The maverick and the reformer: Sandgren v. Salazar

He’s a maverick Democratic lawmaker who supports Bernie Sanders for president.

She’s a Republican teacher who believes in the power of education to change children for the better, but who also believes that the current system doesn’t work.

They’re both from Thornton, and the similarities mostly end there.

The House District 31 race will pit incumbent Rep. Joe Salazar against Jessica Sandgren in a race that Republicans very much want to win.

Sandgren’s kickoff in January brought in House Republican leadership and state GOP Chair Steve House to sing her praises. House Minority Leader Brian DelGrosso of Loveland said at the kick-off that Sandgren would be one of the keys to Republicans taking over the House, where they’re currently at a three-seat disadvantage, 31 to 34. They need pick up only two seats to wrest control away from the Democrats.

The district is wholly contained within Adams County and, as is becoming increasingly common in competitive districts, unaffiliated voters there outnumber every other voter registration group. Unaffiliated voters make up 38.8 percent of the district; Democratic voters are 35.5 percent and Republicans trail at 24 percent.

Salazar is running for his third term in the House. His most recent reelection, in 2014, wasn’t easy: He won by a little over 200 votes, less than 1 percent of the total votes cast.

Voter turnout in 2014 was low, at 50 percent. In the last presidential election year, when Salazar first ran for the state House, he handily beat his Republican opponent, now-Sen. Beth Martinez-Humenik, by more than 20 points. That year, voter turnout was nearly 70 percent.

Issues of race and color also play a role in the district, which is now almost 40 percent Latino, according to a 2015 U.S. Census report. Salazar, a civil rights attorney, has taken on issues like homelessness, equal pay and the way topics like race and color are taught in civics education. Last year, he sponsored a controversial proposal that attempted to ban high schools from using native American mascots.

Money, at least so far, has overwhelmingly favored Salazar. He has already raised more than $86,000 for the 2016 election, more than three times what he raised for his 2014 reelection. Heading into next week’s uncontested primary, Salazar is sitting on a campaign war chest of almost $73,000.

Most of those funds come from his ties to Sanders, who sent out a fundraising email on behalf of Salazar and seven other legislative candidates around the country in May. That endorsement resulted in more than $50,000 in contributions from more than a thousand donors, ranging from a dollar to $111.11.

Sandgren has $12,500 in her campaign coffers after raising a total of about $17,300. Of her current contributions, $3,000 came from The People’s House Colorado, a small donor committee that backs Republicans for the state House. Its $3,000 contribution to Sandgren is the only money the committee has given to a House candidate through June 8.

She has a rags-to-riches story, although it’s about academic empowerment, not business. Sandgren, who has lived in Colorado for more than 40 years, was an at-risk student throughout school. “I didn’t like school, I didn’t fit in and felt like an outsider,” she told The Colorado Independent. “I kind of rebelled.” Sandgren was sent to an alternative high school but then dropped out because she didn’t find it challenging.

She later pursued a GED and went into the workforce for a short time, with a good job where she could advance. But she quickly realized it wasn’t the path she wanted to take, and several months later, she headed back to school – to Front Range Community College – where she met a biology teacher who changed her life. That teacher helped her realize her academic potential.

Sandgren kept going, pursuing a degree in biology from Metro State and headed into teaching at charter schools in Adams County and Broomfield. She now substitute teaches in Adams County public schools.

But the same problems she experienced as a student are apparent to her as a teacher, and that’s why she decided last year to run for the state House. She thinks there have been too many changes in state standards and no real communication about them. “No one ever asks if the standards are working for us,” she said. No one is really talking for the teachers, she added. “I’m tired of waiting for someone to be the voice for teachers and kids and decided to do it myself.”

Sandgren also discussed some of the issues that have faced lawmakers in the past couple of years. She’s on record as refusing to sign the pledge to protect TABOR, a pledge devised by Americans for Prosperity as a way of keeping Republican lawmakers from adopting a change to the state’s hospital provider fee.

The fee is levied on hospital overnight patient stays as well as outpatient visits. That money is then matched with federal dollars and redistributed to hospitals to cover uninsured patients and to expand Medicaid. Democrats and a small handful of Republicans want to see the fee removed from the state’s revenue limits, as established under the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights. The fee would then be reclassified to be exempt from TABOR restrictions and revenues would be spent on uninsured patients and Medicaid expansion.

“I support TABOR 100 percent,” she said, but she is hesitant to sign a pledge on an issue that she still wants to learn more about.

Sandgren is also a strong supporter of the Second Amendment, having grown up in a household of hunters and been taught early on to have respect for guns. Would she support a repeal of the 2013 legislation that set an ammunition magazine limit of 15 rounds, or walk back the law that requires background checks on private weapons transfers? Sandgren demurred, saying she’d have to see the language of such a proposal before making a commitment. But she added that if someone intends to do harm with a weapon, they will find a way to do it, and the focus needs to be on mental health.

