• April 24th, 2024
  • Wednesday, 06:40:18 PM

Debbie Ortega’s Vast Experience Make Her a Prime Candidate for Mayor

Foto: Debbie Ortega for Mayor La candidata a la alcaldía de Denver, Debbie Ortega, escucha las preocupaciones de sus electores y trabaja para encontrar soluciones.


By Benjamin Neufeld


Coming up on the end of her term as an at-large member of Denver City Council after a long career as a local public servant and legislator, becoming Denver’s next mayor would certainly be a climactic finale to Debbie Ortega’s life in politics. However, Ortega did not decide to launch her mayoral campaign to fulfill any kind of personal ambition. Following a busy 40-year career, and with multiple grandchildren living in Denver, making the decision to run was not easy.


“I was really not looking at doing this,” said Ortega. “I was looking at retiring at the end of my term as a council person, because I have enough years with the city that I can retire and collect a pension.”


What the decision came down to, she said, was a feeling of continued obligation.


“I grew up here. I care about this city and really am concerned about where we’re at today,” says Ortega. “I believe that, now more than ever, this city needs someone who understands how this city works. There’s some good people running, but we’re going to have to go through a learning curve for any of them, and I don’t think this city has the time to just sit back and wait for somebody to learn how to do the job to try to fix some of these problems.”


Ortega moved to Denver from New Mexico when she was 13. She and her five siblings were raised by her single mother after her father, a coal miner, was killed on the job. She graduated from West High School. She attended Barnes Business College and attended DU’s Law School Clinical Education Program. She has worked for Lt. Gov. George Brown’s office and for U.S. Sen. Floyd Haskell, and she has done extensive work for non-profits and activist organizations.


She represented Denver’s District 9 on City Council from 1987 until 2003, after spending many years as an aide to the district’s former Councilman, Sal Carpio. In 2011, she was elected to an at-large seat on the City Council. She was then reelected in 2015 and again in 2019 in a landslide victory—receiving 23,000 more votes than the incumbent mayor.


Throughout her time as a legislator on City Council, Ortega says that she has identified Denver’s most pressing issues, and she has identified solutions for these issues; but, when it comes to enacting these solutions, her power as a legislator simply cannot compete with the power of the mayor’s office.


“The administration in this city has one of the strongest ‘strong-mayor-weak-council’ forms of government,” says Ortega. “The mayor controls the purse strings as well as the cabinet members, and if you have a cabinet member that just isn’t going to work with you, it’s hard to get things done.” As mayor, Ortega says she would quickly and efficiently advance legislation which addresses pressing issues which Denver cannot wait any longer to see fixed.


“We’re working right now trying to address railroad safety, and this is something I’ve been working on since 2014,” said Ortega. Denver, she says, cannot risk waiting any longer for disaster mitigating safety regulations–referencing the recent ecological disaster which took place in East Palestine, Ohio.


Denver has multiple freight lines which cut directly through the center of the city–in direct proximity to major pieces of infrastructure (including I-25, I-70, light rail, etc.) and residential development; Ortega says developers have been allowed to build up to just 18 feet away from the tracks. Meanwhile, individual train cars are 100 feet long. “You have a derailment, and you’re 18 feet from the tracks, you know what’s going to happen with that train car—it’s going to smash into your building.”


According to Ortega, a derailment can create a pathway of destruction for miles along the train tracks. “If you’re the engineer at the front of a train, you don’t even know a train[car] has derailed way behind you because there are no sensors like they have in Europe, Japan, and other places.”


Even more concerning, however, is the oil which could be in these derailed cars. Ortega says that when these freight lines were first developed, “we didn’t have all this petroleum product coming through our city,” meaning urbanization around these freight corridors was not a major concern. Considering the volume of petroleum and other flammable material now being shipped directly through dense urban development, Denver could be at risk of a disaster similar in caliber to East Palestine.


Ortega says she’s heard from the fire chief in Pueblo, who she says has run trainings for derailment related incidents, that, “when you have one of those petroleum cars catch fire, that petroleum product burns so hot, it will burn the face off of a building and everything inside of it.” In the case of multiple filled petroleum tanker cars in a sequence along a train, one explosion could lead to a chain reaction, therefore compounding the disaster.


Ortega, nor anyone else at the city level, has jurisdiction over the railroads themselves, so she has been working to pass an ordinance which would regulate land use and development within a certain distance from freight train corridors. She does not want to restrict development, she stresses, but she wants certain safety protocols to be required for development in those areas in order to mitigate the effects of a derailment. These protocols could include requiring apartment buildings position their parking garages toward the train tracks to create a larger buffer and/or requiring that developers create a berm between a building and the train track using the soil removed for the building’s foundation.


