Senator Cory Gardner's first official challenger might not have his name recognition or his political experience, but Lorena Garcia hopes that her background as a community organizer and her desire to help change politics in Washington, D.C., will help her win in 2020.
Garcia grew up in Boulder with an educator mother and a bilingual champion in her father; both parents inspired her to pursue a path in community organizing and, now, politics. Like many of the newcomers recently elected to Congress, she says she's running because she's dissatisfied with partisanship and the inability for D.C. politicos to get anything done because of it.
We caught up with Garcia days after she announced her campaign to talk about her platform, her strategy to win and the only time she's interacted in person with the senator from Yuma.
Westword: Congratulations on your announcement. This is your first run for political office, right?
Lorena Garcia: Yes.
What made you want to run for office?
It comes down to, I was not satisfied with what I was seeing happening on the federal level. It's time to get new, fresh voices into our federal government. I thought that with my experience working directly with people across the state, I'd be a great candidate to bring that new perspective.
It's seems like there's a trajectory in politics. You start, like Cory Gardner did, as a representative, then you kind of move up. You're going full-blown U.S. Senate. Why?
What's awesome about how our democratic system works is, there's no law we have to go by or a step-by-step plan. Anyone can run for anything. Where I see the biggest need right now is in our federal government. Our state is doing amazing. We have fantastic people in office at the local and state levels. Where we're lacking is at the federal level, specifically with our Senate. I couldn't just sit back and wait to see if someone else could put their name in that has the same belief structure that I and many other Coloradans do.
Tell us about your platform.
I believe strongly in economic opportunity, meaning education and health care for everyone. It means that when we're moving off of fossil fuels, we're still protecting the dignity of the workforce in the fossil fuel industry. It means that we are providing our agriculture community with the workforce it needs. It means we need to have a clear pathway to citizenship. It also means that we invest in making sure that we have equitable opportunities across the state.
Cory Gardner is a Republican, and you're running as a Democrat. How are you going to appeal to his base?
I think what's going to be effective is appealing to the needs of the state. And the needs of the state are economic opportunity. Our economy is doing fantastic, but not many of us are actually feeling it in our paychecks. We're seeing threats against rural investment right now. When I can show them that I truly care and will fight tooth and nail to make sure that they have the resources they need to be successful in either their agriculture businesses or in figuring out how to maintain dignity of the fossil fuel workforce, I think they're going to be swayed and realize there's somebody who cares about their best interests.
How are you going to show them that?
When it comes down to showing policy ideas, one of the things I intend to do is meet and work with community leaders...in developing the strategies that are going to be effective. I believe strongly that the best strategies and most effective strategies are those that are developed with those directly affected. Being able to say, what works for you? What do you want to see? How do we make that work? What are the barriers, the opportunities? I think they'll also be much more invested in seeing a solution that they created happen.
Tell us about your background.
I was born and raised in Boulder. I'm the seventh generation here in this state. My dad's family comes from southern Colorado. My entire life has been surrounded by education and nonprofit work. I was raised seeing that it's important to make sure that our communities are safe, healthy, thriving...
What in your background taught you that?
My mom was a teacher for about 35 years. I saw her go above and beyond all the time. Her responsibility wasn't just the students; her responsibility was the entire family. She'd do home visits, calling parents and asking how she could help them help their student succeed. She saw that education wasn't just happening in the school.
When you can foster and build a community for a singular vision — that was education in her case — then the entire family succeeds. My dad was the first director of the bilingual program in Boulder. He was the one that ushered in bilingual education. He did that because he believed strongly in equity. He believed that if we really want to make sure that every child receives the education they're rightly entitled to, we need to bring in bilingual education.
Seeing that from the micro level that my mom had to the macro level that my dad had, how could I not be moved to do work with the community?
Tell us about your organizing background.
Community organizing is at the heart of who I am. I've been organizing since middle school, whether I was organizing against a longer lunch period... . There was something in high school, where it was my first or second day of freshman year. I walk in, and all of a sudden I see all these students walking out. I was like, oh, it's a walkout, I've heard of those! I walked out, and I saw everybody was just standing outside in the commons hanging out. I was like, what is this about? I climbed up on top of a sign, and I stand up and I'm like, "Why are we here?!" And all the students are like, I don't know? And I was like, "Justice!" It just comes natural to me.
