COVER STORY: THE TRAINING GROUND | Colorado’s left focuses on diversity and building the bench

If you want to run for office, you have to know what you’re doing.

That was the message state Rep. Brianna Titone, D-Arvada, delivered to an eager audience of thousands of Democrats during a September Zoom panel on running and winning in a red district. The national event was hosted by the National Democratic Training Committee (NDTC).

“You have to get the training to know how to do it, because there is a formula that works,” Titone said. “And there’s a lot of different places you can go.”

Particularly for Democrats, Colorado is a state with plentiful partisan training opportunities, as well as nonpartisan organizations that cater to demographic groups that tend to lean left.

After being founded in 2016, the NDTC’s training operations have reached Colorado and helped Titone (the state’s first transgender legislator) and Adams County Commissioner Emma Pinter win office. Meanwhile, Emerge Colorado, the state branch of the nationwide training organization for Democratic women, has grown into a powerhouse since it was founded nearly a decade ago.

There’s more: The Colorado chapter of the Working Families Party organizes free trainings and can count a handful of Colorado’s most prominent progressive among its alumnae. LEAD Colorado, an organization run by Sen. Brittany Pettersen, D-Lakewood, also focuses on running progressives in competitive races, and recruits and trains women, people of color and LGBTQ candidates. Higher Heights for America, an organization dedicated to electing more progressive Black women, trains candidates and backed Stephany Rose Spaulding’s unsuccessful run for Congress in 2018.

Nonpartisan training organizations that cater to left-leaning demographic groups are also finding success. Take the Victory Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based group that focuses on preparing LGBTQ candidates to campaign for office. The organization, which holds regular trainings in Denver, can count Gov. Jared Polis, Rep. Leslie Herod (Denver) and Titone among its success stories.

“I don’t think I would have been prepared to win without” the training from Victory Institute, said Herod, who sits on the powerful Joint Budget Committee and serves as a leader on criminal justice reform efforts. Herod also participated in Emerge’s training program before joining the legislature, where she has become one of the General Assembly’s most effective lawmakers.

Polis said that the Victory Institute’s training, which he participated in ahead of a successful run for Congress, was “an outstanding resource for navigating the ins and outs of campaigning.”

“Since then, we’ve seen LGBTQ candidates successfully get elected at all levels of government, from town councils to the U.S. Senate, and Victory’s trainings have played an important role in helping hundreds of candidates break down those barriers,” Polis said.

Beyond the Victory Institute, there’s also a pair of non-partisan organizations with close ties to Democrats in the state Senate.

New American Leaders puts on its “Ready to Lead” training course designed to help first- or second-generation Americans win office. State Sen. Julie Gonzales of Denver is a graduate of that program and now works as one of its trainers.

There’s also VoteRunLead, an organization that focuses on training women to run for office that features Sen. Faith Winter of Westminster as one of its trainers. Winter also works as a trainer for Emerge, LEAD and Vote Mama, an organization that supports Democratic mothers running for office.

The bottom line: The training ground has never been so fertile on the left. But it wasn’t always that way.

Shontel Lewis practices her public speaking with her Emerge class in 2017. In November 2018, Lewis was elected as a Regional Transportation District director.

‘I think everyone got a little complacent’

When it comes to training candidates in Colorado over the last decade-and-a-half, few can claim they’ve been as involved as Winter.

The Westminster Democrat made her bones in candidate training with the White House Project, a now-defunct nonpartisan operation that focused on increasing female representation in government.

After starting with WHP in 2005, Winter said the landscape for training organizations held steady through much of the 2000s. A pair of nonpartisan outfits that are no longer in operation offered candidate training while the Bighorn Center for Public Policy, which also closed its doors, offered training on effective governance once in office.

Those years, which saw training operations such as those put on by the Latina Initiative Project come and go, represented to Winter a stagnation of progress.

“It’s almost like we got Obama elected and there was lack of enthusiasm and progressive infrastructure because I think everyone got a little complacent and thought we’ve fixed everything,” she said.

But as those organizations waned, Emerge picked up the mantle for the political left.

The nationwide organization first looked at making a move into Colorado in 2009 but opted against it, in part because Winter said all the money in the space was being sucked up by other training organizations, namely the White House Project.

