Less than two months after Denver City Council members made history when they unanimously elected two Latinas to lead them into next year, the pair seem to be already shaking things up — specifically as they work through the 2021 budget process, which kicks off the week of Sept. 16.
“City Council for the first time in history will look at our decision-making process from an agreed upon racial equity lens, to support our citizens and city through this time of pandemic and economic recovery,” Council President Stacie Gilmore said in a statement Thursday. “By making decisions that benefit all Denver residents, especially those who have been historically oppressed in the decision-making process, Denver will grow and evolve to be stronger and more united than ever before.”
The 13-member body set budget priorities in July during their annual retreat, which was held virtually due to the pandemic. They agreed to use the city’s stretched resources to address emergencies and the “intense desire” for substantive change with the goal of rebuilding Denver’s economy and communities more equitably than before.
Though the budget is created by the mayor’s office, the council has a say in shaping it before it’s a done deal. The legislative branch — one with five fresh faces unafraid to challenge Mayor Michael Hancock’s administration — ultimately holds the power to approve it, too.
“We don’t want to return to normal, because normal wasn’t serving everyone and was hurting many of our communities,” Council Pro Tem Jamie Torres said. “As we face these budget challenges and plan for the new year, we want to use the opportunity of applying a critical equity lens to work toward a distribution that better serves those who have long gone overlooked and under-consulted.”
Serving and magnifying marginalized voices is at the heart of where they're headed, the two elected leaders say.
“At this moment in time, female leadership is so important — to hear those voices and those experiences — because that creates a greater empathy, I believe, for folks to understand what it means to be silenced or not listened to or talked over,” Gilmore said in an interview with Colorado Politics on July 21, the morning after she was elected.
“There's a lot of synergies between being female in a workplace and being a person of color in the workplace,” she went on. “The more that we're sharing those stories, the more we're amplifying those very voices, it's important for us to listen, too, at this point in history, and both Jamie and I are listeners and problem-solvers.”
Torres and Gilmore have spent most of their lives living in the underserved neighborhoods they serve, including west Denver and Montbello, respectively.
“That’s the centering point for why we do what we do, and how we frame our conversations in the city,” Torres told Colorado Politics over the phone. “I’m not a committed person to political office, but to the work that can be done from this position.”
Having a deep grasp on the health disparities, food scarcity, housing instability, and racial discrimination that tend to plague Black and brown communities are all “something that, unfortunately, we see play out on a day-in, day-out basis in my neighborhood,” Gilmore said. “Having that perspective will be very beneficial to Council.”
Gilmore’s lens on life and her passion for service are inspired by her late grandmother, Edwina, who worked as a maid at the motel she and Gilmore’s grandfather owned in Trinidad, where they were from.
As a teenager, Gilmore would visit her grandmother to help her during the summers, a time that coincided with the work of a local doctor, Stanley Biber, who became internationally renowned as one of the first surgeons to perform sex-change surgeries. Many of his patients would recover from their procedures at Edwina’s motel, sometimes for several months, and she would clean their rooms and help take care of them.
“My grandparents were staunch Catholics — very, very conservative,” she said, yet Edwina worked night and day to help them, never uttering a word about her own beliefs. “She would come out of the room and she would have bloody bedding,” Gilmore said. “I was just like, ‘Wow, my grandma is a saint.’ ”
The story stays with her, she says, as a “powerful” model of what it means to serve others for no other reason than “the right reason:” to help them. “I think other people notice and respond to that.”
Gilmore and Torres are still adjusting to their new roles, and titles, but the two are working to create more opportunities for residents to speak directly with council members, as well as address language access barriers across the city to ensure community needs are understood, no matter which way they're communicated.
Amid racial justice protests that call for investing in neighborhoods and divesting from policing, Gilmore continues to express her support for the idea, one that sits near the forefront of her mind as budget season arrives.
“I’m definitely about amplifying the community voice, and I think there’s some real direction out there as to what folks would like to see,” she said, citing the city’s pilot Support Team Assisted Response program that sends mental health professionals, not police, to low-level 911 calls and appears to have wide support from the community.
The program is currently funded through the Caring for Denver Foundation, but Gilmore says she’s exploring ways to deploy more STAR units across the entire city.
With five Latinas — she, Gilmore, Candi CdeBaca, Debbie Ortega and Amanda Sandoval — on the dais for the first time ever, Torres is hopeful that meaningful change is possible, but the opportunity can’t “go unnoticed and underutilized.
“This is definitely a point when we want to make sure that we’re making use of the things that we bring to the table, and some of that is our connection to our community, but a lot of it is our ability to connect to one another,” Torres said. “That, I think, is a really cool thing to watch the city see take place.”