For 160 Years, Denver Hasn’t Had A Woman Mayor — Lisa Calderón Could Change That
She’s Running is a FIERCE series highlighting Latinas running for office in local, state and federal elections.
Lisa Calderón never dreamed of being a politician, but her commitment to the people and struggle of the city that raised her — Denver, Colorado — compelled the first-time candidate to do the unexpected: run for mayor.
The half-Mexican-American, half-African-American contender is the latest of a growing group of progressive women of color activists and organizers politically taking on powerful incumbents who they believe are not in touch with the community they represent. In many ways, these daring women, like congressional freshman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, inspired Calderón, 50, to throw her own hat in the ring to unseat Mayor Michael Hancock.
“These women, who are trailblazers, are essentially signaling that it’s possible and necessary that we fully engage in political processes because it is about us,” she told FIERCE.
While Calderón might be fresh to electoral politics, she’s not new to fighting for and alongside the people of Denver. A longtime activist, most recently vocally opposing Hancock on matters of gentrification and police aggression, she has run nonprofits that assist survivors of domestic violence and formerly incarcerated individuals transitioning back into society, co-chairs the Colorado Latino Forum — which aims to increase Latinx participation in the electoral process — and is a criminal justice professor at Regis University, all while holding four degrees, including a doctorate of education and a law degree.
Should she be elected to office in May, Calderón intends on instilling principles of equity, fairness and justice in the mayoral seat, where she plans on prioritizing citywide concerns like affordable housing, homelessness, pay equity and police accountability.
We chatted with Calderón about her vision for Denver, establishing a model of shared power in local government, why it’s time for a woman to lead in her city and more.
FIERCE: Why did you decide to run for Denver mayor?
Lisa Calderón: Oftentimes, traditional candidates are groomed to run for office, particularly men. They’ll say, “it was my dream to become mayor of Denver.” Well, it wasn’t my dream. I feel compelled to run, and that’s based on a few things. First, it’s based on my background of poverty. My parents were teens when they had me. My mother is Mexican-American, and my father is African-American, so coming from a poverty background and a labor background, because my grandmother was a migrant farmworker, the issues that are facing our city are even more important to me because they concern people like my family who are being priced out. I don’t feel we have another four years to fight for our community because we are in a stage of hyper-gentrification, so that’s one reason. The other reason is that I’ve been inspired by many women of color who have run as first-time candidates, taking on incumbents, and won their races. So, for me, it’s also about timing. These women, who are trailblazers, are essentially signaling that it’s possible and necessary that we fully engage in political processes because it is about us.
FIERCE: Your platform follows three broad ideals: equity, fairness and justice. Break this down for me and why these values are ever-important in Denver.
Lisa Calderón: My three principles are equity, fairness and justice, and they are rooted in that social justice history I come from. On my mom’s side, I learned to organize on the picket line at four years old, standing up for migrant farmworkers. When I asked my mom why we couldn’t eat the grapes, she said because there’s blood on them, so I understood that meant we could not profit off of the sacrifices of other people. Even when we had so little, there were others who had less, so we had an obligation to stand up for people who had less rights than we did, even if that was just sharing our voices and bodies, which is what you do on the picket line. That value of equity was instilled in me at a very young age. From there, I became a student organizer and organized with ACORN as a young adult, advocating for an increase in minimum wage, because I knew what it was like as as a single parent myself in college. I knew what it meant to struggle to put food on the table, so when I look at equity, I look at three populations that are largely ignored by our current incumbent’s administration: 1) women. As mayor, I would close the pay gap for women in city government and strengthen protection against sexual harassment, because our current mayor spent over a million dollars to settle a sexual harassment-related claim. 2) workers. I support a livable wage that is being proposed now in Denver for $15 an hour, but I also recognize that’s not enough. We are behind in keeping up with the cost of living. In Denver, it’s close to $24 an hour that’s needed if you have one child. I want workers to be able to live in the same cities they work in, and right now we are experiencing a modern form of redlining, which is pushing out the undesirables from the heart of the city but yet wanting their labor to keep the city functioning for the wealthy. 3) Residents. As a long-time, a lifetime, resident of Denver, I see that increasingly our cultural spaces are being gentrified. We often don’t recognize our cultural communities anymore. Fundamentally, I believe we should have residential land development where the residents in those neighborhoods decide what they want and need in their communities, rather than city or corporate developers.
