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People are calling Denver’s newest city council member a communist — but she’d rather be called an anarchist

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On April 10, Candi CdeBaca’s 33rd birthday, Denver’s second “bomb cyclone” of the year brought snow and heavy wind, and knocked out power in some areas, including at CdeBaca’s house in Elyria-Swansea. When CdeBaca, then a Denver City Council candidate, finally got power back and turned on her phone, she saw she had an unusually high number of missed calls and messages. Birthday wishes, she assumed.

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“There was a death threat,” she said. “There were two of them within an hour. One of them said, ‘I was trained to kill commie shit like you.’”

The context: At a candidate forum on April 7, CdeBaca offered some remarks that, to many, sounded like she was advocating a Communist form of government.

“I don’t believe that our current economic system actually works. Capitalism, by design, is extractive, and in order to generate profit in a capitalist system, something has to be exploited,” she said. “I believe in community ownership of land, labor, resources, and distribution of those resources.

“And so, whatever that morphs into, I think is what will serve community the best, and I’m excited to usher it in by any means necessary.”

The menacing calls she received on her birthday were the first of what she said would eventually be “hundreds of death and rape threats.” The outrage died down after a few days but roared back to life after CdeBaca defeated the incumbent Councilman Albus Brooks in the June 4 runoff election for the city’s 9th Council District, which includes Elyria-Swansea, Globeville, Clayton, Whittier, Cole, Five Points Curtis Park and City Park.

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Video of her April 7 remarks has been shared on countless blogs and news sites — mostly right-wing — and has been viewed and shared thousands of times on social media.

CdeBaca, a veteran community activist with a degree from the University of Denver Graduate School of Social Work, says she isn’t a Communist. But Jodi Dean, a professor at Hobart and William Smith Colleges and one of the country’s leading Communist political theorists, said the remarks in question sounded a lot like communism to her.

“What I think Candi did is to give a horizon, an ideal. That we can have a whole different model, we don’t have to be stuck in this model that has led to the largest carceral system in world history, that has led to people being foreclosed on and evicted, crazy large homeless populations. This is unreal. This extreme inequality is not working,” Dean said, arguing that people conflate totalitarian communism with the communism CdeBaca espouses: production based on need and not in the interests of the rich or corporations.

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“Just ask somebody to tell you what they mean by democracy. They’d probably say rule by the people. They wouldn’t say bombing other countries into submission, but yet democratic societies have done this,” Dean said. “So we’ve got to be careful not to let some versions of 20th century history define an entire term. In the same way we shouldn’t do it for democracy, we shouldn’t do it for communism.”

Ahead of her July swearing-in, The Independent spoke with CdeBaca this week at her former campaign office on 26th Avenue, covering her thoughts on communism and much more.

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This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Do you identify as a Communist?

No, I don’t. I tried to run as unaffiliated, because I didn’t really subscribe to any particular label for my political affiliation.

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But I have never believed in capitalism. When I started running, I affiliated as a Democrat because it was almost impossible to run as an unaffiliated. I started leaning more toward groups and parties that were trying to pull the Democratic Party more left. But the thing I never accepted with the party platform is how deeply connected it is to capitalism. The Democratic Socialists of America, the Working Families Party, they aligned more with my values.

I do believe that we should be developing based on need. I do believe that people should have the power, that the government shouldn’t have the power over everything. In fact, I feel like a lot of government-sanctioned violence and abuse and too much control is what catalyzed my race to protect my community. As far as the political structure around it, I do believe that in a democracy we should have control as the people over labor and resources and what happens to our tax dollars.

The Communist piece, I’ve been in places where we’ve demonized people for being Communists. I’ve been to Cuba. I love Cuba. I love the way there’s not that rampant consumerism like we have here. But I do understand that Cuba, in the global context, they still have to deal with capitalism. They still rely on tourism. They’re still shut off from a world that’s making them think they’re missing out on something. But I don’t think rampant consumerism has served us well. I think there’s a clear problem with our structure, both political and economic. We’ve allowed the concentration of wealth through the concentration of political power.

During the Cold War we distorted the meaning of (communism) so badly. And (Jodi Dean) is right. Part of me does identify with the social component of communism, but that totalitarian government piece is the way we understand communism. You have to dig really far to find the information, the scholarly articles that pull those two things apart.

