Campaigns heat up in final bid for the redrawn House District 57
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This election, local voters are deciding between two candidates for Colorado’s House District 57.
Political newcomer and Democrat Elizabeth Velasco of Glenwood Springs is running against incumbent Republican Perry Will of New Castle.
The redrawn district includes Pitkin and Garfield counties, the portion of Eagle County located within the Roaring Fork Valley, and Dotsero.
The way the district was redrawn now favors Democrats, according to Colorado’s nonpartisan redistricting committee, but those odds haven’t stopped either candidate from hitting the campaign trail and meeting with voters.
Velasco cites uneven pandemic response as impetus to run
On a recent Saturday morning, about a dozen community volunteers gathered at the public library in Rifle.
Velasco introduced herself as people helped themselves to breakfast burritos and coffee and prepared to go door-knocking.
“Hola, buenos días. Soy Elizabeth Velasco. I'm Elizabeth Velasco, and I'm running for House District 57 as the Democratic candidate,” she said to the volunteers. “I want to thank you so much for being here.”
Velasco grew up in Mexico and came to Colorado with her family when she was 15.
She learned English in high school and later studied culinary arts at Colorado Mountain College.
Since then, she has worked in tourism and education, and now she runs her own language-services agency based in Glenwood Springs.
(Her business provides translation and interpretation services to Aspen Public Radio.)
If Velasco is elected, she would be the first Latino to represent House District 57 and one of only a handful of Latina women in the state house of representatives.
“I'm a nontraditional candidate, very proudly. That is because I am a community organizer. I am a small-business owner,” she said to the group at the Rifle library. “I am from the community. I went through the immigration process for 26 years before becoming a U.S. citizen.”
Some of the volunteers who showed up to door-knock know Velasco personally, while others heard about her campaign through the Voces Unidas Action Fund.
The Action Fund works to train and support Latina and Latino candidates for public office — and they helped organize the recent canvassing event.
“I know that some of you drove from really far away,” Velasco told the volunteers. “We have a huge district. We go from Parachute all the way to Aspen.”
Velasco is trained as a wildland firefighter and worked as a bilingual public information officer with a national incident management team on the Sylvan fire near Eagle last year.
She also helped with translation during the Grizzly Creek fire in 2020 and worked with a variety of local organizations to provide critical information in Spanish during the height of COVID-19.
She said it was her experience during the pandemic that ultimately led her to run for office.
“We were leaving people behind, especially the Latino community,” she told Aspen Public Radio. “We were 70% of the cases in Garfield County. And, you know, that is because we are essential workers, we have to go to work in person. So I saw a lot of barriers of access for our rural community.”
When it comes to removing barriers in state politics, Velasco said her decision to run has already made an impact.
“My mom and my dad were part of the caucus and assembly process and my mom is a Spanish speaker so we had interpretation for her, so I am already bringing people to the table who have never been engaged,” she said.
Will ‘ready’ to represent the whole Roaring Fork Valley
The district’s incumbent representative, Perry Will, has been in office for nearly four years.
While Velasco was out canvassing in Rifle, Will was in Carbondale talking with voters during the annual Potato Day parade.
“I have to say that I represent the reason that everyone chose to live here,” he said in an interview after the parade. “That’s healthy forests, that’s wildlife, agriculture and ranching. You know, access to public lands, the open space. You know, the beauty.”
Will grew up in a ranching and farming family in the southeastern plains of Colorado.
“That was a great life, a great place to grow up,” he said in a later interview. “You know, when I grew up, we'd be out there working and you’d see a car coming on the road and you'd stop what you were doing to see who it was, because a car only went by about once every three days, you'd see the dust coming down the road.”
Will also spent a lot of time hunting and fishing as a kid, and he says he always wanted to be a game warden.
“Seventh grade is when I decided what my career path was gonna be,” he said. “My dad, of course, wanted me to stay in ranching and do all that, and even offered to help me buy some property and ranch land out there to get me started. And I'm like, ‘Nope, I wanna be a game warden.’”
Will ended up going to Colorado Mountain College and Colorado State University to study natural resource management and wildlife biodiversity.
He eventually fulfilled his dream and spent more than 40 years working for the Division of Wildlife, which is now part of Colorado Parks and Wildlife.
