The race to represent District 9—which includes Auraria, LoDo, RiNo, Five Points, City Park, Globeville, and Elyria-Swansea—on Denver’s City Council has come down to a runoff between two-time incumbent Albus Brooks and Candi CdeBaca, a community activist and nonprofit founder. Only 286 votes separated them in the general election. With the June 4 runoff election approaching, 5280 met with both candidates to learn more about their backgrounds, why they’re running, and their vision for District 9.
Campaign offices tend to be cramped, but Candi CdeBaca’s feels more like a busy terminal at an airport. The door to the Whittier space opens frequently as supporters drop in, grab materials, and head back out to talk with voters. Piles of fliers and yard signs in hot pink—the bright color used in CdeBaca’s campaign materials—are running low. In the midst of it all, CdeBaca sits on a couch surrounded by people who support her, including David Torres, a friend from childhood, and CdeBaca’s partner, Kerrie Joy, an artist and poet.
It’s May 9, less than 48 hours after the general election in which CdeBaca earned a runoff spot against a two-term City Council member. The early returns on election night showed Brooks with a lead, but the difference closed as the results continued to come in. “What we pulled off was incredible,” CdeBaca says.
Still, she wasn’t too surprised at how the night played out. While knocking doors, she’d heard people talk about how they were waiting to vote until the last day. Those votes, she knew, would be released later in the night; the first batch of results would include ballots turned in beforehand. “Those early votes, those were people who had their mind made up,” she says. But while campaigning in District 9’s neighborhoods in the lead-up to the general election, she’d also heard from people who didn’t feel included in the city’s future. That bothered her. That’s not what she wants for her neighborhood, her community—her Denver.
CdeBaca’s family has lived in District 9 for generations, and she has spent much of her life in the area she now hopes to represent. The oldest of three kids, CdeBaca was raised in a multigenerational household. When she was young, her mother would take CdeBaca along while she cleaned offices downtown. CdeBaca would hang out in the conference rooms and think about someday holding a meeting at one of the big tables.
It didn’t take long for CdeBaca to get political. When her nearby high school, Manual, didn’t have the advanced classes she needed, she fought to stay there and get classes added instead of attending a school outside her community. “That was my first political act,” she says. “I was furious that I had to leave my community to go get an accelerated track.” The next year, Manual students were split up into multiple schools within the same building. CdeBaca fought against the repercussions of that decision, too.
After graduation in 2004, CdeBaca headed to the University of San Diego, but returned to Denver when her grandmother had a heart attack. She’d pursue a dual degree from the University of Denver (she received her bachelor’s degree in sociology and her master’s in social work) and founded nonprofit Project VOYCE in 2006.
In 2009, after graduating from DU, CdeBaca moved to Washington, D.C., for a four-month internship at the Center for Progressive Leadership—but stayed for several years. President Barack Obama was newly in office, and the city had an energy she wanted to be a part of. “Young, amazing, brilliant people of color had just flocked to this space to be part of this historic moment and to change the world,” she says.
When her grandmother needed hospice care, she came back to Denver in 2014. The place, she says, was transformed. “It was an unrecognizable city,” CdeBaca says, explaining that her neighborhood and the city were aesthetically different, but that familiar faces were also gone. “They couldn’t afford to live in the neighborhood….People were just scattered.”
CdeBaca worked to better understand what had happened—and what was happening in her community. In particular, she dug into the battle around the I-70 expansion, the environmental impact of the interstate on her Elyria-Swansea neighborhood, and displacement. She also continued her involvement with Project VOYCE. People started to talk to her about running for an elected position, but CdeBaca wasn’t ready—until, one day, she was.
She filed papers in December 2017 after hearing incumbent Albus Brooks speak about gentrification on Colorado Public Radio. “I didn’t know how we were going to win,” she says. “But I knew that people wanted something else and that it was worth it for me to try.”
Her community work—for which she was featured as a “Disrupter,” one of 15 people changing Denver, in 5280′s January issue—has inspired her policy platforms, some of which she knows aren’t popular. For the general election, she came out in support of Initiative 300. “I took a really bold position on that,” she says. “I’m not making decisions based on one person, or based on profit. I want people to understand that before they elect me.”
She has several plans for addressing homelessness, from consolidating city offices to creating a 24-hour shelter. On transportation, CdeBaca supports the creation of a Denver Department of Transportation, wants to use RTD as supplemental support to city-based options, and to transform the city’s mass transit infrastructure. “We need a vision for a connected street grid and a vision for mass transit that’s not circular,” she says. “Right now, our mass transit map looks like a wheel with spokes. Everything comes downtown. To go anywhere you need to go downtown first.” Instead, she’d like to see more neighborhood-to-neighborhood connections.
CdeBaca has been criticized for being uncompromising and anti-growth. “I think that that’s a perfect illustration of fear,” she says, in response. “Never once have I advocated to stop progress. I just have a different idea of what progress looks like. And progress to me doesn’t mean we stop development or stop infrastructure for transportation. It means we build developments and infrastructures that serve the people who are here not just generate profit for people who are not here.”
People. Community. Neighborhood. These are words that buzz around her campaign headquarters as CdeBaca’s supporters continue to assemble on that day in early May. They’ll spend the following weeks fanning out in the district and making calls. And CdeBaca will be with them, on the front line of a neighborhood fight that’s gone citywide.