The Indy’s Year in Review: Stories that make us who we are

2017 was a helluva year.

In Washington, Donald Trump was sworn into the Oval Office, and back in Colorado we chronicled what his actions meant for those here at home. Who can forget the thousands of voters who chose to unregister rather than see their personal info in the hands of Trump’s voter task force. Our Corey Hutchins broke that story, which rapidly spread nationwide.

Closer to home, we covered high-stakes local elections, chronicled the early rumblings in the wide open governor’s race, watchdogged potential ballot measures, and reported on gentrification, deportations and alleged civil rights abuses.

Along the way we even picked up some awards for our work. In May, Common Cause honored us with its Champions for Democracy award. The ACLU gave our editor, Susan Greene, its annual Civil Rights award— the first time it had honored a journalist with such an award in a decade.

We’re a small nonprofit newsroom with a mission “to amplify the voices of Coloradans whose stories are unheard, shine light on the relationships between people, power and policy, and hold public officials to account.”

Below are a few of our stories from 2017 that did just that.

In Cory Gardner’s Yuma:

In the weeks after Donald Trump was sworn in as president on Jan. 20, protests raged outside the metro offices of Colorado’s Republican U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner who had quickly lent his support to The Donald’s agenda. Around that time, he even earned himself a headline from us that read “DATA: Cory Gardner votes with Trump 100% of the time.” But as he was getting raked over the coals in Fort Collins, Denver and Colorado Springs, we wondered what those in his hometown of Yuma were thinking about their native son out on the Eastern Plains.

A day’s reporting revealed the classic tensions of the rural-urban divide— and our country’s own political divide. Come for the diner debate about the Affordable Care Act between a labor union Democrat and his Trump supporting friend, and stay for the pig skull wearing a turban on the wall of a local “Trump bar”— a sign that the establishment is a “Muslim free zone.”

My cousin, the Trump supporter

Like a lot of families with, uh, diverse political opinions, managing editor Tina Griego’s carefully skirted the Trump Divide. And then one day her cousin, J Cruz, a Trump supporter, visits and says something about not being able to talk politics with the rest of the family. And that bothers her.

Here’s the thing, J,” I tell him. “It’s my job to understand other people’s experiences, why they think the way they do. I should be able to have that conversation with you.”

He puts his plate in the dishwasher and tells me that the idea of Donald Trump as president fills him with hope. His eyes are bright. His voice buoyant.

I think, “This is going to be harder than I thought.”

Their conversation provoked a wide range of response from Indy readers. As Tina later wrote: “For some readers, my love for my cousin made me blind, willing to accept what I otherwise would not … For others, that same love allowed me to maintain a generosity, a humility that I may not have otherwise possessed.”

FRACTURED: Our series on the fault line between fracking and residential development

In April, a suburban Firestone home exploded, killing two and severely injuring a third, after gas seeped from an abandoned but uncapped underground pipe into the basement. The blast reignited a controversial debate in Colorado over how to regulate oil and gas lines and how close drill rigs should be allowed to operate to homes and schools.

In our FRACTURED series this year, we partnered with Boulder-based nonprofit The Story Group to cover a showdown in Boulder County following the end of a five-year ban on new fracking, and how “fractivists” in Colorado’s most politically progressive county were “planning everything from civil disobedience to mass meditation to prevent new drilling.” We reported how Colorado’s oil-and-gas industry was starting to look like the NRA as it lobbies to block any legislation it perceives might open the door to further regulation. And when the oil-and-gas industry once again poured boatloads of money into a local election with a fracking measure on the ballot, we were all over it with an in-depth, follow-the-money story.

A dark money lawsuit, a colorful cast of characters, and Colorado’s citizen campaign finance cop:

Stories about campaign finance can be complex and mind-numbing. But that arena is part of our beat, and this April dispatch from a few days in a Denver courtroom made for a compelling hook:

“It sounds like the beginning of a joke: A former GOP congressman, a Koch-connected talk radio host, a pastor who once conducted an exorcism of Barack Obama’s “demons,” and a journalist-turned-political-consultant-turned-journalist-again walk into a tiny fourth-floor courtroom in downtown Denver.”

The story illustrated the unique way Colorado handles campaign finance enforcement by outsourcing it to the private sector, a practice that has drawn the state into a federal lawsuit.

That new redistricting measure that wasn’t

In September, a group launched a campaign to get a package of measures on the 2018 statewide ballot that would change the way Colorado draws its political boundaries. Missing from coverage elsewhere? That the group or the effort wasn’t new at all.

The Colorado Independent’s Corey Hutchins combed through the fine print and exposed the history of the coalition and questions and concerns about it. Two prominent Latino Democrats later pulled their support for the plan. The Indy has stayed on the story, offering in-depth reports on changes to the plan as it potentially heads to your ballot next year.

Chaos on the front lines of the voter wars, Colorado edition

In June, when Trump created a task force ostensibly to investigate voter fraud after he said millions of people voted illegally in the election he won, we were all over its implications in Colorado.