FIERCE: That actually leads right into my next question. As an activist, you’ve often fought against gentrification. As a candidate, I know you are also prioritizing affordable housing. How do you intend on tackling this if you were in the mayoral seat?
Lisa Calderón: I would incorporate or implement anti-displacement policies, and essentially that is to counteract the negative aspect of growth. As a city, we want revitalization. We want healthy food options and public spaces we can walk to. But the down side, or the flipside, of this is gentrification. It’s not true as politicians claim that gentrification is inevitable and a result of market forces. The market is created by the rules the government enacts, so we need to change the rules and recognize the stages of gentrification across varying neighborhoods. For example, the neighborhood I live in is already hyper-gentrified. This is a historically Black and immigrant community called Five Points, which used to be referred to as the Harlem of the West. But there are still things in hyper-gentrified neighborhoods that we can do to stabilize longtime residents and small businesses that give flavor to that community. The city offers billions of dollars in incentives through contracting opportunities with corporations, but they don’t do the same scale of incentive programs for small businesses.
FIERCE: One of your biggest issues with Denver’s current mayor is around criminal justice, particularly overcrowded jails and racialized policing. How would you confront these problems differently from Mayor Michael Hancock?
Lisa Calderón: I would appoint actual heads of public safety agencies who know what they are doing. We have a sheriff who the mayor appointed without any community input that came from another state and had never been a sheriff before, and his boss is a public safety manager who has had eight different jobs in nine years as head over public safety agencies. So I would appoint people who actually know how to run and have consistency in effectively running our safety department but who also includes the community, and not just the community they agree with, but critics, too, to inform policy. I also would support an elected sheriff. We are one of the few cities in the nation of our size that does not have an elected sheriff. The argument against it has been that we could get someone terrible. I’m like, you can get that now with an elected official. Except now you can’t get rid of an incompetent sheriff because they were appointed by the mayor. So that’s two examples of what I would do differently. Also, this city has not taken responsibility for the killings of unarmed people by our law enforcement officers, so there are still tons of open wounds in our city, where we actually have had a historic increase in the killing of unarmed people, particularly Latinos, and yet the city continues to just move on as business as usual. While we might have some settlements, there are still more victim families who have got nothing from this city, so I would change that. Even if the city deems a shooting justifiable, there’s still a family that lost a breadwinner, a father. There’s still a daughter who can no longer help her community, so that community is left broken. So part of the change that needs to be implemented must also deal with the aftermath of a killing.
FIERCE: In a previous interview, you stated, “I believe that by working together, we can build a city based on shared power and accountability — one where residents and workers are included in the policy decisions that most affect them.” How do you create this in city government?
Lisa Calderón: This is the heart of it. You have to challenge the city around aggressive policing. When my son, as a high school student, had been assaulted by law enforcement while just walking home from school, I couldn’t get anyone to listen to me as a mother who was concerned about the traumatization of my child, who wasn’t involved in any kind of wrongful activity but was still treated as a criminal in his own neighborhood. So I was working with other activists and we brought the community together to define what safety meant to us, how we could increase safety in a way that was not reliant upon law enforcement or punishment models and making public officials accountable to the concerns we have in our neighborhoods as a result of aggressive policing practices. So a model of shared power isn’t just at the top of the mayor’s office. It really is at the ground. It’s saying, let’s talk about how this policy is impacting people, how do we co-create policy together and what works and doesn’t work. Oftentimes, politicians have a habit of making appearances or having a few meetings they run rather than asking the community what process they would like, and then you don’t hear from them after the policy is implemented. We need to re-evaluate it to identify if it is working as intended, needs to be modified or if we need to get rid of it entirely.
FIERCE: Your campaign slogan is “It’s Time.” Why is it time to have a woman leading Denver?
Lisa Calderón: Well, it’s time because we never had a woman mayor in our history, and I think Denver is about over 160 years old. Also, it’s time because the Me Too movement, which was built upon all those other social justice movement groups that have been marginalized and silenced, has shown that women can actually speak for ourselves, we can govern, we can be strong leaders, and it’s time for us to have the opportunity to do that. One of the things I’m most proud of in this campaign is when I get little girls wanting to take pictures with me and telling me, “I know I can be mayor, too,” because that means it’s beyond me. I’m signaling to those girls and young women that it is absolutely possible to be a leader in your community, but you couldn’t get that if you didn’t see it.
