The way one former staffer put it, it was an opportunity to work for a young, charismatic rising star in Denver and state politics.

So, the former staffer jumped on the opportunity to join the office of state Rep. Leslie Herod, D-Denver.

"She makes you feel like you're part of something bigger," the former staffer said.

But that idealism turned into an excuse for how the office is run, said the former staffer, who described a work culture that's stressful, demanding and demeaning, an account some of those who have worked as aides, interns or fellows for Herod affirmed in conversations with Colorado Politics. 

Several said the work, intended to give staffers a background in policy and process and how to work with constituents or lobbyists, instead made them feel like servants, handling aspects of Herod's personal life that they felt were inappropriate and claiming those assignments demeaned them.

Others, however, said that while Herod is demanding, with high expectations for her staff, they never saw the kinds of behavior that some have called abusive. And they suggest the accusations of workplace harassment are part of a conspiracy to ensure she won't become Denver's next mayor.

In a statement to Colorado Politics, Herod, who is one of 16 aspirants to the mayor's seat, denied the allegations.

"My staff is the reason I’ve been able to deliver for my constituents. I have never shied away from the toughest issues because I have always had their help and support. I am proud of them, the work we have accomplished together for the people of Denver, and the incredible things many continue to do today," she said. 

She added: "My legislative office works diligently and quickly to get real results for constituents. I encourage my staff to think creatively, and I value their input and opinions. They have been an integral part of every major accomplishment in my career — from passing criminal justice reform to passing the Caring for Denver ballot initiative to protecting women’s reproductive rights.”

Some of the claims outlined by former Herod staffers are not surprising. Staffers are frequently seen around the Capitol bringing meals or coffee to lawmakers, or walking lawmakers' dogs. Indeed, concerns over the state Capitol's workplace culture was part of the drive to unionize legislative aides, which took place in 2021 under the Political Workers Guild of Colorado.

But Herod's situation stands out because of the claims that she has been demeaning or even abusive to some of her staff.

Some of Herod's supporters view gender as playing a role in the accusations against Herod. 

University of Colorado Regent Wanda James, who supports Herod's bid for mayor, dismissed the accusations against the legislator as the all-too-familiar attack on elected women officials.

The "ongoing media narratives and tropes normalize demeaning, bullying behavior against progressive women in politics," James said in a statement to Colorado Politics.

Born on a U.S. military base in Germany, Herod graduated from the University of Colorado-Boulder, where she became part of "the Fantastic Four:" fellow students who have all made marks in politics: U.S. Rep. Joe Neguse, Senate President Steve Fenberg, and Lisa Kaufmann, the architect of Gov. Jared Polis' campaigns for Congress and governor and who served as his chief of staff until last year.

Herod was first elected to the state House in 2016, where she quickly became known as an advocate for changes to the criminal justice laws and particularly vocal on the issue of incarceration of people of color. She was a leading sponsor of a landmark bipartisan bill on policing in 2020, and the following year, she joined the Joint Budget Committee in a move aimed at increasing diversity and equity in the state's budget planning process. 

Some former staffers contacted by Colorado Politics refused to speak on the record, saying they fear retaliation and worry that identifying specific events will reveal their identity.

Among those who spoke on the record is Nico Delgado, who worked for Herod in 2017 — in her first legislative session — under a fellowship from an outside organization. Delgado said staffers felt "bullied and belittled" by Herod.  

Delgado's account was confirmed by an official who was with the organization at the time Delgado held the fellowship.

In a tweet, Delgado said the workplace environment was unhealthy.

"At first, I was very excited to work for Rep. Herod and I got to choose her as my top preference" among elected officials, Delgado said in the tweet. He was impressed by her accomplishments, and said it would have been incredible to work for a Black and gay elected official, as he identifies as queer and Latino. 

He recognized early on that Herod had high expectations, and he had every intention of meeting or exceeding those expectations, often working more than the 20 hours required under the fellowship just to get the work done, he wrote.

"Despite doing everything I could, Rep. Herod would be highly critical without providing feedback, and those criticisms felt personal," Delgado wrote, adding he would often go to another aide's office "to let out the tears and pull myself together."

