Former Boulder state Rep. Claire Levy’s title has of course changed since she left the legislature in 2013, but she’s still shaping and advocating public policy.
Although the liberal Democrat and longtime lawyer no longer casts a vote in the state House, she has a distinct voice at the policy table as executive director of the Denver-based Colorado Center on Law and Policy.
The 20-year-old advocacy group — whose focus is improving “economic security and health for all Coloradans” — pursues a policy agenda befitting Levy’s own world view. And as she tells us in today’s Q&A, she believes Colorado’s changing political climate is creating an ever-more-fertile environment for that view.
Levy also talks about her recent announcement that she will step down later this year after five-plus years at the helm of her organization to seek a seat on the Boulder County Commission. What lured her back into politics? Read on to learn that and more.
Colorado Politics: Tell us a little about the origins and founding premise of the Colorado Center on Law and Policy. What sets it apart from other policy-advocacy groups occupying Colorado’s center-left, such as the Colorado Fiscal Institute, the Bell Policy Center and the Colorado Children’s Campaign?
Claire Levy: Colorado Center on Law and Policy was founded 20 years ago to provide a collective voice to Colorado’s lowest-income residents at the Capitol, with state agencies and in the courts. We bring together research as well as legal and policy advocacy to advance the health, well-being and economic security of low-income Coloradans.
CCLP is a non-partisan, nonprofit organization. We don’t see ourselves as being on any political spectrum. Instead, we believe that addressing the systems that prevent all people from achieving their greatest potential is a goal that everyone can support regardless of where they fall on the political spectrum.
CCLP often joins forces with the organizations you mention because our mission and goals overlap. That overlap can be very helpful because each organization brings a different perspective to a policy proposal much the same way different health care stakeholders might agree on a goal but have slightly different interests.
For example, we are very interested in expanding access to child care because it helps support low-income people in the work force, whereas Colorado Children’s Campaign might support expanding access to child care because it helps children get a better start in life. We support the same policies but for different reasons.
What I believe sets us apart is that we concentrate on people in the lowest-income bracket, including children and people with disabilities. We focus on access to health care and economic security, and we occasionally use legal advocacy as well as policy advocacy to advance our goals.
- Executive director, Colorado Center on Law & Policy, since 2013.
- Served in the Colorado House of Representatives 2007-2013, representing House District 13.
- Worked for years as an attorney in private practice in Boulder.
- Also served with the Jefferson County Attorney's Office; the Colorado State Public Defender's Office; the Boulder Planning Board; the Boulder County Parks and Open Space Advisory Board, and the board of the Boulder County Housing Commission.
- Holds a bachelor's degree from Carleton College in Minnesota and a law degree from Case Western Reserve University in Ohio.
CP: Your policy agenda — from boosting the minimum wage to pushing the envelope on health-care reform to addressing rising housing costs — is almost breathtakingly ambitious. Yet, you’ve also succeeded over the years in implementing some of your goals, like on the statewide minimum wage. What are CCLP’s top priorities in the 2019 legislature, and what effect will last November’s election sweep by the Democratic Party have on the pace and range of enacting your organization’s policy proposals?
Levy: CCLP has been successful at getting our policy initiatives passed in the legislature and by rule-making entities such as the Human Services Board because they are thoughtfully crafted, are based on solid research, have broad community support and are demonstrably effective. We have been fortunate to have bipartisan support for our priorities and have not been stymied by divided political control of the legislature.
For example, we passed a bill to allow families receiving Temporary Aid to Needy Families to receive directly the child support payments made by a non-custodial parent because it was good policy and just make sense. The same is true with exempting manufactured homes from state sales tax, requiring landlords to provide a signed copy of the lease to their tenants and the other priorities we have successfully enacted during the last five legislative sessions.
We were hard at work on our 2019 legislative agenda long before the November election and so the results actually did not alter our agenda. It includes funding civil legal aid so people are not facing the complexity of the court system without an attorney when they are at risk of losing their home.
We are working with other organizations on legislation to create a “public option” for buying health insurance in costly health insurance markets so health insurance doesn’t consume so much of a family’s income. We will be asking the legislature to put the Child Care Tax Credit for low-income families on the same footing as a similar tax credit for higher income families so these families do not face uncertainty from year-to-year about whether they will get help paying for their child care expenses.
Our legislative agenda also includes providing a fund so that clients of workforce centers and community-based organizations that work with people who are having trouble getting back into the workforce can use to address unexpected emergencies, such as car trouble, that might otherwise derail their completion of a training program or a new job.
CP: CCLP not only educates and advocates; it also litigates. In a sense, it serves as a plaintiff’s attorney for Colorado’s poor. How big a role does litigation play in your strategy for change?
