It’s important that we have a government that looks like the people around us. — State Representative-elect Naquetta Ricks
Aurora is famous for its mosaic of cultures. But until recently, that hasn’t been reflected in government.
In 2000, almost all of the state lawmakers representing Aurora were white. On the city council, trailblazing Black Councilmember Edna Mosley was the only non-white person on the decision-making board making laws for more than 275,000 people — about one-third of whom were residents of color.
Twenty years later, the city and its political representation have become even more racially diverse. That’s altered the state’s political tapestry in one profound way: Aurora’s delegation of eight state Senators and Representatives is now majority-minority.
This year in House District 41, Aurora voters swept in the state’s first Muslim legislator, Iman Jodeh. Next door in House District 40, immigrant Naquetta Ricks will become the state’s first Liberian-American lawmaker. They’ll work alongside Dominique Jackson, a Black woman representing Aurora’s House District 42.
“It’s important that we have a government that looks like the people around us,” Ricks told the Sentinel.
The city’s delegation to the state Senate now includes two Black women: Rhonda Fields, who won re-election for Senate District 29, and former Representative Janet Buckner, who will cast votes for Senate District 28.
“I know that it’s extremely pivotal and historic,” said Janiece Mackey, executive director of the civic youth group Young Aspiring Americans for Social and Political Activism. “And as someone who grew up in Aurora and raised my kids in Aurora, and I run a nonprofit in Aurora for Black and brown kids to reclaim civic spaces, it’s a beautiful thing.”
These lawmakers will join Democrat Rep. Mike Weissman (HD 36) and Republican Rep. Rod Bockenfeld (HD 56), who are white, and Rep. Dafna Michaelson-Jenet (HD 30), who is white and Jewish.
The incoming representatives and senators say their perspectives and identities make them laser-focused on delivering for Aurorans, from healthcare and housing affordability to relief for small businesses and schools.
Democrats were able to defend their majorities in both the state house and senate this election cycle, and they’ll have carte blanche to hammer out liberal policies in a unified state government with Gov. Jared Polis still in office.
But they’re preparing for a legislative session hamstrung by multiple crises: a raging pandemic, a recession and a budget shortfall their limiting aspirations — at least, for the time being.
“We have a huge job in front of us,” Buckner said.
A Transformed City
This year’s historic election results are the tail-end of demographic changes that have transformed Aurora from a mostly-white suburb to the most diverse city in the state.
According to city data, about 70% of city residents identified as white in 2000, compared to just over 60% now.
At the turn of the century, Aurora’s various governments were dominated by white decision-makers. In 2000 and 2010, only two of Aurora’s state lawmakers weren’t white: former state senator Suzanne Williams, who is Comanche, and Hispanic representative Michael Garcia.
Since 2000, the city’s Black and Asian American populations grew slightly. Aurora now boasts more Hispanic and Latino residents than the metroplex average.
About 20% of the city’s residents are now foreign-born as well. Most of these residents were born in Latin America, according to city statistics, along with 18,000 people born in Asia and 9,400 people born in Africa.
In the 2010s, Aurora’s state government delegation became less white. In 2012, Buckner’s late husband John, a former educator, flipped HD 40 from Republican to Democratic territory. In doing so, he became the first Black representative in that district.
By 2014, three Aurora state lawmakers were Black. Janet Buckner succeeded her husband after his death in 2015, and she rose to become the Speaker Pro Tempore of the state House.
Now, Aurora’s delegation is majority-minority.
“I think it’s great that the legislature and our elected officials now match our population,” said former Mayor Bob LeGare, who is white. “It might have been something that people were afraid of doing 10 years ago, or 20 years ago.”
Some seats held by white members of Aurora’s city council were also won by Black and Hispanic members in the 2010s. Ryan Frazier, a Black man and a Republican, served on the council from 2003 to 2011.
While still not completely representative of Aurora’s demographics — only three of the council’s 11 members are not white — the council looks “totally different than it did in 1980 or 1990,” said Idris Keith, who is currently locked in a recount for the Arapahoe County Commission’s 3rd District seat. If he pulls ahead and is ultimately elected, Keith would be the first Black commissioner in the county covering much of Aurora, Centennial and the southeast metroplex. County Assessor PK Kaiser is an Aurora Muslim.
Aurora Ward V residents elected the city’s first openly-LGBTQ city councilmember, Alison Coombs. Coombs identifies as bisexual and is married to a transgender woman. She was elected to the south-central council district in 2019. The rest of city council has evolved to boast a growing minority presence.
Elsewhere, Rep.-elect David Ortiz will be the first state lawmaker confined to a wheelchair. The Littleton representative, a veteran disabled after his helicopter crashed in Afghanistan, says the state’s General Assembly isn’t even designed to accommodate disabled people.
“That speaks to why representation matters,” he said.
Paul Rosenthal, the newly elected Regional Transportation District director for District E, is openly gay. He believes he is the first out, gay man to serve on the board, where he’ll represent a piece of Aurora and the southeast metroplex. Shontel Lewis, RTD director for District B, identifies as queer.
A former member of the state house, Rosenthal was the chairman of the legislature’s LGBTQ Caucus. He advocated for a bill banning so-called conversion therapy for minors that was later signed into law.
With the more diverse group of Aurorans running for office and winning, Democratic politics have become king as well. Once reliably purple, Aurora now operates as solid-blue territory important to the Democratic reign in the state legislature.
Arapahoe County GOP Chairwoman Dorothy Gotlieb chalked up the party’s losses to the demographic changes favoring Democrats.
