Laura Bliss is CityLab’s West Coast bureau chief. She also writes MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
In a progressive shake-up, 32-year-old community organizer Candi CdeBaca will take her advocacy work to the city council.
In Denver’s recent city council election, Albus Brooks, a well-funded, two-term incumbent councilman, was defeated in a June 4 runoff by a 32-year-old policy wonk and community organizer named Candi CdeBaca. A fifth-generation Denver native with a no-bullshit political style, CdeBaca has drawn comparisons from right-wing media and leftist groups alike to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the congresswoman from New York City.
“Bet you never saw that coming,” she told me on the phone earlier this week.
The comparison makes sense: Like AOC, CdeBaca is a Democratic Socialist and Latina, two identity labels that made both of their victories historic. (A third for CdeBaca: She’s queer.) But her political aptitude and potential were never lost on me—they’re hard to miss.
I first met CdeBaca in 2016, reporting a story about the impacts of Colorado’s planned expansion of a nearby interstate on her diverse, working-class Denver neighborhood, which CdeBaca was fighting mightily. Tapping into people-power is her thing: She’s been organizing since she was a teenager, first successfully rallying high school classmates to demand an AP history class, then founding Project VOYCE, a local youth political empowerment organization at age 18. Nearly 15 years later, after time in Washington, D.C working on education policy, she remains its executive director.
But CdeBaca set her sights higher, because where she grew up, it’s not just young people who are disenfranchised. Many Latinx and African American locals in her Elyria-Swansea neighborhood are feeling left out of the economic boom currently sweeping Denver. As tech jobs keeps drawing affluent newcomers to town, housing displacement, unwanted development, and the I-70 project—complete with a decked-over park that many residents feel only gentrifiers will be able to enjoy—have become theirs to deal with. CdeBaca got the word out to her neighbors, and now she’ll be taking her platform of empowerment to city hall.
As a newcomer, she won’t be alone: Her election was carried by a . huge voter turnout that swept two incumbents out of council and brought in four new names, including Chris Hinds, a disability rights activist, and Jamie Torres, a local human rights commissioner who has herself experienced homelessness. The progressive quake in Denver is shaking up the political status quo in other cities, too, such as Chicago, whose new local lineup includes a Democratic mayor, Lori Lightfoot, who is black and queer, and several ultra-progressive council members as well.
I spoke with CdeBaca about her agenda for Denver’s District 9, and what it takes to get things done in politics. Our conversation has been edited and condensed.
One of the last times you and I spoke was in 2016. I was covering the I-70 expansion project and its many attendant community impacts. You’d been actively fighting it. A year later, in December 2017, you launched your bid for council. Was a city council campaign always in the back of your mind?
Well, all of it was really catalyzed by what you covered with I-70, plus the marijuana issue, and gentrification. I was deeply involved with a lot of neighborhood issues and just kept hitting a brick wall. I couldn’t stand by any longer, so I decided to jump in and become the representative I wished we had.
What do you mean by “brick wall”?
It felt like we didn’t have a real representative [in Albus Brooks]. For community workers who were concerned with health, safety, and welfare, we didn’t have a lot of options to pursue solutions, or even someone who would advocate for us in the council realm of things.
What specifically about the I-70 fight catalyzed you?
What we saw with that was a complete misunderstanding of our city’s power when it came to a regional issue. When the new council was sworn in, they had to vote on this regional project that basically gave away land to allow the project to happen. The community settled with the state for just $2 million in return for all the lost land. Those kinds of decisions are the kinds of decisions that Councilman Brooks made, and those exacerbated our issues in the neighborhood.
Now there is another settlement for I-70, this one to have a healthy air monitor—which we had begged for even though this was such a no-brainer. But we still have a gap with housing mitigation. Nothing has been done with that. We do have a community land trust that was born out of that fight, and we have $2 million from CDOT for it. The city is putting in some money too, but it is to be seen how they partner with us. For now, it’s still business as usual.
But we still have an opportunity with the new governor [Jared Polis] to do something about I-70—to keep pushing back. I’m excited to be a disruptor, to hold the mayor accountable, and to make sure outside interests don’t dictate how we govern.
What will your strategy be?
It’s going to take a time to get a feel for where the new council members are. The beginning of this will be about relationship building: where we are aligned, coalitions that can be built, and going from there. There is so much going on in Denver, and I think those alignments will dictate what we tackle first. But housing and homelessness can’t be ignored. That was the top issue that we wanted to address on the campaign trail, so I expect that to emerge quickly as the top priority.
What do you make of all the comparisons to AOC and the recent progressive wave in the House of Representatives?
I do think there’s a grassroots movement to really step into our power as residents and voters, especially for Millennials. I’ve been compared many times to AOC, especially when I was getting attacks from the right and being called a communist. The link was clear. And as the first Democratic Socialist elected in Denver, I see the opposition mounting. But what we’ve done is inspire the whole city —we more than doubled turnout. That helps me feel confident about the decisions we’re making.
I think voters are excited about my vision and approach; like the candidates in Chicago, we’re not going to be beholden to anyone but the people we represent. It’s a movement to really make it clear that we’re not here to buy votes, but to inspire voters to step into their own power.
What are your ideas for Denver?
I’ve been collecting a notebook full of them. One of them is for community “right to build,” which really takes the idea of a community benefits agreement but puts it on the front end of a project, and doesn’t force people to take on the burden of what happens at the end.
And I want to change the way we do community planning and decision-making in our city. I don’t know what that will look like, but maybe we can change some ordinances. I also want to explore a three-tiered approach to public transportation—that really resonates with our community. Right now, Denver relies on RTD [Regional Transportation District] for public transport. RTD is regional, so they’re funded at the state level. They’re not meeting the needs of our urban context because of that revenue stream. What I’ve proposed is that Denver gets its own department of transportation that owns and operates our own system and relies on RTD just to supplement what we’re doing outside county lines. Maybe we’d partner with Uber and Lyft to do shared lines. Those are entities we can also empower to be better employers while meeting needs of city in this moment where we’re building our own capacity.
That’s a major theme of yours: this idea of capacity-building among regular people.
It’s been a core value of mine to co-govern, whether you’re a social worker or community organization leader or a city council member or another elected position. A real democracy is not a spectator sport. It requires participation. Participatory democracy is something I’ve experimented with in Project VOYCE, and as a social worker and community advocate. People want self-agency and determination to make decisions and choices that they want. When we give people the knowledge and tools to do what they want, it’s not hard to get things done. [In this election], we’ve done something that people said was impossible, by letting people know they had power and showing them how to use that. I’ve been successful doing that with kids, and I think at the city level, it will yield incredible results.