Who’s Next: Politics — 16 rising stars in the Denver area

We asked you to identify the rising political stars of the Denver area, and you delivered.
17 min. read
Morning sunlight gleams through the Capitol building, Dec. 12, 2017. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite) denver; colorado; denverite; kevinjbeaty; gold dome; capitol building; capitol hill; cowx; weather; sunny;

We asked you to identify the rising political stars of the Denver area, and you delivered.

After studying nominations from Denverite readers and sources, we're thrilled to announce the first-ever class of Who's Next: Politics, presented by Sewald Hanfling Public Affairs — and you can meet them at an event where we'll recognize them on June 7 at the ART Hotel. Drinks, mingling and, yes, probably a little talk of politics.

The criteria for the list were simple: We were looking for people on their way up in politics, whether that's in office, working on campaigns, working in activism, fundraising, lobbying — whatever. As long as they weren't currently declared in a contested race, we'd consider them.

Here's the impressive roster of local politicos you've helped us build.

Cristina Aguilar. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Cristina Aguilar, 41, formally left her role as executive director of the Colorado Organization for Latina Opportunity and Reproductive Rights (COLOR) having seen it double in staff size and more than double in budget over her five and a half years.

Under her leadership, COLOR ran a 2014 campaign against one of Colorado's perennial personhood ballot measures, specifically targeting low-propensity latinx voters in several Colorado counties, and in the end, she says, "even though the margin of defeat narrowed, we saw the highest number of latinx voters voting against personhood."

Aguilar also co-founded the people of color caucus at One Colorado. She places a strong emphasis on visibility for LGBT people of color, on what she calls "abortion destigmatization work," and on building youth leadership, including through programs like Latinas Increasing Political Strength, a Denver-area mentorship program for girls and young women ages 16-21.

And what would a sabbatical be without some work? Aguilar is currently advising at least one local campaign and may well take on more such work as the election nears. Of the future, she says, "I've always had a dream of serving in office."

Maytham Alshadood. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Maytham Alshadood, 32, worked alongside U.S. troops as a combat interpreter in Iraq and came to Colorado in 2008 with a Special Immigrant Visa. He's now a registered nurse and deeply engaged in local politics — and committed to making it easier for those who come after him to do all of that.

His Drive Project Colorado has what he calls a three-pronged approach, focusing on civic engagement, voter registration and public policy. The group was instrumental in getting in-state tuition passed for refugees and special immigrants who come to Colorado the way he did. On civic engagement, he says, "we're not just talking about the stuff that you get taught in the citizenship class. I've been through that stuff and it's mostly trivial."

He wants to teach people to get involved, and a partnership with Drive Project, Warm Cookies of the Revolution and Project Worthmore is developing activities to build better citizenship education into existing ESL classes — instead of learning "Jane went to the market," he says, think "Jane went to city hall."

That leaves voter registration. When will that push start? Naturally, on World Refugee Day, he hopes. That's June 20.

Jennifer Benson (right) and Jordan Henry. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Jennifer Benson and Jordan Henry were fast friends when they met on their first day of law school at the University of Colorado Boulder. They were both dancers. They were a bit older than their classmates.

And, after the 2016 election, they were both fired up. Within days, they had arranged a meeting with Gail Schoettler, former lieutenant governor. “We met with Gail to discuss how to run for office. What do we need to do?” said Benson, 34.

But they quickly refocused their ambitions. Instead of running for office, they would try to change how campaigns work.

“We learned that, nationally, only 29 percent of state legislators are women. And we learned that only 24 percent of (political) contributions are made by women,” said Henry, 30.

One year later, they launched InvestHER, a group that aims to re-engage young voters with pro-choice politicians. Rather than throwing pricey fundraising dinners, they invite candidates and constituents to casual happy hours.

So far, they’ve thrown 10 events and raised more than $10,000 in small donations for candidates from Cary Kennedy to Jena Griswold. Both are about to begin their legal careers, and they hope to build on their advocacy for women.

