Because Cory Gardner is widely regarded as the Republican U.S. senator most in danger of defeat in 2020, Democrats have been lining up to take a shot at him. But professor and pastor Stephany Rose Spaulding feels that she stands apart from the other competitors.
"I'm not just someone for the community," she says. "I'm of the community."
Spaulding lives in Colorado Springs, not a traditional launching pad for up-and-coming Democrats. But while she fell short in her first bid for electoral office, losing to incumbent Representative Doug Lamborn in the 2018 race for the state's 5th Congressional District, she made more headway than anticipated, collecting over 39 percent of the tally in one of the nation's reddest areas.
"We did better than Jared Polis in El Paso County — by 300 votes," she points out, laughing. "But we still did better. We garnered 125,000 votes overall. That's not a small feat, and it's not just a reflection of Democrats voting for Democrats. We don't have 125,000 Democrats in CD5. We received support from independents and Republicans, too. I still get messages from some of my Republican supporters, who say, 'We'll follow you wherever you go.'"
Her run sparked national notice, as evidenced by the decision of the legendarily progressive Vermonters at Ben and Jerry's to create an ice cream flavor in her honor: "Rocky Mountain Rose," described as combining "Colorado’s own Palisade peaches and pecans, in a light 'care'-amel base."
To Spaulding, this entertaining achievement was also "a testament to the kind of energy we were able to amass and the inspiration that caused them to choose our race. But we weren't simply reliant on national attention. Because we were limited in what we could raise within the district, we had to basically run a statewide campaign, so I was able to make inroads in communities all over the state to amass the resources we were able to amass. That kind of ground game will be to our benefit in the primary, and we're setting the tone from day one."
Now Spaulding's got Gardner in her sights, but before she can challenge him directly, she first must best the other Democrats with the same goal. Among her rivals are four better-known figures, former state senator Mike Johnston, onetime speaker of the state House Andrew Romanoff, past Obama administration foreign policy expert Dan Baer and ex-U.S. Attorney John Walsh, plus Denver's Lorena Garcia and Dustin Leitzel, Grand Junction's Keith Pottratz, Englewood's Diana Bray and Superior's Trish Zornio. But she's optimistic about her chances based on her experiences during the previous electoral cycle.
"I learned that people truly are hungry for change," she says. "They might not have known it at the outset of the campaign. But I discovered that people were happy and thrilled to have someone fresh and innovative and qualified running for office in spite of the demographics of the district I live in."
Originally from Chicago, Spaulding came to Colorado Springs around ten years ago from Orangeburg, South Carolina, where she'd been teaching at Claflin University. She's currently a professor in the Women’s and Ethnic Studies program at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs and the senior pastor at the city's Ebenezer Baptist Church.
"From the time I arrived in Colorado, I've been actively engaged in community organizing, whether it's around LGBTQIA issues, immigration issues, protections for voters, protections for communities of color. So I have a background of working with people who are marginalized and disparaged, and that makes my record different. I'm not someone speaking about the issues. I've lived the issues myself."
Among the examples she offers are "Title IX threats and threats to defund women's reproductive justice. A lot of people think about reproductive health simply in terms of choice or anti-choice, but if it were not for birth control, my health would be highly compromised, because African-American women are one of the highest populations for women with fibroids, and birth control is one of the best responses to monitor fibroids. Funding birth control has nothing to do with whether I want to or don't want to get pregnant. Funding birth control has to do with my health."
In addition, she continues, "I'm an African-American woman who knows firsthand about being redlined when it comes to disenfranchisement and methods to keep African-American communities away from the ballot box. And I have to think about what [Secretary of Education] Betsy DeVos is doing to undercut public education. Both of my parents are retired public-school teachers, my brother is a current public-school teacher, and I was raised in public schools in Chicago, so my family's livelihood is public education. That's in part why I'm an educator today, and what I recognize in my community is what happens when we don't adequately fund public education. I live policies like these, as well as criminal justice reform. I have a nephew in prison right now who can't get a trial because of the jail system. He's sitting and waiting to even have his case brought before a judge. So these things are real in my life."
If elected, Spaulding says, her priorities would be topped by "climate reality. We have got to focus on energy independence that is sustainable for this planet, that protects our public land, that protects our water sources." (She's a supporter of the Green New Deal.) Additionally, she goes on, "economic justice for working families is central to this campaign. We may be in a moment when unemployment rates are down, but that doesn't mean people are able to live sustainably. The last tax cut from this administration negatively impacted working families, and people will see that on April 15. That's why so many people haven't filed their taxes yet — because the shift has been so harmful."
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Other issues she wants to tackle include the rising cost of housing and the general topic of human dignity: "When I think about what's happening around immigration policies or the lack thereof, and attacks on communities of color and LGBTQI communities, I realize that making things better is a moral imperative. We have to ask ourselves whose humanity are we dishonoring, because we cannot continue to do so."
As for Gardner, Spaulding considers him to be "problematic in his inability to separate his love for party politics from the needs of our state. He hasn't addressed Trump's made-up national crisis [regarding border security], which is alarming. He voted for people to serve on the Supreme Court who are adamant about destroying women's reproductive justice, and that's alarming, too. And he's flip-flopped so much when it comes to energy independence and protecting public land here in Colorado. Those things should raise our eyebrows and cause us to say, 'No more. Enough is enough.'"
Now, Spaulding is putting out the call for volunteers in what she says will be a "people-powered campaign" that won't settle for the status quo.
"I think what we've seen in Colorado, as well as across the nation, is that voters are looking for someone who will lead with integrity, someone they can place their confidence in and who will bring innovative ideas to the forefront. They're tired of playing political musical chairs."