The following year brought with it a change seismic enough to shift the course of the candidate training landscape in Colorado.

‘It’s really about accessibility’

Ahead of the 2010 election, Rep. Karen Middleton of Aurora withdrew her candidacy to retain House District 42 in order to take on the role of president at Emerge America.

According to Winter, it was only natural for Middleton to want an Emerge chapter in her home state.

“Karen’s Rolodex started meeting and I was involved,” Winter said of the organization’s early days in 2012. “We raised $50,000 and then I ended up being (the Colorado chapter’s) first executive director.”

Middleton currently is the president of Cobalt, the abortion rights advocacy group formerly known as NARAL Pro-Choice Colorado until it rebranded last year.

Flash forward nine years and Emerge is now one of the premier training organizations in the state. Candidates trained by the organization hold an 88% win rate in elections and Emerge alumnae — including Secretary of State Jena Griswold and gold dome powerhouses such as Winter, Herod, House Majority Leader Daneya Esgar of Pueblo, Assistant House Majority Leader Serena Gonzales-Gutierrez of Denver and “rising star” Iman Jodeh of Aurora, Colorado’s first Muslim legislator — hold 60 elected offices across the state.

“For us, it’s about saying, ‘Hey, you don’t have to be a politician or even be in those circles. You’re a leader in your community and that’s enough for opening that door, because you’re already doing politics whether you think of it that way or not,’” explained Lisa Calderón, Emerge Colorado’s executive director, who took on the role in July. “It’s really about accessibility.”

Calderón is the first woman of color to lead the organization’s Colorado chapter after Winter, Northglenn Mayor Pro Tem Jenny Willford and Edgewater City Council member Michal Rosenoer. She said the institutional barriers first-time candidates can face are “double for women and triple for women of color.”

“Part of me coming here was to bring that perspective that it’s hard enough for a woman, and it’s even harder for a marginalized woman to even think of herself as a political candidate,” Calderón said.

But while Calderón feels she’s bringing that perspective to Emerge, it’s a concept frequently echoed by other training organizations focused on progressives.

Rep. Brianna Titone, D-Arvada, speaks at a press conference at the Colorado Capitol on Feb. 13, 2020, as Leslie Herod, Daniel Ramos and other gay rights advocates opposed a package of Republican bills they deemed hostile.

Leaders’ LEAD

Take the Pettersen-led LEAD Colorado, which she labeled along with other progressive training organizations as “so critical to ensuring that we have diverse voices at the table.”

“Those experiences, those life experiences and perspectives are far too often left out of the conversation in the places of power,” she said.

Pettersen highlighted the story of David Ortiz, a state representative from Littleton who just finished his first term after participating in LEAD’s program. Ortiz is a bisexual, Hispanic former Army helicopter pilot who was left paralyzed by a 2012 helicopter crash in Afghanistan who turned heads with eye-popping fundraising numbers before rolling to an 11-point victory in a seat Democrats hadn’t won under the current maps.

“It took me realizing where he lived and asking him to run for office (for him) to even think about it,” Pettersen said.

Ortiz’s story mirrors her own.

Some 13 years ago, Pettersen was in a fellowship program and her assigned mentor, then-Westminster City Council member Faith Winter, approached her about running for office.

“I said, ‘Oh, no, that’s not for people like me; I don’t have the background.’ And I talked about my family, and where I came from and I said, ‘People like me don’t run for office,’” Pettersen recounted. “And she said, ‘Well, isn’t that the problem?’”

Wendy Howell, the state director for the Colorado Working Families Party, has been running candidate trainings in Colorado since 2018. She sees reticence as “the biggest obstacle” to getting ordinary people to run for office.

“People see politics as an insider sport: you have to know people or form a special connection or something to run for office,” Howell said. “We aim to disabuse people of that notion.”

Like Calderón, Pettersen and others who train progressive candidates, Howell stressed the importance of training those from communities whose voices are not often heard in the political arena.

“Success to us really looks like communities that are underrepresented in politics becoming more represented in politics,” she said, “so Black and brown communities, LGBTQ communities, folks who are from identities of which they’re often told, ‘The political system is not necessarily for you,’ or ‘You might be too rough or too much of an outsider to be in the political system.’”

