She’s Running: Denver City Council Candidate Candi CdeBaca Says Building A City Starts With Building Up Its People
In 2017, the Colorado coffeehouse chain ink! came under national scrutiny after a Denver location displayed a sandwich-board that read, “Happily Gentrifying The Neighborhood Since 2014.” Like the rest of her community, Candi CdeBaca, a native of northeast Denver who has been organizing against the displacement of communities of color due to increased gentrification, was enraged and interested in seeing how local politicians would respond. When they failed to appropriately address it, CdeBaca threw her hat in the ring for city council.
“Nothing we are building in this city matters more than building up our people,” reads CdeBaca’s campaign site.
She means it. The first-time candidate, who founded Project VOYCE, a Denver-based, youth-driven leadership and advocacy training hub, and worked at the national education policy organization Excelencia in Education in Washington, DC, has been fighting back against development that leaves marginalized communities out since she returned to her hometown. Last year, she helped win the battle against CDOT’s I-70 expansion, which aimed to rip through a Latinx community to expand a highway.
We spoke with the 33-year-old Chicana about her run for Denver City Council, the sexism she has faced on the campaign trail so far, the issues facing her community today and how she intends on working with them to create a better Denver for all.
FIERCE: Why did you decide to run for Denver City Council?
Candi CdeBaca: I moved into a neighborhood, an immigrant community that’s currently 84 percent Latino, and we had a situation where there were plans to expand a highway through our neighborhood, through one of the last neighborhoods that have a large concentration of Latinos. So I started my activism and engagement in the city through this, through fighting back against city development plans like this, and it snowballed from there. I’ve been working a lot with families and young people and recognized a lack of representation and an abundance of corruption shaping our experiences. This forced me to search for someone else to run. I didn’t find anyone to go against the incumbent I’m running against, who has the most money in the race. Then there was this incident here with Ink! Coffee, which put up a sign that said “’Happily gentrifying since 2014.” It inspired community outrage, and my opponent went on the news a week later talking about gentrification in a way that was ill-informed. I filed my papers to run against him two days later. I don’t think our community has four more years left. If we endure what we have been at the same rate, most of us won’t be here.
FIERCE: I know that among your priorities are tackling housing and wages, traffic and pollution as well as transparency and accountability. Why are these issues currently crucial to your district?
Candi CdeBaca: Denver has grown really fast in the last five years. It has one of the fastest-growing economies in the country right now. The rate of growth combined with the ill-preparedness to accommodate growth created a city that has concentrated wealth and power, and we already had this in the city, so those issues became more and more important because fewer average, everyday working-class people can hold on here, even working two or three jobs.
FIERCE: On your campaign site, you write: “I strive to create a bold and compassionate Denver led by its people.” How do you intend on doing this on city council?
Candi CdeBaca: So in Denver right now we cater primarily to developers and corporations, so we are having a lot of development but not for the residents of Denver or working-class and poor people. We need someone on the council who is bold enough to stand up to corporate interest and is not allured by the wealth and riches that they are promising these politicians. I’m a first-generation high school graduate. I got two degrees on scholarship. I was the first in my family to leave Denver. This, to me, means I have a different investment in Denver than my opponent has. I want to give back to the community that raised me and stand strong for them.
FIERCE: As a queer, working-class Latina woman, what do you think these identities, and the perspectives and experiences that come with them, can bring to the Denver City Council that’s fresh and needed?
Candi CdeBaca: I believe that when you serve the most marginalized among us, everybody benefits. You create a society that is compassionate and understanding of the plight of the smallest margin of people and, by default, everyone else’s lives improve by that. Those multiple marginalized social identities contribute to my ability to see things through an intersectional lens and approach policy through an intersectional lens. Right now, policy is looked at as able-bodied males, typically white males, but sometimes men of color who have deeply internalized oppression.
FIERCE: Of course, you are much more than your identities. You’re an educator, social worker, policy expert and organizer who founded Project VOYCE for local vulnerable students as well as worked at the national education policy organization Excelencia in Education in Washington, DC for six years, among much more. How do you think these experiences prepared you for this office?
