by Chanel Ward
Deborah “Debbie” Ortega is an at-large member of Denver City Council, representing the entire city, at-large. She was elected to an at-large position in 2011 and was re-elected in 2016.
Born in Raton, New México, Debbie is the daughter of a coal miner who was killed in a mine accident. Debbie saw firsthand the strength of a woman when her mother raised Debbie, her four sisters and brother after the death of her father. When Ortega was just 13 years old, her family moved to Denver where she attended Kepner Middle School. She graduated from West High School and had an early calling to a life of public service; she worked for former Lt. Governor George Brown and U.S. Senator Floyd Haskell before accepting a position with Denver City Councilman Sal Carpio in 1979, she was elected as Carpio’s successor in 1987, and served until 2003. When the term limits required that she leave office, Councilwoman Ortega continued her public service as the first executive director of Denver Commission on Homelessness and has also served on the board of directors and as the chair of the board of Latina Safe House.
She currently serves as the chair of Del Norte Neighborhood Development Corporation; a non-profit set to build affordable housing. Councilwoman Ortega raised her daughter Janelle in Denver and now Janelle and her husband, Gabe are raising their four children in the city that they know and love.
Councilwoman Ortega gave The Weekly Issue/El Semanario the opportunity to go deeper into her campaign with an exclusive sit down interview. ‘Ask the Candidate’ introduces Debbie Ortega, at-large City Council Member.
Why are you running for Council At-Large?
I represented District 9 for 16 years and I was term limited in 2003 and when I saw that in 2011, we were going to see at least seven of the 13 seats turnover, I decided to run for a city-wide seat. And I got into the race a little bit late, everybody had already been campaigning that was going to run, so I decided in January to jump into it. I raised less money than everybody, but I was successful in getting the votes to elect me to my seat. I actually got more votes than the Mayor did.
Since your 2011 At-Large election and then re-election in 2016, what significant changes have been made in Council as a whole, since you’ve been involved?
Since I was, elected I saw a change in our economy, because when I first got elected, we had employees that were on furlough. We’d seen a downturn in our economy, so for the eight years in between, I worked on the City’s homeless plan. Working on opening shelters and making sure we had enough shelter beds in this city and that we focused on housing. We’ve seen a huge impact to our housing market, there’s obviously a lot of interest in our city, a lot of investment in our city. One of the things that happened in between my terms, while I was gone was the City Council’s zoning code, but all that work was done by the planning department and the changes to the zoning code removed City Council from playing a bigger role than what they used to in terms of seeing lots of details like; how many units are going to be in a project, how much parking is going to be a part of that, in most cases a traffic study would have been done on the front end. So, it meant that a developer had to invest money and in most cases they brought renderings to City Council so people had an idea of what it was going to look like, kind of where your open space was going to be and a lot of those kinds of things. We don’t see any of that now because they went into something called form-based zoning and the planning department gets to work on all the details with the developer, which means the developers are at the mercy of the staff at the planning department working with them on the details. And the community doesn’t get to be involved in helping set a lot of those details on the front end, and it gave more power to the administration, because Denver’s already one of the strongest Mayoral forms of government in the country and this gave even more power to the mayors’ office. One of the things that happened also was when [John] Hickenlooper was the Mayor, they put on the ballot changes that removed some of the powers from the Auditor also and put it under the administration. So, the Auditor used to pay all of the bills, and do the payroll for the employees, those two functions got moved up to the Mayor. They do a lot of the audits, a lot of the performance audits and the charter gives power to the Auditor to go in and so for example, in a recent news article, there was information about an audit he did on the airport hotel and the hotel doesn’t think they have to give the Auditor a lot of the records. Well, it’s a city-owned hotel, we just contract it out and so those are issues that I think City Council can bring the airport to committee and say, “why are these records not being provided?”
We need to be able to know that it’s generating enough revenue to not only cover its cost, but it’s putting money back into the operations of the airport. Especially now with the fact that we’re learning that there’s at least somewhere in the ballpark of a $20 million cost added to the work being done to the Great Hall, where they’re moving all of the TSA from level five, up to level six and I don’t even know that we know what those costs are just yet, or who’s going to pay for it. We don’t know if it’s going to be absorbed by the company out of Spain that was selected to do the Great Hall, which basically privatized the operations of the concessions for 34 years. I did not vote for that because City Council was only given a week to look at the contract, they’ve been working on it for two years, we also pay that company $9 million to do the predevelopment, to the city staff, to help them look at all the things they needed to look at based on what they want by moving TSA from level five to level six. DIA [Denver International Airport] thinks they are autonomous from the rest of the city, but they are not. They are an arm of the City, not an independent authority and I don’t believe that they should be. They should continue to be an arm of the City, and City Council serves as airport commissioner, so that we review the contracts that they bring forward.
Are you endorsing any of the candidates running for District 9, a district you ran for many years?
