Tuesday’s primaries brought some good news for Colorado progressives. Just not as much as they wanted.
Far-left candidates win some state House and Senate seats, but struggle in marquee races
As of Wednesday morning, for the first time in her adult life, Vanessa Quintana is no longer a Democrat.
The 27-year-old Denver activist registered as unaffiliated the day after Colorado’s primary election, which, she says, reminded her yet again that Colorado Democrats aren’t nearly supportive enough of the leftist, progressive wing of the party.
“White liberals failed me again,” Quintana says, lamenting Tuesday’s primary election results. “I thought our pussyhatters and white allies would come out and support radical change. But they’d rather like and share progressive ideals rather than voting them in at the ballot box.”
It’s a frustration progressives across the country are saying they feel, as the Democratic Party struggles to find harmony between its leftist flank and its more centrist establishment. In Colorado, which seems to get bluer every year, candidates who identify themselves as left — sometimes far left — of center made runs for several prominent seats in Tuesday’s primary. And they lost all of them.
Colorado progressives did win a slew of state House and Senate races, demonstrating that leftist values — among them eliminating corporate PAC money in politics, offering a single government-run health insurance option for all, defunding Immigration and Customs Enforcement and insisting upon a more inclusive and demographically representative government — comprise viable platforms in certain blue and deep-blue parts of the state.
They whiffed, however, in contests for state treasurer, U.S. Congress and attorney general. Jared Polis won the nomination for governor, but the progressive wing of the party has a very mixed view of him.
Quintana reels off a list of her Democratic primary disappointments: Progressive insurgent Saira Rao lost by more than 40 points in her bid to unseat 12-term incumbent Diana DeGette in Colorado’s 1st Congressional District. Progressive Bernard Douthit didn’t fare much better against Dave Young, a state representative from Greeley. And in the primary for attorney general, state Rep. Joe Salazar, who was endorsed by Sanders and was Colorado progressives’ best hope for a major win on Tuesday, lost by less than a point to law professor and establishment pick Phil Weiser, who outspent Salazar 12 to 1.
“I’m pretty upset about the treasurer race,” Quintana says. “CD1 is really heartbreaking. The fact that the AG race (was) so close is pretty upsetting, too.”
She vents: “Our ideals, our values aren’t supported in the Democratic party. If Democrats claim to be progressive and want to stand up to Donald Trump, why is it that Joe Salazar didn’t win in a landslide? Why didn’t the white liberals come out in support of a candidate of color? … White liberals claim to be progressive, yet they cannot and will not step aside to let someone else take on the fight.”
“We’ve got big plans”
Post-election interviews with 15 different Democratic politicians and organizers revealed that the progressive wing of Colorado, a state that went for Sanders in 2016, is at once encouraged by modest steps at the local level and profoundly discouraged by a party establishment they said they feel doesn’t speak or advocate for them.
There was a time when Salazar considered running for governor. He said he decided he couldn’t raise enough money to compete without compromising his progressive values, and so he ran for attorney general instead.
“It should be an exciting time to be a progressive, an energizing time, a time of change with millennials so involved,” he told The Colorado Independent earlier this month. “But the truth is it sucks to be a progressive in Colorado.”
On Wednesday, Rao took that sentiment a step further.
“I think it sucks to be a progressive in the Democratic Party,” said Rao, the 43-year-old Indian American and first-time candidate. “In some ways, it’s starting to feel like the two are mutually exclusive.”
Over a five-month campaign against DeGette, the most tenured member of Colorado’s congressional delegation, Rao refused corporate contributions, called for ICE to be abolished and spoke out about a “national epidemic” of police brutality and mass incarceration aimed at people of color.
DeGette, chief deputy whip for the House Democrats, won 86 percent of the vote in her 2016 primary race. Other than that, she hadn’t faced a primary since 2002. Rao generated considerable excitement among progressives in Colorado and built a diverse coalition of support. Tapped-in politicos of Colorado never thought she’d win, but many thought she could make DeGette sweat.
But DeGette won on Tuesday with 68 percent of the vote. “It really didn’t turn out to be a very strong challenge, did it?” she told The Denver Post.
Rao bristled at that comment, and said her 32 percent showed that change is on the way. That an unknown candidate who campaigned for less than half a year could claim a third of the vote in a fight with such a stalwart, Rao said, is evidence of what’s possible in the future.
On the same night Rao and DeGette squared off, New York City’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez shocked the establishment by upsetting 10-term Rep. Joe Crawley, signalling that, at least in some areas, democratic socialists — a far-left faction of the party galvanized by Bernie Sanders’s 2016 campaign — can have broad electoral appeal.
“It doesn’t remain to be seen how it’s going to play out moving forward,” said Rao, who is “absolutely considering” trying again in 2020, of the fight in Colorado. “We are going to be a force to be reckoned with going forward, and we’ve got big plans.”
If Rao’s showing at least proved there’s a real appetite for progressive politics in the state’s marquee races, the blueprint for actual victories remains unclear.
