A spirit of political insurgency has run through state and national politics in this mid-term election cycle. Now, it’s reaching Denver’s local politics.
The city’s next elections are 10 months away, and 32 people already have filed for mayor or council. This week, we’ll cover District 8 in northeast Denver, where Councilman Chris Herndon faces two challengers who identify as Berniecrats, or progressive liberals.
The election promises to provide a year of conversation in a district that defies easy description. District 8 includes the city’s notorious and beloved Colfax Avenue, historic neighborhoods, swaths of suburbia and, of course, the new master-planned community of Stapleton.
In this district, you’ll find all of Denver’s modern issues: There’s the creep of gentrification into places like Northeast Park Hill and Montbello, a refuge of homeownership for working-class families. District 8 is also home to some of Denver’s last “green” acres where new development can occur. In some sections it’s a food desert where leaders have long tried to attract groceries and other services.
In Stapleton, residents are wrestling with the new neighborhood’s name and its connection to Denver’s history of racism. And the district is split by Interstate 70, which is set for years of construction, and by the A Line, which could bring dense new development.
Councilman Herndon, 41, a U.S. Army captain, is running for a third term in the district. He describes himself as a connector and a servant — eager to help residents and businesses find opportunities in northeast Denver.
His opponents — Miguel Adrian Ceballos-Ruiz, 32, and Erik Penn, 31 — emphasize their community roots, and they position themselves as progressive alternatives who will better represent the full district.
Miguel Adrian Ceballos-Ruiz:
Ceballos-Ruiz resigned from his position as an officer in the Colorado Democratic Party to start his council run. He says that he’s deeply familiar with the problems that decades of under-investment created in northeast Denver.
“Growing up in Montbello, you always wonder: Why is my community at a disadvantage? Why do we always get the short end of the stick? Why are all the other neighborhoods getting all the resources?” he said.
He cites the long-running lack of a grocery store as one example. A “Save-A-Lot” store only recently opened on Montbello’s east side, in the neighboring council district, and some western sections of the district are considered to be food deserts.
Ceballos-Ruiz grew up in Montbello, and he sees the “Summer of Violence” in 1993 as a prime example of the mistreatment of northeast Denver. That year, a series of gruesome shootings convinced legislators to build more jail space and charge more teenagers as adults.
“I believe that the solutions to that violence came through the community. It was the community members standing up,” he said. “A lot of people think it was tough-on-crime legislation, the militarization of police. But I think it was different. I think it was the community.”
Ceballos-Ruiz worked with his brother in the oil fields of Texas from 2011 to 2015, an experience that he said exposed him to dangerous chemicals and galvanized his concerns about how industry affects workers. He returned to Montbello to help his mother, who struggled to keep her home after an accident limited her ability to work.
“Oh, man. Denver had changed a lot in that time. I started noticing that specifically Five Points and the north side had become extremely gentrified,” he said. “The community and the families that had lived there, they were no longer there. There was a new demographic of people living there: young, professional white people starting up their families.”
That experience, combined with Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign, got him thinking about the roots of inequity in America, he said — especially discrimination in lending and employment. And he criticizes the incumbent as someone who “hasn’t kept an ear to the ground.”
He was particularly disappointed, he said, by Herndon’s vote against a $200,000 fund to help immigrants with court cases. (Several council members questioned whether it was a good use of public dollars; Herndon wanted to initially fund it through private donations, he said.)
“Young, progressive people of color are the future of the Democratic Party,” Ceballos-Ruiz said. “We need to come and we need to talk about the changes that we’re going to see, to start to attack the inequities that we see, and start building a more socially conscious community at the city level.”
He plans to pursue the endorsement of the Working Families Party, the progressive group that hopes to shape the city elections. Ceballos-Ruiz is currently a manager for a culinary company and a board member for Montbello Organizing Coalition.
As a council member, he said, he would cut back the influence of developers and pursue new solutions to housing, such as modular homes, tiny homes, accessory dwelling units and renewed investment in public housing.
He also wants the city to expand its housing assistance programs. Currently, some people can get city funds to cover a 4 percent down-payment on a home loan. The candidate wants that expanded to 10 percent, and to adopt a “no-tolerance policy” against discriminatory lenders.
Meanwhile, he describes some of Denver’s larger infrastructure projects — such as the $800 million National Western Center — as a “complete waste of resources.” He worries that the East Colfax corridor will “become the next target of massive displacement.” And he’s generally not impressed by the Denver City Council, except for its votes on immigration issues.
“I think that we’ve been focusing a whole lot on projects that we shouldn’t be focusing on,” he said. Mayor Michael Hancock is trying to build a “world-class city,” he added, “but what I want is world-class neighborhoods. We need to go back to the ideology that communities know what’s best for their community.”
Erik Penn has an education in community social work and he serves as co-chair of the Montbello 20/20 neighborhood organization. He works today as a project manager at Children’s Hospital Colorado. Having spent his teenage years around southeast Denver, he moved to Montbello five years ago.
Like his fellow challenger, he criticizes the incumbent and the administration, and he too comes from the “Bernie” vein of national politics, though he says he has a more conciliatory approach.
“I felt like our community is vocal, and I feel like they’re being ignored,” he said in an interview. “I can say that for pretty much all of District 8, from Park Hill to Montbello, people know the problems that they face — and every time they put up solutions, city council is putting up barriers.”
He points to the saga of the Fairfax park, a controversial land deal that will create a park between a developer’s properties. And he too feels the city hasn’t done enough to attract grocery stores.
“Telling your neighborhood that you can’t get a grocery store because they don’t have density, they don’t have money, sometimes it feels as if you have an opponent there,” he said. (Herndon said he has worked hard to convince grocers to invest despite the companies’ hesitation.)
