Leanne D. Wheeler is the principal of Wheeler Advisory Group LLC, a management consultancy.
She ran for an at-large seat on the Aurora City Council in 2019.
Wheeler served in the U.S. Air Force and subsequently worked for Raytheon.
She was the project manager of Providence at the Heights, an affordable supportive housing community of 50 units in Aurora.
Colorado Politics: In December, you spoke at the NAACP Colorado Montana Wyoming State-Area Conference's "State of Black Colorado" event. Could you share what, from your viewpoint, is the state of Black Colorado?
Wheeler: Given my work at the Colorado state Capitol, I am keenly aware that Black people in Colorado are not accessing the Colorado legislature. In my legislative efforts, it is not uncommon for me to be one of a very few Black people in the building, other than Black elected officials. Much of my talk in December was centered on sharing ways for those in attendance to become involved in their own governance, at every level of government.
Through my criminal justice lens, I can also share that Black people are less than 5% of Colorado’s population, but are disproportionately represented in Colorado’s jails and prisons, are more likely to be brutalized by law enforcement, and are least likely to have legal representation should the need arise.
CP: We are in the first month of the Biden-Harris administration. If you had the ear of the president or vice president, what are the priorities you would like to see them address?
Wheeler: My sincere hope was that the Biden-Harris administration would move to triage the real harm caused by the previous administration. To President Biden’s credit, he has been moving swiftly to do just that. I was purely anti-Trump. As a military veteran and as a woman, I took exception to how little character and integrity he demonstrated long before the Electoral College put him in office and would have voted for ANY Democratic candidate running. I believe we needed Joe Biden at this time in our history.
We need boldness now on two fronts: the Electoral College and term limits. We also must answer to a national truth and reconciliation initiative in the United States. The insurrection and coup attempt were made possible because far too many Americans believe only they have a right to the pursuit of happiness, privilege and power in this country.
They are wrong about that. There can be no reconciliation without reparations for the only demographic kidnapped from the African continent and enslaved on this continent. And coming from a math and science background, I can tell you that we only need the political will, and the right calculus/derivative equation to make reparations a reality. I suspect we already have the latter, which is precisely why the former (the political will) has failed to materialize.
What we saw on Jan. 6 is only new and surprising to those who currently hold privilege and power in this country. This country was founded on behavior precisely like we witnessed, and now as then, the privileged and powerful are working extremely hard to “whitewash” it.
Those in power said that we could not indict a sitting president, and now that the offending president is out of office, they are saying that we cannot indict a former president. We, the people, are on to the hypocrisy, and we demand accountability. Although this is a function of the legislative branch, I would certainly ask the Biden-Harris team to speak on it every chance the opportunity presented itself.
CP: You ran for Aurora City Council in part on a platform of a living wage and affordable housing. What is your assessment of how the current council has handled those issues?
Wheeler: I ran for Aurora City Council because of my experience as a project manager for Providence at the Heights (PATH), the permanent supportive housing development in the heart of Aurora. The city let us down in too many ways to count as we endeavored to provide housing for our unhoused neighbors.
To my dismay, the current council appears to still be in the “storming” phase of their group dynamics, impeding their ability to get the work of Aurora underway, effectively or efficiently.
I suspect this cycle will prove to have more than a few surprises, launching with council member Allison Hiltz and council member Nicole Johnston announcing their intention not to seek reelection in the fall. We will likely see well-funded conservative candidates run for those seats, which will affect any reform legislation across all sectors. The miscalculation and lack of a coherent strategy for the mayor pro tempore role has already shifted the appetite for law enforcement reforms and accountability.
CP: You ran prior to the pandemic, but I'm wondering: what other concerns are you seeing in the community that will afflict Aurora residents and Coloradans for the foreseeable future, unless there is some intervention from the government or other sectors?
Wheeler: The thing that has yet to bite us in the keister is the way we generate revenue. More than half of our budget is reliant on consumption (eating out, buying, retail). There is such a desperation to “open up” at all cost — small businesses are closing, pandemic fatigue — that I believe we will do so without a real framework and plan in place to do so.
I also suspect that there is a real belief that people will be fall back into the same consumption routines that existed before the shutdowns. After nearly a year, when we could have been innovative and daring about our economic recovery, neither the mayor, this council or city management has offered any solutions that we can pivot to, once the shutdown valve loosens up.
Great suggestions have come from the Citizens’ Advisory Budget Committee [of which Wheeler was the chair], but whether council heeds those recommendations remains to be seen.
CP: You experienced homelessness more than a decade ago, and you've since served as a project manager for supportive housing. How is it possible that the United States can create a life-changing vaccine for a deadly disease in less than a year, but can't seem to end homelessness?
Wheeler: Frankly, I view the state of homelessness as our first pandemic. We have yet to get a handle on it, and I have a couple of theories about why we have yet to solve it. First, we have created an economy that does not support the least of these and is wholly reliant on nearly half of our labor force earning less than a living wage. We view homelessness through the lens of American exceptionalism. If you are unhoused, it is your fault. Full stop.
The state of homelessness is a societal ill.
Second, our economy is reliant on people going to work, then spending what they earn. Scientists were funded to focus solely on the science of a vaccine, in part because America knows how to commoditize virtually EVERYTHING (some would argue that we have commoditized poverty, so we are reliant on maintaining an impoverished class), and it was imperative that people get back to work and producing, then be about the business of spending what they earn.
CP: When you look around at everything that has happened over the past year — the pandemic, racial justice protests, economic turmoil, the open desire to overturn a national election — do you worry that the country will be too quick to move beyond those traumas without more closely examining what led to them?
Wheeler: We already are, are we not? Those in power, BOTH sides of the aisle, prefer calm to justice, quiet to calamity. Before President Biden took the oath of office, he was calling for unity. Unity? How?
Without justice and accountability, there can be NO unity. Of course, we will twist ourselves into pretzels and bury our consciousness in cognitive dissonance in the sincere hope of getting back our “normal” way of life. We are already just “glad Trump is gone.” It won’t be long before Americans begin questioning why we are impeaching Trump, citing that it is nothing more than a waste of time.
True to our natures, I believe we have 2021 to get in gear, before we lose ALL momentum. We must rethink how we do everything we saw fall apart in 2020 and create new systems. There will be pockets of this level of transformation and renewal. I certainly intend to do my part. But I am less confident that we will manage this as a country before the gap closes.
CP: Finally, is there anything you learned from your city council run that changed the way you looked at a particular problem or feature within the community?
Wheeler: This is a great question. I am writing a book about my experience as an unaffiliated candidate in a nonpartisan race. My run taught me there is NO such thing as “nonpartisan” city council in Aurora. I would eventually be bullied from both sides of the aisle, but more so from the “left” than the “right.” It was an extraordinary phenomenon, because I was investing in those races, seeing the need for a city cyouncil that looked more like Aurora.
My run also showed me how little my neighbors knew about how our city government structure worked. The majority of those I connected with were unaware that we are a city management-led city. Further, and most alarming, was that far too many were not aware that there was an upcoming election, adding that no one had knocked on their doors before or had ever bothered to ask what kept them awake at night.
The vast difference in income, policing and access to government between our poorest ward and our wealthiest was shocking and disappointing. Where the leadership does not look like the community a council member was to represent, there is an apathy for constituents that surpasses unkind. And the constituents know it.