Spanish. Then I went straight to law school and graduated from the University of Colorado. During the time I was there, I served as the president of the student bar association and also the Latino Law Student Association. And then after I graduated, I went to go work for workers — grocery clerks, health care professionals, barbers — in a variety of positions.

You as an individual, or for whom?

I went to go work for United Food and Commercial Workers Local 7, so I worked for a labor organization [as general counsel]. Then after that, I decided to run for office. I was 29 years old when I decided to kick off my campaign and had a very competitive race. At the time, I was seen as the underdog. I was outspent, and we worked really hard to be able to have grassroots support of people in communities in the district that wanted to make sure their voices and values were heard.

And for me, diversity isn't just a nice word; it actually gets you better results when you have more women at the table.

tweet this
Why did you want to run for office in 2010?

I was frustrated, maybe a little bit angry. I thought there were a lot of issues that were not rising to the level of a priority that they should have been at the time.

Like what?

Issues impacting working people. One of the issues I cared a lot about at the time was issues impacting undocumented students. And prior to kicking off my campaign, I was at the Capitol when a bill to get undocumented students in-state tuition failed.

At the time, working for a labor organization, I advocated for a variety of different policies, and I think I was frustrated that there was not more done. House District 5 is a very diverse district. It's diverse in terms of race, gender, GLBT status and income level.

At the legislature, I was very much focused on working hard, trying to deliver results and bringing forward legislation that impacts people in their everyday lives so that we have a truly representative government. I think we're at a pivotal moment in this country, where it is more important than ever that we are inclusive in positions of power and that we truly have diverse voices. And for me, diversity isn't just a nice word; it actually gets you better results when you have more women at the table, more people of color at the table, people from a variety of backgrounds — rural, urban and suburban — at the table. I think that many times, the more diverse the team is, the better results you can accomplish.

You mentioned your policy frustrations prior to jumping in the race, especially given your union background. Were you upset with paid family leave or guaranteed sick leave? What were some of those specific pro-working-family issues?

In my first two legislative sessions — throughout my career, actually — I've focused a lot on workforce development. As Colorado's economy continues to change, people who are willing to work hard should have the tools to be able to succeed and opportunities to be able to get ahead. During the time that I was in the minority in the House — minority because Republicans were in control of the House in those first two years — one of the few pieces of legislation that was passed on workforce development was a bill that I worked on with Republicans. People who were on unemployment insurance would have a pathway to be able to get the skills they needed to get off of unemployment insurance and get a good-paying job. I carried that legislation within my first two legislative sessions. I'm pretty sure it was my second session.

Also, in my first legislative session, I worked on affordable housing. As housing costs continue to skyrocket in Colorado, I've continued to work on that issue throughout the years. It's been a big topic throughout the district.

And affordable housing has persisted as an issue.

Many people feel they have been priced out of the very communities that they live in and work in, and I think that affordable housing bill that I brought forward in my first legislative session was to make sure that people who need access to affordable housing are able to gain access to some of those services.

In 2014, I served on the Joint Budget Committee. One of the key issues I wanted to work on was the issue of affordable housing. I brought forward a bill that is basically a state tax credit that leverages additional federal tax credits to be able to build or redevelop more affordable housing in the state. At the time I was on the Joint Budget Committee, all the Democrats voted for it. I don't believe we got any Republican votes. Over time, it has been so successful that the two times we had to reauthorize [the affordable housing tax credit] we were able to get bipartisan support because it has helped all communities in Colorado — rural, urban and suburban.

With your family history, your dad being a union boss and your mom spending her career in affordable-housing policy, it makes sense you'd be drawn to these issues.

It's always funny to me that I ended up running for public office, because there was such a heavy skepticism of politicians and whether politicians will do what they say. So it's always surprising to me that I actually decided to run for office, having grown up with that skepticism. But at the dinner table, we talked a lot about how to grow the middle class and whether the income inequality that we see in our country, where the rich keep getting richer, is fair. I remember being fifteen years old and traveling to Watsonville, California, to march on behalf of strawberry workers who were trying to organize with the United Farm Workers of America [in the late ’90s.] It was a very powerful moment for me as a young person. I think moving forward from that, there was always a strong component of social justice that I believed in.

How have Colorado politics changed since you assumed office in 2011? How do you see that change manifesting in Denver and in your district, and what are some of the lingering issues you wish you could have done more about?

