“Where there’s smoke, there’s fire,” goes the old expression. For state Rep. Leslie Herod, smokey rumors about how she treats her own staff seem to have exposed flames. This week, the Denver mayoral candidate was finally subjected to meaningful scrutiny about her conduct as a state legislator since 2017 — and it casts a shadow on her fitness to lead the city.
As a legislator, Herod — a Democrat widely considered a leading candidate in the 17-person mayoral race — supervises only a handful of staffers. For years, rumors have circulated that she abuses them and constantly gets away with it. On Monday, a week before voters receive their ballots, two separate media outlets corroborated accounts of her rumored misbehavior for the first time.
Both Axios and Denverite spoke to a dozen or more former aides and colleagues of Herod, mostly “on condition of anonymity” because “they feared retribution” (Axios) and “for fear of reprisals” (Denverite). The whistleblowers asserted, “Herod bullied, berated or belittled them when they worked with her.”
Kaylee Browning, who served as a Herod aide in 2017, detailed with Denverite an experience showing Herod was “degrading to the point (that) you just could not do right by this individual.” Browning said Herod was dismissive of a hearing issue that required surgery. “It was rough. It was really rough,” Browning said. “She was very mean.” Herod also overemphasized personal errands, even making staff front the costs of getting her food, coffee and flowers. “Dejected,” Browning ultimately left politics altogether following that legislative session.
The next day, Browning’s account was bolstered by Nico Delgado, a political strategist who also worked as a Herod staffer in 2017. “As a firsthand witness, I can confirm that my former colleague Kaylee and I experienced an unhealthy work environment where we both felt bullied and belittled by Rep. Herod,” Delgado wrote in a statement on Twitter.
Delgado added that he enthusiastically joined Herod’s team in part because he “thought that it would’ve been incredible to work for a Black and gay elected official since I identify as queer and Latino.” He strived to meet her “high expectations,” but “it was never enough.” Since then, Delgado wrote, “I’ve had the opportunity to work for other powerful elected officials…and I quickly learned that having high expectations doesn’t equate to disrespecting the people who work for you.”
For her part, Herod dismissed the reports as “the first time I’ve ever heard of it.” She told Denverite, “I have never received any complaint at all from any of my aides or staffers.” Nonsense. Rumors have spread for years regarding Herod’s hostile work environment. Now, over a dozen sources have corroborated these accounts with two different outlets. One former Democratic lawmaker, whose staff often interacted with Herod’s staff, likewise affirmed with me the general account of Herod’s toxic behavior.
Moreover, Denverite reports that Herod’s campaign referred roughly a dozen lawmakers and current and former staff as supportive witnesses. Yet only two — including Herod’s own campaign policy director — were willing to publicly defend her on-the-record. Why? Do her defenders fear retaliation as well?
Let’s be real: Leslie Herod has a genuine toxic-workplace problem. If you can’t manage a handful of aides appropriately, no matter their race, gender or sexual orientation, how can you run a city with 11,000 employees — especially at a time of broken trust in public officials and a city in decay?
This test of leadership also extends to how you engage with the constituents you wish to serve. In Herod’s case, that would be the residents of Denver.
Herod has paid her campaign’s pricey attorney, onetime Republican operative Mario Nicolais, $35,500 in taxpayer-financed Fair Elections Funds. As I’ve reported previously, Herod and Nicolais bullied a tiny, grassroots organization called Citizens for a Safe and Clean Denver — started by political neophytes who advocate for cleaning up Denver’s urban squalor — simply because they criticized Herod online. The group was fined $250.
Let’s be clear: Leslie Herod successfully weaponized taxpayers’ campaign matching dollars to target a citizens group run by residents trying to clean up their communities. In contrast, Herod managed to escape a five-figure fine of her own.
Herod’s state house campaign went delinquent in filing her personal financial disclosures, accruing a whopping $15,200 in penalties from the secretary of state.
She simply brushed it off, requesting the secretary of state waive the fine to just $50. The day after Safe and Clean Denver’s fine was issued, Herod’s request was approved.
Why does Leslie Herod think that, as an influential political leader, she deserves special treatment, while a small, rookie community group must be definitively punished — all because Herod decided to target them? Perhaps it’s for the same reason she’s apparently prone to berating her staff: Herod seems to believe she’s above others.
Let’s face it: How Leslie Herod treats her staff reverberates in how she treats her constituents. She abuses them. Her track record of unaccountable leadership is unethical and untoward. Now, more than ever, beleaguered Denver residents need and deserve leadership they can count on. Is Herod the one voters can trust to lead their city — and its 11,000 employees — as the next mayor of Denver? Is her goal to represent all of her constituents — or only those who validate her self-importance?
Jimmy Sengenberger is an investigative journalist, public speaker, and host of “The Jimmy Sengenberger Show” Saturdays from 6 a.m. to 9 a.m. on News/Talk 710 KNUS. Reach Jimmy online at JimmySengenberger.com or on Twitter @SengCenter.