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State Representative Leslie Herod Has a Story to Share

Forget political stereotypes: This history-making legislator is unapologetically progressive, is insistent that state government can be bipartisan (even now), and wants to transform the criminal justice system. And that's just the start of her ambitions.

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In Denver, a city transformed by growth, no neighborhood has been immune to change, and Five Points has seen more than most. Still, something about the historical area feels constant, even as boxy new apartment buildings line Welton Street and cranes reach into the sky. Five Points remains the heart, the beat, the pulse, the soul of a city in flux.

At the very intersection that gave the area its name sits Coffee at The Point. The place is buzzing at 6 p.m. on February 2, 2018, but not with overcaffeinated gig economy workers typing away on laptops. This evening, the coffeeshop is packed with politicians and poets.

At the center of the crowd is state Representative Leslie Herod. Dressed in black, she wears a kimono-style jacket patterned with white, gold, and yellow flowers, which match the glass of white wine in her hand. The Democrat is moving from constituent to constituent—Herod represents District 8, the Denver House district that stretches from Sixth Avenue through northeast Denver and includes most of Five Points—asking questions, helping people find seats, and making sure that everything is ready for this, her second town hall of the year.

One member of Herod’s staff and several volunteers work furiously to set up equipment in order to get the event on Facebook Live. The room is noisy as Herod, who was elected in 2016, steps onto a small stage. “I’m state Representative Leslie Herod,” she says easily into a mic. She introduces herself dozens of times a day, with an ease ensured by that practice. “When I got elected last year, I decided that I wanted to do things a little bit differently,” Herod says. “I am the first African-American LGBT person to hold elected office in Colorado.”

The crowd explodes in applause, and she lets them quiet down before explaining the town hall’s format, because what she has planned is not your standard political event. Tonight, she’s asked artists to perform. The poets and musicians will take the stage with no rules except to speak their truths, tell their stories, and not disparage any particular politician. But she is going to get up occasionally to connect the poems with politics by talking about bills and policies she is working on.

She introduces Ara Cruz, a friend from college and the co-founder of Café Cultura (an organization that hosts events, promotes young creatives, and helps support many of the city’s spoken-word artists), who will help emcee the event. Several of these folks are Herod’s friends too, which is not surprising; Herod gathers people around her, and artists hold a special place in the mix. She believes that art is powerful in social justice movements, that politics needs a soundtrack, a visual impact, or a rhythm.

“Let’s give it up for Leslie, yo!” Cruz says. The artists begin their performances, which cover a variety of different topics but tend to emphasize change and dreaming big. There’s also anger and pain humming in the air—about gentrification, racism, violence against women, and poverty. The whole room seems to vibrate. It’s not unlike something Herod describes when she knows a speech she’s giving is working: It feels like a dance. The organic choreography takes over the room and creates an energy all its own.

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Artist Franklin Cruz asks the crowd for three themes and improvises a poem using the words “sex,” “my hair,” and “prisons.” “This is going to get racy,” he says, before imagining what he would do if he went to prison. How he’d use his long hair to find a protector. How power and brutality clash inside.

When he’s done, Herod takes the mic again and quickly picks up her own rhythm to discuss her criminal justice work. Specifically, she talks about successfully co-sponsoring a budget amendment that gives women in state prisons access to free tampons. Before, she explains, prisoners had to prove a medical need to a guard in order to get what she and others consider a basic need. “I will tell you that the reason why I got that idea is because my very own sister has spent a lot of time in corrections,” Herod says, adding that legislators must be open about family histories to help make change.

Affordable housing, mental health, and criminal justice reform are all discussed at the open mic. Offstage, Herod moves around the room with ease, even though Herod says she’s an extroverted introvert. It might be easier for Herod to hold one event, a more typical town hall, where she’s in charge. Many people might feel more comfortable in that environment instead of this emotionally charged, trigger-warning-necessary atmosphere. That’s not how Herod works, though. Instead, she’ll hold a dance party, trivia nights, a Taboo Town Hall (the topics were “sex, race, money, drugs, guns, and gay”), and post Facebook Live videos. “It’s just important to let people know that, one, I am accessible but, two, together we can make change in our communities,” Herod says.