Jordan Bresson. Who's Next: Politics. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

At 28, Jordan Bresson is running Saira Rao’s campaign for Congress in Colorado’s 1st congressional district. It’s her first job in politics, but not her first in public service.

“I decided early on in life, no matter what I’m doing, I want to be making a difference and if at the moment I feel like I’m not being influential or making a meaningful, positive change in this world, then I need to redirect my path,” she said.

Bresson started off in advocacy and nonprofits, working as a field organizer for the League of Conservation voters and a climate change organizer for Conversation Colorado. Doing that work, she realized that she was happiest during campaign season, when the groups were trying to help candidates get elected. And when the 2016 election left her frustrated, she had a realization:

“I came to the conclusion that when we get better people in office, the relationship between the constituents and the elected official is much more friendly,” she said. “Then you can get great legislation passed. That was a more concrete way of making change.

“For me it’s always been founded in helping people and making a positive change.”

Barry Burch Jr. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Since Barry Burch, 31, took up his post in the mayor’s office as the director of boards and commissions in 2016, he’s led the modernization of an archaic filing system and oversaw an appointment process that created what he describes as “pretty incredible” racial, ethnic and gender diversity. But he won’t take all the credit.

“I hate to toot my own horn with that. It’s the community members who want to give their own time,” he said. “I’m just helping the mayor make these appointments.”

In fact, his work includes managing more than 1,000 appointments and reappointments across 130 boards and commissions.

Before landing where he is now, Burch took on a variety of roles that include special aide to the mayor, fellow in the office of Council President Albus Brooks, field organizer for Organizing for America and fourth-grade teacher. He’s also served as president of the Denver African American Commission and commissioner of the Commission for People with Disabilities.

He says he started down this path in college. He received his bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of North Carolina at Pembroke, where he was Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity president, student body vice-president and student body president.

Matt Connelly. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Matt Connelly, who's about to turn 32, has worked on the campaigns of some of the best-known politicians in the country.

“I started my career out with John McCain’s war room in 2007, when I was attending college in Washington, D.C.,” said Connelly, who completed undergrad at the Catholic University of America.

And, mere days after graduation, he was driving cross-country to work as California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s newsroom manager, tracking all of the biggest issues in the state.

Later, he worked for the campaign of presidential candidate Jon Huntsman, and then as the southeast regional press secretary for the Republican National Committee -- and then he went on a backpacking trip in the Rockies.

In 2014, he moved here to work as communications director for the state Senate Republicans.

“I’m very talented at fitting all of my belongings into the back of my car,” he said. After recent stints working as press secretary for Sen. Cory Gardner in 2014, for Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and for former state Rep. Jon Keyser, Connelly has settled in with Clear Creek Strategies, where he’s consulting with high-profile candidates like Walker Stapleton and working on the national Restoration PAC.

“I would say that I’m a common-sense Republican who is dedicated to getting things done to make the country a better place,” he said.

It’s been more than a decade since Steve Fenberg, now 34, founded New Era Colorado with his Who’s Next: Politics peer Leslie Herod and fellow recent University of Colorado Boulder graduates Lisa Kaufmann and Joe Neguse (currently running for U.S. Congress).

Since then, New Era has trained hundreds of young leaders, registered more than 100,000 voters, passed election modernization bills and led a grassroots campaign to create a local electric utility that invests in clean energy.

He’s served on the boards of directors for Boulder Housing Working Group and the City of Boulder Capital Improvement Taskforce, and now serves as the state senator for Colorado’s State Senate District 18 — an office he won handily in the 2016 election.

In the 2018 session, he helped get bipartisan redistricting unanimously passed and sent to the 2018 ballot for voter approval, among other things. Now that the session is over, he’s focused on raising money and working on trying to get the State Senate majority back for Democrats.

“It’s kind of just in my blood,” Fenberg said. “It all started with my mom. I knocked on my first door for a political candidate when I was 7 years old. It’s who I am because it’s who my mom is and who she brought me up to be. What I believe is right and wrong has been core to who I am for a long time.”

Juan Gallegos. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Juan Gallegos, 29, discovered his political ambitions soon after moving from Mexico to Nebraska.