On the issue of equal pay for equal work, Sandgren pointed out that there’s already a federal law that requires women to be paid the same as men. “If someone is violating that, it should be looked at,” she explained. More laws are not the answer, she said.

Sandgren is pro-life but says she can’t speak for others, especially those who come to the decision of an abortion. “It’s definitely a personal decision,” she said, although she doesn’t support allowing taxpayer dollars to fund abortions.

“I’d like to see more of a conversation on where life begins, and one that’s less angry,” Sandgren added. “I’d like to find the common ground first.”

But her focus, should she be elected in November, is on education, especially accountability. “We’re frustrated with the lack of accountability” and how much money is spent without knowing whether those dollars are making a difference, she said.. She points out that in her 10 years in the classroom, state standards changed every three years without any data showing whether the changes would be beneficial. “We need to listen to teachers and parents and make sure the money we’re spending is beneficial to the kids.”

On her presidential pick? “At this point we have only one nominee,” she said: Donald Trump. He wasn’t her first choice, “but he’s the last man standing.”

Salazar has lived in the district for 40 years, growing up and attending district schools. He practices civil rights law in a Westminster law firm, and the issues that he deals with as an attorney are much the same as the ones he fights for at the state Capitol.

He is a strong supporter of the hospital provider fee legislation that hasn’t made it through the Senate in the past two years. “Our state is in a fiscal mess because of TABOR,” he said. The one thing that can help, even temporarily, is passing the hospital provider fee bill.

But Salazar believes that should the bill pass, lawmakers would have to show some fiscal restraint to make sure the money goes exactly where it has been promised — to transportation and education. “Short of a TABOR time-out, this is the only thing we have going for us,” he said.

Salazar was one of the sponsors of the equal pay legislation that Democrats tried to muster through in 2016. He said he will continue to rally for equal pay. “Every day that I’m a legislator, I will fight for that,” he said.

Salazar put to rest rumors that he could have been a swing vote on repealing some of the 2013 gun measures. “I will vote every time against a repeal and that’s where I stand,” he told The Independent.

He also addressed one of the last session’s rumors about why he was taken off the House State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee just as the session was getting underway. Some hinted it was to protect him from taking controversial votes — the state affairs committee was tasked with reviewing all of the gun repeal and other gun measures proposed by Republicans in 2016.

Salazar said he asked to be taken off the committee because he and his family received numerous death threats every time a gun measure came up. “I was always having to put my children’s school on notice,” he said. “These crazy people are dragging my family into it.”

He will continue to support a woman’s right to an abortion, stating that Republicans couldn’t come up with a good idea that could ensure a woman’s reproductive rights “if they tried.”

“I won’t support anything they come up with” unless it’s enforcing a woman’s right to reproductive choice, he added.

Salazar continues to be supportive of Sanders, even if Sanders hadn’t endorsed him. “I have chosen him as my candidate and I will do nothing until I hear from him.” That said, if Hillary Clinton is the party’s nominee, he has committed to voting for her — but he won’t endorse her.

He also acknowledged that he’s a target: Salazar has been referred to as the most endangered Democrat in the House this fall. “My constituents know that I’m there to represent their best interests. I’m a civil rights attorney and I know how to fight for people, and I can do it in an educated fashion.”

He pointed out that the district supports him on the issue of oil and gas. “People on the left and right were floored by oil and gas companies that wanted to drop drilling rigs in the middle of their neighborhoods — they fought back and won and chased them out,” he said.

“I don’t let up,” he said, which carried him through that close 2014 re-election bid. Salazar said he will push for his community as hard as ever in this re-election fight. “If you’re too afraid of losing your seat to do something for the community, you don’t deserve your seat. I’ve never operated under the specter of losing.”

Photo credits: Jessica Sandgren for State Representative, Facebook; 

has been a political journalist since 1998. She covered the state capitol for the Silver & Gold Record from 1998 to 2009 and for The Colorado Statesman in 2010-11 and 2013-14. Since 2010 she also has covered the General Assembly for newspapers in northeastern Colorado. She was recognized with awards from the Colorado Press Association for feature writing and informational graphics for her work with the Statesman in 2012.


  1. The hospital fee sounds like a tax on the insured to pay for the uninsured (kind of like car insurance where the insured motorist pays extra to cover for uninsured motorists). There may be a better solution; why not add another 10% tax to marijuana, and make those people pay for the uninsured …. or a pizza fee, and make all those people pay for the uninsured. Crazy ideas; but the point is: let’s think about it and come up with better solutions rather than a Yes/No on what may be a Band-Aid fix.

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