Socialists have big hopes for Colorado. They want a “revolution” by any means necessary. They have a door-to-door ground game, a City Council celebrity in Denver and activists who strong-arm businesses until they comport with demands. It has members of the Democratic establishment in a quandary. They don’t know whether to defy the movement or join it.
The far-left agenda is straightforward. It includes community ownership of private property, an end to restrictions on living in tents and shanties on public property. It advocates a “radical” transformation of the private economy. Open borders. In response to the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis cop, the movement advocates a society without law enforcement.
The General Assembly in the past two years has worked to impose higher taxes, more regulation of businesses, policies to end oil and gas production, a one-size-fits-all sex education curriculum for schools and more.
The movement’s leaders want rent-free “social housing” for the destitute and homeless; state and local sanctuary policies that openly defy the efforts of federal immigration authorities; a “living wage” or ever-increasing mandatory minimum wages for unskilled and entry-level labor.
They want a government bank in Denver, one imagined as more socially “just” than private-sector, for-profit financial institutions.
The movement has helped elect dynamic, young new members to the Denver City Council and metro area school boards. The Denver School Board voted in June to eject law enforcement from schools.
Former Colorado Gov. Dick Lamm, a Democrat who served three consecutive terms ending in 1987, worries about his party’s growing hostility toward law enforcement.
“I lived with security for 12 years as governor, so I recognized how important law enforcement is,” Lamm said. “There needs to be a mechanism to criticize them when they go wrong. But we have that. We have a variety of institutions to look over the shoulders of the police.”
Lamm decries his party’s growing demand for open borders and an end to the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.
“Every house needs a door, and every country needs a border,” Lamm said. “Liberal programs need borders. You can’t possibly say you’re for universal health care for everyone in the world. This is how parties get screwed up. They take a good issue, but then they take it to the extreme.”
Political observers don’t know if Colorado’s far-left drift is a passing fad or a sign of the future. They’ve never seen it before.
“I don’t think someone who went into a coma circa 1990 or even the year 2000 and woke up today would recognize either political party in Colorado,” said registered independent, Colorado Springs native and former Democrat Eric Sondermann. “This person would not believe Colorado is now reliably blue. This person would find the political contours of the Denver metropolitan area are completely different than when they fell into that coma.”
Comply, or we will destroy you
The more militant factions of the socialist movement use force tactics to obtain written compliance from those who disagree with anything-goes camping on public property. Though “camping” sounds like innocuous recreation, it is a way of life for the homeless and therefore a key component of the socialist movement’s social justice agenda.
The popular Corner Bakery Café on Denver’s 16th Street Mall became a cautionary tale for businesses that do not champion the left’s cause du jour. Occupy Denver, an activist organization that supports Democratic Socialist City Councilwoman Candi CdeBaca, spent 10 months targeting the café with protests.
Activists claimed the business, owned by Jamie Cutter, supported the city’s camping ban. Cutter claims he took no position before Occupy Denver singled him out. In April 2018, Occupy Denver began picketing the business. It turned customers away and told them to boycott until further notice.
“I think it’s clear that the 16th Street Mall and the business improvement districts that have appeared in the last decade or so are taking space away from lower-income communities,” said Brian Loma of Occupy Denver, speaking to The Gazette.
Because they have taken space from the poor, Loma argues, they must publicly support the decriminalization of camping. If they resist, they should pay.
Loma said “the radical is the norm” in contemporary policymaking. Free-market capitalism is “radically abusive” to people on the lower rungs of the socioeconomic ladder, so the public should be open to “radical” tactics designed to force change.
Loma and other protesters told Cutter they would not stop harming his business until he signed a letter declaring his support for overturning the camping ban. Cutter didn’t have to feel it in his heart; he just needed to sign.
“They’ve asked us to sign a letter that they penned, which is outrageous and that’s something that I can’t do,” said Cutter, as quoted by CBS Denver in February 2019.
