By Eric Heinz
Rep. Alex Valdez, D-5, who represents North Denver, is finishing up his second term in the Colorado House, spearheading a number of environmental policies along the way.
This November, he faces two ambitious opponents in Republican Johnnie Johnson and Unity Party candidate Troy Brekke. Johnson is looking to undo a number of policies that were fronted by the Democratic Party at-large over the last four years, with a particular emphasis on public safety and criminal justice measures.
Brekke said he recognizes although his party has only held “minority status” since 2017, he thinks this is an opportunity to bring both sides of the aisle together on a number of issues in the spirit of compromise.
The heavily democratic-leaning House District 5 covers all of the Globeville, Elyria, and Swansea neighborhoods as well as North Denver neighborhoods including Chaffee Park, part of Sunnyside, and Highland. It also stretches down through and past the Auraria Campus, all the way to West Mississippi Avenue.
Johnnie Johnson, Republican
Johnson said issues most critical to him include reversing Colorado’s cancellation of cash bail for low-level offenses, making possession of certain drugs that are currently misdemeanors felonies, and increasing penalties for possession of fentanyl.
“I grew up here, and Denver has never been this way,” Johnson told The Denver North Star. “When (former Denver Mayor Wellington) Webb was there, he was a fantastic guy. When I was a Democrat, I voted for him.”
Johnson said he thinks Denver went into decline starting when former Mayor, Colorado Gov., and current Sen. John Hickenlooper was elected, and continued with those who followed him.
“They just decided to trash Denver. To me, this is ridiculous, what they have done and can still sleep at night,” Johnson said. “I would reverse everything that I can get my hands on that these guys have done to get Denver to this place.”
Taking aim at one of Valdez’s signature bills from last session, Johnson said he would try to repeal the program starting the process for municipalities to develop a plan requiring certain buildings to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
“Instead of sponsoring bills that would put money in the pocket of the solar panel corporations, I would reverse that and promote more of the gas and the oil that is working now,” Johnson said. “This long-range wish list that these guys have may happen in the future, but we’re not ready for it.”
Johnson said he also wants to make it easier for parents to transfer their students to schools that are excelling, and he criticized districts that aren’t able to adequately teach students to read and write.
Regarding campaign finances, he would propose removing the cap on individual donations from people, as he said some candidates need more financial support than others, which creates an uneven playing field. Johnson has been legally blind since he was six years old, according to his website. His motto is “Blind, but not Blindsighted.”
Alex Valdez (incumbent), Democrat
As chairman of the House Energy and Environment Committee, Valdez oversaw a number of bills last session in addition to the building emissions bill, including those that require more space for electric vehicles and continue regulations of asbestos.
“I’ve been working on both air and water pollution issues in the Globeville area, and I think we need to continue to find ways to ensure that the folks in the Northside of my district continue to get environmental justice on the issue of air quality, especially,” Valdez told The North Star.
Valdez said a shortage of workers across Denver has been an issue many constituents have brought to his attention. He said particularly on the Northside, there are a lot of amenities, but not enough income-restricted housing for workers.
He said the legislature needs to be more inventive when it comes to creating and retaining those kinds of residences.
“In general, it’s a system out of balance kind of across the Metro Denver Area,” Valdez said. “There’s a good restaurant scene. There’s lots of stuff to do, but without affordable housing, we don’t have the people living here that can do the jobs.”
Through his work on the State, Civic, Military, and Veterans Affairs Committee, Valdez pointed out his successful effort to have the Ridgeview Youth Services Center in Watkins repurposed for residencies for the unhoused, and he hopes more local governments will take the lead to create more residences.
“I’m excited to see if that works, but I think there’s certainly more that can be done on the local level,” he said. “I think what the state needs to do is just continue to be supportive of those programs, both financially and by working with local governments.”
Valdez is also trying to get more medical facilities and training facilities for mental health across the state, and he said there needs to be more mental health resources for people who have been incarcerated.
“That’s a major issue. It’s one that everybody on that committee has been continually trying to find a solution (for),” he said. “If we don’t have people to work in the facilities, that’s no good. They’ll come to Denver if there are jobs, but we’re just frankly not training anybody to do the jobs. We’re missing people.”
Troy Brekke, Unity Party
Brekke and the Unity Party are taking a different approach to conventional American politics. While Brekke said he is focused on the major issues of the day, such as homelessness, drug policies, and others, the goal is to bring parties together to find a solution, rather than let otherwise bipartisan bills languish.
“I’ve taken what’s called the best democracy pledge,” Brekke told The North Star. “It’s just a series of rules saying about how I will only take small counter donations, how I’m fighting for proportional representation and trying to make sure that the diversity of voices across the political spectrum are actually heard.”
Brekke said although mental health has recently been discussed at great length throughout the nation, public policies are behind the need.
“We’ve sort of started the conversation as a society more openly about mental health, but I feel like legislation is lagging behind to get people help,” he said.
Brekke has a background in management consulting as well as information technology, and he said that experience gives him the unique ability to communicate across various political and industrial lines.
“I spend a lot of time having conversations across a lot of different levels of organizations meeting with a lot of different people,” he said. “Through my career experience, I’ve just had a lot of opportunities to build connections and reach out to people.”
Brekke said although he hasn’t explored the specific issues in North Denver, he is aware of “environmental racism” in the area that forces lower-income communities to fight against corporate polluters.
“As a larger, macro topic, climate change and the environment and how we do better as a culture and within the state of Colorado, to maintain the natural beauty that we have, is something that’s very important to me,” he said.
Brekke said although he’s a major underdog in this election, he hopes his party’s ideas are recognized and that he would like to try again in 2024 if he’s unsuccessful this time around.