FIERCE: As a woman, as a biracial Mexican-American and African-American person of color, as a survivor of gender violence, what do you think these identities and lived experiences can bring to the mayoral seat that we haven’t seen before?
Lisa Calderón: It brings an intersectional lens to policy development that we’re not just working on one issue in isolation, but gender inequity intersects with racial inequity and economic inequity. We are addressing all of those issues together as opposed to in isolation. It’s also, to me, shows shared power means a collaborative approach to problem-solving rather than a power-consolidation approach. We currently have a heavy-handed mayoral system in place, where the mayor appoints the heads of commissions and members of agencies. If the mayor doesn’t like you, your voice is shut out. But under a collaborative approach you can have independent agencies with experts in their fields who bring people together to inform policy decisions rather than the heavy hand of the mayor.
FIERCE: Of course, you are much more than your gender, culture and ethnicity. You have decades of leadership and advocacy experience, from heading nonprofits that assist survivors of domestic violence and inmates transitioning back into society after serving jail or prison sentences, to co-chairing the Colorado Latino Forum, which aims to increase Latinx participation in the electoral process, and most recently working as a criminal justice professor at Regis University, all in addition to your four degrees, including your doctorate of education and law degree. How do you think these experiences and the skills you’ve gained through them prepared you for this office?
Lisa Calderón: When someone asks me, “why are you qualified if you’ve never been a politician,” I point to all of those experiences as precisely what makes me qualified. I bring a multidimensional perspective to leading that government has been lacking. When you have people who are manufactured to be career politicians, often they are out of the loop of the struggle of people in their day-to-day lives. I know what it’s like to be homeless as a young person escaping domestic violence in my household. I know what it’s like as a single parent making decisions about paying one bill over another and having to deal with the stress of not having enough money to make ends meet. I know what it’s like to be discriminated against as a woman and a person of color, but I also know what it’s like to be triumphant, by overcoming barriers that society places in your path and to figure out ways around them that take strategy, intelligence and tenacity. I’m forged in steel, so they’re going to come after me to try to keep me from winning this race, but my life’s work of experience, from that four-year-old at the picket line to a college professor today, has prepared me for those battles ahead, and I’m ready for it. It also allows me to build broad-based coalitions.
FIERCE: On a more personal note, what would leading and representing Denver, a city you grew up in and raised your children in, mean to you?
Lisa Calderón: My goodness. I mean, I have so much pride and humility. I’m still getting used to coming to meetings and me being a candidate. As an organizer, I’m used to it being about the community, but I have to realize that there is a reason that people are gravitating to my campaign and I have to embrace that and that I am making people proud. This is hard to talk about for me. Just last night, I got a text message from this woman who organizes with other women, and she tells me, “I just want you to know I donated to your campaign, and so are my friends. We have your back.” They see me. They see the wholeness of me, the struggles of me, because I embody what a lot of them are working toward. I have an immense sense of pride in my community, and, if I can represent that, then I’m just incredibly humbled by it all. Also, to see that reflected in my daughter’s eyes. My children have grown up with me in public services, so they’re like, “mom wants to run for mayor. Not a big deal.” But, for my daughter, to see her mother as a woman in debates taking on the establishment, for her to know that she can step into her own power as a young woman and know that people will have her back in doing that adds so much more.
FIERCE: On that, I think you can offer a lot to young Latinas who aspire to run for office. Do you have a message for Latinas with political dreams but perhaps see those as unfeasible?
Lisa Calderón: Politics impact every aspect of our life, and yet we are socialized to believe that it’s not our lane to participate in. But it is our lane, and we have to create more lanes that weren’t there for us, for our people. It’s absolutely not easy. Like I said, it wasn’t my dream, but on the other hand, it’s just an extension of community organizing. These are things we are already doing in our community, like having organized meetings, talking to our relatives about what we are concerned about, this adds another piece, which is action in policy-making. I tell my students that having protests is important to moving our movement forward, but policy-making is actually what impacts the masses for years to come. So, if we want to impact the greatest number of people, we do it through public policy. That means we have to get in an arena that we might not be comfortable with, but the more of us who get into it makes it easier for those who come after us to create a pipeline so our people are adequately represented when it comes to decisions that impact our lives.
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