Irene Aguilar is an idealist. But she’s no fool. The state senator from Denver long has realized it’s “a long shot” that ColoradoCare – the universal health care plan she has been pushing for seven years – will pass in November.
“I don’t care if we win or lose,” she told The Colorado Independent in the spring. “The system, as is, is so disgusting to me, I just want to get my message out about the need to fix it.”
Aguilar admits that Amendment 69’s chances of passing grew even slimmer last week when prominent Democrats and even the liberal group ProgressNow Colorado joined corporate interests in opposing the measure.
“I’m bruised,” she said Friday. “But they poked a snake.”
Aguilar’s commitment to universal health care is both professional and personal. She’s a primary care physician whose many years at Denver Health Medical Center gave her a close look at what happens when treatable conditions go ignored because patients have no health coverage. And, after a high-risk pregnancy in 1994, she gave birth to twins who spent six weeks in a neonatal intensive care unit. The $1.5 million hospital bill would have bankrupted her family had it not been for their insurance plan.
Health care should be a right, she says, not a luxury. That’s what propelled her into the state Senate in 2010.
Aguilar has used her seat to fight for Colorado to become the first state to pass a single-payer health insurance program. When that fight fizzled in the legislature, she and other proponents opted for the direct-democracy route, collecting enough signatures by last November to qualify the amendment for this November’s ballot.
The health care and hospitality industries have sunk at least $3.7 million into killing the measure. Republicans have used ColoradoCare as a wedge issue, deriding not only Democrats who support it, but also those who stayed neutral. Governor John Hickenlooper and U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, both Democrats, have cited fiscal reasons for coming out against the measure. And in July, NARAL – Colorado’s leading pro-choice group – opposed Amendment 69 for potentially impeding abortions in the state.
Aguilar says she never expected a big cheering section, but had hoped her fellow Democratic state lawmakers would at least stay neutral. Yet, in a year when Dems are trying to hold on to the state House and take back the state Senate, candidates from that party – especially those in tight races – have over the past several weeks come out in opposition. Most notable was a one-two punch last Wednesday when House Majority Leader Crisanta Duran and ProgressNow Colorado opposed the amendment by saying it could gut the state budget and hurt working families.
Wednesday’s anti-69 press conference came as a blow to the ColoradoCare movement and to Aguilar personally. Here’s what she had to say afterward:
Colorado Independent: The headlines suggest your party has deserted you. Do you see it that way?
Sen. Aguilar: I’m hesitating because it boils down to what you think of as “your party.” Is my party the people or is my party the elected officials? Because we went through the process of getting this issue on the platform committee and getting it on the Colorado Democratic Party platform, I feel like the activist Dems have not deserted me – not at all. Instead, the elected officials have abandoned their constituents, at least on the issue of health care, which Coloradans want addressed. What we see here are Democrats caving in to the extensive lobbying efforts of insurance companies who want this measure to go away.
Colorado Independent: When you spoke with us in the spring, you called Amendment 69 a “long shot.” After your recent setbacks, where do you now put the measure’s chances of passing?
Sen. Aguilar: Frankly, with the vim and vigor they’ve put into this opposition campaign, I‘m thinking if we win over 35 percent of the votes, we won. I guess I’m an eternal optimist.
Colorado Independent: Who, after so many Dems have come out in opposition, are you thinking will support ColoradoCare at this point? And how do presidential politics figure in, if at all?
Sen. Aguilar: When Sen. (Bernie) Sanders left the race, I said to my colleagues that my concern was apathy on the part of the people because there would be nothing on the ballot of interest to them. ColoradoCare had the potential to be that something. I saw it as a place for the Bernie people to put their energy now that Bernie isn’t there. It still could be. There are people making efforts to get him out here personally to campaign for us.
…Besides, of all the election years to try something way out there, this is it. People are pissed. People have lost total trust in government to the point of electing Donald Trump to be the Republican nominee. After all these politicians have come out speaking against us, I think we have a chance to make some people who wouldn’t otherwise like us actually embrace this idea. It could happen. I think it’s all pretty unpredictable.
Colorado Independent: Has there been talk about pulling the measure off the ballot?
Sen. Aguilar: Yes, there have been some discussions. We did sit down to talk about six weeks ago about what it would take to pull it. People need to realize that this is a measure put on the ballot by a lot of everyday citizens – activists who worked hard on this issue. And the answer from those citizens is there is nothing that would make them pull it at this point. It’s too important … And I, personally, stand behind that decision.
Colorado Independent: There’s some concern among people who favor universal health care but think this was the wrong year to push it, that a trouncing at the polls this year will discourage anyone from floating the idea in the future. Do you think there could be that kind of chilling effect? And, if so, do you feel responsible for causing it?
Sen. Aguilar: Yes, I absolutely think there will be a chilling effect. ProgressNow managed, all by itself, to achieve that chilling effect this week.
Colorado Independent: Given that you seem pretty resigned to the likelihood of Amendment 69’s defeat in November, how do you keep getting up every day to campaign for it?
Sen. Aguilar: Morally, I know I’m right. I subjected myself to politics in the first place to try to make this happen. I’ll sleep well at night knowing I gave it everything I had.
Colorado Independent: Last time we talked, you referred to your work on ColoradoCare as “an education.” What have your learned?
Sen Aguilar: You don’t get to be a multi-million-dollar corporation by being a bunch of idiots. Corporations pay millions of dollars for consultants to figure out the best way to get people to undermine themselves. And they’ve very effective. At some sick level, I admire the games they play because they’re just so clever and they’re so smart. They’re part of that whole thing that’s happening in our society where they get people to vote against their own best interests.
Colorado Independent: What’s next for you after ColoradoCare?
Sen. Aguilar: I need to get on the bandwagon against Citizens United (the U.S. Supreme Court ruling prohibiting the government from restricting independent political expenditures by non-profit groups, unions trade organizations and corporations). There’s no question, after all this, that it needs to be overturned.
[Photo courtesy of Irene Aguilar]