Candi CdeBaca led a slate of progressive candidates supported by Colorado Working Families Party who swept Denver City Council elections in 2018 ousting incumbent Albus Brooks in District 9 by challenging the influence developers and businesses have in city politics,

Focus on diversity

But despite the focus on diversity, Dusti Gurule pointed out that there isn’t a candidate training operation catering to Latinos in the way that Emerge prepares women to run for office.

“There’s definitely a gap there,” said Gurule, the executive director of Colorado Organization for Latina Opportunity and Reproductive Rights and a longtime advocate for Latino representation who worked at the Latina Initiative before it folded in 2011.

For Gurule, that comes down to two things. For one, the pool of resources shared by training operations isn’t infinite, which means capacity can’t be either. Gurule also noted that when it comes to campaigning, “Latinos are usually sort of an afterthought.”

“I think changing the framework of how we think about campaigns and electoral work and civic engagement work, we need to turn it upside down a little bit and start with those people who are most impacted,” she said.

There also isn’t an organization catering to excessively to the Colorado left’s Asian American population or Democratic, straight, white men – the traditional residents of the smoke-filled backrooms that illustrate how Howell’s candidates see politics as an insider sport.

But are they being left behind by the left? Winter said she doesn’t see it that way.

For one, training opportunities are still available to that demographic via the state and national Democratic parties. The Colorado Democratic Party launched its first virtual training course this summer. Party spokesman David Pourshoushtari indicated the party thinks of itself as a “statewide campaign manager” and is eying races up and down the ballot, from school board to governor.

Winter also noted capacity limits and said she felt it was less that Democrats were excluding certain demographics from training efforts, but rather surveying the field and making space for those who hadn’t had it before.

“I think it’s intentionally looking at barriers that exist and how do we break them down,” she said. “When you only have so much time, money and resources, where do you put that?”

State Rep. Brianna Titone spoke about her experiences flipping a Republican seat in the legislature in 2018 and winning re-election by a wider majority last year during a national training session hosted by the National Democratic Training Committee on Sept. 2021, 2021.

Building the pipeline

Winter’s point bleeds into another she made: While the number of organizations training candidates is surging in Colorado, there simply isn’t enough capacity to train everyone.

“We could all be training all the time and still have work to do,” she said, noting the sheer volume when factoring in city and town councils, county commissions, as well as mayoral, school board and district attorney races.

Pettersen acknowledged those same structural barriers, specifically highlighting a desire to expand her organization’s reach into in rural Colorado. But she also acknowledged that organizations training Democrats to run for office are stretching dollars thin and working overtime to cover as much ground as possible.

“I’m proud of what we have in Colorado,” she said, “and compared to other states, we’re decades ahead of them.”

And while capacity remains a goal, candidate training organizations have another target in view: beefing up the number of qualified campaign staffers.

“When I ran and made the ballot as a first woman of color for mayor of Denver, the consultants that I had initially ran me like a white man, and then like a white woman, because these are the templates that are used over and over again for candidates and they simply didn’t work for me,” Calderón said.

That experience inspired her next steps at Emerge.

“It’s not good enough just to get women to run for office, we have to also build the infrastructure for them to win office,” she said. “Who are the political consultants, who are the campaign managers and not just the generalist, but those who specialize in what a particular woman’s race would look like?”

The vision of putting on both candidate and staff training isn’t unique to Calderón – Howell, Pettersen, Pourshoushtari and Ruben Gonzales of the Victory Institute each indicated their organization had a hand in campaign staff training.

By and large, those staff training courses mirror the candidate training courses. And the potential exists for those interested in learning to be a campaign manager to be squeezed out as organizations cap their training course capacity and prioritize those with upcoming races.

Calderón said she envisions something different: a dual-track process under which Emerge both trains campaign staff to be tailored to the needs of its base of candidate alumnae and offers a “menu” of qualified staffers to graduates ready to hit the campaign trail.

“What’s exciting about that too is that once they’ve worked on campaigns, they may consider being a candidate so we’re building a bench in that way too,” Calderón said. “Where we started is not good enough. It’s not good enough to recruit and train women and even get them elected.

“It’s about the whole package of building the pipeline.”

This article has been updated to reflect Emerge Colorado’s leadership since its founding.