Diehard Democrat Dana Torpey-Newman left true-blue California for crimson-red Douglas County, Colorado, in 2016 — just a couple of months before you-know-who was elected president. That November stunner and its aftermath hit her hard. It didn't help that she and her husband and kids had settled into a part of the Denver metro area that abounded with Trump-Pence bumper stackers. As she puts it, "I became extremely depressed."
She wasn't down for long, though. As a practicing clinical psychologist, she knew the depth and breadth of depression as well as how to recover from it. She also crossed another bridge: "Within a couple of weeks, I started to have some hope that I could make a difference. I decided that the best way to make friends was to be very open about my political views because they represent my values."
Torpey-Newman knew there were like-minded Douglas County residents, and she resolved to connect with them. Just three years later, she is DougCo's Democratic Party chair, and in today's Q&A, she shares with us her vision about how she and her party aim to tap into Dem-leaning sentiment in a Republican stronghold.
Colorado Politics: Democrats have been riding high in Colorado for some time now, but in your corner of quintessentially Middle American suburbia — Douglas County — Republicans still rule the roost. How do you, as DougCo’s Democrat in chief, make your voice heard and connect particularly your county’s many swing voters to broader issues that will draw them to Democratic Party policy priorities in 2020? Why do you think Douglas County is so lopsidedly Republican, and what is the long-term strategy to change that?
Dana Torpey-Newman: We have a global problem in this country with people believing that all politics is corrupt, entirely ruled by big donors and special-interest groups, and impossible to influence as an individual. On a national level, that perspective may not be far from the truth. However, on a local level, an individual can make a difference. Douglas County is unlike anyplace I’ve ever lived. I believe what is happening here is that its residents live pretty good lives so they have very little interest in upsetting the status quo. Until the last two years, I was like the majority of the people who live here — uneducated about, and therefore uninterested in, local politics.
When Douglas County was first developed, it was entirely Republican. In fact, long-term residents have told me that people who moved in years ago were told not to bother to register to vote if they weren’t Republicans! However, times have changed and so have the demographics. There are now more registered unaffiliated voters than there are registered Democrats or Republicans in Douglas County.
It is our job to let these unaffiliated voters know that our values align with theirs. I have tons of hope that this is possible in Douglas County because of what has happened in our Board of Education elections over the last decade. About 12 years ago, the Koch brothers poured money into our Board of Education election and “education reformers” suddenly took charge. Over the eight years that these people had the majority on our Board of Education, our formerly top-ranked school district plummeted in quality across multiple measurable domains. A group of people who spanned the political spectrum formed a non-partisan group, Douglas County Parents, and have been fighting to take back our BoE. This past November, pro-public education candidates continued their streak and won their third straight election, maintaining all seven seats on the board. This is because, even if they don’t realize it, most of the people of Douglas County learned about the negative impact of hard-core Republican education values and fought back.
Issues like this permeate Douglas County. The Douglas County GOP is unabashed in their broadcasting of misogyny, hatred of People of Color, Muslims, LGBTQ people, and anyone else they deem as “the other.” They want to arm our teachers and spend taxpayer dollars on politically motivated attacks on people who have dared to speak out against them. The more we educate the people of Douglas County on the major impact locally elected officials have on their day-to-day lives and the complete lack of representation these people provide, the more active and disgusted our residents will be. We have to empower people to understand that they can, and do, have an impact on local politics.
The beauty of local politics, particularly in Douglas County, is that your neighbors are your candidates for office. We have to run people who are imminently qualified, who are willing and able to knock on every door and meet with every resident of Douglas County, and encourage our Democrats to talk to their unaffiliated neighbors and make sure that they understand that we share their values. We have a unique opportunity in Douglas County to practice politics in a different way and model for the entire nation what it is like to run candidates who truly represent their community and are not career politicians, and to use grassroots efforts and our relationships with our neighbors to create a truly well-informed electorate.
- Chair, Douglas County Democratic Party
- Licensed clinical psychologist practicing in Lone Tree.
- Holds and undergraduate degree from the University of Pennsylvania and a Ph.D. in clinical psychology from Stony Brook University in New York.
CP: You made waves a few months ago in an email thread among Democratic Party leaders in which you criticized Democratic former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper’s bid for the U.S. Senate, and you wrote he, “…neither understands nor cares about the true problems in our country.” You had weighed in after Hickenlooper was endorsed by the national Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which you accused of “putting a thumb on the scale” by meddling in Colorado’s race for the Democratic nomination in the Senate race. Do you identify with your party’s more progressive wing, and if so, how do you balance that with the need to woo middle-of-the-road voters? Hickenlooper of course has been touted by pundits and championed by some in your own party as the kind of moderate who can win statewide in Colorado.
Torpey-Newman: I believe we are at a crossroads in our country. For many years, people like me thought that we were increasingly approaching being true to the values we are told to espouse as Americans. Donald Trump’s election and the emergence from the shadows of proud white supremacists who appear to hold beliefs that are antithetical to American principles opened my eyes to the fact that we need to make foundational changes in order achieve true societal equity.