I started working as an organizer for an organization that helps parents navigate the education system here. That was a statewide job, and I loved it. A lot of it was, we get it, they don't want to see us, so then we'd organize a strategy to make sure X doesn't happen. At 9to5, the National Association of Working Women, the Colorado chapter, I started as an entry-level organizer. Then I think very shortly after that I became a lead organizer, then a state director. It's really just the motivation and the drive of saying, this can be better, so how do we make it better? That's where I am now. Let's organize our state to elect somebody, to elect me, to make sure we bring all of our voices to the table.
How is Cory Gardner specifically not doing that?
For starters, he ignored his constituency when it came to confirming [U.S. Secretary of Education] Betsy DeVos. There's repeated situations like that, but I think you can tell by social-media posts that people are dissatisfied with him because of the actions and inaction he's taken.
There are a lot of people in your position who are new to Congress. A lot of women. Is that something that you are paying attention to at all?
Absolutely. It's wonderful. We need to have a fine balance of people that have a deep understanding of how the political system works and the people that have a deep understanding of how the people work. I think having that balance together is going to make Congress even more effective.
There's so much bureaucracy in Congress, whether it's dealing with lobbyists or your donors. How do you intend to navigate around that to get what you want done?
Ask me that question after I'm elected [laughs]. What I can say is that a lot of the bureaucracy is caught up in how does one not make a wrong decision. I think when we are focused and we are committed to doing what's right for our state, then you can never go wrong.
Are you encouraged by this Democratic wave that took Colorado?
I am, and I'm also cautious, because now we have an opportunity to really take advantage of making sure that we are focused on equitable policy and the best interests of Coloradans. Like you said, there's a lot of bureaucracy, a lot of politicking, that has to happen, so we have to continue to support our elected officials and show them we have [their] back.
Have you ever met Cory Gardner?
I have. [Long pause.] I'm going through whether I should say this or not...
When I was at COLOR, and even at 9to5, there continues to be an event called Latino/a Advocacy Day. That event would bring Latinos from all around the state for a day of training and learning about issues and how to lobby. Then we'd take them to the Capitol to lobby. It was beautiful! We'd have marches down from the training place to the Capitol. You'd see 200 to 300 Latinos walking down to the Capitol. It'd be a day where people were like, holy cow, I haven't seen this many brown people at the Capitol! We'd make sure that the people who came for Advocacy Day would be split up into their districts so they could directly lobby their representatives on issues.
And every time, we had a huge group from Yuma. They were ready to go lobby their elected officials. At that time, Cory Gardner was their [representative]. They had a really hard time lobbying him.
What do you mean?
He just wasn't listening to them.
Like, he wouldn't let them into his office?
He made a group of high school girls cry.
I wasn't in the room. I was called down immediately when it happened. I can't tell you exactly what happened, but all I know is they walk out of that room in tears, sobbing. You'd think that an elected official would represent everyone that lives in their district. They don't want to make their constituents cry.
So there was an interaction between Cory Gardner and these girls that, to your knowledge, made them cry?
You're announcing your candidacy early. Why?
By announcing early, I'm being transparent and I'm showing the integrity that I have. This is who I am, this is my intention, and I want everyone to know it. I'm up front about it. I think that's something that we all need to move toward. I also know I'm a lesser-known candidate. I know that I don't have the millionaire, billionaire backing that some of the other potential candidates might have, so I need more pathways so I can really raise the money that's necessary, which is happening. We're seeing donations from across the country; small donations that are coming in from people who saw the announcement.
Any surprises in your initial backers?
Someone from Texas [laughs].
They're probably still bitter about Beto.
You've never run a campaign before. Are you going to model yours after any politicians that you like?
I've never run a political campaign, but I have run campaigns statewide on issues, so I intend to model my campaign on what I know best, which is community organizing, grassroots organizing. Going directly to the voters.
So it sounds like maybe taking the Obama approach: going to as many jurisdiction as you can and getting face time with people.
Yeah, that sounds good [laughs].
I'm planning on doing a 64-county strategy tour. It'll be an opportunity where together, with the community members, we can come up with solutions.
In the event that Donald Trump runs for president again — which he is — and is, in fact, re-elected, which we don't know, how do you intend to work with the president if it's him?
I believe in civility. I believe that we have a responsibility to be civil with everyone. I intend to work with whomever I need to work with to make sure we get equitable policies passed in a respectful way.
So you'd work with Donald Trump?