I am not. I have my own race to run and I’m only focusing on my race. And I am not doing that for the Mayor’s Race either. And I’ve been gone from that district for quite awhile; I have been involved in the I-70 project very, very closely. There’s a lot of investment in our city, a lot of jobs; in some cases, we have more jobs than we have people to fill them. For example, with the I-70 Project, one of the things I’ve worked on is making sure that we have a commitment hiring people from the neighborhoods alongside the I-70 corridor, and not just hiring them to do any job, but making sure they’re getting trained as an apprentice in any one of the building trades that they are interested in getting trained in. All of the training is covered, including if they have to buy work boots or tools when they start at the jobsite. There’s a program called Work Now, it’s work-now.org, and it was a program that was created for I-70, but the city is using that same infrastructure for DIA, for all of our bond projects, for National Western. And so, we now have language in our contracts that require the goals we met to hire people and put them into these apprenticeship programs. We’ve got over 700 people in that pipeline right now, so it’s working, but it was critical to have that in place because our city privatized our work force services and we went from having six work force centers to only two, when we have over $6 billion worth of work that’s going to be happening in our city with construction projects.
What have you been working to change that just hasn’t budged?
I think the issue of affordable housing is critical because we have so many people who have grown up here, who have gone off to college and want to come back and live in the city they know and love and they can’t afford to live here. We’ve got a huge homeless problem; obviously I believe that with the legalization of marijuana, we attracted a lot more young people and many have found themselves homeless, so its exacerbated our homeless challenges and expenses in our city. But the issue of affordable housing and trying to make sure that with all of the new development that is being proposed for our city, that we have the ability to work with those developers to make sure that we’re including affordable housing into all of these developments. We have over 500 acres planned for development, along the I-25 corridor from I-70, which the Denver Post site is 43 acres in that area right near 41st and Fox. That includes the parking lots at Mile High Stadium, the Elitch site, Sun Valley and you have the Burnham Yards, which is vacated railroad land that they’re cleaning up right now that will be available for development, that’s 70 acres. Then we have the Old Broadway Market Place at Alameda and Broadway, the Design Center, the Gates properties, all of that is about the same size as lower downtown or Cherry Creek. You also have 70 acres on South Federal at Loretta Heights, so all of that equals about 500 acres, all of that wants to build up.
And what’s the vision for all of the developments?
Well, that’s an interesting question, because I have been asking, “whose been looking at the big picture of the cumulative impact to all of the infrastructure; to I-25, to Federal Boulevard, to Colfax or 13th to a lot of the access roads to water, sewer, all the rest of the utilities and then what does that mean to the adjacent neighborhoods, in terms of gentrification and displacement?” And when I met with the planning director I asked, “who’s working on the big picture?” and she said, “Well, I have to go back and talk to my staff.” I’ve met with her staff person, that’s the trans-orient person, and some of these sites are next to TOD [Transit Oriented Development] train stops. Nobody’s really focused on the big picture and that’s a problem because I think this is a unique opportunity for us in order to get this right and I think we have only one chance to do it right. I’m trying to encourage the administration to do something similar to what they did in the Globeville area and Swansea neighborhood, when we brought together a vehicle called the North Denver Cornerstone Collaborative (NDCC) that is working on all of the public projects, all of the private projects, including I-70 and National Western to look at how they interface with one another and to try and coordinate when you have street closures; meaning they can get in and out of their neighborhoods. So the emergency vehicles can serve the community, all that kind of stuff and of course they can do something similar here where you identify those issues on the front end, including gentrification and displacement, then I think we can get it right. The things that I encouraged this Mayor to do was to look at the program that Seattle has on Race and Equity, so they had a couple of people from their Human Rights and Community Partnerships Office in Seattle meet with the woman that oversaw their office of civil rights, she was a personal friend of mine and I was able to help coordinate all of that, I wasn’t able to go on the trip but I’m very familiar with their program and it came back looking how to incorporate those similar efforts to Denver. You’ve got a number of city staff people who have been trained in various city agencies, we have to do the same across the board, where they’re now looking at Race and Equity on the front end of the projects they got going on in Seattle they identify each agency to look at some of the big projects we’re working on and incorporate all of that, they have a toolkit, they have very methodical steps that they walk through before a project is moved forward that addresses those issues on the frontend and this is one where we can do that with all of this development coming in.
It’s being said that surrounding residents are not being properly notified or compensated and displacements increasing with the expansion, your office has been in the discussion, can you share with us those meetings?
Going back to when I left office, they had widened I-70 through the Globeville neighborhood and they had just begun the conversation of widening it further out towards DIA through Elyria and Swansea and all the way out. I come back in 2011, the conversation is still on the table and I want to say they spent 12 or 13 years in this conversation about widening I-70. I think there were lots of different discussions about how it was going to impact these neighborhoods because these communities are the closest residents to the I-70 corridor along this stretch from basically I-25 out east and the rest of it is mostly industrial. [John] Hickenlooper hired a guy named Don Hunt and Don Hunt came to the table with an idea to suppress the highway, similar to what they did with I-25 through part of the area just east of Broadway, but in this case they also talked about putting a cover over part of it. The cover is going to be the playground for Swansea Elementary School. So, kids will literally be playing over the highway. If they would have made it just a few feet longer, they would have had to put ventilation, which would’ve added to the cost and they didn’t want to do that so it’s the length that it is without ventilation.
