Just before lawmakers expelled state Democratic Representative Steve Lebsock from his seat in March after several women came forward with complaints that he had sexually harassed them, he switched parties, seemingly to retaliate against his colleagues for voting him out. His last-minute switch meant that Republicans got to appoint one of their own to replace Lebsock. (His 2014 challenger, Alexander "Skinny" Winkler, was chosen for the spot.)
Now, Democrats are fighting to take back that seat, and they're placing their bets on strong homegrown candidates.
In Adams County, the Democratic sweetheart to take back Lebsock's seat is Kyle Mullica, a 31-year-old trauma nurse at Presbyterian-St. Luke's Medical Center in downtown Denver. His first foray into public office was his election to Northglenn City Council in 2013, a seat he held for four years. His top priority is advocating for working families by supporting unions, workers' rights and a livable wage given Denver's rising cost of living.
"You shouldn't have to live out of your car when you're working two jobs, and your children shouldn't have to worry about having a roof over their heads and worry about where their next meal is coming from,” Mullica says.
More than three-fourths of delegates at the Adams County party assembly voted to place Mullica on the primary ballot. His opponent, special education lawyer and Thornton City Council member Jacque Phillips, petitioned to get on the primary ballot after losing the party vote.
Mullica grew up near the Northglenn-Thornton line in Redwood Estates, a mobile-home community, and on the other side of I-25 from Thornton City Hall. He was the only child of a single working mom who struggled to keep a roof over their heads and put food on the table even though she worked two jobs. His childhood was filled with instability, and at one point he and his mom were homeless and living in their car.
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He graduated in 2008 from the University of Denver as a Daniels Fund recipient; the fund provides four-year scholarships to high-achieving students with financial need. After college, he worked with families experiencing homelessness to help them secure stable housing, and after seeing firsthand the medical concerns that often accompany the homeless, he became an EMT and, later, a nurse. Mullica is married to his middle-school sweetheart; they're raising their two kids in Northglenn, a few miles north from where he and his wife grew up.
"I'm a lifelong resident of the district. This is my home. This is where my roots are,” Mullica says.
Even though Mullica is the party favorite, his victory in the June primaries isn't guaranteed. This year will be the first time unaffiliated voters can participate in the primaries, and they comprise the largest voting block of that House district at 38 percent.
Jacque Phillips might be the new kid on the block — she moved to Thornton in 2007 — but she's a tough opponent. Phillips, 55, also grew up impoverished and in an unstable home. She was born in Iowa, raised on the southside of Chicago, left home at fifteen, dropped out of high school her senior year and moved to northern Colorado a few years later, in 1984.
"I was a free-lunch kid," Phillips says dryly, adding that when she was ten ten years old, "My dad was a business executive who ran off with his secretary. Very cliché.”
She was a single mom who put herself through college to become a math teacher, and has been in education ever since. After years as a teacher in northern Colorado schools, she became a school principal for a maximum-security juvenile detention center in Greeley, then an international special-education teacher in Kenya and Myanmar, a jet-setting special-education consultant for a school in Saudi Arabia and a professor at the University of Hawaii and at two universities in Colorado. Now she's a Thornton-based civil-rights lawyer specializing in special-education law. Phillips is the lawyer representing families in two special-education complaints against Thornton charter school Stargate.
While Phillips's career in education is extensive, she is a relative newcomer to politics. She was elected to Thornton City Council in November 2015, which was her first foray into public office, even though she's lobbied for education issues at the Capitol.
"The surprise to me was that — it's one of the reasons I'm running for House — when I first got on [Thornton City] Council, I was told over and over, 'Slow down. This is government; it doesn't work like that. Pump the brakes.' And I was like, 'No, I'm here for four years. I have to get stuff done in four years.' I believe in legacy right now. I've got to pass things down," Phillips says. "My single mission is to get things accomplished at the Statehouse. And I believe in winning."
Phillips set her sights on the seat last year; she's hoping to be an advocate for more high-paying jobs and to change education laws around school discipline, funding and vocational education. Instead of relying on party delegates to nominate her for the primary, she petitioned her way to the June ballot — with a little help from Lebsock. Even with sexual-harassment allegations flying about Lebsock, he and his aide helped circulate petitions for her campaign. (Colorado Politics broke the story about a week ago.) But she says her campaign hasn't received any negative comments as a result of his involvement.
"I'm grateful that many people came forward, because I couldn't walk," Phillips says. She had foot surgery in January and had post-surgical complications that kept her in a cast until March, just weeks before the deadline to turn in her 1,000 signatures. "The House district is ready to move on, and I mean the whole House district. ... Obviously [Lebsock] and I don't agree on things, but I think people want to move forward."
So who has the best shot of winning back Lebsock's seat? It looks like a toss-up. Mullica has raised 60 percent more than Phillips, according to the latest campaign finance reports, filed earlier this month. On the other hand, Phillips has better name recognition given that Thornton has more than three times the population of Northglenn. Mullica seems more willing to toe the line on important Democratic issues — he's supportive of a ballot petition to put 2,500-foot oil-and-gas setbacks on new developments — whereas Phillips takes a more measured approach. She doesn't think the setbacks are as effective as appropriately regulating the industry and mapping flowlines.
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But what's most important to both candidates is regaining Democratic control of the district.
Even though House District 34 has been blue for at least the last two decades, competition has been fierce in recent years. In the 2016 presidential election, Lebsock received exactly half of the district's votes after a Green Party candidate funneled away 6 percent. Republicans were running nearly neck-and-neck in what was supposed to be a safely Democratic seat.
To top it off, 2018 is on track to be an explosive election year. The gubernatorial race has been on fire; there are eight primary candidates in the race, which is down from a peak of nineteen earlier this year. Candidates on both sides of the aisle are exciting their bases and working hard to drive people to the polls. President Trump has been exciting his base and pleading with them to vote in the 2018 mid-term elections so Republicans don't lose control of Congress. Those straight-ticket Trump voters could put up a serious fight against a supposed "blue wave," which some political analysts are expecting, given the president's unpopularity.
"I do think that it's going to be a difficult challenge to win this seat back...but my plan is to be out there and talking to my neighbors," Mullica says. "[Republicans] haven't controlled this seat in a long time, and they don't want to lose it."