Candi CdeBaca frequently clashes with her colleagues on city council. She doesn’t think it’s preventing her from getting work done.

A meme she recently posted ignited what were already flaring tensions at Denver City Council.
8 min. read
Denver City Council member Candi CdeBaca stands in the legislative body’s main chambers at the City and County Building. March 16, 2022.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

Votes at Denver City Council meetings usually go something like this: Roll call is announced, and council member Candi CdeBaca ends up being the lone dissenter on a bill her colleagues voted for.

CdeBaca, who represents downtown, City Park, Clayton, Elyria Swansea, Globeville, and Five Points, said hers isn't a contrarian approach. In fact, that's a label she rejects. She said her votes are about doing the right thing.

"I don't vote 'no' for fun," CdeBaca said. "I vote 'no' on things we should vote no on and do it unapologetically."

While debate in the chambers isn't uncommon, CdeBaca's approach sometimes leave some council members visibly annoyed. And discussions underway about redistricting, which would create new council districts, have brought to light how much CdeBaca's approach to lawmaking can upset her colleagues.

Just look at what happened last week after CdeBaca posted a meme on social media comparing her fellow Latina lawmakers to a malinche, or a cultural traitor. The meme prompted rare public outcry from council members in the form of an op-ed that started with the words basta, or "enough."

The 13-member Denver City Council rarely sees the kind of public bickering growing more common in school board meetings and places like Aurora. That's not surprising; For one, Denver City Council is ruled by Democrats, so most members have similar political views. CdeBaca, who describes herself as a Democratic Socialist, is probably the most left-leaning member of council.

"I think it was a little bit clear when she was elected that Candi was going to be a bit of a contrarian, or wildcard, or a different kind of politician," said Paul Teske, dean of the School of Public Affairs at CU Denver.

Councilmember Amanda Sandoval, one of the targets of the meme, is leading the redistricting process. She said she's had one-on-one conversation about the process with all her colleagues, except for CdeBaca, whom Sandoval said doesn't take her calls, only texts. And texts, Sandoval said, are not a good medium for discussing nuanced policy.

"I have a good, healthy relationship with my colleagues," Sandoval said. "We're able to disagree without making personal attacks on each other, and understand we all were elected to represent the people in our neighborhood."

CdeBaca said she's felt like an outsider since her campaign days, when she ran as part of a cohort of Democratic Socialist who were trying to win seats on city councils around the U.S. She said that aligning herself with people who, in some cases, sought to unseat incumbents made things tense once she was elected.

"There was not going to be a red carpet and reception for me when I actually made it through," CdeBaca said.

Despite the tension, CdeBaca said she's still getting work done.

It's not always about votes, she said. Her successful grassroots campaign -- part of a historic wave that unseated incumbents around the country in 2019 -- was to "raise the consciousness of the people" and make them more civically engaged. She said her approach has worked.

"I didn't come here to make friends, I came here to vote and protect the people in my community, the marginalized communities," CdeBaca said. "I don't believe that the only place we get things done is on Monday nights."

City Council member Amanda Sandoval speaks as Northsiders celebrate La Raza Park's official renaming. Sunnyside, June 20, 2021.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

She has gotten work done, albeit with help from her colleagues. Some bills and actions CdeBaca said she's passed include:

There have been some misses, too. Her efforts to replace the Denver Police Department failed, drawing criticism from her colleagues. She teamed up with Councilmember Kevin Flynn, a frequent sparing partner in council chambers, last year for an unsuccessful bill to convert the city's two at-large district seats.

While the bill didn't go anywhere, starting the conversation was her goal, she said. In her view, pointing out the issues she saw with those at-large seats, along with highlighting concerns she's had with the redistricting process, could lead to residents taking up those changes themselves.

And she's partnered twice with Councilmember Amanda Sawyer to pass bills, including the right to counsel bill and the measure to give council final say on appointees once handpicked by the mayor.

CdeBaca said she's worked with people on council who are her "polar opposite" when it comes to policy.

"That right there shows that it's about personality," she said of the council members who penned the op-ed.

Collaboration is the norm on the council, Councilmember Jamie Torres said.

For example, Torres meets weekly with council members Jolon Clark and Flynn to hear from police who cover parts of their districts, and it's fairly common for bills to have co-sponsors.

Denver City Council member Candi CdeBaca attends a committee meeting in the body's main chambers at the City and County Building. March 16, 2022.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

Yet Torres, like Sandoval, characterized her relationship with CdeBaca as different. Before she came onto council, CdeBaca cast doubt about working with Torres.  But that hasn't stopped them from working together. Torres and CdeBaca are both members of a working group looking into mobile home parks in Denver.

Their approaches to lawmaking are different. Torres said some policy discussions are best kept between council members before they make their way to the public sphere. CdeBaca, on the other hand, often offers her views on policy on Twitter.

The tension between the two can be traced to other events. CdeBaca said Torres didn't contact her when Torres introduced a bill in 2021 making the city's police watchdog a council-confirmed position (the mayor used to select the independent monitor). CdeBaca tried doing something similar in 2020. Torres said she didn't include CdeBaca because her bill was different.

Torres said CdeBaca didn't give her colleagues a heads up when she filed an ill-fated bill to replace DPD with a "peace force." CdeBaca used a tactic called direct file, which lets council member send a bill directly to a vote without the usual committee hearing. The tactic isn't uncommon; it was used this month to repeal a bill giving the city auditor subpoena power (CdeBaca was the only council member to vote against that measure).

"Professional courtesy goes both ways," Torres said, referring to CdeBaca's use of the direct file to replace the police department.

Denver has a historic number of Latinas serving on council.

In addition to CdeBaca, Sandoval and Torres, council members Debbie Ortega and council president Stacie Gilmore also identify as Latinas.

Denver City Councilwoman Jamie Torres speaks during an all-day "retreat" to discuss housing and homelessness. Jan. 31, 2020. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

With the exception of Ortega, who represents the entire city as an at-large member, each lawmaker represents different areas of Denver and must balance their constituents' needs. It's not realistic to think that simply because they share the same ethnicity, they are going to always see eye to eye, Torres said.

"People can't always expect us to agree," she said.

The meme CdeBaca posted on her personal Instagram page made reference to La Malinche, an Indigenous woman seen as a traitor for working with the Spanish during their conquest of Mexico in the 1500s.

Teske said posting the meme wasn't a politically savvy move.

While it might have brought more attention to redistricting, it came at the cost of angering her peers, he said.

"The Denver City Council for a long time has been mostly Democrats, mostly left of center," Teske said. "There's infighting within parties and groups, but it seems like she's going out of her way to do that."

CdeBaca told Denverite she doesn't regret posting the meme, though she should have given it more context.

"How can the four of the most powerful people on the council feel bullied by the most powerless person on council?" CdeBaca said.

Sandoval called the meme "absolutely unnecessary" and said it felt more personal than the usual disagreements council members have.

"It's a culturally traumatic term," Sandoval said. "I've been called a lot of names. I've never been called a traitor or a sell out. That's what that felt like, that's how I interpreted it."

CdeBaca responded to the op-ed Sandoval and other members penned on Twitter, suggesting that if the press focused on the reaction to the meme rather than redistricting, it would be a disservice to the public. She said emotions were running high, but her vote for new district boundaries is the most important one she's ever cast as a council member, since redistricting could shift power in neighborhoods.

"I'll continue to unapologetically fight for my constituents, especially those with the least power, even when that may hurt some people's feelings," CdeBaca said in her statement.

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