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District 9 Debate: Policy Over Politics

Denver’s District 9 debate took place on Feb. 7 at the CSU Spur Hydro building, where incumbent Councilwoman Candi CdeBaca and challengers Darrell Watson and Kwon Atlas answered both policy and public questions from their community.  District 9 contains the neighborhoods of Globeville, Elyria Swansea, Five Points, Skyland, and Whittier, and around three dozen community members made an appearance in support of their candidates.

“Our district really shoulders a lot of the resources and responsibility of taking care of the city,” said Atlas during opening remarks. “This race is one of the most important races because of that.”

The debate was mediated by Denver North Star Publisher David Sabados who, along with all candidates, remained composed and professional even during heated moments. Though each candidate has a unique approach, all three were able to agree on the issues of District 9, including homelessness and affordable housing, transportation, and community engagement. 

“Sometimes it feels as though the city isn’t listening to the neighbors, as well as not getting the entire perspective,” said Atlas.

CdeBaca received criticism from her challengers towards her voting record, insinuating a lack of cooperation with other councilmembers. But CdeBaca points out that out of thousands of bills passed during her time in office, she has voted no to only a handful of them. She says a lack of willingness to work with the other councilmembers is disingenuous.

“Watson implies that we should accept whatever is in front of us, no matter what it is, and that you should expect us to accept crumbs on your behalf,” CdeBaca said, to both applause and cheers from the audience. “I think that should be appalling to voters.”

Community engagement is the most important aspect of District 9’s council member, according to several audience members and their questions. While both challengers are critical of CdeBaca’s engagement, community member Brian Brahaugh disagrees and is satisfied with the way the incumbent communicates with her constituents.

“I particularly like the way Candi has kept her constituency informed with newsletters,” said Brahaugh. “I’ve never seen a city councilperson do it that effectively before.”

The candidates of District 9 have all spent most, if not all, of their adult lives living within Denver’s communities, and their personal connections to the city were evident. Watson’s passion could easily be seen in his anecdotes, which he often used to answer questions.

“I had a sister who died on the streets. She went through mental health and substance abuse issues, and our family wasn’t able to save her and get her housed,” Watson said when asked about the issue of homelessness. “It’s important that our policy focuses on the counting and then  the reduction of the homeless population.”

After Watson’s personal story, Atlas was first to offer condolences, but still respectfully offered his own opinion on homelessness, opting to support Denver’s recent controversial camping ban. Homelessness and affordable housing took up almost a third of the entire debate’s time, each candidate refusing to simply ignore the issue and offering unique solutions, such as Atlas’s plan to educate minorities and others struggling with their credit on how to get out of debt.

 However, some community members are critical of both Atlas’s and Watson’s ideas concerning zoning laws, believing that they trust Denver’s developers too much and need a firmer approach.

“For me, when they’re talking about housing and affordability, it sounds like the challengers are speaking the language of developers,” said Alfonso Espino. “They have this idea that developers are going to just willingly decrease their profits. I think it’s pretty crazy that more people don’t call them out on that.”

CdeBaca received backlash when she voted no on one of Denver’s recent bills pertaining to affordable housing, and both Watson and Atlas disagreed with the vote. However, CdeBaca said that some bills are not what they seem, such as the Expanding Affordable Housing proposal. The policy aims to add more new income-restricted housing units, but CdeBaca believes many additions did not have the people’s best interests in mind, such as forgoing parking requirements and unfair linkage fees.

“Some bills get named in a particular way to influence people on the outside,” said CdeBaca. “That bill basically codified the status quo, which hasn’t gotten us what we’ve needed so far.”  

Though obviously dissatisfied with CdeBaca’s methods, Watson and Atlas remained respectful, even condemning harsh and vitriolic mailers that were sent out anonymously, insulting the incumbent. Because of the decorum, the debate was informative and showed each candidates ‘true colors,’ according to audience member and community activist Joanna Rosa-Saenz

“Tonight, I think we could see policy over politics,” said Rosa-Saenz. “What I saw this evening was better than Netflix. A lot of our community missed out, but it also made me realize what candidate we need to go for to see change.” She’s voting for Candi CdeBaca.

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