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So when you say you’re not a Communist, you mean that you’re not a Communist according to the definition used by people who you think misunderstand communism? You’re saying you’re comfortable with its ideals, but not how it’s seen?

Yes, that the way we understand communism is the problem. Even the way we understand anarchy — you could call me an anarchist. That would fit better than any other label. Anarchy is about us not needing that imposed structure from anyone, and just being cognizant and caring and compassionate enough to take care of ourselves and our communities and each other without anyone making it happen. It’d be like democratic socialism, except without anyone calling it that and imposing a structure. It’s more along the lines of a village model. When people call that a primitive style of governance, that’s offensive to me. The village model is probably the most effective model of taking care of communities. That’s what I’m all about: giving power to communities to take care of themselves and each other.

How will your beliefs be reflected in the municipal policies you push? What kind of governance can people expect from you?

I think people have seen it, they’ve seen the things I’ve fought for. The community land trust. I’d love to see more of that.

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I want to see us putting people over profit. I’ve said it time and time again, that our local government is catering to developers and multinational corporations. I don’t think that we as the residents, the taxpayers of this city should be carrying the burden of growth so disproportionately. I believe the corporations and the developers should carry their fair share.

On a policy level, what does “people over profit” mean to you?

It means community bills of rights. It’s front-ending community benefit agreements and codifying them so that every single neighborhood isn’t expected to have the same fight over and over and over again. It’s us setting standards about what we need and what we want in this city. It’s using developers to get that done, but not allowing them to drive this conversation.

You’re going to be to the left of everyone else on the council. There’s 13 of you, so how do you take what you describe as your radical leftist agenda and try to craft policy that your colleagues can get behind?

I don’t think I’m as far away from other people as we’d think. I think a lot of others are fearful to really talk about how left they are socially. I’m fiscally conservative. So even though I have very liberal or leftist values socially, I don’t want to see us throwing money at problems, knowing money hasn’t solved the problems historically. I want us to use our resources wisely. You’d think that in a time of growth like this we’d have a surplus to allow us to do whatever we want in this city, but we haven’t used our resources wisely. There’s a lot of government waste.

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So the way I’ll be able to work with other council members is because of how responsible I am when making decisions about money. I was raised on public assistance. I was raised in a two-bedroom, 600-square-foot household that I live in now, with between eight and 10 people living in that space at times. I have no problem with sharing, with compromise, with understanding both sides of the spectrum. I think it makes it easier for me to connect with people who have different worldviews.

Your “land, labor, resources” comment drew a lot of attention from the right. But what do you make of the criticism you’ve gotten from the left?

There’s that group of neoliberals or corporate democrats that really believe that the economic system works and that there’s ways we can reform it to work a little bit better. Those are the people that would probably not approve of a full-on denouncement of capitalism. And I respect that. I’m not asking them to. I know the context I’m working in. I know I’m not going to get rid of capitalism as a city councilperson. I have no control over weapons, over any larger structure. So for me, at the local level, it’s about taking what we have, the context we’re in, and making it as equitable as possible.

I don’t have the ability to, with a broad brush, paint all of these changes that people are thinking I’m going to make. But I’m going to push the council to think about the voices that are forgotten, about the people who don’t have the resources to even self-actualize to think about these things.

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You’ve been fighting for a long time against the I-70 expansion. I heard you say recently it’s not too late to change course on it. What do you have in mind, and what change, realistically, do you expect you can affect there?

I mean, a lot of the highway projects that have been stopped historically have happened after construction had already begun. Jane Jacobs, the Manhattan Expressway.

Realistically, I don’t expect things to stop. I don’t expect them to change course. But the bridge (from Colorado Boulevard to Brighton Boulevard) hasn’t come down yet. Until the bridge comes down, there’s an opportunity to do something differently.

What’s your No. 1 policy goal in your first term?

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You know, for the first 100 days, I think we really need to decriminalize homelessness. That’s something I didn’t come into the campaign thinking would be my top goal, but it came up so much, it colored the entire campaign — not just mine, but every single race in the city.

There are people on the council now who say they never supported the camping ban but that they didn’t support (Initiative) 300 either and they thought we could do better. The people who displaced incumbents all said the same thing on the campaign trail. So I think there is a middle ground there where you do decriminalize homelessness, but you don’t take it as far as 300, which didn’t fully define public space, which didn’t fully define curfews or ramifications for people if people were in public space after hours. There’s that opportunity to settle on something that’s more compassionate and humane. But we can’t do that without investing in solutions at the same time. I really want to see a 24-hour shelter become a reality.