As the night grows long, Herod continues telling her story. After a performance about poverty, she talks about using food stamps in college at the University of Colorado Boulder. When she discusses discrimination, she recalls how segregation affected her grandparents’ opportunities (her grandfather fought to integrate schools in the Deep South). She implores the audience to speak up. “If you have been discriminated against in your place of employment, your housing, public accommodation, you need to let us know because we can file a case for you,” she says. “We need to fight for each other.”

No, this not a typical town hall meeting, but Herod never intended to be a typical politician.

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“Well, hello Denver,” Herod says, beaming her characteristic smile at the crowd in Civic Center Park. It’s January 21, 2017, and Donald Trump has been president for about 24 hours. Across the country, women and allies are gathering in protest, and in the Mile High City, more than 100,000 people are meeting in the park squarely between the city’s power nexuses—the City and County Building and the state Capitol—for the Women’s March on Denver.

It had only been 10 days since Herod took her own oath to serve her constituents in the Colorado House of Representatives. But she wasn’t wasting time easing into the new job. Despite being 34 years old, she was not a political rookie. She had been a legislative aide at the Capitol, served in former Governor Bill Ritter’s administration as a senior policy adviser, and worked as former President Barack Obama’s deputy political director in Colorado. She’d spent time on the nonpartisan Legislative Council Staff, which provides research for the state House and Senate, and worked at the LGBT advocacy nonprofit Gill Foundation as a senior officer. Now she would be able to bring that experience to a larger audience; this would be her first big moment.

She speaks about human rights, saying that Americans will not build walls, that this country values freedom and equality. “We are going to continue forward even when—especially when—the path gets difficult, because we are women,” she says before stopping. She’s a fan of the pause, holding them just long enough so people don’t get uncomfortable. These breaks give the audience a chance to stop and breathe. “We are diverse. We are resilient, and that is what we do. We’ve never had it easy. But we will not bow down to someone else’s ignorant whims. We will be loud and we will fight for our ideals because silence will not protect us. And because together we are stronger.”

Whenever she makes a public address, there’s a cadence to her speech. It’s not overly dramatic, but there’s a natural, confident rhythm. It’s an oratory style that compels a crowd to nod along, to respond, to interact. She’s asking for that. She wants you to be there with her, to react and feel, even if you don’t agree with her. Today, she tells a little of her own story, and the crowd cheers, pumping fists and jumping in the air. “We all belong in this country,” Herod says as she points her finger toward the earth. “America is stronger because of our differences. Yes, our curvy hips, our kinky hair, and our brown skin.”

Herod is part of a political moment born at CU Boulder in the 2000s. She and three others—Joe Neguse, Steve Fenberg, and Lisa Kaufmann—founded New Era Colorado, a nonprofit that works to get young people involved in politics. From its early days, the group focused on voter registration and informing youth about issues that mattered to them—rents, student debt, the environment, and health care costs—to widespread success (New Era signed up 4,000 voters at its first registration event in 2007). Not surprisingly, the crew pursued political careers. Neguse landed in Washington, D.C., in January as the state’s first African-American congressional representative. Fenberg represents Boulder County in the state Senate. Jared Polis picked Kaufmann as his chief of staff after he won the governor’s race this past November. Herod had no challengers in her re-election bid this past fall.

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And “new era” might be the perfect phrase to describe Herod’s brand of politics. She uses social media like she grew up with it, livestreaming events, asking constituents for questions via Twitter during committee hearings, and posting personalized emoji. It means she is often one of the first to take a stand on an issue, while others are still writing press releases. She’s a graduate of Emerge Colorado and Victory Institute, two programs geared at training women and LGBT candidates, respectively, to run for political office. In the past year, she’s received more than a half-dozen awards and accolades recognizing her story and her politics. “She is one of the few politicians who is willing to speak truth to power, but take on the fights that others might not,” U.S. Representative Neguse says. “She’s the kind of person you want in your corner.”