It was during this time that he became interested in joining the state legislature.
“I'd a lot of times go over and testify in committee on certain bills that affected the Division of Wildlife, or Colorado Parks and Wildlife,” he said. “So I was very familiar with what goes on at the Capitol and the committee work and how bills go. So I always wanted to do it because sometimes I’d think, ‘Geez, they make some decisions that really don't work for us, you know?’”
Carbondale and Glenwood Springs were always part of Will’s district, but he said this is the first time he has had the opportunity to represent the whole Roaring Fork Valley.
“I love the people, I love representing the people,” he said. “And I have to tell you, you know, there's so much made of this divisiveness with parties and partisan politics. And that's just not me. I represent everyone.”
Nonpartisan redistricting gives Democrats an edge
House District 57 used to encompass Garfield, Moffat and Rio Blanco counties.
According to 2020 data compiled by the secretary of state, 42% of active voters were registered as unaffiliated, while 36% were Republicans and 20% were Democrats.
After the maps were redrawn last year, 26% were Democrats, 22% were Republicans and 50% were unaffiliated.
Several other smaller political parties make up just under 2% of the district’s voters.
Although that might not sound like a huge lead for the Democrats, Colorado’s nonpartisan redistricting commission analyzed the results of eight recent elections and found that the district would be considered safe for Democrats by nearly 16 percentage points.
Inflation and affordability a top priority for local voters
Velasco is optimistic about her odds, but as she told the volunteers at the Rifle library, that isn’t stopping her from talking to voters and finding out what issues are important to them.
“Door-knocking is my favorite thing. You know, people are super nice. They're happy to talk and share what they care about,” she said. “You know, because how many times have we had someone, a politician, ask us, ‘What do you care about?’ It’s so impactful.”
Velasco and several volunteers spent this particular day talking in both English and Spanish with voters in a neighborhood near Centennial Park in Rifle.
While some voters preferred not to share their perspectives, others were happy to talk with the canvassers about the issues impacting their lives.
One theme that stood out was the number of people concerned about rising prices and inflation.
“Right now, the economy sucks,” said one voter who preferred not to share his name or political affiliation. “This inflation's way out of control. Way too much spending. It's not good.”
Velasco knows that state legislators do not have a lot of power when it comes to the national and global issues that are driving inflation, but she believes they can help find creative ways to lower the cost of living for local residents.
“So when [the voter] said inflation, I hear this is a working family that is feeling the pressure,” Velasco said. “They’re paying a lot of money to fill up their gas tank, and they're paying a lot of money for groceries, and they feel like their wages are stagnant.”
Velasco said her own family’s experience living paycheck to paycheck would give her a unique perspective as a legislator.
“I care that people have access to opportunities and to resources,” she said. “And, you know, I experienced seeing my parents work two, three jobs to pay rent and then being displaced from their home because their employment changed, and I had to put myself through college, working two jobs.”
That’s something Will can also relate to.
He said it was tough making ends meet, working multiple jobs and paying off loans to go to college, and he knows that’s something that voters are also dealing with.
“I wasn't born with a silver spoon, trust me,” Will said. “It's tough for working people to make a living no matter where you're at, but sometimes in the valleys here that we represent, it's even tougher.”
Will’s priorities range from conservation to public safety
If reelected, Will said affordability will be one of his top priorities, along with public safety, education and natural resources.
“Water's a huge issue for us on the Western Slope,” he said. “I was asked the other day about my three big issues, and I said, 'Water, water, water.' And it's kind of true.”
Will said he understands the nuances of water law and sees the importance of balancing different needs from municipal use to agriculture and recreation.
Although he acknowledges the role of climate change and the need to increase renewable energy capacity, he says the best way to conserve water and mitigate wildfires is to manage healthy forests.
“You know, we talk about water storage and our drought resiliency and all that. The best reservoir you can build is a healthy forest,” he said. “And we get these megafires because we've been in the preservation mode for way too many years.”
Will said years of fire suppression and an aging timber industry have led to increased fire risk — and he’s working on legislation that would help get more young people into forest management.
Public safety is another issue that’s top of mind for Will.
