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It started as an April Fools prank about a year ago, but a mayoral run quickly became a reality for Kalyn Rose Heffernan, the first queer, disabled person ever to campaign for the office in Denver.
The activist, educator, artist, and front woman of Wheelchair Sports Camp—a local hip-hop group—posted a sarcastic YouTube video on April 1, 2018 proclaiming she was running for mayor. She wasn’t quite serious at the time, but the stunt was ambiguous enough and resonated with her friends and acquaintances, many of whom already considered her something of a tiny, happy mayor for their community. So, after an overwhelmingly positive response, Heffernan officially joined the race and garnered enough support to earn a place on the May 7 ballot, where she’ll be one of five opponents challenging incumbent Mayor Michael Hancock.
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She’s been keeping things light-hearted on the campaign trail. The candidate, who moves around Denver in a powered wheelchair, is fond of cheeky slogans: “Vote for me because I won’t stand for any of this shit,” goes one. “It’s a race, and ours is motorized,” quips another. Despite her sense of humor, though, Heffernan is serious when she talks about issues like homelessness, public transportation, and fair wages for artists. Still, that hasn’t stopped some commentators from invalidating her run, and her determined voice wasn’t enough to earn a spot on every debate stage, some of which only included the top money raisers.
As Denver voters study the names on their ballots this week, they’ll see Kalyn Rose Heffernan—a funny-but-earnest candidate working hard to effect change in her community—right there among the others. She recently spoke to 5280 about her political influences and what she hoped to accomplish during her campaign.
Responses have been edited for length and clarity.
5280: Why did you decide to mount a campaign for mayor?
Heffernan: I’ve been called the mayor by people in Denver for a big part of my life because I’m so recognizable and I’m everywhere. [Wheelchair Sports Camp] was in New Mexico on tour and the boys were like ‘you should run for mayor,’ and I was like “I’ll never run for anyone.” On the 10-hour trip home, we had figured out what it takes to actually do it, but it was still a pretty overwhelming idea.
So, it was sort of a joke that turned into a reality?
I mean, the whole video itself is that. Politics are a joke and yet they have so many real consequences. We’re kind of poking at the bottom of what this monster is and its realities.
It’s definitely a show that has serious impact. I’ve always been part of the struggle and the movements. And I’ve always been very fascinated with solution-based ways to fight oppression, and now in Denver it just gets realer and realer every day.
In a way, campaigning for mayor is giving you a bigger platform to express some of these concerns?
Yeah, it is a different platform. I’m still talking about a lot of the same things, but I’ve had to be a lot more engaged in educating myself. My favorite part is being able to relay the inner-workings on what campaigning really is, which is more of a joke and a show then I ever would have imagined.
I’m trying to do a campaign that doesn’t necessarily play by the game, and when we do play by the game, we’re poking at it. I don’t want to say poking fun because it’s not always fun. Campaign events and politics are boring. It’s no wonder why so many of us don’t feel represented because [politics] is not inclusive. It’s dry and it’s not meant for us.
As an artist and musician, how do art and music influence your politics?
Well, I think that at the heart of everything—art empowers us to express ourselves, to channel our anger, to channel our frustrations, to start solving real problems. We can’t do anything for any people if we’re not doing it for ourselves first. Art is the truest form of culture and it’s at the bottom of the heart of every culture. Art is always modeled by the truth and is how we document and shift paradigms.
Is there room for art and creativity in politics?
Yeah, and that’s also the big point here and the heart of this campaign—we can all creatively address and solve our own problems. I think we get hung up on the idea that we have to be great masters in order to make change, but change happens within ourselves every day. Disabled folks take it a step further—we have to creatively solve life every day because the world wasn’t built for us. Other marginalized communities have had to find ways to adapt and live and survive in this reality too.
It’s unfortunate and also real that we don’t always think about things unless we have to. And that’s why all these woke white women are so engaged now because it’s finally starting to affect them. Marginalized communities are like, “Oh, honey, welcome. We’ve been fucking dying for years.”
One major issue your campaign is focusing on is Denver’s homelessness. According to a stat on your website, in 2017 there were 232 people who experienced homelessness died in the Mile High City. In 2018, there were 233. How do you plan to address this issue?
It all comes down to access. More homeless people are dying than ever. Last year was the most ever documented. The majority of people left without shelter have a disability.
A lot of shelters, including the biggest one in the city, are not accessible to wheelchairs. The mission says ‘Jesus Saves,’ but that does not [include] disabled folk or transfolk. Access to our shelters is not inclusive, nor is it enough, nor is it a long-term solution. It actually costs less to house people—the tiny home village has proved this time and time again—than it does to continue to sweep them up [by enforcing Denver’s urban camping ban].
How does this campaign for mayor fit in with the greater activist community?
We’re still all going to be here after [the campaign]. I don’t want to play that campaign strategy like ‘when I win this is what we’ll do.’ No. What can we do now? There are organizations that are working tirelessly 24 hours a day for little or no pay. We are collaborating with people who are actually working for this city every single day. They need the support just as much as I do, if not more.
Anything you can suggest people do right now?
Whatever is the most burning problem in their life, make a creative plan to hack away at it. It doesn’t have to be solving world poverty. Is there poverty in your neighborhood? List three small acts that you can do. Find three organizations that are already doing things in whatever realm—whether it be the food crisis, racism, education inequity, housing, you name it. And start being more creative, whatever that looks like to you. Keep writing. Keep painting. Keep making music. Keep meditating. Keep doing these things that help us reset and actually come up with new ideas.