The vote on 300 was so decisive — about 4 to 1. What did it tell you about the people in this city, the politics of the city?

It didn’t surprise me. I had the expectation that money would drive the decisions. Most voters aren’t going to dig in and do the research. Look at the clerk and recorder race — 20,000 undervotes. People aren’t taught to go further than what you’re giving them, and when you have the money to put something in someone’s mail every single day, you’re giving them enough information to make a decision, even though it’s uninformed. When you have an ad popping up on their phone every single day, you can shift the conversation. Without the money to fight back, that’s a one-sided narrative.

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The mayor’s race attracted a lot of big money, too. When I ran into you on Welton Street after the May 7 election, you said you were staying the hell away from the mayor’s race and the “unity” ticket (Jamie Giellis plus Penfield Tate and Lisa Calderón). Who’d you end up voting for in that race?

(Sighs)

Who I voted for for mayor doesn’t matter.

But why did you want to keep your distance from the race?

Because of the optics. Everyone involved in that race, they were political newbies. Even though I know we would have ended up in a better position with Jamie, I don’t think Jamie had the ability to articulate why. The people who jumped in with that, with Penfield and Lisa — when they jumped in, I think that it made perfect sense for them to jump in. Jamie’s camp did not listen to Penfield and Lisa about how they should be crafting the message, about what they should be doing. Jamie’s funders dumped in money to Lisa’s race before the race was even over, and even though that’s pretty standard, the optics were bad. All of it was just a burning dumpster fire.

I knew that, for me, I had to run a perfect race to unseat an incumbent like Albus. I had to run a race without mistakes. That was my strength in the end. We didn’t make mistakes. Jamie made a lot of mistakes in critical points of the race, and I don’t think that the unity ticket was put out to the public in the way that it should have been.

Have you been in touch with Albus Brooks since you won?

I saw him last night. We were at a community meeting for I-70. He called me the day after the election to concede. It wasn’t a long call. It was just, “You ran a good race,” “You did, too,” and “Let’s meet up and transition.” We’re trying to pin down a date to meet.

We had a race that was really divisive in our community. I’m trying to figure out how do we repair the harm that was caused. It turned into an all-out, generational, black-brown war. And to me that was painful, because my ties in this community go back generations, and to have had to fight the way that we fought, and break up votes in families, it sucked. It wasn’t fun to see families fighting internally because the older generation wanted to go with Albus because of (former Mayor Wellington) Webb and the younger generation wanted to go with me because of reality. We’ve got to find a way to repair that harm. That’s even more a higher priority to me than the policy.

We started off talking about you being labeled as a Communist and criticized for it. But in some media there are others comparing you to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Your campaign flyer looks a lot like hers did. How’d you come up with it, and how do you think you compare to her?

What I loved about her logo is that she actually built her logo off of political propaganda from the 50s and 60s, with Rosie the Riveter and Si Se Puede. When she used it, to me, it was a legacy of a struggle for justice. When I saw it, I thought it would be the perfect way for people to recognize that this is part of a movement and not just a small race in Denver. It was absolutely inspired by her. But to a lot of people, the thing that was most similar was the exclamation points around my name. But that’s just punctuation in Spanish, and I wanted to really cue in voters to the fact that I am a Latina, and I think that was the most visible way to do it.

I’m honored to be in the same sentence as her. I think she’s activated a lot of the same people I have. Younger people, different racial and ethnic groups that have been left behind historically. I think that this is a movement, and I hope to be able to create some of the impact that she’s had on the federal level, locally.

Do you aspire to higher office?

No, I don’t. As hard as my race was, I can’t even imagine what it would be like trying to represent an even more diverse population.

Anything you want to add?

I do want to say that people painting the “by any means necessary” line as dangerous — that’s rooted in racism. (CdeBaca was referring to her April 7 comment: “I believe in community ownership of land, labor, resources, and distribution of those resources. And so, whatever that morphs into, I think is what will serve community the best, and I’m excited to usher it in by any means necessary.”)

People say “by any means necessary” all the time. It never has this meaning attached to it, unless it’s a black or brown person that says it.

Everything you can possibly do to affect change, that’s what I’ve been doing. That’s what I’m going to do. And that’s all I was referring to.


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