As Denver’s mayoral runoff was beginning its headlong plunge into the jibes, jabs and jousts that have come to define it, recently re-elected Denver Councilwoman Debbie Ortega and RTD board member Angie Malpiede tuned into the recent Channel 9 debate between incumbent Mayor Michael Hancock and challenger Jamie Giellis.
Both women were waiting for a moment that never came.
Over the course of the hour, no one asked the candidates about — nor did either candidate mention — the needs of the Latino community, which makes up nearly a third of Denver residents, and has been disproportionately impacted by gentrification and educational, health, financial and social disparities.
It wasn’t the first time both women had noticed the lack of discussion about the challenges facing the city’s Latinos — even with the candidacy of Lisa Calderón, who is black and Latina. But in a mayoral runoff in which Hancock’s blackness and Giellis’s whiteness had somehow taken center stage, the silence to them had reached a point best described as appalling.
“We watched the whole thing and then we started having this conversation that was basically, ‘Whoa, we are in trouble here as a community,’” Malpiede said. “We have been totally dismissed here. No one is talking about our kids, our parents, our neighborhoods, and our issues are huge. It’s like we are an afterthought and we have to say, ‘Wait a minute — you have to pay attention to who we are and what we need.’ I’m not seeing or hearing anything, and it’s really disturbing.”
Ortega was equally concerned that during her reelection campaign, she had been bombarded by requests to answer surveys or sit on panels or participate in forums, but all came from outside the Latino community.
“There were like five different groups in the African American community that wanted me to either fill out forms or show up at something and there was nothing, nothing from the Hispanic community, and my concern was our voice, the voice of the Hispanic community is being left out.”
So, on May 22, a day after the debate, the pair drafted a letter to both Hancock and Giellis asking them to address policies and disparities that affect Latinos. They blasted it out to well-known Latinos asking them to sign on as well.
How, the letter demanded, will a Hancock administration or a Giellis administration work with the community?
The email drew immediate response from Latinos who received it, including Jesse Ogas, executive director of Firefly Autism, who, in fact, used the word “appalled” to describe how he felt watching last week’s debate. “Once again, the Latino community was left out when we represent 31 percent of the community.”
His response echoed in many conversations I had with Latinos over the last week, all of them shot through with concern about the state of the community, its lack of a center of gravity and seeming inability to marshal power as inequity grows in the city — even as a Latino could become Denver’s next clerk and recorder and three Latinas are in City Council runoffs and could join Ortega on council.
“What I believe in general is that we are becoming invisible again,” Ramon del Castillo, professor and chair of the Chicano/a Studies program at Metro State University, tells me.
To that Malpiede says, “I think we already may be there.”
Ortega sent a revised letter to the campaigns on May 23, asking the campaigns to respond by May 31. Both did, each in detail. (Giellis letter here. Hancock here.) Your community is important, both candidates assured Ortega and Malpiede. We are listening and are acting.
The reassurance of the community’s importance was late. It remains to be seen if it is too little. Ballots must be returned by 7 p.m. Tuesday.
Correction: An earlier version of this column said that both mayoral camps missed the deadline to respond. In fact, the Latino organizers extended the deadline from May 27 to May 31, and both campaigns met that deadline. The story has been reflected to update the correction.