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For Democrats and progressives in Colorado, 2017 has been a challenging year. From the White House and Congress, on the best of days, we bear witness to an incoherent foreign policy, a relentless weakening of our foundational civic institutions, and persistent overtures to the xenophobic and racist impulses of the far right. On other days, the White House and Congress actually adopt dangerous policies and legislation, like the tax “reform” package adding one trillion dollars or more to the deficit and raising taxes on the vast majority of working class and middle class Americans while cutting them for the wealthiest.
Here in Colorado, the acrimony and obstructionism have prevented us from tackling a wide array of severe threats to our quality of life and the state’s long-term economic vitality: transportation funding, higher education, criminal justice reform, gun violence, and climate change among them.
Thankfully, Democrats are getting back to basics: organizing, unifying, and fighting for middle-class and working families. The electoral tide both in Colorado and around the country seems to be turning towards a brighter future.
While traveling around Colorado and the country over the past year, in conversations with elected representatives and community members, it’s clear that people are organized and fired up. The movement to ensure that immigrants are treated with dignity and respect, the movement demanding a fair criminal justice system, the marriage equality movement, the women’s movement, the living wage movement and so many others are growing and building. Across the state, groups of neighbors and friends are staying informed and taking action. Even people who do not ordinarily get involved in politics are concerned enough about the country and their communities that they are plugging in.
We saw it across the country in New Jersey, Virginia, and most recently in Alabama. But Colorado experienced its own mini wave this year. Voters in Mesa County, Greeley, and Colorado Springs all approved school funding measures. Four public school champions ousted four voucher proponents in hotly contested races for the Douglas County school board, just as progressive candidates won all four races for seats on the Aurora school board. Broomfield residents adopted an environmental protection charter amendment despite the oil and gas industry spending ten times as much money to defeat it. Voters in El Paso County and Denver both approved substantial new investments in community infrastructure.
The bottom line is that local candidates that ran on progressive values did extremely well in Colorado, even in more conservative communities like Aurora where I grew up. Voters across the state, even in some of our most conservative communities, supported core progressive values like public school funding, parks, transportation, and public safety. And even Denver’s inner suburbs, often representing key swing districts, are clearly more open to a progressive vision for stronger public education and robust transportation infrastructure investments.
Make no mistake: 2018 will be a challenging year. The midterm elections are likely to be much more difficult than many expect, just as so many believed Trump could never win the presidential race. The politics of race-baiting and white nationalist dog whistles offer a simple – and horrifically wrong-headed – answer to the sense of insecurity.
If Democrats want to assertively steer our state and country back toward economic prosperity and equal opportunity for everyone, they can’t just be anti-Trump. The party needs to offer a vision that more forcefully tackles the very real economic angst that so many across the state still face, and continues to heal the rift between moderate and progressive Democrats.
A tall order, to be sure. But the extraordinary energy we witnessed this past year is an encouraging sign for voters who want a governing party that puts working people head of billionaires, not the other way around.
If we invest in local races, support neighbors and friends all over the state who are organizing to make a difference in their communities, do a better job of coalition-building across movements, and build political power through real on-the-ground organizing and relationship-building, we can ensure that the energy of the presidential election makes a real difference in people’s lives around Colorado in the next election and beyond.
Jacob Smith is the former mayor of Golden, a former staffer for Senator Bernie Sanders, and a filmmaker. His documentary “Waking the Sleeping Giant: The Making of a Political Revolution” is screening around the country.