BOULDER, Colo. — Steve Fenberg has headed the successful youth-voter group NewEra Colorado for the last nine years, and he is now running to replace term-limited Rollie Heath as Boulder’s state senator. Right now, Fenberg is unopposed as the sole Democratic candidate. But his candidacy will make waves.
He may be the first state candidate for a major party to run on a platform that places climate change at the top of his legislative priority list. He won’t be the last.
“I am running to unapologetically fight for bold action against the climate crisis,” he says at his campaign website.
“Look, there’s no getting around the work we have to do on this,” he explained to The Colorado Independent last week. “We have to maintain a livable planet. It’s the biggest problem of our generation. I just think it makes sense to look at the science and to develop solutions. What’s the alternative?”
He knows the alternatives.
Politicians are powerfully motivated not to run on climate change platforms. On one hand, many of them have little experience imagining what they can do to effectively address the issue. What’s more, their pollsters tell them voters don’t feel strongly about the issue, anyway. On the other hand, candidates know fossil-fuel interests are donating millions of dollars to election campaigns and pouring millions more into message machinery that plays down climate change as a problem and that casts politicians like Fenberg as extremists who will ruin the nation’s economy.
“If people want to label the idea of working to maintain a livable planet as extreme, if they want to label me as an extremist for doing that, I’m okay with it,” Fenberg said.
He is running in the right district for the message. He knows that voters in Boulder’s Senate District 18 have made up their mind on climate change — and that they agree with him about it. No serious candidate running for office here will deny or dodge the climate issue.
Boulder is home to the state’s flagship University of Colorado campus, which is strong in environmental studies. The city is also home to some of the nation’s top environmental, atmospheric and climate research centers.
Boulder residents in 2006 were the first in the nation to vote in favor of a city carbon tax. The money collected from that tax fueled Boulder’s “climate action plan,” which led, in 2010, to voters rejecting a new 20-year-franchise agreement with Xcel Energy, the state’s main power provider. Then in 2011, the city voted to establish a local public electric utility that would move off of coal altogether and supply residents with power generated entirely by natural gas and renewable energy. Supporters of the plan say that, compared to Xcel, which has coal-industry partnerships to honor and shareholders to please, the Boulder utility will have greater freedom and flexibility to embrace new technologies as they develop in the fast-moving clean-energy field.
NewEra, under Fenberg’s direction, joined the coalition that spearheaded the public utility drive. The coalition faced strong opposition from Xcel. The Minnesota-based power company waged a series of expensive campaigns against the plan. It spent $1 million fighting the 2011 ballot initiative that proposed the city utility, and it spent $730,000 to promote a 2013 initiative designed to hobble progress setting up the utility. The company feared Boulder’s success would act as a model for similarly motivated cities and towns around the country.
“This was a local issue, but it was bigger than that, too,” Fenberg told The Colorado Independent on Election Night in 2013. “I think we proved politics can still be about people and not about expensive political consultants.”
Fenberg’s NewEra organization specializes in creative neighborhood and campus efforts to motivate young people to vote. The group has registered more than 100,000 Coloradans. “Hands-on democracy for our generation” is the slogan. Fenberg has a street-level view of politics.
“Go home, Xcel,” he said after the 2013 vote-tallies came in. “Your money is no good here.”
In addition to climate change, Fenberg says his legislative priorities include further streamlining the voting process and expanding economic opportunity. He jumped into the Senate race in March and has gained endorsements from many local leaders.
Candidate papers filed with the Secretary of State for 2016 suggest that, at 31, Fenberg, so far, is the youngest official candidate running for state legislative office and that he has raised an amount at the top or near the top of the campaign hauls filed. He raised $22,527 in first-quarter funds from roughly 240 donors.
Fenberg said he had been fundraising for 28 days and that the average donation was $100.
“I know it’s early,” he said. “Hey, I announced before Hillary Clinton did.”
Top photo Steve Fenberg via J-Lab; and, middle, NewEra Colorado promo material.