So, yes, there’s a lot of excitement around Herod and her style of politics. But anyone who challenges existing conditions tends to draw criticism as well. Herod has received plenty of it, from constituents who think she’s difficult to reach to people who think her progressive stances on closing prisons threaten a vital part of the Colorado economy. What many seem to agree on is that Herod is straightforward. If you ask her a direct question, you will get a direct answer.

At the Civic Center podium on that cold day in January 2017, Herod lays the groundwork for her tenure in elective office. She talks about how this is the time to fight, to stand up. “Together we write the future,” she says. “Today will not go down in history as the fall of America and the rise of Trump. No, today will go down in history as the event that galvanized women. The day that brought us together and made us an unstoppable political force. Yesterday is in the past. Starting right now—we write the story.”

Herod (left) with her mom and brother Marcus. Photo courtesy of Leslie Herod.

The first day of a legislative session feels a little like the first day of school: People wear their best outfits and catch up on what everybody did over break. On January 10, 2018, Herod is dressed in black, in solidarity with other women to raise awareness of sexual harassment at the Capitol. She is rushing around the building with a team of people who are livestreaming the event to her constituents but stops to give a few hugs before heading off to find her fellow Black Democratic Legislative Caucus of Colorado members for a photo op. There are eight members of the caucus this year—a historic number, especially considering that when Herod was a legislative aide in 2005, Rosemary Marshall was the only female African-American legislator at the Capitol.

People take their seats around 10 a.m. It’s the second year Herod’s been through this pomp and circumstance, but it is still awe-inspiring to her. On this special morning, she can select a guest to sit with her, and she asked Marshall to be there. When Herod’s name is read aloud for roll call, she says “here” in a calm, steady voice.

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Herod seems so comfortable in these environs that you might think she grew up wanting to do this. Instead, she had aspirations to serve on the Supreme Court of the United States and as a child would walk around her house with a black sheet draped over her shoulders. Herod spent much of her childhood moving as her mother—an officer in the U.S. Army Nurse Corps—reported for duty at different posts around the globe. She was born in 1982 on U.S. soil on a base in Germany and, following that, lived in Texas, Washington, California (twice), Colorado, and South Korea. Her parents split up when Herod was young, so she also spent summers in Louisiana with her dad or running through sprinklers during steamy days at her grandparents’ home in Water Valley, Mississippi.

Her brother Marcus, who is one year older, remembers Herod being a precocious kid who had a habit of stretching the rules and talking her way out of trouble, like when she’d bum rides home from school when she was supposed to walk. She learned to make friends quickly but also to treasure quiet time. It wasn’t unusual to find her propped up next to a window reading one of the Baby-Sitters Club books.

She spent most of high school in Colorado Springs, except for her sophomore year, when she lived with her dad in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. She needed to get away from her mom, who she says was fighting substance abuse issues. The move did not go well. Although she’d experienced racism before, it felt more pervasive and oppressive in the South. “When I went down to Louisiana, they literally told me I was too dark-skinned to be a cheerleader,” she says. “So, I became the first dark-skinned girl on the cheerleading squad.”

Without much structure in her life, Herod was skipping school and going to parties, although she kept up her grades. She headed back to Colorado Springs in 1998 for her last two years of high school, but she still felt like she was wandering or, worse, going nowhere. Her relationship with her mom hadn’t improved, and a friend’s family, the Borjas, lived just a few houses away and intervened. The parents saw her potential and wanted her to realize it. They gave her a key to their house, shuttled her to cheerleading competitions, and took her to Wendy’s for chicken sandwich dinners. She melted into the family as if she’d always been there.

