As the first transgender person to run for public office in a city of Aurora’s size, Bennett’s voice on the issues can be drowned out by the buzz about her personal life.Even in the early 1970s when she was stationed at Lowry Air Force Base as an engineer, Pam Bennett got irritated when people dismissed Aurora as a seedy suburb of Denver.
Now she’s running for Aurora City Council on a promise to transform the city of over 300,000 people into one with world-class attractions, in the process breaking Aurora’s image as a sprawling, high-crime hinterland east of Denver.
“We already have a start with the hospital, that’s an opportunity almost no city gets,” said Bennett referring to the new University of Colorado medical campus at the old Fitzsimmons site at Colfax Avenue and Peoria Street “That alone is the basis of a new Aurora. We can make this city the healthcare and research center of the Rocky Mountain West.”
If she is elected, Bennett, 57, says she’ll push for the construction of a performing arts center and a convention hall to spur cultural growth on the heels of the economic boost provided by the new medical center.
Aurora is also being considered as a possible site for a NASCAR racetrack, a development Bennett would welcome as part of the plan to put Aurora on the map for tourists and investors.
Besides considering the construction of a racetrack, the new Aurora City Council will tackle rising water costs, a violent-crime rate that is above the national average, and an alarming number of home foreclosures.
Four incumbent council members are fighting to keep their seats, and a fifth is running unopposed. Aurora voters will also decide whether to allow Mayor Edward Tauer a second term.
But Pam Bennett has gotten far more attention than the other Aurora candidates. As the first transgender person to run for public office in a city of Aurora’s size, Bennett has been covered extensively by media from national news magazines to the local papers.
But when the public interest is centered on the personal details of one’s life, the attention isn’t always welcome. Here’s the candidate for Aurora City Council At-large, Pam Bennett, in her own words.
Q: Are your views on campaign issues getting lost in the story about your personal life?
Yes. The story is me at times when it should be the issues. Originally everyone was focused on what I was – transgender – and not what I was doing. It’s just where we are in our society … most people haven’t come in contact with anybody out the way I am, running for office … Now I think that part is over with. Now I’m a politician who happens to be transgender. Now when I get coverage it’s because I send out a press release on an important issue … But I’m kind of unique to the world, and I have to accept that as I go forward.
Q: Was it a hard decision to enter the race and open yourself up to public scrutiny?
Yes. It was a decision that is irreversible. I knew going in that if I filed, I would become internationally known. And with that comes a whole different approach to living because I’m a public figure now. The decision to do that meant I was making a decision for my entire life. It was tough to say, “Hey, I’m strong enough and I’m the person to do this.” But at that point I was ready to become a politician and a leader within my community.
Q: Has it been hard getting the voters to look beyond the fact you are transgender?
I haven’t had any problems. My voters care more about having someone represent them. On the trail, it hasn’t been a problem. I’d say it’s been more of a problem in politics because they want a safe bet. I’m not a safe bet – that’s usually the incumbent or a white male. If you’re a woman, you’re not a safe bet … But for some people it’s a cultural thing. You can’t get around that. Just by being me makes some people uncomfortable. I have to face reality. I knew going in it wouldn’t be easy, but it’s actually been easier than I though it would be.
Q: What would be your priority as city council member?
The first priority is looking at the housing situation with Fitzsimmons and foreclosures. We have tens of thousands of people coming to work at Fitzsimmons that we aren’t prepared for. We have a ton of foreclosures here in the city – at least four percent, and I’ve had realtors tell me it’s as high as 10 percent. Because these properties are usually auctioned off, the city can actively pursue a way to get sellers and buyers together. This is something doable right away … it would take the properties that are empty and put them together with people who need a place to live. As a city, we can get these two groups together and solve a private- and public-sector problem at the same time.
Q: If you had the power to change one thing when you got to office, what would it be?
I’ve always considered that the toughest question. I think it’s kind of like spreading a dust, a special knowledge dust – getting people to realize we’re not just a suburb. We are a major U.S. city. The city as a whole has to change its understanding that we’re no longer a bedroom community but a major job center of the Rocky Mountain West. People see Aurora as what it was. The difference between when I first came here in 1972 is huge. It’s not even the same place.
Q: If you are elected, will you feel extra responsibility as a role model to other aspiring politicians within the LGBT community?
I see it more as a responsibility, not to the LGBT community – I’m already recognized as doing something almost no one else has done – but to the rest of the world that has misconceptions about who we are. I’m breaking down barriers and helping people understand we are all humans and in this together. People are figuring out that I’m concerned about the same issues they are. We’re no different than anyone else, and that’s the big educational value if I win.