Penn said he would take a project manager’s approach to governance — taking constant input and creating useful data on community demands. One of his major goals is to bring services closer to the district’s single-family neighborhoods.
“How many of our areas are drive-in, drive-out communities? Can we bring amenities, resource, retail into the community?” he said. Part of the answer is to build denser buildings along larger roads and transit corridors.
“I would like to see potentially road widening, a better sidewalk network, more transit that runs through neighborhoods, ” he said.
He also wants to see more accessory dwellings, and he wants developers to include lower-cost units in their projects. (Currently, they can simply pay a fee toward the city’s affordability efforts.) And he says the city must enforce the spirit of the new “green roof” law approved by voters, rather than allowing developers to buy their way out of the new requirement.
He also questions some of the city’s development choices, including council’s recent approval of high-rise development on “Fox Island.” (Some council members said that the city should have demanded affordable housing requirements on the site.)
But Penn also said the city needs to take a lighter touch with some landlords. When properties don’t meet city codes, the city should incentivize landlords to fix them, rather than immediately issuing warnings and fines. Punitive measures can encourage peple to sell, displacing renters, he said.
Another way to protect residents, he says, is to fight back against “predatory assaults on homeowners,” such as the property buyers who post signs around neighborhoods. Often, those buyers offer sub-par deals.
In conversation, Penn’s quick to jump into the details of city policy and his ideas, downplaying his own story. But, when asked, he ties all this back to a childhood that showed him first-hand what it means to live with less.
“I had a rougher childhood coming up. By the time I was 25, I had moved 26 times,” he said. “We were a low-income family that struggled … That experience of seeing hardship, across state lines, from city to city … that lived experience that I have — tied to seeing their hard work ethic — it fused together for me.”
Today, he lives with his spouse and cares for a niece and nephew. He says he’ll bring a hard-nosed approach to the job, but he’ll look for partners too.
“Attacking people and making them uncomfortable at times has a purpose,” he said. But, he added, “I think you really have to bring people onboard. You have to tell these stories of why this is important. You have to build ally-ship.”
And, like Ceballos-Ruiz, he questioned how closely incumbent Herndon was listening to residents. As a council member, Penn said, he would find new ways to solicit and track community input.
“I am energized by holding office hours, going to a grocery store and signing people up,” he said.
In contrast to the criticism, Herndon, 41, describes himself as a public servant who’s constantly looking for ways to connect community members.
“I have been serving my adult life. I started out serving in the military, just shy of seven years,” he said. “When I moved here, I quickly got involved in the community. It’s always been about service. This position is about serving the community.”
Herndon was a captain in a U.S. Army field artillery unit, and also has worked as an airline ramp supervisor and a Walmart store manager. He moved to Stapleton in 2009, and got his introduction to politics when he met then-councilman Michael Hancock at a local event.
“He was talking about the importance of voting … I went out to introduce myself. Councilman Hancock didn’t know me from anyone,” he said. “It was just really impressive of him, for him to stop and acknowledge me.”
By 2011, Herndon was running for Hancock’s seat, and Hancock was running for mayor. (A redistricting later changed Herndon from District 11 to District 8.)
Now running for his third term, Herndon said that he took a lesson from that meeting with the future mayor: “We meet with anybody. We will come to you.” But he also doesn’t hesitate to push back against the mayor or his fellow council members, he said.
“We don’t always agree on things, but we’re always professional,” he said.
For an example, he pointed to his vote against the city’s new affordable housing fees, which were expected to deliver about $15 million per year over 10 years.
“I said, ‘$150 million over 10 years is not sufficient,'” he said. Instead, he said, he wanted to spend $15 million immediately from the general fund and add another $35 million in debt. (He didn’t specify the $35 million at the time, but it was his intention, he said.)
That wouldn’t have guaranteed a long-term funding source, but it could have provided an immediate surge of money.
“How far could we have gone with $50 million two years ago?” he asked.
Herndon’s not the most talkative council member in the chambers — his style is more “quiet confidence,” he said, a style he picked up from a military mentor. But the incumbent also said that he has pushed the administration to expand its planning efforts in northeast Denver, including through the “area plans” that are in progress now.
“This is where you see the growth coming,” he said. “What does it look like, that we can welcome those who are coming, and maintain the fabric of these communities?”
A large part of that growth, he said, will come in the form of dense development around stations. And he’s not interested in expanding roads. Instead, it’s “more on getting people out of their cars,” he said, citing local investments in Car2Go, bus-rapid transit on Colfax and the A Line as an example.
In some cases, he’s played a direct role in shaping that growth. He created a committee to determine the future of the Stapleton air-traffic control tower, and later reached out to the leadership of Punch Bowl Social.
“I looked at (Robert Thompson) and said, ‘What do you think of the tower?'” Herndon recalled, seated outside the new bar, eatery and bowling alley. (A Punch Bowl representative confirmed Herndon’s account.) “This is a far northeast icon that’s been recognized worldwide.”
And he touted his service to current residents, saying that he had recently convened city agencies to answer residents’ questions about properties in Montbello.
He’s also particularly proud of his Northeast Denver Leadership Week, a program that connects high school students with leaders around Denver. It’s a large part of his answer to social inequities, he said.
“I think the way you do that is you make sure that people are aware of the opportunities,” he said. “We’re that convener. We let people know, these are the opportunities.”
He’s preparing for his election challenge, he said, but the campaign won’t enter full swing until late this year.
Correction: This post originally misstated Herndon’s age and the year of his arrival in Stapleton.