The Borjas dropped her off at college in 2000. She took out student loans and supported herself, often working two jobs to make rent and pay tuition. On top of that, in 2003, her father died from pancreatic cancer. “He was this big figure in my life, and he went down to nothing,” Herod says. In her free time, she got involved with student government, which is where she met the group that would form New Era. “It was a lot,” Herod says. “But I didn’t know it was a lot. I was younger. I had more energy, if you can believe it.”

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Even then, she was the type of person people remembered easily; her enthusiasm made an impression. Sergio Gonzales, political activist Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales’ grandson, vividly recalls seeing Herod at a coalition meeting before a student election where she “energized” the room. “I remember looking at this really powerful woman,” he says. “And then she started speaking.” The two quickly became friends and eventually shared an apartment in Superior where they’d spend Sunday nights watching Sex and the City in their pajamas or singing along to Toni Braxton and Davina tunes.

Herod was pretty sure she wanted to get into politics by then, but she still didn’t see herself as a candidate, even though people were encouraging her to run. There just weren’t many politicians who looked like her. Plus, she dated women. (Colorado had passed Amendment 2, a constitutional amendment limiting LGBT rights that earned it a “hate state” nickname, in 1992; the U.S. Supreme Court deemed it unconstitutional in 1996.) More and more, though, she found mentors and allies who made her rethink the traditional notions of what constituted a politician. “I wasn’t going to be elected despite my sexual orientation,” Herod says. “I was going to be elected. Full stop.” She filed papers to run for the District 8 spot in 2015 because Beth McCann, now Denver’s district attorney, was term-limited.

Her kitchen cabinet—which included community activist Anna Jo Haynes, Neguse, attorney (and ex-girlfriend) Katina Banks, and Marshall, among others—gathered in her Park Hill home that morning. When the meeting was done, Herod went upstairs and crawled into bed, thinking, What have I done? And then her phone started to ping with encouragement, congratulations, and, of course, donations. “That got me back out of bed,” she says.

It wasn’t an easy race. She lost the caucus, a nonbinding early voting event held by the party before a primary. It was close—maybe 20 or so votes—but Herod knew that to win the primary (and, essentially, win the general election, because District 8 is a Democratic stronghold), she’d need to get out the vote. She spent as many hours as she could walking her district, knocking on doors and asking people about their lives. “I still use those stories today to help what I’m doing and inform my policy,” she says. It worked: She won the primary and the general election.

On her first opening day at the Colorado General Assembly, she sat on the floor and looked at the crowd. Her “family garden” was there: the Borjas parents, whom she also calls “Mom” and “Dad.” Her brother. Friends. Mentors. She was amazed by the support and the duty she’d taken on. She remembers hearing her name being read during roll call and thinking, I can do this. I can make a difference. And so many people trust me to make that difference.

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It’s the day before Valentine’s Day 2018, that holiday when people tend to focus on love, at least for 24 hours. Today, though, hate, or at least the threat of it, is the topic. The state is still awaiting the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in the Masterpiece Cakeshop case against the Colorado Civil Rights Commission (CCRC). In the meantime, some Senate Republicans have suggested postponing funding from the state’s general budget for CCRC, even though the commission is set for “sunset review”—a process in which all functions of state government are reviewed periodically—later in the year.

This morning, a group has gathered outside the west steps of the Capitol in support of the CCRC. Protestors hold signs that read, “It’s not about the cake,” and “Civil rights for all.” When it is Herod’s time to speak, she ad-libs.

“A beautiful day in Colorado, isn’t it?” The crowd yells back in agreement, and Herod begins by giving a brief history of anti-discrimination laws in the state. She explains that Colorado passed nondiscrimination legislation 13 years before the Civil Rights Act. That when the state had a chance, it led the way and that it can do so again. “Now, I’m going to tell you something that might seem a little far-fetched to some of you guys, but guess what? This doesn’t have to be a partisan battle. Discrimination knows no party affiliation.”