Cutter, who donated $25,000 to homeless causes in 2018, gave in to the protesters. It was a matter of saving his business. He wrote and signed a letter that says he does not support Denver’s urban camping ban. In return, Occupy leaders moved to another business.
“In an organized and civilized society, we should not have an organization that torments a small business — basically extorts it. It’s not the society we should be,” Colorado attorney and longtime Democratic strategist Ted Trimpa said.
Although Trimpa considers the leftward drift of activists and high-profile city and state politicians a phase and an outlier, the socialist movement is not limited to bullhorn activists and a handful of newly elected politicians. It also involves the cooperation of the mainstream Democratic Party of Denver.
A recent intraparty email to Democratic precinct captains urged cooperation with the Democratic Socialists of America. The socialist organization’s website promotes a “Socialist Strategy in the Age of Political Revolution.”
Aside from the name, Democratic Socialists of America’s literature speaks mostly of just-plain “socialism” without the softening “Democratic” qualifier. The phrase “Democratic Socialist” was popularized by Vermont senator and presidential candidate Bernie Sanders — the winner of Colorado’s March 3 Democratic primary.
The socialist organization’s website says “capitalism pits us against each other and workplaces are fundamentally authoritarian unless workers can self-organize and build collective power.” The website pushes the Green New Deal, “Medicare for All” and “full decriminalization of sex work” and other disruptive platforms. The movement pledges to meet all sex workers’ “demands for housing, healthcare, fair wages, and other basic needs.” It advocates the unionization of sex workers, such as prostitutes, strippers and escorts. The movement believes individuals have a right to housing provided by the government.
The Democratic Party of Denver is all ears, at least on the matter of socialist housing.
“At a recent Democratic Socialists of America meeting we heard an excellent presentation by Mansur Gidfar of Councilwoman Candi CdeBaca’s District 9 office,” said the email to Democratic precinct captains.
Gidfar’s presentation emphasized how the “free-market approach” to housing shortchanges the homeless.
“It is clear that Councilwoman CdeBaca wishes to put forward new policies to address the problem,” the email said. “Denver Democrats can help by affording her team the opportunity to speak at house district meetings.”
The left-wing election machine
CdeBaca’s most scathing detractors call her a “communist.” They cite her comments that advocate communal ownership of private property and the means of production. CdeBaca disavows the label but is happy with the more friendly image as “Colorado’s AOC,” referring to New York Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
The councilwoman defeated longtime 9th District Councilman Albus Brooks, a more traditional liberal Democrat, in June 2019. During a campaign debate, CdeBaca advocated an end to “late-phase capitalism.” She wants a new system of “community ownership of land, labor and resources, and distribution of those resources … by any means necessary.”
The COVID-19 pandemic presented the perfect crisis to test community ownership of property. CdeBaca led a movement of progressive organizations, including United for a New Economy, that demanded the city and state governments cancel, not defer, collection of mortgage and rental payments. Her City Council compatriots imposed a moratorium on collecting rents. Gov. Jared Polis signed an executive order temporarily suspending evictions during the pandemic.
A campaign adviser for Brooks said CdeBaca began campaigning a year in advance of anyone else. She ran a door-to-door ground game with an intensity seldom seen in Denver politics. The source said CdeBaca’s campaign used the Democratic Party’s contact resources. A handful of far-left organizations, including the Democratic Socialists of America, also aided her campaign. The adviser believes socialists quietly built an election machine competitors will need to emulate to compete.
“By the time Albus Brooks began campaigning, it was too late,” the campaign worker said. “He didn’t know what had hit him. The socialists had a well-established ground game way far in advance of the election.”
The imposition of wage mandates moves Denver one more step from free-market dynamics. It is a small step in favor of a centrally controlled, top-down economy. Council Bill 1237, passed by the council and signed into law in November by Mayor Michael Hancock, requires Denver restaurants to pay tipped employees a 21.7% minimum wage increase. It is the first of three phases in the city’s three-year plan to impose a $15.87 minimum wage by 2022.
