15 Jul 19
The Denver Post
Riding in a car through the urban canyons of downtown Denver recently, Candi CdeBaca[cq comment=”cq”] casually dropped a challenge of the United States’ economic system: “What is false,” she said, “is this belief that capitalism is the only economic structure that fosters innovation and growth.”
It’s not a new idea for the incoming city councilwoman. CdeBaca said during a debate this past spring that the nation is in “late-phase capitalism,” that she believes in community ownership of “land, labor and resources,” and that she’s excited to “usher it in by any means necessary.”
Incoming Denver Councilwoman Candi CdeBaca poses for a portrait Wednesday July 10, 2019, at the City and County Building.
On Monday, she will take her revolutionary perspective into the halls of city government when she is sworn in as the representative for District 9.[cq comment=”cq”] The ward sprawls from the high-rise condos of downtown to long-neglected neighborhoods along Interstate 70.
CdeBaca was branded a communist during the campaign, but she describes herself as a democratic socialist — and she’s the local standard-bearer of a national trend. As rents rise and economic inequality expands, socialists are taking office in cities. Kshama Sawant[cq comment=”cq”] in 2014 became one of Seattle’s first elected socialists in recent history. In Chicago, six democratic socialists won alderman elections this year. And on the national stage, of course there’s Bernie Sanders, the U.S. senator who’s among the leading candidates to challenge President Donald Trump.
In Denver, CdeBaca unseated Councilman Albus Brooks, one of the city’s most influential politicians, in a June runoff election.
“We were so overconfident that it just started to scare me,” CdeBaca said during her driving interview around the district with The Denver Post. “A lot of people didn’t think anyone could displace him.”
Her new district includes downtown, the River North development district, billions of dollars of public infrastructure projects and fast-gentrifying residential neighborhoods. Local developers were reluctant to talk about CdeBaca on the record because she will be voting on their projects, but one said, “Oh, God” when asked about her ascendancy. And news of her victory circulated in national conservative circles thanks to a video clip from a debate.
“We have to understand that the government has a responsibility to make prosperity available to everybody, and that means that we have to acknowledge how wealthy people got wealthy, and how it wasn’t fair, and how it wasn’t merit based,” CdeBaca said, “and so I do believe that there does need to be some sort of redistribution of opportunity.”
Her start in Swansea
Now 33, she has fought the powers that be since her teenage years in Swansea, a neighborhood of neat cottages on Denver’s industrial edge.
“My great-grandparents lived here. My grandpa lived in the second house. Before my mom lived in that house, we lived across the street in the triplexes,” she said outside the home her family has owned since the 1940s.
She’s one of five new council members, including three who upset incumbents. They range from downtown urbanists to suburban growth skeptics, but it’s CdeBaca who has captured local and national attention.
The city’s northern corner has “had a lot of candidates that have popped up and never won. So maybe it was a disbelief that she could win,” said Nola Miguel, a community organizer who has worked with CdeBaca for years.
Now, Miguel explained, people are saying: “We’ve got Candi. Things that we thought we could never do before, we’ve got Candi involved. We’ve got Candi.”
Swansea was founded as an independent settlement around 1870 along the newly completed railroads. Today, the neighborhood is sandwiched between rail lines and the hulking Interstate 70 viaduct.
These northeastern sections of Denver have been defined in large part by the highway since its construction during the 1960s.
“They have continued to be impacted with particulate matter that affects their health. Noise, traffic,” said Councilwoman at-large Debbie Ortega.[cq comment=”cq”] “Because these neighborhoods were split down the middle … they’ve never been able to enjoy the benefit of having a grocery store in their community that serves them.”
CdeBaca hardly noticed as a kid. But as a teenager, she came home one day to find her mother stuck in the street, unable to maneuver her wheelchair over the ramp-less curb, as her grandmother looked on helplessly.
“They had been crying all day long,” she recalled.