Lots of different issues; you asked the question about how we have been involved, we spent time looking at the environmental impact statement on the project and between my staff and I we went through the whole document with a fine tooth comb, and we submitted 40 pages of comments focused on mitigating the impact to the neighborhood and that was critical because some of my colleagues voted to support what they called the preferred alternative which was the concept that CDOT [Colorado Department of Transportation] wanted to move forward with, and I didn’t agree with it. I voted no on the proposition.
In all the years I been with the City, never has Denver weighed in on an environmental impact statement before the document comes out. And that’s what happened both with agreeing to the preferred alternative as well, as doing an intergovernmental agreement before the final BIS came out. The first one was called a supplemental draft and the second one was the final BIS. I was involved in a lot of stuff that was done along the I-25 corridor with 20th, 23rd, Park Avenue, when they widened I-70, so I’m very familiar with the EIS process and never had Denver weighed in prior to any of those processes, which was a CDOT, FHWA process, so it just didn’t make sense and I tried convincing my colleagues that it wasn’t the time for us to weigh in, but I lost that battle. Once I saw the Mayor had aligned City Council to support what the state wanted, we spent all my time just focusing on the mitigation for the neighborhoods. So, the homes that are within 500 feet on each side of I-70 got new doors and windows. They had portable air conditioners installed, and the city hired a team with CDOT’s money, but also added some other resources. So if they were in the homes – and this was done by private contractors who work with the cities, it’s called the Energy Efficiency Advisory Committee that delves out the $2 million Excel franchise money, it’s for energy efficiency, but they use part of that money to go into these homes – and if for example, someone had a furnace that wasn’t working, they had a leaky roof or something that was a major issue impacting the home, they were able to use the resources to take care of those issues as well. At the same time, they were dealing with new windows and doors and air conditioners. So, a lot of homes got some improvements that they otherwise would’ve never gotten and the windows they used, CDOT did research on what were some of the most soundproof windows and also it was to protect any of the dust from coming into the homes during construction. ASARCO (American Smelting and Refining Company) used to be an operating lead smelter in the Globeville neighborhood that operated for 100 years that contaminated the neighborhood with lead, cadmium and arson, heavy metals. So, what happened was, over time the community soils were cleaned up, the neighborhood sued the company, they paid property damages to the homes, but all that got cleaned up were residential properties, schools and parks. So, anything else where they start digging and tinkering with the soils, there’s a concern that you’ve got to avoid heavy metals and we need to be assured they’re monitoring that with the air monitors that are now at Swansea Elementary School. Those are some of the things we honed-in on as part of our comments in the EIS; making sure that access issues were going to be really important to community being able to navigate getting in and out of their community with bringing the viaduct down and not having access North, South, East or West. There’s a train that comes through the neighborhood that blocks access so when the kids go to school in the morning – and these are unmanned train cars that are at times sitting at an intersection and I’ve been there for over 45 minutes where it just sat on the tracks – and kids will climb in between those train cars because they don’t want to be late for school, so it’s a serious safety problem. We accelerated putting that project to do a pedestrian overpass into the bond issue and there actually moving forward, they’ve pushed that really quick so that we don’t have kids putting their lives at risk.
What are your thoughts on the Denver City Council Policy and Budget Vision for 2018/2019?
Every year, City Council will meet right before budget season to identify priorities and we try to not come up with a whole different list each year so there’s continuity in trying to make sure that certain things get addressed. The issue of pedestrian safety, making sure that we have safe streets in our city, affordable housing has been a big one, we had an informant committee that I pushed three years ago that we created to make sure that the kind of stuff I talked about earlier, we now have goals in our contracts for. This was very much a part of the conversation back then, so as this work starts happening, we’re ready to have the right programs in place to ensure that people from our communities get to invest. A lot of wealth is being created in our city, but it hasn’t benefitted everybody, and this is an opportunity for some people to benefit from some of that work that’s happening.
March 30th is the Eighteenth Annual César E. Chavez Day March, why is that significant and what are your thoughts on this holiday?
César Chavez played a huge role in the entire Civil Rights Movement. Not just focused on making sure that the food product that farmworkers picked was free from pesticides, because it protected the health of the workers, but it also protected the health of the people eating the product. I think to continue to honor people who have played a significant role in our history is important. We adopt a proclamation every year at city council in honor of César Chavez and the march is an important part of just continuing to pay tribute to his legacy. And you know, Dolores Huerta has roots from Colorado and she’s amazing. I had the opportunity to meet her on several occasions and she’s a powerful woman and I don’t think the credit has been given. I know there’s a woman Juanita Herrera, her daughter Lupe is a friend of mine and she was one of the farmworkers who had organized. Women have played a big role, they’re not always the ones who get the credit and I think in her [Huerta] case that is due. I don’t know what the appropriate process should be.
To learn more about Debbie Ortega and support her campaign: visit ortegaatlarge.com, email email@example.com, or call 720-315-8881, Ortega At Large, P.O. Box 12698, Denver, CO 80212, facebook.com/ortegafordenver, or twitter.com/ortegaatlarge.
Chanel Ward is an Independent Reporter for The Weekly Issue/El Semanario.
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