Social justice lawmaker Jessie Ulibarri won’t run in 2016

Sen. Jessie Ulibarri, a Commerce City Democrat, will not seek a second term in the state Senate — unwelcome news for activists working on racial and economic justice, affordable housing, voting rights and LGBT issues.

For the past three years, in addition to his Senate work, Ulibarri has cultivated diverse political leadership nationally with the Wellstone Group. He will become the progressive organization’s Vice President for Impact and External Affairs, managing a program on political leadership, movement building and technology.

Part of Ulibarri’s decision to not run again stems from the death of his grandmother and mother-in-law. Those losses plus working two full-time jobs for the past four years have pushed Ulibarri’s limits, despite support from family, friends and colleagues.

Ulibarri and his husband Louis Trujillo have two children, a young daughter and a teenage son. The senator said he looks forward to having time to attend parent-teacher conferences.

Senate Minority Leader Lucia Guzman said today there aren’t many senators “who could leave behind the long, impressive list of legislative achievements in eight years that Jessie Ulibarri has accomplished in just four.”

One of Ulibarri’s signature Senate wins was a law that allows undocumented residents to obtain driver’s licenses. The program, passed in 2013, was intended to be self-sustaining.

But Republican obstruction, most notably from lawmakers on the Joint Budget Committee, has meant the program has been less successful than it could be. Now just three motor vehicle offices around the state issue undocumented immigrants’ driver’s licenses, causing a logjam in the courts.

Ulibarri is expected to fight for a House bill this session to put the program back in order, although the bill will face an uphill battle in the Republican-dominated Senate.

Jennifer Piper of the American Friends Service Committee, who has worked on the driver’s license issue, said Ulibarri will be missed at the Statehouse for his “rare mix” of working class roots and for providing a voice for those who lack one.

His new position will take Wellstone “into communities hungry for a voice. That’s what he’s done so well throughout his time at the Senate,” Piper said. Ulibarri is a “really grounded person who makes time to talk with everyday people who are organizing for change.”

One Colorado, an LGBT advocacy nonprofit, said in a statement that Ulibarri has been a defender “for all those whose voices have been drowned out by big money and special interests.”

The group lauded Ulibarri’s leadership and voice on LGBT issues, in particular on a bill currently in the House that would allow transgender people to update their gender on birth certificates.

Ulibarri was also celebrated by mental health advocates. Deb Obermeyer, director of external and community relations for the Community Reach Center, which provides mental health services, said “he brought a lot of awareness” to the mental health issues faced by Commerce City residents, and “has been very involved in championing for the people we serve.”

Last April the group recognized him as Legislator of the Year, in part for his sponsorship of a 2014 law that ended the use of solitary confinement in prisons for mentally ill inmates.

Rep. Dominick Moreno, a Commerce City Democrat, is Ulibarri’s choice to replace him at the Senate.

Also Latino and gay, Moreno will fight for social justice, undocumented immigrants and LGBT issues and will do a great job, said Ulibarri. “I wouldn’t be so comfortable in stepping away from the Senate if I did not have great confidence” in Moreno.

There’s virtually no chance Ulibarri’s decision will result in a pickup for Republicans in the state Senate, which the GOP controls by one seat. Ulibarri’s district has a majority Latino population and a 20 percent Democratic voter registration advantage, one of the largest gaps of any Senate district in the state.

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