In Southeast Denver primary, two challengers and a Bernie Sanders endorsement

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Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren appeared at Auraria for a Hillary Clinton rally. (Chloe Aiello/Denverite)

A statehouse election in southeast Denver this year is shaping up as one to watch.

It's got two progressive candidates -- Emily Sirota and Ashley Wheeland -- hoping to unseat incumbent Rep. Paul Rosenthal, and Sirota just picked up the Bernie Sanders endorsement.

Meet Ashley Wheeland:

Ashley Wheeland previously was the senior policy and political director for Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains. She was born in Greeley and has a law degree from University of Denver. She currently works as a consultant.

"There’s so much going on that we have to have a voice," she said. "I feel like I’ve worked really hard to become an expert on policy. I also felt like I didn’t agree with some of Paul’s policy decisions."

She took particular issue with Rosenthal's vote this year against the "Homeless Bill of Rights" and against a fracking control bill.

Wheeland highlighted her work with Ken Salazar's Senate office on health care and education; her work with the Colorado Consumer Health Initiative as the Affordable Care Act was implemented; and her advocacy for health care for transgender people.

"It’s a long history of working in advocacy and fighting for policy," she said. Her platform calls for expanded health care, more school investments and workers' rights, fairly similar in concept to Sirota's.

Ashley Wheeland. (Courtesy Ashley Wheeland)

She said she was partially inspired to run after the allegations against Rosenthal surfaced -- he is accused of groping a man and improperly lobbying for a job for another man whom he reportedly was attracted to. House Speaker Crisanta Duran dismissed a sexual harassment complaint against Rosenthal, saying the matter was outside the scope of statehouse policy.

The Sanders endorsement:

"Emily Sirota stands for the progressive values and platform that we have all been fighting for -- pay equity, paid family leave, protecting the environment, Medicare for all Americans, and tuition free colleges and universities. I know she will continue to fight for these values in the capitol for all Coloradans, and that's why I am proud to endorse Emily Sirota for Colorado State House District 9."

That was Sanders' statement, according to a newsletter from Sirota's husband, the journalist David Sirota. Sanders' press team confirmed the endorsement.

Her campaign manager, Scott Merrifield, said that the endorsement was a result of her performance in her previous campaign for Denver school board as well as the Sirota family's longstanding relationship with Sanders. David Sirota was an aide to Sanders 19 years ago, he said.

"David's had a relationship with Sen. Sanders for years, decades (as press advisor). But, more importantly, on Emily's part, was when she ran for school board in 2011, she had a couple of national interviews. One on MSNBC and one in print -- those brought her to the attention of Sen. Sanders back then," Merrifield said.

"She really made her name known to Sen. Sanders on her own ... So, when they did contact Sen. Sanders office, they knew who they were, they knew what she stood for, they knew what they were dealing with it already."

Sanders has not hesitated to get involved in state and local races. The "Our Revolution" group -- which built on Sanders' 2016 presidential campaign -- has separately endorsed Joe Salazar for Colorado attorney general. Sanders is also a fan of Democratic party chair Morgan Carroll.

Just this week, Sanders said that candidates from "coast to coast" are "standing tall for a progressive agenda."

Sirota's campaign has raised $25,000 in a week, according to Merrifield. Rosenthal had about $17,000 on hand as of Dec. 31, per campaign finance records.

This primary might tell us something about south Denver.

As we reported this week, new, young residents are bringing urbanist ideas out to the edges of the city. Could the same thing happen to its politics?

"I think that there are a lot of folks clamoring for a more progressive candidate," Wheeland said. "We're also one of the most diverse districts in the city. We're where people can kind of afford to live in Denver."

House District 9 covers the intersection of Interstate 25 and Interstate 225 and points north, mostly between the highways. (The map below was corrected on April 2, 2018, to reflect current boundaries.)

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