Ortega wants these safety measures to be mandatory. “We’ve been saying since 2014, this is an issue we need to be looking at,” she said. Ortega did work with a committee convened by the mayor in 2016 to create a set of guidelines and regulations for this issue, but she says the point-person from the mayor’s office only wanted these regulations to be voluntary, not a requirement.


“When you make something voluntary in the development world, it means you don’t have to do it,” said Ortega. She continued, saying that of the 27 applications for development for near-railroad projects, not one adhered to the suggested safety measures.


The ordinance Ortega is now working to pass would fix that and give city agencies the authority to enforce the regulations. “We want to make sure this issue is being addressed, and this ordinance will allow that to happen now.” She intends to pass the legislation before her term ends as a council-person. However, she says, “If it doesn’t go through now, and I [become] the mayor, I will make damn sure it goes through.”


“Protecting our public is one of the number one responsibilities’ we have,” says Ortega.


Other issues important to Ortega include the cost of housing and homelessness. She wants to pursue a variety of policy initiatives that would address housing shortages for all income levels.


She has worked as a board chair for a non-profit that builds housing for people at the lowest levels of AMI (Area Median Income). Affordable unit requirements for large development projects have created housing stock at the higher end of the AMI scale. “Yes, we are extracting affordable units out of a lot of the big developers…and that’s important, but most of that is at the higher AMI levels. It’s the non-profits that do the lower AMI levels.” To create housing supply at the middle AMI level, Ortega wants to pursue building manufactured housing on public land.


To address homelessness, she envisions a multi-dimensional process with an outcome that results in self-sufficiency for formerly homeless people.


“At the end of the day, we’ve used federal dollars to help house individuals in many of these places,” said Ortega, referring to motels the city has purchased to use as shelters. “That funding is going to run out, and when it does, our city can’t sustain that. I want to make sure we’re doing everything we can to help move people to self-sufficiency, so we don’t get to a place where we say ‘oh we’re going to close all these places and now you’re on your own.’”


Ortega, first and foremost, wants to create stability for homeless people via sanctioned encampments. Then, she would have the city work with various non-profits, advocacy organizations, and employers to create employment opportunities for these individuals. Crucially, this would involve job and skill training which would therefore create “opportunities for people to take advantage of more livable-wage jobs, so that we’re not just continuing to put people into minimum wage jobs where they’re living or working in a city where the housing costs are so expensive.”


“There are a lot of private entities, there’s a group called Careerwise, there are many other organizations that are working to reskill and up-skill individuals. They have relationships with employers, our workforce system has relationships with employers who are all dying for workers,” says Ortega.


Ortega says she used to work at the Denver Road Home program, where she secured a grant to hire someone to help them work with a nonprofit agency called Bayaud Enterprises. With them, they worked with downtown hotel managers to do a one-week training with people interested in going into the hospitality industry. They had over 200 formerly unhoused people go through this process, many of whom, she says, are still working in hotels and have since moved up the ladder


But stability and ongoing advocacy are critical throughout this process, according to Ortega.


She says an employment navigator from the agency worked throughout this process—as a kind of caseworker—to advocate for individuals as they transitioned from the extremely different lifestyle that comes with being homeless to working a full-time job. “If there was a hiccup with that person not showing up or feeling like they weren’t worthy of this opportunity, that navigator would work with that manager or the supervisor and say, ‘can you give them a little bit of slack? We’ll help make sure they come back,’ and just help that person get through that hurdle. And it stabilized their lives.” Ortega continued, “A lot of those people really took pride in what they were doing.”


Ortega has many other ideas and initiatives which she would pursue as mayor. However, many candidates have initiatives and ideas. Ortega’s strength, she says, would be her ability to implement legislation—whether on her own accord or on the accord of the electorate—efficiently and effectively.


On her decision to run, she said, “I took a step back. I first talked to my family and said, ‘I could move on and retire and enjoy my grandkids and just be content,’ but I just felt an obligation to really take a serious look at this. Because, I think my skill set, my passion and commitment to this city, the fact that I know how to get things done in Denver, I know how it works, is really what led me to this decision to jump into this race.”


Read more about Debbie Ortega here.


Benjamin Neufeld, Independent Reporter, The Weekly Issue/El Semanario.