Hutchins broke the news that Colorado’s GOP secretary of state would turn over publicly available personal information about the state’s voters to Trump’s voter task force. He later broke the news that out of 6,648 voters who unregistered in the wake of this saga, months later only 531 had come back on the rolls. “Damn, this story from The Colorado Independent makes me pig-bitin’ mad,” wrote Esquire magazine writer Charles Pierce.

What repealing Obamacare would mean for one rural Colorado hospital

This summer, the U.S. House and Senate were both under Republican control with a Republican president cracking the whip and Congress poised to repeal the Affordable Care Act.

To localize a national storyline, The Indy’s Kelsey Ray wrote about the San Luis Valley Health Regional Medical Center in Alamosa, a small rural hospital with only 49 beds. The center was at particular risk because of its low-income population and relative distance from other health care providers, but other rural hospitals were similarly vulnerable. “San Luis Valley is as good a poster child as any for what is at stake in the state,” Steven Summer, president of the Colorado Hospital Association (CHA), told The Colorado Independent. “And we have grave concerns.”

Republicans in Congress did not repeal Obamacare, but eventually settled for stripping the ACA’s individual mandate through a tax overhaul signed into law just before the end of the year.

The Denver Boot

Part of our mission is to connect public policy to the day-to-day lives of people.

For “The Denver Boot,” Tina Griego followed a tenant in Northeast Denver through the eviction process to tell a story about who is losing out in Denver’s boom time.

The tenant takes solace in knowing she was not alone for the minute it took her to imagine all the people entangled in 8,419 cases in Denver. How many families each filing represents, how much anxiety and begging and borrowing to catch up with the landlord who might evict you anyway, sheriff deputy at the door, coffee table and kids’ clothes and mattresses at the curb.

Questions about a missing Taser involved in Marshall Booker’s death led to a grand jury probe

In June, editor Susan Greene outlined why the family of Marvin Booker, a homeless street preacher killed in Denver’s jail in 2010, wanted the city’s new DA to investigate whether the officers responsible switched out the homicide weapon to conceal their excessive use of force. Their questions about that Taser were reasonable, given that the Taser data Mayor Michael Hancock’s administration relied on as evidence didn’t match the facts of the Booker’s killing. Susan carefully investigated those disparities. What she found became the basis of Denver District Attorney Beth McCann’s decision three months later to launch a grand jury investigation into the officers who Tasered Booker to death and what they did with stun gun.

Violence in the city’s jails

As she has for years, Susan kept her eye on Denver’s Safety Department in 2017, particularly its wayward and increasingly dangerous jails. She dug up data showing that assaults among inmates have increased nearly eightfold since 2011 and spiked dramatically over the past two years. The data also showed that inmate-on-staff assaults have jumped 620 percent since 2011 – again, with significant increases since 2015. The surge in violence comes despite efforts by Michael Hancock’s administration over the past two years to enact reforms meant to make jails safer. Those include the 2015 hiring of Sheriff Patrick Firman, whom Hancock has touted as “a change agent.”

Susan reported that sheriff’s deputies who work for Firman aren’t seeing the changes that were promised. She got hold of an internal report showing workers in Denver’s detention center overwhelmingly feel the Sheriff’s Department lacks leadership, trains them inadequately, and keeps its jails dangerously overcrowded. About half of department staffers, most of them deputies, said they’re either thinking about or actively looking for jobs outside the department.

A video Susan obtained from a freedom of information request put a face on the problem of increasingly violence in Denver’s overcrowded jails. It shows a deputy being attacked while single-handedly overseeing a pod housing about 60 inmates.

Fair and Unbalanced by Mike Littwin

In October, when a gunman in Las Vegas rained bullets out his hotel window onto a crowd of country music concert goers, columnist Mike Littwin relayed a sobering fact in the aftermath. “We are fully prepared, once again, to face up to gun violence by doing nothing,” he wrote. “This is who we have decided to be. It is painful to consider, which must be why so many people are ready to ignore the fact. We are a nation where mass murder happens and happens and happens and happens and happens again — this time as 22,000 people come to watch a country-music concert.”Littwin also walked readers through the Supreme Court arguments in the Masterpiece cake case in which a Lakewood baker, citing his religious belief, refused to make a wedding cake for a gay couple. And Littwin added “bullying a fifth grader” to the Boy Scout code, wrote about Trump, Nazis and the KKK— and about how Tom Tancredo is the one man who can out-Trump Trump.


Photo: The Colorado Independent
The Colorado Independent is a statewide online news source operating in a time when spin is plentiful, but factual, fair and unflinching news in the public interest is all too rare. Our award-winning team of veteran investigative and explanatory reporters and news columnists aims to amplify the voices of Coloradans whose stories are unheard, shine light on the relationships between people, power and policy, and hold public officials to account. We strive to report the news with context, social conscience, and soul, and to give Coloradans the insight they need to promote conversation, understanding and progress in this square, swing state we call home.