If it was an issue that people in Colorado cared about and believed in and if the solution actually serves the people of Colorado, yeah, I'd be open to it.
Maybe the dynamics have changed a little bit in Congress [after the midterms], but it seemed like for so long that Trump was holding Democrats hostage. Like, Democrats, I'll help you pass immigration reform if you help me fund the border wall.
I will do what's right, but I will not sacrifice one thing for another. I will not sacrifice the dignity of one group for the dignity of another group. That's not an equitable policy. That's not right, that's not fair.
Your story sounds similar to [Mike Coffman's successor] Jason Crow. Have you been in contact with him at all?
Not yet, but I intend to reach out to him.
Going back to that 64-county listening tour, what will that look like? If I'm a constituent in, let's say, El Paso County, what can I expect from you?
It's a strategy development tour. We might come up with some cooler name later.
We would organize a meeting with community leaders and members, industry leaders...anybody that wants to be part of it. We'd spend a few hours talking about what is the biggest issue that's important to you here, and together come up with solutions. We'd be doing research, figuring out how we can create a policy that's going to be effective here.
Colorado is politically diverse. You have your blue districts, like Denver and Boulder, and Republican areas like, well, El Paso County. Let's say that you find there's conflict: This county wants one thing, this county wants another. How do you broker that?
We bring both parties together and talk about, what is the consequence of this one versus this one to each others' counties? What can we live with to make sure we're not harming each other?
What do you do for fun? Not that organizing's not fun.
I'm an avid snowboarder; I've been at it for 24 years. I intend to do some campaign events on the slopes where I'll be wearing flags that say "Vote Lorena." I might spray paint "Vote Lorena" under my snowboard!
I'm also a massive graphic-novel and comic-book nerd. Oh, my gosh, like, in my work bag, in my nightstand, all over my house — you'll see comics everywhere.
Jared Polis is a nerd. And he's also from Boulder! Do you know him?
I do, I know Jared. I met him when he was starting his congressional campaign. My dad has known him for a while; he served on his board for the New America School. Since then, through different positions and lobbying in D.C., I've just gotten to know him.
How would you work with him?
I think, just like any other elected official in this state, they're going to know that I'm open to hearing about any issue and making sure that we're bringing the needs of this state to the federal level. I will need to be relying on experts in different areas. Anyone who's elected to political office can be an expert in certain areas, but they're not an expert in everything. So it's important that we rely on those who do have that expertise. Jared has surrounded himself with a lot of experts.
Marijuana is still a contentious issue at the federal level. How would you protect Colorado's industry?
I think that we're seeing a wave across the country showing that more and more people are recognizing that marijuana should be legalized in the states. I intend to make sure that the individuals who are responsible for overseeing that don't overstep the will of the people.
I think we do need to pass federal legislation that mirrors that of Canada so we can have a nationwide legalized marijuana industry. It's not fair for Colorado to have this industry and for Wyoming not to have this industry and then because of that, we're putting our police force at this ridiculous...they're having to waste their resources on trying to catch people crossing the border coming from Colorado. That's not where our resources should be going! We need to make sure we have parity across the states.
Not to mention the prison population. How many people are in prison because of low-level offenses like marijuana possession?
Let's talk about how many people of color are in prison because of low-level marijuana offenses! That just needs to change. We cannot try and fight the War on Drugs as a criminal issue. It's a public-health issue. It's not right that we are calling the opioid crisis, because it's affecting more white suburban families, a public-health issue, but we don't call cocaine abuse a public-health issue because it's affecting urban people of color more. We need to put more funds into our health departments to be able to address those issues. We need to invest more money in mental health, because a lot of times it goes hand in hand. That's going to help reduce our prison population. Nobody should be profiting off crime.
What's your position on climate change?
Our planet's on fire! We have no choice but to move off fossil fuels. But we have to be responsible about it and preserve the dignity of the workforce in that industry. We can't just abandon them and say, hey, you guys have been contributing to global warming. The reality is we all have. I drove here! I'm reliant on them. We owe it to that workforce to make sure they aren't left with nothing while we're making the shift that we have to make to renewables.
How do you maintain their dignity?
For those who are at the age that they can do a career change or workforce change, we can provide equitable training for them to be able to do so and we help them with job placement. The other aspect is that we make sure that we take care of workers who are closer to retirement, whether it's with a severance package or something else. We need to make sure they're financially taken care of.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
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