“If you watch the national news, and even here locally, I mean, Colorado's No. 1 in car thefts, right? And then the fentanyl issues,” he said.
State crime statistics show an increase in drug violations over the past five years — although the most common drug offenses involved stimulants such as methamphetamine, not fentanyl and other opioids.
Also, according to the National Insurance Crime Bureau, Colorado had the nation’s highest vehicle theft rate last year.
“When you walk out this door, you have to have some semblance of safety,” he said.
That’s why Will said he’ll continue supporting legislation that requires cash bails for people awaiting trial and that supports law enforcement.
Will said he voted against Senate Bill 217, which passed in the wake of racial justice protests in 2020, because he doesn’t support “defunding the police.”
The bill requires officers to wear body cameras, limits when and how law enforcement can use force against people, and makes it easier for individual officers to be sued, but it does not decrease funding for the police.
Velasco focused on ‘community resiliency’ platform
Velasco said “community resiliency” is her No. 1 priority.
For her, that means preparing communities for wildfires, taking action on climate change and supporting working-class families, regardless of their party affiliation or their ZIP code.
“We have to make sure people have access to affordable housing and access to a living wage at work and access to health care,” she said.
When it comes to housing, Velasco said she would prioritize legislation that increases affordable-unit requirements for new developments; supports allowing mobile home communities to buy their own land; and ensures that people don’t lose their employee housing if they switch jobs.
“My mom was working for the school district, and her housing was tied to her job. And when she decided to no longer work there, she wasn't able to live there anymore,” Velasco said. “That was their home of 10 years that they had to move out. So, you know, these are huge issues.”
Key differences emerge between the candidates
Protecting abortion services in Colorado is also a major part of Velasco’s platform, and she said it’s one of the biggest differences between her and Will.
“You know, Roe v. Wade was overturned, but our state worked really hard to protect access to reproductive rights and abortion for women and pregnant people,” she said.
Will opposed a recent house bill that protected the right to have an abortion in Colorado ahead of the Supreme Court ruling, but he said he isn’t against abortion in all cases.
“There's a lot of nuances in everyone's challenges. Abortion up until due date is just not something I could go along with,” he said. “When it's women's reproductive health, of course, or rape and incest, of course. You know, I get that. But that bill went too far.”
In a recent email newsletter, Velasco’s campaign also pointed out that Will voted for a House resolution amendment this year to thank state Rep. Ron Hanks and “the millions of other Americans who joined him on January 6, 2021.”
Asked about this decision, Will said he is not an election denier and does not condone the violence in the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.
He added that he voted for the failed amendment as a gesture of support for his colleague and the right to peacefully protest.
“There's a big distinction between the people that, you know, showed up at that rally on Jan. 6 and those that stormed the Capitol,” Will said. “And I have to say that in hindsight, I would not revote the way I did. And I'll admit to my constituents and the people I represent when I make a mistake.”
Velasco’s campaign letter also included a tweet from U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert, R-Colo., supporting Will and featuring a photo of the two of them posing together.
“I would just say she has her style, I have mine, and they're much different,” Will said. “I've known Lauren for a long time, just like I've known a lot of people for a long time because I've been in the valley. Doesn't mean our politics are the same. Would we always agree on things? No.”
Will said he’s committed to finding common ground with Democrats like Velasco.
He said he’s proud of the fact that he was the only Republican to be a prime sponsor on legislation such as the recent creation of a loan fund for affordable housing and the safe wildlife crossings bill.
“I had 33 bills last year that I ran,” he said. “So, if you work across the aisle and you're a bipartisan legislator, I think people look at that and say, ‘Well, you know, Perry looks stuff over, he knows the bills, he knows it's good for Coloradans. He doesn't care if it's Republican, Democrat or Independent.’”
Candidates put ‘community service’ over political gains
Although both candidates hope to win next week, Will and Velasco say they’ll continue serving the community even if they don’t.
“When I decided to run, it was not because I was not busy,” Velasco said. “I already have a lot of projects and a lot of ideas and a lot of coalition-building and a lot of fire and passion for changing systems, so I would keep doing that.”
And as for Will, he said he’ll be just fine no matter the outcome.
“I had a hell of a good life before I became a legislator. I'll have a hell of a good life when I'm not one,” he said.