The crowd shouts and whistles when she asks them to let the lawmakers inside the building know their presence. It is one of those speeches when she feels like she is dancing with the audience. Then, she uses a long pause for effect. “You all know what we’re going to do, right?” she asks. “When our rights are under attack, what do we do?” The crowd shouts: “Stand up! Fight back!”

Minutes later, she’s worked her way down to a basement room and to her seat on the Colorado House Judiciary Committee. The space is packed; people are leaning against the walls and holding open the doors. The judiciary committee often draws a crowd because of its contentious meetings on criminal justice matters—opening new prisons, changing sentencing requirements—that extend long into the night, but this meeting seems especially charged because the topic is the renewal of the CCRC.

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The first two people to testify are the Webbs. Wellington served as Denver’s mayor for 12 years, and he and his wife, Wilma, served nearly 20 years combined as state representatives in this building. Herod greets them. “It’s an honor to serve in House District 8, the district you all also represented,” Herod says, before pointing out that former state Representative Rosemary Marshall is also in the audience. “You all fought tremendously hard, and continue to fight, so that Coloradans’ rights are protected,” she says before asking them to testify on why the commission was, and is, important.

If that weren’t enough for the day, Herod has another bill she’s co-sponsoring with Republican state Representative Cole Wist working its way through the House Public Health Care & Human Services Committee across the hallway. This should be an easy sell because it is renewing an old bill for a program that provides funding for mental health services for children—but nothing is simple this session. She starts by asking the committee to think about what they were doing in 1999. Back then, she explains, if you couldn’t afford care for a child with severe mental health needs, you’d have to give up your parental rights in order to qualify for state-funded care. “Can you imagine how heartbreaking that would be,” she says, “to know that you have a child who needs this help and be told that you have to call yourself an unfit parent to get that help?”

Wist takes over, describing how 20 kids are on the waitlist and 99 kids were served in the previous year. Herod and Wist would team up as co-sponsors on four total pieces of legislation in the 2018 regular session (the governor vetoed one; three others, including this bill, passed). “If you look at, historically, how we craft successful public policy, it is by listening to people on other sides of the aisle,” Wist says. Wist, who lost his re-election bid this past November, adds that they didn’t let differences stop good policy. “There is stuff we don’t agree on, but we’ve become close friends.”

Herod frequently co-sponsors bills with Republicans and had a 73 percent passage rate during her first term. But Herod says that a killed bill (or 10, in her case) isn’t necessarily a loss. Sometimes it means raising awareness about an issue that can be picked up elsewhere (for instance, the city of Denver recently passed an ordinance to end income discrimination in housing, an issue that failed in the state Legislature). “Winning can mean a lot of different things,” Herod says. “Building awareness around an issue. Building that coalition. Having a different conversation that had never been had before. Those are measures of progress as well.”

Herod listens to testimony about sexual harassment, which led to the expulsion of a state representative, at the Capitol on March 2, 2018. Photo by Aaron Ontiveroz, The Denver Post via Getty Images.

Herod says she can’t turn down an opportunity to talk to kids, and today is no different. On May 24, 2018, the legislative session is over and she’s speaking to a middle school classroom in northeast Denver. It’s a tough audience—students who are probably more focused on the last weeks of school than they are on learning about civic procedures. She starts with her typical introduction, talks about one of her tattoos (the number 44, for Obama, is inked on her left wrist), and tells more of her story. Students ask about how she identifies (“I identify as a woman who dates women,” she says) and her Christian faith (she’s proud of the support she gets from the ministerial community). Soon, her words are dancing around the room.

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She talks about her half-sister, Kim, saying that sharing her family’s struggles is about “living my truth.” It’s a story she’ll weave again and again in the coming months. Herod considers herself to have five siblings: Kim (from her mother’s previous marriage), Marcus, and the Borjas’ three children. Kim has always been in and out of Herod’s life as she’s battled addiction and spent time in jail and prison. Herod remembers that the family had to make sure her sister had money on the books to buy things inside, which is why she says she has unique insight into criminal justice reform.

