Former U.S. House Speaker Tip O’Neill once famously declared that “all politics is local,” back in 1935 when he first ran for public office.
Newly-elected Denver City Councilwoman Amanda Sawyer is a living example of that adage.
Sawyer, a 40-year-old lawyer and mother of three girls, defeated incumbent Mary Beth Susman in the June 4 runoff election to represent City Council District 5.
She will represent a district that stretches from Colorado Boulevard east to the Aurora border and from Colfax Avenue south to Tennessee and Mississippi Avenues, including part or all of Hale, Montclair, Hilltop and Lowry.
Like O’Neill, the race was Sawyer’s first campaign and its origin was very local – as in right up the block from where her family lives.
“I’m one of those people who never meant to do this. I never meant to run for office,” Sawyer said in an interview with Colorado Politics.
But Sawyer said she was concerned about a proposal to build 23-micro apartment units across three parcels on Holly Street.
Sawyer said the project sounded good in concept but she felt it was not a good fit for a two-way street through a residential neighborhood. So, she started looking into the re-zoning process.
“And people said to me, what? It’s just going to be a rubber stamp. Don’t even bother fighting against it. It’s going to happen,” Sawyer recalled.
“And that’s what opened my eyes to well what do you mean we aren’t going to engage the community and figure out why it is the way it is,” she added.
Ultimately the project was not approved. But a campaign was born.
Sawyer said she asked her husband “Do you think I’d be crazy if I said I wanted to run for city council?” and he said “Yes. So, I think you should do it anyway.”
She ran in an election cycle in which Denver’s unprecedented growth spurt made concerns over development one of the top issues in the race.
Sawyer was one of three challengers who defeated incumbent council members, something very unusual in Denver.
While she is reluctant to talk about the other districts because she doesn’t know them as well, Sawyer said she is convinced that complaints over how development has happened was a factor that propelled her victory in her district.
“People are really feeling like they’re not being heard. Like they are not being listened to,” she said.
That said, Sawyer said she is not certain why voters sent a mixed message by re-electing Mayor Michael Hancock to a third term after a campaign in which growth and development issues were front and center.
But she has a theory about what happened.
“I think what we saw here was a situation where a lot of people felt that they were willing to give the mayor another four years and support him for four years with the tradeoff that the people who were his most vocal supporters on council then didn’t continue their position,” Sawyer said.
On the morning after the election, Hancock specifically said he was sorry to see Susman and 9th District Councilman Albus Brooks defeated, citing the work they had done on major issues in the city.
Sawyer said she suspects voters were not so much sending a mixed message as splitting their ticket.
“I think everyone was ready for change except that they weren’t ready for, you know, a different mayor yet, and so what the voters did was split that down the middle,” she said.
As she approaches her July 15 swearing in, Sawyer said she does not have one overarching issue that she plans to pursue on the council.
“I know the things that I feel strongly about,” she said. “But it really doesn’t matter what I feel strongly about. It matters what the people who live in the city of Denver feel about.”
She said the voters clearly want to see solutions on issues such as homelessness, transportation and the addressing the return of air quality problems like the brown cloud.
“These are all things I hear the voters saying matter to them,” she said.” So, those are the kinds of things that will take onto council with me and look into.”
She also mindful that while she’s one of five new council members, she also is part of a deliberative body of 13 council members, most of whom she barely knows.
Sawyer said she looks forward to getting to know them and collaborating on solutions to the issues that she heard about from voters on the campaign trail.