The Colorado Restaurant Association reports restaurateurs are paying for the regulation with increased menu prices, layoffs and reductions in employee hours. As reported in the Denver Business Journal, The Berkshire restaurant in Denver’s Stapleton neighborhood could not survive the wage mandate when combined with other rising costs and increased competition. Owner Andy Ganick, citing the wage hike as a final straw, closed the business Feb. 2.
The emerging new political paradigm is a bit too much for some of Colorado’s more traditional Democrats, who are not on board with the revolution. They worry about the long-term ramifications of a successful socialist movement.
Trimpa, a former Republican, became a Democrat in 1992. At the time, Colorado Democrats were not electing far-left candidates threatening overnight change. They distanced themselves from any mention of “socialism” and advocated what today are centrist causes: gay rights, civil rights, “safe, legal and rare” abortions, “it’s the economy, stupid,” and welfare-to-work reforms enacted in cooperation with Republicans.
“I switched parties after I came out of the closet,” said Trimpa, referring to his sexual orientation. “Once I got into Democratic politics, slowly over time I moved farther and farther to the left.”
Despite his left-wing conversion, Trimpa worries about Colorado’s socialist activists and politicians going too far. He said most of Colorado — including Denver — is not that extreme.
Trimpa should know. He was a key architect in helping a small group of wealthy Democratic businesspeople devise the Colorado Blueprint, which is largely credited — or blamed, depending on one’s perspective — for driving the trajectory that made Colorado a solidly blue state in time for the 2018 election. He worked with moderate Democrat Polis, a high-tech entrepreneur elected governor in 2018.
“What you’re seeing in the Denver City Council, you’re starting to see a reflection of some things that are definitely the more left pieces of the platform,” Trimpa said. “For these politicians, I think there is an assumption there are more people in the party who support their ideas than there really are.”
Trimpa believes, and hopes, the far-left socialist movement is a temporary phenomenon overblown by disproportionate media attention.
“If it lasts, and it starts to grow, then Democrats are going to start to lose,” Trimpa said. “Anyone who thinks that this state is blue? Well, they are high. It just isn’t true.”
He could have a point. Despite the election of left-wing council members, Denver voters in May defeated a measure to overturn the camping ban — a central element of the far left’s homeless agenda — by 82% of the vote.
Likewise, the same Colorado electorate that gave liberal Democrats control of the Legislature and statewide executive offices in 2018 voted like conservatives by rejecting new taxes. They trounced a measure to dilute the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, a fiscally conservative amendment to protect Coloradans from taxes, government spending and government expansion.
“A lot of the folks who got elected, it was just the voters saying we want someone different,” Trimpa said of his party’s landslide candidate victories in 2018. “It was not like, ‘Gee, I want heroin injection sites all over Denver.’ I don’t think this far-left or socialist movement is representative of Democrats in Denver, or in general.”
The millennial factor
Other longtime Colorado residents sense a left-leaning lurch that is here to stay. They see droves of millennials attracted to Colorado by outdoor amenities, a bustling recreational marijuana market and more recently the spectacle of Denver voters decriminalizing hallucinogenic mushrooms. Colorado seems a natural home for a wide assortment of anti-establishment rebellion.
“The biggest changes I’ve seen I attribute to the influx of leftist Californians,” said Hugo Chavez-Rey, a Denver resident whose family immigrated to the United States from Peru when he was 7. “I see the influx of a lot of progressives and the exodus of a lot of conservatives. I hear it in social circles and in social media.”
A retired telecommunication entrepreneur-executive, Chavez-Rey has witnessed growth in the homeless population living in defiance of camping bans. He attributes it to drug legalization, mental illness, misplaced compassion for the poor and people willfully rejecting the obligations of paying for homes, transportation and food.
“I talk to homeless people a lot,” Chavez-Rey said. “Denver is known as one of the top benefit cities for them. People talk, and they get information saying ‘go to Denver. It’s a good place to be if you’re homeless.’ If the left legalizes camping on public property, we will be flooded with homeless just like San Francisco and L.A. I think some of these politicians want just that.”
