Departing Denver Councilmember Robin Kniech wants to pass the torch to Rep. Serena Gonzales-Gutierrez

The state lawmaker from the Northside has used her position in the Colorado Capitol to address Denver housing issues with Kniech.
4 min. read
State Rep. Serena Gonzales-Gutierrez stands at 41st Avenue and Tejon Street, the site of Servicios De La Raza’s old headquarters where she spent a lot of time as a kid. Nov. 19, 2022.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

Denver City Councilmembers are not appointees. The people elect them. Yet Councilmember Robin Kniech has a very clear vision of who she wants to take her place in the City Council chambers: Democratic State Rep. Serena Gonzales-Gutierrez.

Gonzales-Gutierrez will be the only candidate Kniech plans to endorse for an At Large City Council seat.

"It's not like you can groom a successor necessarily and think about handing over the reins," Kniech said.

But if she could...

Currently, 12 people are in the race for at-large seats.

Some have big names and coffers. Others are little known.

Candidates just need a plurality of votes -- the most, not necessarily the majority -- to win. Kniech herself won with less than 28% of the vote in 2019.

Looking at the candidates running for at-large seats, Kniech was impressed with the smarts and motivations of the people in the field. She doubted whether she'd endorse any one person.

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

"But when Serena Gonzales-Gutierrez told me that she was stepping in this race, I knew right away that I would be making one endorsement and one endorsement only," Kniech said.

The current councilmember is impressed with Gonzales-Gutierrez's ability to successfully work with both legislative and executive agencies and her understanding of government.

But it's more than Gonzales's know-how that persuaded Kniech to back the representative.

"She's lived this experience of being in the city," Kniech said. "And so for all those reasons, I'm really excited to endorse her."

Raised and now representing the Northside, Gonzales-Gutierrez has felt displacement and struggled to make Denver more equitable.

Her mom was displaced from her home to make way for the Auraria Higher Education Campus. Her family, including her grandfather Rodolfo "Corky" Gonzales, have been architects of the Chicano movement through the Crusade for Justice and Escuela Tlatelolco.

Gonzales-Gutierrez and her husband have worked low-income jobs and managed to buy a home when doing so was still affordable -- watching the Northside, the frontline of rapid redevelopment and displacement -- transform around them.

She has worked with both city government and Denver Human Services and has a keen sense of both the city and county functions of Denver, Kniech said. Few councilmembers have paid much attention to Denver as a county, and the body would benefit from somebody who has expertise in that area.

Kniech, a lawyer, knows housing policy inside-out. Her version of the small talk involves rattling off studies and crafting new rules to make housing accessible in a city where it's become anything but.

Geeking out over policy -- that largely gets implemented -- has been one of Kniech's favorite holiday-party pastimes with Gonzales-Gutierrez.

District 4 Rep. Serena Gonzales-Gutierrez, Colorado House of Representatives, April 19, 2019. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

The two worked together on a state bill that gave local municipalities the right to increase income-restricted housing for people through inclusionary zoning.

That was instrumental in allowing City Council to pass Expanding Housing Affordability last year -- one of Kniech's legacy programs. That's the program that requires developers to do more to create affordable housing.

Some developers have argued the program, which increases costs, will be passed on to tenants and property owners and will ultimately make housing more expensive, while others have backed it, saying it's one of many tools the city needs to create more affordable housing.

Gonzales-Gutierrez has also sponsored bills that have pushed millions in state dollars to behavioral health and affordable housing programs on the local level.

"That has been a huge part of the work that I've done in the legislature," Gonzales-Gutierrez said. "And a lot of it is rooted in making sure that people have access to those to those very basic needs: housing, health care, food. And that we're able to systematically tackle those things and help our partners at the local level."

Those are issues that Kniech has attempted to address in her three terms in office, too. But good intentions aren't enough, she said.

"It's one thing to have a vision for the city to be more equitable, and she has that," Kniech said. "But she also has the ability to leverage the knowledge to bring that vision to reality."

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