Candi CdeBaca: It’s funny to hear someone else read that off, because running as a woman, as a queer woman of color, the No. 1 thing I hear is, “you’re not qualified. You don’t have enough experience.” But what you just listed was a laundry list of experiences and qualifications that I haven’t seen a candidate come to the table with. My opponent did not have these qualifications or experiences. I have that in policy, organizing and direct service. I think that’s why we have the policies we have now. We don’t have a leader with these experiences, who know how to look at it from different perspectives and using different tools to solve problems. I feel fortunate to have those experiences because they shaped my ability to think about a problem in a range of different ways. It also helped me understand what kind of connections and alliances need to be made and what kinds are unnecessary.
FIERCE: It’s often said that the biggest and most effective change is done locally. What are you prepared to do or work on locally to combat the policy and rhetoric coming out of the White House?
Candi CdeBaca: Denver is a Home Rule city, which means we don’t have a lot of checks and balances and can regulate a lot of what the state says. It’s very powerful. I think we can create almost a complete buffer to what’s happening at the national level, if we have the political will. But we’d have to separate ourselves or our reliance on federal dollars or be creative on how we use federal dollars. We can do a lot more at the local level to protect our immigrant communities, to really build cities that serve all of us. I want to see us shift the power to the hands of residents. Decision-making right now leaves residents out, and if we give residents decision-making power, which is not connected to voter status, it’s resident status, we can see change.
FIERCE: What has been the most difficult part of this race so far and how do you think you’ve been able to overcome it?
Candi CdeBaca: I think being a woman in the race with three men has probably been the most challenging part. I don’t know if you saw this, but we went viral on my birthday with a video one of my opponents made calling me a communist. I ended up getting thousands of rape and death threats. Other opponents even recurited volunteers from that thread. So the way men have really disregarded the misogyny and rape culture in these spaces and played into it has been damaging for me and women watching this race. I think it’s definitely been tough to adhere to some of those standards of what you should wear, how to act, what colors to use. We went all out with my branding, which is pink. From day one, I was told not to do that because people wouldn’t take me serious. My name is Candi, so they already don’t take me serious. These perceived weaknesses because of femininity are a challenge initially but, at the end, have also been our biggest strength because it’s making our campaign stand out. We are doing things different from what’s been done before and we don’t need to pander to communities in the same way candidates have in the past. We are leading from a place of compassion. In the community, people recognize and see what’s genuine, and that has been an advantage.
FIERCE: You are a fifth-generation native of northeast Denver. You were raised here, went to public school here, worked here. What would it mean to you to represent the city and people who helped make Candi CdeBaca?
Candi CdeBaca: It’s a big responsibility, but I feel like my whole life has prepared me to take on this responsibility. I always felt, even without the title, that I needed to work for and serve my people, my community, the community that raised me. That is the lifestyle I have lived. I always served my community, without the title or paycheck. I did it on top of my other work many times, so to be able to potentially have a platform to make real change, lasting change, for my community is an honor. It’s an honor because I know I’m coming at it with the right intentions and know I’ve been building the community engagement for a really long time. It’s an opportunity to take it to the next level and prove to the community what can be done when you push hard enough and believe in your community and stay engaged.
FIERCE: Election Day is right around the corner, on May 7. Why should the people of Denver vote for you?
Candi CdeBaca: Because I don’t think we have four years left if we don’t pick new leadership. We have an opportunity to elect someone that has been committed to us over and over, and we will get what we deserve. We will elect who we deserve. Denver deserves more. My community deserves more. I put myself as a conduit for us to do more together.
FIERCE: 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?
Candi CdeBaca: It’s our turn. It’s our time. This era of the emerging feminine. It’s been written, and this is the time of reclamation of our communities. We have the ancestral wisdom to heal our communities and planet. Now is our time to do it, especially Latinas, who will be the new American majority. We have to step into a place of transformational leadership and not perpetuate the oppressive ways of our past, lead with our ancestors behind us and push forward our agenda.