Herod says her sister has encouraged her to speak about her struggles, so Herod honors that wish. That took on new meaning this past year when she spearheaded Caring 4 Denver, a ballot initiative to raise the city’s sales tax to help fund mental health and addiction programs. It was maybe her biggest political gamble yet, one she didn’t have to make: As a state legislator, a city tax increase wasn’t something she needed to champion.

Herod was quietly confident it would pass and spent much of 2018 gathering support, including endorsements from both sides of the aisle, like then state Attorney General Cynthia Coffman, who shared a personal story about a family member in a social media video. Adam Lerner, the departing director of the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver, spoke at events about how the creative community must address mental wellness. Renowned street artist Shepard Fairey even taped a promo. And, of course, Herod did, too. “Everyone has a personal story,” she said in her commercial. “Everyone has a personal connection to mental health or substance challenges.” She went on to speak about Kim and how she believes things could have been different. “She never got the services or the resources that she needed to deal with the underlying mental health issues that she had. Had she had them, I believe that we would have had my sister back a lot earlier.”

As Herod continues to share her narrative with broad audiences, her reach has grown, and she’s become more than a local politician, more than an up-and-comer. But when, exactly, did that happen? Was it her speech at the Women’s March? The CCRC rally? The piece she wrote for Elle magazine that ran the month she took office? Her essay in the Nevertheless, We Persisted anthology or her TEDxCollegePark speech on making tampons a human right, which taped in June 2018? Or maybe it was in 2017, when she created the Herod Leadership Fund to help elect progressive women, LGBT candidates, people of color, and allies to office.

She draws praise from both sides of the aisle. Former state Representative Yeulin Willett, a Republican, says he has “locked horns” with Herod on issues but that she understands how to agree to disagree and keep on working. “She’s full of energy, and she can be a little intimidating at times,” Willett says. Others admire her leadership, coalition-building, and listening skills. “I think she’s a good leader, but any time you take strong positions, some people don’t like it,” McCann says. “She’s learning how to navigate being a strong, powerful woman.”

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All of which leads to an obvious question: What’s next? On this point, many people are in agreement. Herod can achieve whatever goals she sets, whether that is to become mayor or even governor. “I think she’s in office for all the right reasons,” Marshall says. “I think Leslie can do anything she wants to do, because the potential is there.” Her college roommate, Gonzales, who is now the deputy director of the Immigration Hub in Washington, D.C., agrees: “She’s a born leader. That is what she was when we were in school, and that is what she has continued to do. She is a rising star.”

The 2019 session, which began this past month, will be a pivotal period for Herod. She’s coming off a big win: The Caring 4 Denver campaign not only passed in the November election, but it did so with 70 percent of the vote. “I was shocked by the margin,” Herod says. “It just reinforced that Denverites do care about each other.” This session, Herod will be busy as the vice chair of the House Judiciary Committee and chair of the House Finance Committee. She’ll also lead the Colorado black caucus, keep up her criminal justice system work with bills on bail reform, and try to pass bills concerning tax reform, equal pay, and a childcare tax credit.

She’s elusive about her future plans, as politicians tend to be. That’s because it’s not a good idea to play one’s hand too early, and because so much of politics is about timing. “I want to continue to serve the people of House District 8 until they are done with me or term limits come,” Herod says. “One thing I will say is that I always want to be tied to Colorado. This is my home.”

Perhaps that is why, as she speaks to students in that northeast Denver classroom this past May, she’s so insistent that the students be bold. She sees herself in their futures. She hopes to continue advocating for them at the Capitol. She knows that positive words from adults and mentors can create a positive influence that lasts for years. And, perhaps most of all, she knows how much of an impact her words can make. By the end of the period, she’s tried to make eye contact with every student in the room. That connection matters as she finishes her story with a simple message: “I expect you to lead.”

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