In every single session, I tried to do everything that was in my power to be able to get as much done as we could. Governor John Hickenlooper says this was the most productive session he has seen, and I think he said that last session, too. These last two years we have accomplished a lot; the only way to be able to do that is to try and put politics aside and really work on problem-solving. I love Colorado because of its rich history and quality of life. I don't blame so many people who are moving here from all over the world, because they want to be able to benefit from our quality of life as well, but I think we need to have some tough conversations around some of the growth we have seen to make sure there's adequate planning to be able to sustain our quality of life for future generations, and that comes in the form of transportation. That's a key issue.

You mean Senate Bill 1, which many have hailed as this year's crowning legislative achievement?

Yes, that was a negotiation that was not easy to find common ground, but we did at the end of the year. [In 2017], Senate President Kevin Grantham and I brought forward a bill that would have asked voters if they wanted to invest more in transportation funding as a whole. There weren't enough votes in the Senate to pass it. But I think it's those kinds of tough conversations that we should be willing to have about where we're at as a state and what we want Colorado to be in the future. This last session, we were able to come together and find common ground on Senate Bill 1, which was fantastic, and I think we did as much as we possibly could without mortgaging our future away in the event that there is a recession. We don't want to have a negative impact on education, schools and kids having the opportunity to be able to reach their full potential, so I think we ended up with the right balance.

Do you support the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce's ballot petition to raise taxes for roads and multi-modal transportation?

I signed the petition [on June 14], actually. It is, in many ways, based on the concepts of the bill that Grantham and I tried to push through the legislature two sessions ago. One of the things that's important is making sure there are investments going toward multi-modal options so that we're organizing our roads not just to move cars, but to move people. When we think about traffic congestion that we're seeing along the Front Rage, we can't do things the way we've always done them.

As the first Latina Speaker of the House, how have you advocated for communities of color?

What comes to mind is the [sunset bill to reauthorize] the Colorado Civil Rights Division — looking at what happened this legislative session, where there was a vote on the Joint Budget Committee and Republican members did not want to continue funding the office. There were major concerns around that initial Republican-led decision to defund the civil-rights agency and what it meant as a whole to be able to advocate for civil rights to ensure that workplaces, public accommodation and housing are free from discrimination and free from harassment.

I think being able to find common ground on [Senate Bill 1], an issue that Republicans have traditionally been absolutely against, and any kind of increase or any money at all going toward multi-modal...was a major advancement that will have a positive impact on communities of color.

I also think that during this last legislative session, we worked to ensure that driver's licenses for undocumented individuals would get funding. That was one of the last issues that we were negotiating before the close of the session. At the end of the day, we actually increased funding so that undocumented individuals would have access to that program. It's also a public-safety measure for Coloradans as a whole, since applicants must show proof of insurance.

One of the bills I was thankful to get through this year was tax relief for working families who struggle with the high cost of child care. In Colorado, we have some of the highest child-care costs in the country. We were able to carry bipartisan support for that bill, as well.

When was the legislature able to rise above divisive politics?

We were able to deliver results on issues that have experienced gridlock for years: construction defect reform, hospital provider fee reform to restructure our budget, and addressing inequities in education. The transportation funding package was an issue that's been debated for years.

How did you flip the Senate on the Civil Rights Division bill? I was surprised that what was approved was basically what you and Representative Leslie Herod wanted, with a few modest changes, like having at least one unaffiliated person on the seven-member commission, adding a periodic legislative audit and readjusting the composition to add a union representative. It was nothing like what Senator Bob Gardner had brought forward or the amendments that House Republicans wanted. How did you pull that off?

We had two conference committees, and during that first conference committee, we came forward with a proposal that was reasonable. We took a vote on it. It didn't work out, and then of course Senator Gardner was advocating for his proposal, as well. And I think that —-

I mean, you negotiated to the last hour. Senator Gardner came on the Senate floor in those final hours and said, as one of the bill's sponsors, that he was opposed to the compromise and even voted against reauthorizing the CCRD under the compromise you managed to secure from Republicans on the final day of session. Was it that you were willing to leave the negotiating table because CCRD funding was set for at least another year and that the political blame would be on Republicans if they chose not to reauthorize the agency?

We were willing to find common ground and collaborate. From the very beginning, we said we wanted a clean reauthorization, and we came forward with a proposal that we thought was reasonable and took into consideration some of the arguments that were made and issues that were raised [by Republicans].

But how did you get it through the Republican-controlled Senate? It didn't pass every Republican in the Senate, but it had significant support after failing the first time.