She realized, she said, how the city’s decisions had harmed her family. She became one of Denver’s youngest, most prominent activists. She helped to organize a class-action lawsuit against Denver Public Schools and co-founded Project VOYCE at age 18. Mayor Michael Hancock, then a councilman, became a mentor, though they have since fallen out.
CdeBaca, a first-generation high school graduate, was valedictorian and class president at Manual High School. Eventually, she earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees simultaneously from the University of Denver, then left for Washington, D.C., to work in education advocacy.
She returned in 2014, and was sucked back into local politics by the changes overtaking the district.
Her home is flanked by marijuana grow houses. Rent has risen for years, and new development — slowed until now by the area’s industrial legacy — is bleeding into Globeville, Elyria and Swansea. A 700-unit apartment building is planned across the tracks, and the neighborhood is mobbed by heavy trucks and bulldozers.
The greatest disruption is the expansion of Interstate 70, a project that CdeBaca fought for years.
“I knew we don’t have four years left at the rate we were going. Something, someone has to intervene, and nobody was intervening on our behalf,” she said.
“And my hope is that I can figure out ways to intervene and slow it down some.”
Incoming city council member Candi CdeBaca poses for a portrait at the City and County Building in Denver Wednesday July 10, 2019. CdeBaca defeated Albus Brooks to represent the city’s District 9 on council.
CdeBaca collected votes across the district — including the wealthier blocks to the southeast. It was a sign of the broader frustration with development, and perhaps of CdeBaca’s deep local roots.
“I won all of these precincts. I won Albus’ precinct and all of the surrounding precincts,” she said of the Cole neighborhood.
And she did it with significantly less money. Councilman Brooks’ campaign spent about $401,000, while CdeBaca reported about $149,000, although the Sierra Club, Colorado People’s Action and the Denver Working Families Party also spent money independently to support her.[cq comment=”cq”]
CdeBaca has signaled that she will disrupt the traditional alliances that have influenced the district. For example, she has held the Downtown Denver Partnership at arm’s length, refusing to fill out the group’s elections questionnaire.
And she’s already exercising her new power: When the I-70 builders tried to extend their permit for nighttime noise, she attended a meeting to say that the process was “absolutely unacceptable” — allying with Ortega to seek a reprieve. Brooks also had pushed for limits on noise.
After the elections, lobbyists offered to pay CdeBaca’s campaign debt, she said. She refused, and she didn’t have debt anyway.
“I can see them all acting out of desperation to some degree,” CdeBaca said of the district’s power players. “I’m watching you. I am.”
Outgoing Councilman Brooks worked closely with developers during his eight years in office, and recently took a job with a construction company.
His strategy was “inclusive growth” — including the idea that private projects can deliver community benefits. CdeBaca opposed him at many turns. She criticized Brooks’ and a developer’s plan to put a grocery store and 200 residences, including 20 affordable units, in the Cole neighborhood. She also rejects his work on 38th and Blake, where a mass rezoning raised height limits, especially for buildings with affordable units.
Driving back toward her home, she described the state’s and city’s treatment of northeast Denver as “government-sanctioned violence” that has left residents in “a hazardous area that’s more like a war zone.”
Ideas into reality
As one of 13 votes on council, CdeBaca will have little direct control over development, especially with Hancock in power for four more years.
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But the new councilwoman will have clout with city staff and other council members on development plans and legislation. She’s interested in creating new rights for renters, weakening the “strong mayor” system and expanding union powers for city employees.
Moreover, she rejects the “YIMBY” idea that new housing development can relieve price pressures. Developers are choosing not to serve poor people, she said, and the government can react by increasing development fees to fund affordable housing while deprioritizing market-rate projects.
In the months ahead, the question will be how CdeBaca makes her impact felt.
“She is the council person that will be weighing in as it relates to a lot of the economic driving factors — downtown, development, all of the big plans,” said [cq comment=”Brother Jeff Fard, “]Jeff Fard, aka Brother Jeff, a longtime friend. “Now they’re going to have to share and be part of the city in a more equitable fashion.”[cq comment=”Cq”]