Coffee, burritos and flowers for Leslie Herod 

Delgado said Herod expected him to get her coffee and meals.

"I kept quiet, even though at times I felt disrespected, because I knew this was part of her high expectations," he wrote, adding, "but it was never enough."

Toward the end of the session, Herod noticed he was upset and asked him why. Delgado said he was dissatisfied with the experience of working for her, and her response was that because others have high expectations of her, she has the same for her staff.

"I realize that is an excuse to mistreat staff," wrote Delgado, who added that, after working for other elected officials, he learned having high expectations "doesn't equate to disrespecting the people who work for you."

Delgado reported his experience back to the organization that sponsored the fellowship, and the group stopped assigning fellows to Herod's office. A former official of the group confirmed that account.

In the March 7 tweet, Delgado also confirmed the account of another former Herod aide, Kaylee Browning, who told Denverite earlier this month that working for Herod was demeaning. 

“She was very mean. I don’t remember like yelling so much, it’s like ‘you have poor critical thinking skills,’ like degrading to the point of like you just could not do right by this individual," Browning told Denverite.

“It was a lot of running around and getting her three meals a day, making sure she has a burrito in the morning, setting her bills out in the perfect structure, making sure she had fresh flowers, fresh water. Every day fresh flowers,” Browning said. “And, so, it was like this ongoing act of like waiting on her hand and foot. That was when I decided like I can’t do politics. Like if this is what is celebrated, I’ll never be able to make it here.”

Herod told Denverite she never asked staff get her food or flowers daily.

“I quite frankly wouldn’t be able to afford that,” she said. “But there is coffee in the building and there are times when we’re not allowed to leave. … we’re in votes, we need coffee," Herod told Denverite. "Sometimes, we’re there until 2 a.m. Last year, we were on the floor for 25 hours. No matter your title, your role, I’ve gotten food for members. Yeah, you have to do that."

Work-life balance 

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Another former staffer who asked to remain anonymous spoke of working well above 40 hours a week — and on weekends, and not getting paid for it.

The overtime is not uncommon among legislative workers, but the former staffer said the tasks were demeaning and not germane to the kind of work they expected to do in the legislature.

"[Herod] had no work life balance at all. You were her balance," said the former staffer, who added that administrative work was often secondary to handling Herod's personal needs.

That included bringing her food and drink and in ways the former staffer felt crossed boundaries.

"I'm here to learn under a legislator, to learn in the state House," the former staffer said, adding handling personal tasks didn't further that work.

'You're not empowered in your individuality," the former staffer said.

Anyone could have done those tasks, the former staffer said, adding that, in contrast, aides who were respected in the workplace were given duties that were outside of their skillset but which provided a learning experience.

The skills they brought into Herod's office were the same they left with, the former staffer said. The former staffer acknowledged that Herod had high expectations but said her stress would manifest in the smallest details, and often, Herod would take her stress out on the staff. 

In a series of Twitter posts, Sheena Anne Kadi, the public information officer for Colorado's state Treasurer who knows Herod from her days in activism in the LGBTQ+ community, said she hired four former Herod staffers who said they were traumatized by their experience. She did not identify the staffers.

"They were excellent staff who had so much trauma from working with her. Denver has 11,000 employees who deserve better," Kadi said in one post. 

Kadi has since turned her Twitter account private.

An attack on women?

James, the university regent, regarded the accusations against Herod in the same vein as the "bad boss" stories directed at prominent women politicians. 

"These stories are not new," she said. "We know them all too well, from the pantsuit memes about Secretary Hillary Clinton to the ‘bad boss’ stories about Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Kirsten Gillibrand, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, or Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass."

That also includes taunts of Washington, DC’s mayor, Muriel Bowser, by former President Donald Trump, "and now the bullying and disrespect" toward Herod, James said. 

Several Republican lawmakers also defended Herod, including former Minority Leader Patrick Neville, Assistant Minority Leader Cole Wist and Rep. Shane Sandridge.