For the diverse crop of Aurora lawmakers, diversity in the ranks isn’t an end goal in itself — it’s the politicking that matters. Ricks said the lawmakers will be tapped into their Black and immigrant communities, largely composed of working families, and also bring their own experiences to the table.
For example, Ricks lost her home to a foreclosure during the Great Recession. A mortgage broker, she’s now focused on housing affordability in Aurora.
This year, Black, female lawmakers including Buckner and Fields backed a state law banning discrimination in schools, housing and hiring on the basis of one’s hairstyle. The law, dubbed the CROWN Act, specifically protects people with historically-Black hairstyles like cornrows and locs. The act was spurred by national stories of discrimination against students forced to change their hairstyles.
Roots Beyond Aurora
Both Ricks’ and Jodeh’s families overcame huge obstacles before building their lives in Aurora. This month, the women — one from the west African state of Liberia, the other Arab-American — made history with their elections.
The incoming state representatives are products of Aurora public schools, and both say their political philosophies are firmly rooted in their experiences and religious beliefs.
Ricks will represent HD 40, which spans from the Cherry Creek Reservoir to Mission Viejo, the Quincy Reservoir and the western edge of the Plains Conservation Center.
Her journey began in 1980, when soldiers held her mother at gunpoint. Liberia was established in the 19th century by liberated African-American slaves, and a military coup had broken out in the country a century later.
Ricks said the soldiers interrogated her mother while searching for her mother’s fiancé, who was a government official. He was later executed. The rest of the family managed to “barely” escape, she said.
Quickly, the U.S. accepted Ricks’ family as refugees. They settled in Colorado and eventually became citizens.
As an Aurora resident, Ricks graduated from Aurora Central High School and received bachelor’s and master’s degrees in business administration from the University of Colorado and Metropolitan State University of Denver. She now runs a mortgage brokerage business and says she’s a single mom.
Ricks said her liberal politics mesh with her Christian values of inclusivity and opportunity. Her top goals are requiring financial literacy courses in public schools and making Aurora affordable again.
Jodeh is taking the reins for HD 41. This district encompasses a chunk of south-central Aurora from the Denver border to South Buckley Road.
She’s a first-generation American born in the U.S. to Palestinian-American parents.
She said her father, Mohamad, was the first in his family to receive a college degree. He worked in Egypt as an accountant but couldn’t return to Palestine because of wars with Israel.
Mohamad was able to obtain legal residency in the U.S. and came to love Colorado, she said, because of the arid climate and topography, which reminded him of Palestine. He later co-founded the Colorado Muslim Society — the region’s largest mosque at 2071 S. Parker Rd., and established himself as an advocate for Arabs and Muslims.
It’s work that Jodeh continued from an early age. She graduated from Cherry Creek schools, received degrees in public policy and political science and launched a nonprofit dubbed Meet in the Middle East aimed at bringing together Americans and Arab Muslims.
She’s already a familiar face at the state Capitol, where she’s stumped for causes as an advocate with the Interfaith Alliance of Colorado, a network of religious communities allied on liberal causes.
Most recently, the Alliance opposed Proposition 115, a late-term ban on abortions without exceptions for rape and incest. Colorado voters shot down the ballot item this month.
Politically, Jodeh is a dyed-in-the-wool progressive. She says her political goals — agressive action on climate change, affordable housing and healthcare — mesh easily with her religious beliefs as a practicing Muslim. She’s also a spokesperson for the Colorado Muslim Society.
“It’s a very natural fit for me,” she said.
She also says she’s not afraid of tackling big issues bit-by-bit.
“In order to pass progressive policy, sometimes, we have to do it incrementally,” Jodeh said.
Like Jodeh, Ricks sees herself as a natural liaison for immigrant communities in Colorado. She lamented that outgoing President Donald Trump reportedly said too many immigrants were coming to the U.S. from “s—hole countries,” particularly from Haiti and African countries.
“We’re here. No, that’s not true,” Ricks said of the President’s reported comments. “I think we need to dispel the myths of who immigrants are.”
Lawmakers told the Sentinel that Aurorans desperately need more economic relief from COVID-19, affordable housing and healthcare that doesn’t bankrupt families.
The regular legislative session is scheduled to start on Jan. 13, but Polis has called lawmakers back before then for a special session focused on COVID-19 relief efforts.
Although promising news of effective vaccines broke this month, a third wave of COVID-19 cases has surged far beyond the first peak of the pandemic in April. The rates of hospitalizations and deaths caused by the virus remain lower than the first wave, however, because of improvements in treatment and younger people becoming infected.
By one measure of the recession, unemployment claims, workers are being hit hard again.
By Nov. 7, Colorado workers had quietly filed increasing numbers of regular unemployment insurance claims and pandemic-specific unemployment claims after a months-long dip.
More than 91,000 Coloradans were already receiving unemployment checks by the end of October, according to the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment. That’s almost 24,000 more people on regular unemployment than during the depths of the Great Recession in 2009 and 2010.
In July, lawmakers cut $3.3 billion from the state’s $13 billion general fund because of low tax revenues. That gives Aurora’s representatives and senators less money to work with this year when padding residents from the pandemic’s brutal impacts, let alone push through a public health insurance plan. A proposal to do so was tabled in the spring when the new coronavirus reared its head.
“I really believe that we need to be focusing state funds on relief efforts and trying to get back on track during and in the wake of COVID,” Jodeh said. “We don’t know how long this is going to be.”
Nevertheless, Buckner said lawmakers will “continue to keep talking and working.”
“No matter what bills we run, we will make sure that we keep all ethnic groups in mind,” Buckner said. “I just like to work for everyone, and since I have the experience of a Black woman, I can bring that to the plate.”
— Staff Writer Carina Julig contributed to this report