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The race to represent District 9—including 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.
Albus Brooks stands in front of a weather-worn door on a quiet, tree-lined street just south of City Park. It’s late afternoon: those busy hours after school has let out and before people settle back into their homes after work. He knows the voters he’s trying to reach are busy, but Brooks and his campaign team don’t have time to waste. He’s out to give his pitch for why this neighborhood should re-elect him to City Council.
He’s got a few talking points, including asking how they like the nearby Sprouts grocery store and efforts to find safer ways to cross Colfax Avenue. And he wants to hear what people think about the park that gives the neighborhood its name. When someone answers the door, Brooks quickly gauges their mood. For the family just getting home from after-school activities, he simply introduces himself and leaves a flyer. At another house, he gets a promise they’ll vote for him. Further down the block, when no one comes to the door, he writes a quick note on the back of brochure and tucks it in the screen. Then he moves on to the next stop.
Earlier that afternoon, Brooks sat at a small table at Coffee at the Point on 26th Avenue. It’s a favorite gathering spot for politicians and community leaders. This area—at the center of Five Points—has been at the epicenter of conversations about Denver’s growth, gentrification, displacement, and homelessness. Brooks talks about the neighborhood’s history, from the small businesses and musicians that made it iconic, to racist real estate practices, like redlining, and how devaluation in the 1970s laid “the seeds of gentrification.”
He chats about how the 80205 zip code was listed as being one of the most gentrified in the country even before he took office. But, he says, there’s more. “In the height of gentrification, in the height of—we’ve never had land prices this high—we’re seeing a resurgence of minority- and women-owned businesses,” Brooks says. “We’re seeing a resurgence of black property owners, developers, and architects come back to this part of the city. And it’s so exciting.”
Brooks grew up in southern California and came to the Centennial State in 1996 to play football at the University of Colorado. During his sophomore year, the linebacker had just been mentioned in Sports Illustrated when he blew out his knee, which effectively ended his football career. “The guy behind me signed a $10 million contract with the Philadelphia Eagles,” Brooks says.
His life shifted away from the field and to political science and religious studies. Brooks says that pivot made him focus early. “I was thrust into my calling,” he says. “It was an opportunity because most 19-, 20-year-olds are not thinking about calling. They’re not thinking about purpose.”
After graduation, he focused on community work. At Young Life, a faith-based, youth-focused organization, he went into Denver high schools to mentor and work with young men. He married Debi (they have three children), worked as the director of the Issachar Center for Urban Leadership, and joined John Hickenlooper’s team during his gubernatorial race. He says his time spent traveling around the state’s 64 counties made him realize he was most interested in one: Denver.
When City Council member Carla Madison died in 2011 after a battle with cancer, Brooks ran to fill her seat—along with 38 others. He recalls that campaign was different than the current race. “People weren’t attacking my character,” Brooks says. “We took every kid that I ever worked with and had them knock doors.” He won that year and again in 2015.
During his time on City Council, he served as president twice during a period of intense growth in the city. He says that establishing an affordable housing fund, decriminalizing marijuana for 18- to 21-year-olds, and approving universal preschool education are high points from his terms. He has also survived two bouts with chondrosarcoma, a rare form of skeletal cancer. “Prior to cancer, I was very focused on accomplishments,” Brooks says. “Cancer caused me to look within and look around.”
His tenure has attracted criticism, especially his pro-growth stances around development in the district. “I think I’ve been painted as this individual who is hoity-toity [and] doing these things because I represent the economic engine of the city,” Brooks says, adding that he wants people to get involved in setting the city’s course. “Look at what we’ve accomplished together….We’re trying to tell folks if you are in this city, you should be building this city. It should not just be the folks who have access to capital and power.”
That’s part of the reason why he’s running again. That and a long to-do list, which includes creating a permanent funding source to complete Denver’s bike and sidewalk networks and starting an entrepreneurial center for people of color. “Businesses with 12 employees or less are the backbone of our economy,” Brooks says. “And if we can’t figure out how to have an entrepreneur come into this city and thrive, we’re in trouble as a city.”
Brooks also says that addressing homelessness and affordable housing would be focuses of his third term, and that while the established fund and new units are helpful, they are not enough. He would like to explore setting up a sales tax to create a funding source for homelessness with a focus on housing-first programs. Additionally, he wants to push developers to build more affordable housing units.
It’s the type of work that he is out explaining that afternoon when he is knocking doors. As he moves from house to house, he gets more animated with each interaction. The smile on his face grows. The message, he says, is simple: How can the city serve you best?