“Tea Party of the left” claims victory as its progressive candidates advance in Denver. What’s next?

The Working Families Party has operated in New York City for 20 years, but this is the first time they’ve run a real ground campaign in Colorado.
7 min. read
Julie Gonzales shoots video of a press conference on the possible repeal of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, known as DACA, Sept. 1, 2017. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

A handful of brand-new state politicians were most likely minted on Tuesday in Denver's primary elections -- and the results answered a few big questions about the politics in Colorado's Democratic powerhouse.

1. Was Denver going to lose its Latino representation? It was a possibility, since four incumbent Latino officials are exiting the statehouse while the demographics of their districts shifts.

But it didn't happen: Alex Valdez, Robert Rodriguez, Julie Gonzales and Serena Gonzales-Gutierrez are likely to be the area's next senators and representatives.

2. Would an influx of outside money reshape the races? Apparently not. Rodriguez beat Zach Neumann despite heavy spending from insurance and real-estate interests, though Neumann had some support of his own.

3. Who would win the progressive parade? As we reported earlier, basically everyone across five primaries in Denver described themselves as a "progressive."

And along with all those candidates came a new factor in local politics: The Working Families Party. The political group has operated in New York City for 20 years, but this is the first time they've run a real ground campaign in Colorado.

"This is our debut, I like to say," said Carlos Valverde, director of Colorado Working Families Party. "Our first campaign."

As it turns out, they chose some winners. WFP endorsed the victors in four out of five competitive local races, including endorsements for Gonzales, Gonzales-Gutierrez, Rodriguez and Sirota (WFP endorsed Meghan Nutting, who lost to Valdez in House District 5). And it could be an effective show of force before the group jumps into Denver's municipal elections for 2019.

"Some people describe us as the Tea Party to the left," Valverde said. "In the same way the Tea Party pulled Republicans to be more conservative, Working Families Party pulls Democrats to be more progressive."

WFP put money into these often overlooked races — but still not as much as some of their candidates' opponents had.

For example, the group spent more than $30,000 on Rodriguez's campaign is southwestern Denver. Valverde said that the new group was competing against Neumann's strong support -- more than $220,000 in independent spending -- from real-estate, insurance and other interests.

"In the Rodriguez race, we were just so outgunned," Valverde said. In that race, the group sent mailings to apartment buildings that are harder for campaigners to access.

For his part, Rodriguez said his campaign ran on people power. "As much as it helped that they were in the race, I’d like to think that everyone (involved in the campaign) was a help," he said.

"It was a hard, bootstrap, hit the doors, 'talk to as many people as we can' race," Rodriguez said. Election maps showed that he enjoyed strong support in western Denver, home to working-class and Latino voters, while Neumann won closer to downtown and the Interstate 25 corridor.

WFP also spent more than $30,000 on behalf of Sirota, plus a $35,000 combined campaign for Gonzales, Gonzales-Gutierrez and attorney-general candidate Joe Salazar in northwest Denver. Sirota and Salazar also were endorsed by U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, a patron saint for some progressives.

"We invested heavily in that area. We made over 6,000 phone calls there, we did about 2,500 door knocks in that area, sent nearly 30,000 text messages," Valverde said. The group targeted voters who are less likely to vote, hoping to activate people the campaigns missed.

The new group is contributing to the trend of increased spending.

Both Rodriguez and Sirota had complained about outside spending on their opponents -- but Valverde said that Working Families was different because it was funded by unions and individuals rather than corporate interests. The organization now has a budget over $350,000.

Valverde described Working Families as a "supplement," but guessed that Gonzales and Gonzales-Gutierrez would have won regardless.

Progressives generally support universal or expanded health-care access, criminal justice reform and limits on corporate influence in elections, among other policies. Valverde acknowledged that the dozens of Denver candidates held very similar positions, making the endorsement process a tricky one.

So, WFP's endorsement committee found differences in how candidates handled "intersectionality" -- for example, how they talked about the environmental case against fossil fuels alongside the jobs impacts of shrinking that industry.

The committee also judged them on "racial justice," especially on immigration, Valverde said. Candidates lost points if they said that sanctuary policies shouldn't protect immigrants with criminal records.

But some say a progressive "wave" didn't materialize.

Halisi Vinson, president of Colorado Black Women for Political Action, contested the idea that the Denver results showed a particular surge for progressive or non-establishment politics. Rodriguez has activist bona fides, she said, but he was also a delegate for Hillary Clinton.

"I don’t feel like I saw a wave," she told Denverite. "The amount of pushback we got on (congressional challenger) Saira Rao told me, we're going to go with the tried and true."

It's true: Progressives weren't unanimously successful this week, especially at the state level. Working Families' guy for attorney general -- Joe Salazar, who also was endorsed by Sanders -- is trailing Phil Weiser, who's more affiliated with the Clinton side of the Democratic Party. Salazar was sharply critical of Weiser, while the statehouse candidates ran somewhat gentler campaigns.

Now, the question is whether Working Families will become a persistent presence in local politics. The day after the election, Julie Gonzales described herself as a "founding member" of Colorado Working Families Party. Valverde sees the group as filling a gap in progressive politics, connecting the many different single-issue nonprofits and committees.

Paul Teske, dean of the school of public affairs at CU Denver, said that despite its early successes, CWFP could have trouble keeping up in larger races.

"The local level, it's a small number of voters. If you can get energy, enthusiasm, and especially if you're using that to counter against money, that can succeed in a race with 10,000 votes," he told Denverite. "It's much harder to scale up into the larger races."

But if Democrats take the state Senate, it could open the door for more progressive policies -- a possibility that was looking more likely with the high number of votes in the Democratic races, Teske said.

"We could look at putting TABOR on the ballot and important things like that — talking about universal pre-K, asking the voters for funding," Rodriguez said.

And new leaders in Denver's safe seats could shape that agenda.

"I do think they’ll make a difference," Vinson said of Working Families. "If you look historically, the Democratic Party has been moving further to the right ever since Reagan. We have allowed the other side to frame the issues in away that is disingenuous or in some ways just outright lies."

So, as the dust settles, Democrats in Denver are regrouping and preparing for more debates about the future of the party -- and for the general-election contest with Republicans.

Working Families will stay involved in the general election, aiming to influence candidate Jared Polis' choice of a lieutenant governor. Meanwhile, Colorado Black Women for Political Action will be building its own bench of young leaders, Vinson said.

"One voice can change a room," she said. And, in 2019, CWFP will return its focus to the local level, where it will support a slate of Denver municipal candidates.

"We're trying to not just win campaigns but build a movement," Valverde said.

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