I’d like to push back a bit on the labels that exist within the Democratic Party and talk instead about the ideas held by the so-called progressives. At this point in our history, the Republican Party represents only a small fraction of the American people. The Democratic Party, by virtue of the values it holds, represents a much larger portion of this country. However, the laws we currently have in place and the structure of our society is neither protective nor representative of the majority of the American people.
The progressive wing of the party asks that our elected officials acknowledge systemic inequity and legislate to right the wrongs that have existed since the inception of our country. Middle-of-the-road voters are fearful that systemic change means they will lose their safety and security. The GOP has spent years convincing them that this is true and that equity is like a pie, and any increase in the size of one set of people’s slice of that pie necessitates a decrease in the size of another set of people’s slice of that same pie. This is factually inaccurate. We must validate the fears of voters who are doing the best they can for their families, while also educating them about the reality that, with renewable resources and a global economy, there is no pie, and we all benefit from ensuring that everyone has their basic needs met. For example, we all benefit from a safer and more secure society when people are not struggling to make ends meet and either using substances to cope with their distress or committing crimes to acquire their basic needs.
There is an explicit difference between “progressive” as defined by basic values and “progressive” as defined by a laundry list of specific policy positions. If you are looking for me to say that I endorse all of the policy positions of the more progressive wing of our party, it would be difficult to label me as such. However, I believe that all Democrats should hold the same basic progressive principles and want the same things for our country. It is our party’s job to truly fight for marginalized communities and refuse to accept the status quo.
CP: By the way, what are some of those “true problems in our country” you had mentioned, and how should they be addressed by our Congress and president?
Torpey-Newman: In my view, there are four overarching problems in our country that prevent us from achieving safety, security, opportunity and fulfillment for ALL Americans, and we have allowed the GOP to dictate the narrative and to distract us from acknowledging them. These problems relate to the threat of climate change, the inequities in the accessibility of health care, inequities in the accessibility of education, and the inequities in current election and campaign finance laws that give exponentially more power to those with money and those who live in rural communities, while simultaneously seeking opportunities to strip low socioeconomic-status citizens of the right to vote.
Underlying all of these issues is the continued marginalization of people of color, women, immigrants, the LBGTQ community, individuals with disabilities, etc. We have set up a society that is based on the Horatio Alger “self-made man, pick yourself up by your bootstraps” FICTIONAL stories from the 1800s. The consequence of this has been devastating to marginalized communities. Despite not having their basic needs met from day one of their lives, people are told that they are lazy, that they don’t try hard enough, and that they are broken or at fault for not being able to overcome a system that is stacked against true socio-economic mobility. There is a reason we highlight stories about individuals who achieve things in ways that are inconsistent with their current socio-economic level. It is because it truly is newsworthy and those people are amazing exceptions to the rule. If we continue to not acknowledge the ways in which our society is structured to maintain the current social hierarchy, we will never achieve our self-proclaimed values of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
It is up to Congress and the president to dismantle this system legislatively. The first step in this process is to educate the American public about the ways in which marginalized communities are not given the same opportunities that people who are already privileged have.
We also need dramatic campaign finance reform. The problem with the current system is that, as Andrew Yang said at the last Democratic presidential debate, it requires disposable income to support candidates. This ensures that our broken system gets maintained by the same people who are benefitting from it because they can and do support candidates who refuse to address systemic inequities at any sort of meaningful level.
Health care, education, and climate change are the most important issues we face.
CP: Amid a political culture awash with professional politicos, you have a very different kind of day job — your career as a clinical psychologist. What kinds of insights do you feel your expertise gives you into the minds of politicians — their motivations, their behavior — and how does it help you in attending to your party duties? Would you care to give us a thumbnail psych profile of Donald Trump?
Torpey-Newman: Being a clinical psychologist is such an advantage in politics! First, I know from my clients the actual nature of the struggles people experience and view it as my duty to describe these to our elected officials. Because our society demonizes negative emotions and reinforces people for acting happy all the time, often only mental health professionals know the true nature of the difficulties people experience on a day-to-day basis. It is quite challenging for people who are in the midst of a crisis to have the time or be in the emotional state needed to approach their elected officials, but I can and do, so they can understand the ways in which the problems they hear from individual constituents actually represent greater systemic inequities that we need legislation to resolve.
My specific area of expertise is couples therapy, which is quite helpful when resolving the frequent interpersonal conflicts that arise due to conflicting views on how best to carry out our party duties. The most important thing about chairing a party with people who have very different perspectives is getting to know individuals, understanding why they feel the way they do, validating their emotional experiences and their efforts to make our country a better place, and finding ways to ensure that each person is tasked with a job that is consistent with their passions, interests, and experience.
I will respectfully decline from giving a psych profile of Donald Trump. In our ethics code, we are instructed to refrain from diagnosing people we have not actually assessed in person.