Chavez-Rey accuses far-left politicians of intentionally promoting chaos. It makes people dependent on government, which he said would be a logical goal of those who want more central control of businesses, individuals and the economy.
There’s something to that, said historian and former law professor Rob Natelson of Lakewood. A self-described “religiously liberal Jew” and free-market advocate, he said he developed an understanding of the left-wing and socialist mindset while working 30 years in higher education.
“A fair number of people on the left just resent other people,” Natelson said. “One way to be particularly resented is to be hardworking, responsible, productive, creative and prosperous. A certain set of people will always hate you for that.”
Free-market capitalism, he said, rewards success. Restaurateurs and other small-business owners can turn small investments into personal fortunes if they provide what consumers want. Regulations and taxes tap into those rewards with expenses that penalize success.
“Anyone who has ever been in business knows that building a business is a creative endeavor just like writing a book or painting a picture,” Natelson said. “Socialists resent these people and the rewards they see coming from capitalism. They don’t happen to notice that many capitalists fail and suffer the pitfalls of that failure.”
Socialism, he said, appeals to individuals with power and influence as well as those who have no money or sense of control.
“People in power tend to want more power,” Natelson said. “A socialist can gain power by offering the moon to people who don’t have power, influence or wealth. A person with a political office can do this while separating power from responsibility. You promise the moon and you don’t have to pay the piper for doing so. Someone else pays for it. Someone you resent.”
Michael Dino, a Democrat and an attorney specializing in government affairs, was CEO of the host committee for the Denver-based Democratic convention that nominated Barack Obama as candidate for president in 2008. Dino perceives a feeling among some of his party’s more left-wing factions that Obama was too centrist. Though they support Obamacare, committed leftists want single-payer Medicare for All. Today, in reaction to disappointment after eight years of Obama, they want candidates with more progressive goals and aggressive plans to achieve them.
Dino credits some of Colorado’s leftward slide to an unprecedented influx of millennials. Yet, he does not think the demographic is permanently moored to left-wing philosophy. He believes socialism appeals to a segment of young people who have genuine compassion for improving the welfare of humanity. They don’t want anyone to suffer. The socialist message claims to appease their concerns. If it should fail the suffering masses, millennial voters will seek something else — anything else, including conservative candidates and causes that promise better outcomes.
“Millennials are not partisan, and no one should think Colorado is guaranteed to stay blue because young adults are moving here. That’s a big mistake” Dino said. “Millennials tend to register as unaffiliated, and they want practical outcomes. They could easily turn against an Elizabeth Warren, a Bernie Sanders, CdeBaca or an AOC if they don’t like what they are getting.”
A possible capitalist backlashTrimpa seconds that from observations. His husband, successful TV producer Arash Mosaleh, is a minority millennial with friends and colleagues Trimpa understands. Politically, Trimpa and Mosaleh are a mixed household. They each care about the poor and oppressed but disagree about which policies will help them.
Despite an otherwise strong and happy marriage, Mosaleh enjoys antagonizing Trimpa with a collection of MAGA hats. There’s a gay MAGA, a fluorescent camouflage MAGA, a green MAGA and the standard-issue red cap.
“There are a lot more conservative millennials than you think,” Trimpa said. “My husband is a right-winger all the way. He is virulently pro-life and is far from being alone among his peers. Democrats with more moderate views need to make sure we’re stepping up and getting other moderates energized. This big-left movement is not as big as perceived. Yet, it could backfire on Democrats and turn Colorado red almost overnight.”
Lamm concurs. He believes a majority of Coloradans favor regulated capitalism and democracy over socialism.
“The incredible thing here in America is that we are not beset by extreme political parties,” Lamm said. “You’re going to have your extreme elements arise in both major parties, but we have this winnowing process that ultimately rejects them. When that happens, it is a sign that our political system works.”
Wayne Laugesen is editor of The Gazette's editorial pages.