AURORA | Pointing mostly to changes in their personal lives, Aurora City Council members Nicole Johnston and Allison Hiltz will not run for re-election in Nov. 2021, the lawmakers told The Sentinel.
Johnston and Hiltz said they’ll serve the remainder of their terms until voters pick replacements in the fall, and neither have plans to run for any office elsewhere.
In their announcement, the two liberals — who helped lead Aurora’s shift from a Republican-dominated city council to a far more progressive one — said they need more time to focus on their families than the demanding council schedule affords. Hiltz had a child in the spring, and Johnston is a single mom of three children.
The duo also said that the polarized environment surrounding city council and intra-party fighting are factors.
With their planned departures, Johnston’s seat, representing the vast Ward II in east Aurora, and Hiltz’ at-large seat, will both be up for grabs. In total, five seats will be contested on the 10-person city council in the consequential Nov. 2021 elections.
The duo were swept into office in 2017, along with current Ward I Councilmember Crystal Murillo, and would go on to help push city council actions on campaign finance reform, paid maternity leave, oversight of the GEO Inc. immigration detention center, police reforms and more.
“When I look back, I feel like I can say, I’m leaving it better than I found it,” Johnston said.
The duo, along with Murillo, are graduates of Emerge Colorado, a program training politically-left-leaning women to hold office. Johnston and Hiltz handily won their elections in 2017 against “a sea of men,” Johnston recalled.
Johnston had already cut her teeth in city politics calling for more east Aurora locals living near drilling to hold seats on the city’s Oil and Gas Commission. During her tenure as a lawmaker, Johnston has called for stronger oil-and-gas regulations and more oversight of the Lowry Landfill Superfund site, which advocates say is likely leaking toxic waste.
Johnston also spearheaded the creation of the city’s Community Police Task Force.
The board, made up mostly of residents and activists, has been working for months behind the scenes to recommend police reforms that might include independent review of cops’ misconduct and more.
She also pushed through a landmark campaign finance reform package with Councilmember Juan Marcano this fall. Candidates in 2021 will have to abide by the stricter fundraising caps and disclosure rules or risk fines of up to $10,000. The reforms were spurred in part by the cash-flush 2019 election cycle, which passed $1 million in just the mayor’s race.
So far in her term, Hiltz led the charge to cut citizenship requirements for prospective cops and firefighters, allow pit bulls back in the city and win more oversight of the GEO Inc. detention center in north Aurora.
And when Hiltz was expecting the arrival of her child last year, she moved to create a maternity leave policy making it easier for new moms to participate in city council business.
“It wasn’t until my husband and I chose to start a family of our own that I realized that council doesn’t have a maternity policy,” Hiltz told the Sentinel before the rules were finalized. “I don’t think this was by design, I think it was more likely an oversight. After all, when I got elected, the average age of council members was 65, so this probably wasn’t something that was on their radar.”
The pair will leave office with a sense that they’ve helped spur a more diverse and liberal city council. In 2019, democratic socialists Alison Coombs and Juan Marcano were elected, adding more votes for measures like the failed minimum wage boost and a successful ban on so-called no-knock police warrants.
Along with the long hours, family responsibilities and stress, Johnston and Hiltz also said that “dysfunction” on the city council helped spur their departures — at least for now — from local politics.
Hiltz said Johnston has been consistently targeted online by not only by conservative but also leftist activists, which “takes a toll.”
She said Johnston has sustained criticism online from Kristin Mallory Westerberg, the chairperson of the Arapahoe County Democrats, and other progressive and leftist activists. Johnston has taken hits in that activist community over matters from her refusal to support a citywide mask mandate last spring to her support for partially curbing public comment periods.
Mallory Westerberg told the Sentinel that Johnston has a tendency to “shut out people who are disappointed and frustrated.” She also said that “it’s not bullying to ask for accountability.”
But the party leader also said the pair were trail-blazers helping shift political winds in Aurora.
“We wouldn’t be where we are today if Nicole, Allison and Crystal hadn’t stepped up in 2017,” she said. The county Democratic Party would have supported the pair if they decided to run for re-election, she added.
Johnston said the criticism isn’t the main reason the pair are leaving office.
“We can handle the negativity and dysfunction — that will never scare us,” she said.
After her term, Hiltz wants to land in some kind of public policy role outside of government, putting her skills and credentials at use to help shape policy. She holds a master’s degree of public policy.
Johnston worked long hours to earn a master’s degree in public administration during her term. She plans to put the degree to use outside of government and move out of Aurora after her term.
And while Johnston said she’s leaving town after her term ends, Hiltz has no such plans.
“I still intend to be a thorn in council’s side with my thoughts on things,” she said.