"I’ve seen tense interactions in my time in the legislature, and I did witness bullying and intimidation of Rep. Herod," Sandridge said. "Yet, none of my white, male colleagues were ever accused of mistreatment. Leslie handled this with grace. I never saw Rep. Herod mistreat anyone at the Capitol."

A mentor in a high-pressure office  

Others confirmed Herod's high expectations in a high-pressure office and regarded Herod as a mentor. 

Sophie Hackett worked for Herod for two sessions, beginning in January 2020 as outreach director and as her chief of staff in the 2021 session, described her first experience in politics as a little "crazy," particularly since COVID had just begun and would soon upend everything.

But the experience was fulfilling, setting her up for a career, she said.

"I came out knowing how to do everything," she said, describing Herod as a mentor. 

Herod is "intense" and "expects the people around her to work just as hard," she said. "It pushed me to my limits in the best way possible, and an experience I'd never give up," Hackett said. 

When asked if staffers were the right fit for Herod's personality and work style, she added a job at the state Capitol is "not for everybody." The job entails long hours with no time to "sugarcoat things" or consider how people want to hear feedback, she said.

Hackett said one of her priorities as chief of staff was setting boundaries between the staff and Herod. "If you're not good at that, you're not going to be good in her office," Hackett said. 

Hackett said she would "level set" with Herod. "We'll push just as hard as you," she would tell Herod, "and maintain this high level of work productivity," but Hackett also looked out for the staff who didn't have the same personality or tenacity.

Hackett said she could talk to Herod on the same level but added that some of the staffers would not have been as happy doing that. 

"Having a great relationship with Leslie during that time, moving into a leadership position, the office was a lot calmer the year I was chief of staff," Hackett said, adding she she believes Herod never had any intention of degrading anyone. 

"There are a lot of tough legislators in the Capitol," Hackett said. "The nature of being a good politician is demanding quality work and that you show up for your constituents. It won't always come with a note with hearts for eyes."

Nikki Brazil, who was a volunteer in Herod's office in 2017 and was in the office about once a week, described Herod as professional and intently focused on the job.

"During that time, Leslie was professional and intently focused on the task at hand, which was passing legislation," Brazil said, noting that year, Herod earned the "Rising Star Award."

Brazil said that experience gave her the opportunity to expand her horizons, like attending the Colorado Democratic Party's Jefferson Jackson dinner and witnessing a bill signing at the governor’s office.

"I contributed to her efforts by conducting research, tracking the status of bills she was sponsoring, drafting email updates and press releases, and helping with constituent outreach.  Since that time, I have stayed in touch with Leslie," Brazil said. "She definitely has my vote."

Jeronimo Anaya Ortiz, a staffer for the House Democrats, called Herod a "hard-working public servant who expects her staff to take their jobs as seriously as she does."

Ortiz, who did not work directly in Herod's office but interacted with her office in his role with the House Democratic caucus, said Herod "always afforded me the respect and support I deserve. I’m proud to say I learned a lot from her as a leader and a friend.” 

Staffers who believe they are being subjected to a hostile work environment have an avenue for relief — the legislature's Office of Workplace Relations, which handles workplace harassment complaints. State law allows those complaints to become public only when a legislator is found to have violated the policy. Until then, those complaints and the identities of the complainant and lawmaker remain confidential. 

Ben FitzSimons, the office's director, said that if investigation concluded that a legislator violated the policy, an executive summary of the report is made available to the public, including the name of the legislator. 

"Under the current policy, no legislators have been found to have been in violation so there are no public summaries available," FitzSimons said.

But that  avenue was not available to some of Herod's staffers. 

The office, which was established in the wake of the #MeToo scandal that resulted in the expulsion of Rep. Steve Lebsock, D-Thornton in 2018, did not start accepting complaints until 2019.

The 2019-20 report said the office received seven complaints in that year under the workplace harassment policy. Five were addressed via the informal process, one resulted in no action at the complainant's request, and one was not based on any protected classes/affiliations and so it did not fall under the scope of the policy. The following year, only one complaint was received but the complainant did not want to move forward. Two complaints were received in 2021-22. Neither resulted in violations.