WHEAT RIDGE — Al Graham sat outside a church watching cars whiz past. Across the street, construction workers paced back and forth across scaffolding, pounding nails into a new, multi-story building. Wheat Ridge is a quiet place to live, Graham said. But that’s changing.
“Traffic is definitely a major problem,” said the 84-year-old retired nuclear physicist.
In a state that has swelled in population by about half a million since 2010, residents in this Denver suburb surrounded by sprawling subdivisions and strip malls say they see more traffic, smog, and, like elsewhere across the Front Range, a rising cost of housing.
Wheat Ridge is in the heart of Senate District 20, which is roughly the shape of Florida stretching from suburbs west of Denver to open space at the foothills of the Rockies. The seat was recently vacated by Cheri Jahn, a term-limited Wheat Ridge Democrat-turned-independent. In 2010, when Jahn was first elected, Democrats made up the largest voting bloc here. That changed after redistricting, and in 2014, Jahn, then still a Democrat, held on to her seat by just 439 votes, less than one percentage point.
Today, unaffiliated voters dominate the rolls here, though Democratic voter registrations are on the rise — and at much faster clip than Republican registrations, which have barely budged. In 2016, Hillary Clinton bested Donald Trump in this district by nearly 10 percentage points.
This November, House Speaker Pro Tem Jessie Danielson, a Democrat from Wheat Ridge who has served in the House since 2014, is facing off against Republican Christine Jensen, a mortgage banker from Arvada.
With this seat, Democrats, who have a solid grasp on the House, see a chance to capture the Senate. Republicans hold only a one-seat majority in that chamber. And with the balance of power at stake in the Legislature, outside groups on both sides are together spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to persuade voters with TV ads and mailers.
The stakes are high. With the Democratic nominee for governor Congressman Jared Polis polling ahead of his Republican rival, state Treasurer Walker Stapleton, Democrats have a chance to seize control of the Capitol. The last time Democrats had control over both the state Legislature and the governor’s office was in 2014.
Graham could name Jensen and Danielson as the two candidates hoping to represent the district. But he said he’s not familiar with their policy positions, let alone what they plan to do about growth. And like many residents in the area, Graham was also unsure what the path forward ought to be.
“What are you going to do?” he said. “Too many people. Not enough roads.”
Jensen, the Republican contender, is a branch manager with Fairway Independent Mortgage Corporation, a mortgage lender with offices in Olde Town Arvada. In this historical town just outside the SD20 border, rent is on the rise, forcing some businesses out of town, one business owner said.
“The Eggshell just closed,” said Devon Trudell, a 24-year-old manager and co-owner at the Bread Winners Cafe. “It’s like being on the 16th Street Mall in downtown Denver.”
Jensen, a mother of four who jumped into the workforce after graduating high school, said there are simply not enough homes to keep up with demand.
“It is truly an inventory issue,” she told The Colorado Independent.
The solution, she said, is to relax regulations for builders so they can build more homes at a lower price point. Her idea piggybacks on a hard-fought compromise reached during the 2017 legislative session that made it harder to sue builders for construction defects. She said more needs to be done, such as giving builders 30 days to address a buyer’s concerns before they can lodge a lawsuit.
“We have to make sure that builders have a safe environment in which they can build homes that are in an affordable price range,” Jensen said. As for affordable housing tax credits, she said, “Builders are not telling us that they need more tax credits.”
Her Democratic rival, Danielson, voted for the compromise to ease regulations for builders. She also voted to spend $150 million on affordable housing tax credits over the next five years.
When asked about what more can be done to address the cost of living, Danielson said her record speaks for itself. She did not directly answer a question about whether regulations for builders should be loosened.
“That isn’t the major issue that people are vocalizing at their own doors,” she told The Colorado Independent.
Instead, she said, people want her to focus on public education and to support good-paying jobs.
Danielson, a former state director for America Votes, a progressive nonprofit organization, grew up on her family’s farm outside of Ault raising cattle and growing corn and alfalfa. She now lives in Wheat Ridge with her husband and one-year-old daughter.
During her four years as a representative, Danielson has sponsored legislation aimed at boosting workers’ wages. One law allows veterans to deduct their retirement benefits on their taxes. Another makes violations of wage laws public.
She also backed legislation to allow local governments to set their own minimum wage. And, in an effort to close the wage gap between men and women, she sponsored a bill requiring that businesses disclose salary ranges when posting jobs. These two bills were killed in the Republican-controlled Senate.
Earlier this year, Danielson also joined Democrats on the west steps of the state Capitol for a rally supporting a paid family leave program, dubbed the FAMLI Act, short for Family and Medical Leave Insurance program. The proposed law would essentially use an income tax to cover up to 12 weeks of paid time off per year. Like many other proposed labor laws this past session, the FAMLI Act was also promptly sent to the buzzsaw in the Senate.
As for K-12 education, Danielson said she wants to “fully fund” it. She did not directly respond to a question about whether she supports Amendment 73, a proposed progressive income tax to pay for public schools.
Not surprisingly, Jensen, who served with the Jefferson County Business Lobby, a coalition of Jefferson County chambers of commerce and business organizations, takes the opposite view on many of these issues.
On paid family leave, she said most businesses already offer paid leave. Extra time, she said, should be negotiated on a case-by-case basis because “businesses cannot stand still while the employee is away.”
Minimum wage, Jensen said, is bad for business. And, she said, it may hold people back from pursuing more professional, higher-paying jobs.
“Minimum wage was never intended to be a high paying job,” she said. “It really holds people down when you diminish their expectations to only working minimum-wage jobs.”
As for closing the wage gap between men and women, Jensen said studies often overlook what she called a choice by women to work fewer hours or lower-paying jobs. (Several studies have shown that full-time, year-round working women earn about 80 cents for every dollar men earn.)
“I think that there is still research that needs to be done there,” she said. She’s open to possible policy solutions, but she added, “The devil’s in the details.”
In K-12 schools, Jensen said she wants state money being spent on administration and bureaucracy to instead go toward classrooms and teachers’ paychecks. She did not say how much state money should be dedicated to public education, but said Amendment 73 was not a solution to paying for needs at K-12 schools.
For years, Jensen said she has personally called lawmakers and testified to oppose legislation that she thought was bad for business. Public service and representing business, she said, are among the reasons she’s running for the state Senate.
“I just have to go down there and do it myself,” Jensen said. “I’m pretty convinced that we could benefit from having a little more business sense down at the Capitol.”
Helping Jensen get there is an independent expenditure committee, the Senate Majority Fund, which has spent about $200,000 this year on mailers supporting her and about $250,000 opposing Danielson, according to campaign finance reports filed with the Secretary of State. Colorado Citizens for Accountable Government, another IEC backing Republican candidates for the state Senate, spent nearly $80,000 on television ads against Danielson during the most recent two-week campaign finance reporting period.
By comparison, the IEC supporting Democrats in the state Senate, Coloradans for Fairness, has spent more than $200,000 on mailers and TV ads attacking Jensen and about $60,000 supporting Danielson.
There are dark money groups, too, which do not have to disclose donors to the Secretary of State, bankrolling ads on behalf of candidates seeking seats in the Senate. These nonprofits include the Colorado Economic Leadership Fund, which backs Republicans, and Colorado Values Project, which backs Democrats.
Outside the church in Wheat Ridge, Graham, a registered Republican who said he’s considering registering as an independent, said he doesn’t know whom he’ll support. Despite receiving multiple mailers every day, he said, he doesn’t know whom to believe.
“You don’t know who’s telling the truth,” he said. Shaking his head, he joked, “You almost look at the pictures and say, ‘let’s go with that one.’”