“When I first moved to the US, it was 2001, and it was my first year in middle school,” he said.

He didn’t speak much English, but he understood the language well enough to make a darn good pun: “I’m Juan in a million.” And so he ran for student body president, losing by just a few votes.

Today, Gallegos is the managing director of the CIRC Action fund, a sister organization of the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition, where he works to advance immigrant rights. He also has worked as CIRC’s director of civic engagement.

Along with his colleagues, he’s a frequent sight at the Colorado State Capitol and in communities across Colorado. As a DACA recipient, he sees his job as a way to rally others to political action.

“Ever since I was a little kid, (politics) felt like a great way for people to get their ideas heard,” said Gallegos. “One of my biggest hopes and dreams is to one day become a U.S. citizen and be able to vote, and then run for office.”

Danielle Glover. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

At age 32, Danielle Glover has at least three jobs.

She’s a “born leader” and she “single-handedly” relaunched the Colorado Young Democrats, as one of her nominators said -- although she insists that she worked with others to pull that off -- and she’s worked on political campaigns at all levels of government.

Today, she’s executive vice president for Young Democrats of America, a volunteer position. She also works as legal and government affairs manager for the Association of periOperative Registered Nurses, and she volunteers as vice-chair of the board of NARAL Pro-Choice Colorado.

What’s the unifying theme of all this work?

“It’s the ability to change policy, and everybody is engaged — the civic engagement piece, the voting, the getting people out to tell their stories,” she said. “It’s idealistic, sometimes, but people can really make a change in policy, whether that’s through voting, going to your city council meetings or testifying at the capitol.”

Glover holds a bachelor’s in political science and a master’s in public administration from the University of Colorado Denver, and her interests extend across public policy. “I happen to be one of those nerds that finds zoning codes and transportation policy fascinating,” she said.

Glover was raised in Brighton and lives today in Highland. She’s a snowboarder, a runner, a mountaineer -- and she has a dog named Rambo.

Leslie Herod. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

When Leslie Herod graduated from the University of Colorado Boulder, she founded New Era Colorado with Who’s Next: Politics peer Steve Fenberg and fellow recent graduates Lisa Kaufmann and Joe Neguse, and she walked into the Capitol with a resume and said she was ready to work.

Now 35, Herod has since held nearly every position within the Capitol and been elected to the State House of Representatives for District 8. And in securing that office, she became the first openly LGBT African American to be elected in Colorado — a fact that led her to create the Herod Leadership Fund.

“A passion of mine is ensuring that I’m not the only one and that we have diverse representation throughout our elected offices,” she said. “So I’m working with a lot of new candidates who are running.”

In her first year in office, Herod turned her focus to mental health issues and equity in schools and the justice system. Her office is running a ballot initiative called Caring 4 Denver that would create a 25-cent on $100 sales tax to provide community based mental health and substance abuse treatment. She also spends time working to bridge the divide between Denver and rural Colorado.

“I think what drives me is the work. I am very committed to affecting positive change in Colorado,” she said. “... I try to make sure that I’m putting the work and the people first at all times.”

Owen Loftus. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Owen Loftus, 35, has always known that politics would be his career. “Even when I was 18,” he said. “To clarify, I was a complete nerd.”

He was raised in a family of Democrats and “borderline socialists” in Pueblo, but his resume includes work for some of the most prominent Republicans in Colorado. Loftus, a graduate of Colorado State University - Pueblo, has worked as communications director for U.S. representatives Ken Buck and Mike Coffman.

His work with Coffman in the 2012 campaign is particularly emblematic of his style, he said. Redistricting had made the congressman’s district “very, very purple." Coffman won.

“Especially in a state like Colorado, you need bridge-builders,” he said. “I have my conservative principles and values, but you need to work with everyone.”

Today, Loftus runs Loftus Public Relations and works for the nonprofit Gill Foundation, where he works to educate conservative people about the importance of LGBTQ equality. A resident of the Highland neighborhood, he hopes to continue his work as “someone who convenes people,” but he doesn’t see an election run in his future.