“I think there’s a consolidation of power in the Democratic Party and in Denver,” said Tony Pigford, a progressive vying for an at-large seat on the Denver City Council. “People are really reluctant to give up that power and it’s reflective of a corporate Democratic establishment party and of social ladder-climbing. They’re more interested in that than they are in putting the most vulnerable in our society at the center of our policymaking. So if you’re truly progressive, it’s very hard to succeed.”
It’s notable, of course, that Polis — the self-funded, multimillionaire Boulder Congressman who could become the first gay man elected governor in the U.S., and whose two main rivals benefitted hugely from PAC money — ran on a number of progressive promises, including Medicare for all and universal free pre-K and kindergarten.
Quintana’s not buying him as a progressive, though.
“He’s still the ruling class,” she said. “He’s a millionaire who bought his own campaign. Who could he relate to, honestly? He’s reluctant to call Colorado a sanctuary state, so is he really an ally?”
Rochelle Galindo, a progressive who just won in House District 50 in Weld County, was more complimentary in her assessment.
“He’s self-made and he’s definitely helped others to try to be successful themselves,” said Galindo. “I stand behind him because he’s very much a progressive. He’s someone who reflects my values.
“As blue as the sky”
Pigford and other progressives are celebrating wins by like-minded candidates in the state House and Senate, Julie Gonzales (SD34 in north and west Denver), Serena Gonzales-Gutierrez (HD4 in north and west Denver), Emily Sirota (HD9 in southeast Denver), Monica Duran (HD24 in Jefferson County); Robert Rodriguez (SD32 in southwest Denver), Kyle Mullica (HD34 in Adams County), Galindo and several who ran unopposed.
But only one of those candidates — Galindo, who ran against former legislator and state insurance commissioner Jim Riesburg — beat an opponent who is truly moderate. Galindo is 28 years old, gay, Latina, and works as both a Greeley city councilwoman and an elementary school custodian. Riesburg is 76 years old, has held multiple important political offices in the state and does not identify as a progressive.
Outside of the HD50 race, on the issues and with regard to establishment ties, there wasn’t much daylight between the other progressives who won and the candidates they beat, said Gonzales, a first-time politician at age 35 who works at Denver’s Meyer Law Office to advance immigrant rights.
It’s easier, Gonzales said, to build a true grassroots movement in Colorado’s House and Senate races, in which candidates are campaigning in much smaller pools than, say, those in which Salazar, Douthit and Rao campaigned.
“In a local race like mine, people would get upset if I wasn’t at every single event or didn’t go knock on a door personally,” she added. “We had to make sure our team was out knocking doors, out in force, and that’s harder to do on the state level, and it’s harder to do in Congress.”
Gonzales recalled attending a rally at the state Capitol in 2012 and hearing a speaker shout, as they motioned above, “We’re gonna turn Colorado as blue as this sky!”
Gonzales and a friend noted to one another, half-jokingly, that the sky happened to be looking a little dull that day. The wave they sought was a much deeper blue.
“Just red versus blue, Democratic versus Republican — that’s not enough,” Gonzales said Wednesday. “It’s how you show up for the constituents who comprise the Democratic Party.
“To me, a progressive is someone who is willing to do the work to actually get proactive change done,” she said. “So it’s nice to talk about immigration reform, but are you willing to actually do the work to protect immigrant families from Donald Trump’s rogue ICE agents? Talking about a clean environment is nice, but are you willing to come out and follow the community’s lead and ban fracking or sign on to the 2,500-foot (drilling) setbacks as a rule? Words are nice, policy is better.”
That’s Gonzales’ definition, but ask another dozen Democrats what the label means to them, and you’ll get as many different answers. And even those who may be cast as the “moderate” or “establishment” Democrats in primary races often refer to themselves as being progressive.
Weiser, who said he’s not fond of labels, said when asked if he considers himself a progressive, “I believe in progressive values and I believe Democrats stand for progress.”
He argued that the progress must be practical, however. Calls from the far left for ICE’s dismantling aren’t realistic, Weiser said.
“ICE is an incredibly large organization that governs customs,” he said. “The fact that the current operations of ICE are an affront — we’ve got to stop those actions, but there are some functions within ICE that serve legitimate purposes, such as customs.”
DeGette said something similar in an interview last week: “I think people who say we should abolish ICE, I’m not sure they mean to abolish the entire agency, because they do have some legitimate law enforcement jobs.”
Hearing remarks like those, Quintana said she feels the word “progressive” has lost meaning, and can be claimed by just about anyone on the left.
“I prefer the term radical now. I prefer transformational leadership and radical change.”
To Carlos Valverde of the Colorado Working Families Party — and formerly of Colorado Progressive Action — radical change means an agenda of resistance against establishment rule from both left and right. Valverde said that among the candidates his group endorsed as champions of progressive ideals, Tuesday’s election delivered “a mixed bag.”
“While we’re doing really really well at the grassroots level, there are still establishment forces at play that we’ll eventually have to take on,” he said. “There is no progress without struggle, and so we will have to continue to struggle.”
Photos of Colorado progressives who ran in 2018 Democratic primaries are sourced from their respective official public Facebook profiles. Collage image by Mark Castillo.
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