CP: You moved here from California a few years ago. Compare and contrast the two states’ respective political cultures. What if anything distinguishes Colorado politics from other places you’ve lived?
Torpey-Newman: Colorado is a fascinating place politically. I’ve never lived anywhere like it. It is so easy to get really involved and have an impact on politics, both locally and at the state level. I was shocked when I started my FUSE group and people like Jared Polis and Jason Crow were willing to come to my house and talk to a bunch of parents with young kids running all around us. California is very different. Admittedly, I didn’t try very hard, but I do not think elected officials were nearly as accessible as they are here. I actually lived in Republican former U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa’s district, and I’m pretty sure he was hiding on the roof of his office building to avoid interacting with his constituents. Overall, I’m not sure if people were super politically active in southern California, which is where I lived. Perhaps it was different closer to Sacramento, where it would be easier to attend legislative sessions at the State Capitol. But I had the general impression that California was so large and diverse that there wasn’t the same level of involvement that exists here. California is decidedly blue — when you are a Democrat, you feel like your views are probably being represented fairly well. Colorado is way more exciting politically because it is purple. There are so many groups throughout the state (and in Douglas County) that have been started and maintained by regular people who have the goal of making their voices heard.
CP: Do you feel last year’s sweep of state offices by your party represents just another swing of the pendulum, or something more? Is migration to the Centennial State changing its longtime purple politics to a decidedly more blue?
Torpey-Newman: This is an excellent question and I can honestly say that I don’t know. Donald Trump and the GOP’s willingness to embrace his dangerous views have prompted people to get out to the polls and vote against them. I don’t actually see how the Republican Party continues its existence, as they have alienated all the values they used to hold, and all but their most extreme members who have the primary motivation to maintain our current social hierarchy.
My hope is that our elected Democratic officials now have the opportunity to demonstrate that our legislative goals are far more humane, compassionate, and better for our state than the principles held by those across the aisle. If we can truly improve our health care and education systems, and take substantive action toward protecting our planet, I would like to think that Democrats will continue to win elections in Colorado.
CP: What first motivated you to become active in politics?
Torpey-Newman: I have always been interested in national politics, but I was never involved. As a clinical psychologist, I had been unsuccessfully fighting with health insurance companies for years as they denied my patients much-needed services or refused to pay for the services I had already provided.
Once I had my kids, I didn’t sleep enough consecutive hours to focus on anything but surviving each day. My husband and I moved here with our two kids in September 2016, and we all know what happened in November of that year. Shortly after the election, while walking to the local park through our neighborhood, I saw a truck parked in a neighbor’s driveway with a “Trump/Pence” bumper sticker and I wondered how we could have brought our kids here. I became extremely depressed. I feared that we had moved to a place in which it would be impossible to make deep, meaningful connections with people because they did not share our values.
By January of 2017, I knew I had to take action. First, though, I needed an anti-depressant. (For the record, the most effective treatment for depression is a combination of medication and psychotherapy; however, I had been in therapy for a few years in the past so I knew the behavioral changes that were necessary already but found it impossible to actually make them.)
Within a couple of weeks, I started to have some hope that I could make a difference. I decided that the best way to make friends was to be very open about my political views because they represent my values. I also realized that we had moved into a community in which there were lots of other families like us — sleep-deprived, overwhelmed and uneducated about politics. So, my husband and I started our FUSE group that I mentioned above.
I met Howard Chou, who is now the first vice chair of the Colorado Democratic Party, but was at the time the first vice chair of the Douglas County Dems, and he helped me to get then-gubernatorial candidate Noel Ginsburg to come to my house one Sunday morning. We invited all of the people we knew (mostly people I had introduced myself to at our kids’ daycare by asking if they were Trump supporters or not) and their kids, and the kids played while Noel talked to us about why he was running. Everyone who attended loved it because it was scheduled to not conflict with most kids’ nap times, people had the opportunity to really get to know a candidate, and we were able to have discussions about meaningful issues. These are things parents with young kids never get to do.
This was the beginning of several months of having candidates attend such events, including now-Gov. Jared Polis, now-U.S. Rep. Jason Crow, now-State Treasurer Dave Young, plus all of our local state House candidates, state Senate candidate, and candidates for county offices.
This was my first foray into local politics. In addition to my group, there were other activist groups that were simultaneously forming in Douglas County who were doing amazing work. There were events called “Huddles” that started shortly after Trump was elected. One of these was in February of 2017 at the James H. Larue Library in Highlands Ranch. This huddle led to the formation of Indivisible Highlands Ranch, a group that has really led our county out of the shadows and into activism.
Together, we have been a force to be reckoned with in Douglas County (I know we are having a huge impact on the status quo here because the Douglas County GOP acts like Donald Trump — fearful, angry, attacking). These groups are primarily, although nor exclusively, made up of powerful women who are pushing back against politics as usual in Douglas County.