I mean, look, we weren't going to do anything that was going to undermine the rights of Coloradans when it comes to civil rights. We were not going to compromise on discrimination and harassment in the workplace. There are times when you have to plant your feet and stand firm, and this issue was too important to compromise away the civil rights of Coloradans.

click to enlarge Representative Steve Lebsock as seen in a video that refutes what he calls the false allegations made against him. - YOUTUBE
Representative Steve Lebsock as seen in a video that refutes what he calls the false allegations made against him.
We can't talk about this session without talking about sexual-harassment allegations and ex-representative Steve Lebsock. You've been criticized by House Republicans who questioned why you left him on his committee assignments and even gave him leadership positions after learning about his encounter with Representative Faith Winter in 2016, when he allegedly grabbed her elbow multiple times to get her to leave a bar with him during the after-session celebration at Stoney's Bar and Grill and used sexually explicit language.

For me, these issues are very personal and sensitive, whether or not someone decides to come forward. It was always very important to me to respect the wishes of a victim as to how a matter would be handled, and that is something that I have focused on. Looking back, I wish I would have known everything that I know today, because if I would have known everything that I know today, there would be no way that he would have been in the chairmanship of the House Local Government Committee. He was removed from that position [in the 2018 legislative session], and we wanted an outside investigator to review the matter. Getting someone who is a neutral third party was very important, and when the results came back that found there was a pattern of behavior, we responded promptly. The day that we went to the House floor to debate the resolution to expel Lebsock, we went into that not knowing where the votes were going to be, but it was my decision to go forward because I felt very strongly that we were going to address these issues head-on, and we were not going to tolerate it anymore.

How difficult was it for you to make that decision to expel him and reconcile the Lebsock you knew as a colleague with the Lebsock that you read about in the multiple investigative reports into his sexual-harassment allegations?

I asked him to resign very early on. I asked him to resign when it appeared that his behavior did not stop, and going back to 2016, I told Representative Winter that I would support her in whatever it was she wanted to do, and she made a choice as to how she wanted the matter to be resolved. I think it is important to make sure that victims have a say in how issues are handled and resolved. Those are very personal and sensitive matters. At the time, Representative Lebsock took responsibility. He said he was going to get psychological help. He was going to stop drinking, and it seemed like he was doing what he said he was going to do.

Do you have any regrets with how things were handled or how they turned out with Lebsock?

I don't have any regrets, because to me it's very important to make sure that the wishes of victims are honored. And I do think that, moving forward, we clearly have to change our policy. We have to look at, now that we've hired a human-resources professional, the structure of a human-resources office, which may require legislation. I think that we have systemic issues. We have to make sure that no perception of politics can get in the way of a just outcome and that there are safeguards in place so that if there are patterns of behavior, they can be identified.

On that note, the Legislative Workplace Interim Committee is studying how to revamp sexual-harassment policies at the Capitol during the interim. Looking at the committee makeup, on one hand you have three Democrats who voted to oust either Lebsock or Senator Baumgardner in the Senate for allegations of him slapping a legislative aide's buttocks. On the other hand, you have three Republicans who voted against ousting either of them. With the committee being evenly split three to three, do you think that the interim committee will realistically be able to pass any substantive recommendations?

I sure hope so. I think we're going to work to try and find common ground.

Where do you predict there will be areas of potential compromise between the two factions?

Well, I can't say at this point. I think we have to start our process and see where the conversation goes. There have been statements made around this issue from both sides about taking politics out of the policy. I'm hopeful that we'll be able to truly transform the culture at the Capitol.

Were you surprised about the findings in the commissioned legislative workplace harassment study, particularly with regard to how under-reported harassment is and that legislators were the likeliest offenders?

There are probably over 300 people at the Capitol a day, if not even more during session, and there's never been a human-resources person. It's unbelievable. Part of that is, I think, there have been those who don't want to increase government and hire a full-time employee. Clearly, we need a human-resources person to focus in on these issues. There's still work to do, but we clearly took action in the House on a variety of different fronts and took action quickly.

What are you going to do with all of your spare time now?

It's been the honor of my life to serve as the first Latina Speaker of the House. I just have to say thank you to everyone who ever voted for me. Moving forward, I'm going to be very focused on where is the best place for me to be as effective as possible to continue to advocate for the people of Colorado.

Are you going to run for the Senate? Do you have any Senate ambitions?

That is a long way away. It'll be a while before that position opens again. [Senate District 34, which is occupied by outgoing Senator Lucia Guzman, is up for grabs this November.] I will say, I will be teaching a class at the University of Colorado on politics. The good thing is I don't pass over the gavel until January of 2019, so I have a paycheck until then. But then after that, the mortgage is due, so I'm going to figure out what to do long-term. I have a little bit of time.

This interview was edited for clarity and length.
KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Nora Olabi covers general and breaking news for Westword with an emphasis on politics and local government. Prior to making her way to the Front Range and joining Westword in 2017, she worked at major Houston newspapers. She's a proud Houstonian who's acclimating to snow and mountain living.
Contact: Nora Olabi