“I think I’m too moderate,” he said.

Amber McReynolds. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Amber McReynolds, 39, used to watch her father at work in the courts of Illinois. He served as a public defender, a criminal defense lawyer and later a judge.

“From a very young age, I was frustrated with how government works,” she said. “I have always looked at things in a different way, and looked at what they could be instead of what they are.”

That ambition later would take her to England, where she completed a master’s in comparative politics at the London School of Economics and worked for Harriet Harman, an MP and the first woman to serve as solicitor general in the UK.

In 2005, McReynolds joined the Denver Elections Division. “I was actually asked by the person who would eventually be my boss, ‘Aren’t you a little young to do this job?’” she recalled. “That told me a lot about the culture that I was about to enter.”

By 2011, she was running the place, and she’s since gained national recognition. She helped to write the 2013 law that reformed voter registration and expanded mail-in voting across Colorado. In 2015, she led the adoption of new voting systems in Denver that were later adopted statewide.

What’s next? McReynolds, who is unaffiliated, will consider a run for elected office.

Brittany Morris Saunders. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Brittany Morris-Saunders, 38 and a Denver native, says she’s been working in Denver politics since the mid-’90s.

I’m that girl who knew as a very small child that I wanted to be in politics,” she said. “I knew exactly what I wanted to do.”

As a teenager, she got to work on city-changing projects like getting the Broncos a new stadium and beginning redevelopment in Stapleton. From there, she went on to become a political consultant, director of economic development for Commerce City, senior vice president of economic development and public affairs for the Downtown Denver Partnership and, now, president of local affairs for Sewald Hanfling Public Affairs (sponsor of Who’s Next: Politics).

One of her biggest projects as of late has been handling metro civic outreach for the Olympic exploratory process, reaching out to all Denver communities to provide the mayor and governor with feedback that represents all Denverites. She’s also been working with the Westfield Group as it begins its massive Wynkoop North development to pursue public money for an affordable artist housing and a collective art space on the site.

“I need to play a part in impacting my community,” she said.

Hillary Prendergast. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Hillary Prendergast, 28, has a busy spring — her three-person firm, WestBrooke Group, is fundraising for Walker Stapleton's gubernatorial campaign, George Brauchler's attorney general campaign and Wayne Williams' re-election campaign for Secretary of State. (WestBrooke also works with Colorado's House and Senate Republicans.)

That sizable portfolio belongs to an organization she describes as "boutique," because she and WestBrooke co-founder Monica Owens Beauprez — how's that for Colorado Republican lineage? — want to be picky about who they work with, and be able to work closely with clients like Stapleton, who she describes as family. (He officiated her wedding last year.)

Prendergast got her political start early, volunteering for the 2004 George W. Bush campaign in a field office in Jefferson City, Missouri. Mathletes among you have already worked out that she was 14 at the time. By 22, she was events director for Mitt Romney's presidential campaign in Colorado, ultimately organizing a major Red Rocks outing for Romney and running mate Paul Ryan, featuring Kid Rock, Rodney Atkins and New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez.

Katelyn Roberts. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Kate Roberts, 32, is right now watching one of her success stories continue to play out. The chief operating officer and senior project manager at EIS Solutions oversaw operations for the 2016 "Raise the Bar" campaign — Amendment 71, which passed.  That amendment is going through some legal challenges, but is at least for now in effect.

At EIS, the public affairs and advocacy firm where she's worked since 2011, she has focused on energy issues and is currently working on the redistricting effort spearheaded by DaVita CEO Kent Thiry. It's the kind of work she says she loves doing.

"I think Colorado voters are so unique in that they tend to gravitate toward looking to the long term for their state and making it better," she says.

Roberts says she got into politics after applying for — and getting — an internship in the George W. Bush White House, working in First Lady Laura Bush's office. She graduated from Ithaca College in 2008 and worked on Sen. John McCain's presidential campaign, then worked in Sen. Joseph Lieberman's office before coming to Colorado to work on the 2010 senate campaign of Lt. Gov. Jane Norton.

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