Levy: You put that very well! Litigation is just one tool for effecting change, and we see it as a last resort when all other avenues have failed. We would much prefer to address systemic failures and societal needs through collaborative action. However, sometimes litigation is necessary. An example is a case CCLP is perhaps most widely known for, in which CCLP sued the state when the rollout of its computerized Colorado Benefits Management System deprived people of essential health care services and food assistance. This presented an emergency that required immediate action, which the state was unable or unwilling to take without an order of the court.
CCLP represents individual clients on much smaller cases on a regular basis when we believe a program such as Medicaid or SNAP [the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly food stamps] is not being implemented consistent with the legal requirements. Litigating in administrative courts allows CCLP to determine why a larger group of people may not be receiving the services they need and are entitled to under the law.
By taking these cases we can then work with state agencies to change the policies and practices that are producing the incorrect result.
CP: Unlike a lot of your counterparts who oversee think tanks and advocacy groups across the country, you are a seasoned ex-lawmaker who served nearly four full terms in the state House. That amounts to a whole lot of debating, haggling and deal-making with fellow members, lobbyists, stakeholders and others.
That must give you a lot of insight into how to advance policy in your current calling. Yet, doesn’t it also leave you with a sense of futility — because you know firsthand how hard it is to make progress on policy in the General Assembly and in the political process in general?
Levy: Not in the least. I know from the seven sessions in which I represented House District 13, during which I was in the majority and minority, that the legislature can be very effective at addressing complex problems, even when there are large political divisions over other problems. I also know that not succeeding during one session does not doom an idea to failure.
People serving in the legislature want to do what is best for their constituents and for the state as a whole. I act on the principle that all votes are cast in good faith, and so when a bill does not succeed we may need to redesign the proposal or bring other stakeholders to the table.
CP: You announced last fall you are leaving the helm of CCLP — and are returning to elective politics, running for Boulder County commissioner. Some might have thought you’d had enough of public office. What lures you back?
Levy: I found public office to be tremendously rewarding because of one’s ability to tackle a broad set of issues and find constructive solutions. I like to solve problems and I like to make a difference. I enjoy meeting people from all walks of life and learning about their lives and their communities. I also like serving in a role that puts me close to the needs and interests of the community in which I live.
County commissioners have jurisdiction over land use, transportation, human services, affordable housing, community corrections and public safety, and a host of other local issues that are vital to people’s day-to-day lives. These are issues on which I have worked before, during and after serving in the legislature, and I’m eager to continue working on them on behalf of the people of Boulder County.
CP: Do you sense a shifting political climate in the state — one that is more than just another swing of the proverbial pendulum, and that might be more amenable over the long haul to your views on public policy?
Levy: Yes, I do. As Colorado’s population grows and becomes more diverse, new voices have come to the fore. Millennial voters are the largest voting cohort that has ever existed. They are open and accepting of people who are LGBTQ and are not interested in perpetuating divisive social policies.
With the increase in the population of people of color in Colorado, which is increasingly reflected by elected officials, policymakers must at last confront the legacy of racism and discrimination. Voters throughout the state understand we must work hard to protect our environment for the future as the signs of climate change become increasingly strong.
Another powerful force that is changing the political climate is the fact that wages have not kept pace with the increased cost of housing, health care, child care and other essentials. This trend is affecting people who may have formerly perceived themselves as middle-class moderate voters. Voters are looking to a more activist government to help address their vital needs, which a full-time job is not currently addressing.
There is growing recognition that hard work and determination are not sufficient, and that we need governmental policies that pull everyone up and help everyone live a life of dignity and worth.
CP: One also hears there’s a growing political divide nationwide, arguably, evident in Colorado when contrasting a place like Colorado Springs or Grand Junction with Denver or your town of Boulder. Are there two very different Colorado’s, politically speaking? If so, what does it bode for our state’s political culture?
Levy: In the almost 37 years I have called Colorado home I have seen the interests of the communities you name grow closer. Sure, it has not been a consistent linear trend. But over time we are growing closer and not farther apart.
I see political differences more with respect to growing urban areas and rural areas that are losing their population and the employment opportunities that can keep young people in the community. The changing nature of our economy has concentrated high-paying jobs in cities where there are greater synergies from people doing similar work. The land-based economy and family run businesses that may have been the mainstay of rural towns are not supporting those communities at the same standard of living.
This trend shows up in the much higher rates of poverty, the higher median age and the much lower incomes found in southeast and eastern Colorado, the difficulty in recruiting teachers, doctors and other professionals, and the lack of investment in public infrastructure. These issues must be addressed so that state resources benefit all the people of Colorado.