A Highlands Ranch backyard buzzed with volunteers during a cool, sunny morning in September as Darien Wilson took the microphone and settled the group.
The event, a meet-and-greet followed by a neighborhood “lit drop” of campaign materials, gathered multiple Democratic candidates, including Wilson — a Douglas County commissioner candidate — and their supporters.
“I’m running because we need a leader who listens,” Wilson said as the crowd of about 30 volunteers cheered. “And someone who uses science, data and facts to drive decisions. Not politics or ideology.”
The event, hosted by Jennifer Mitkowski, a candidate for state House District 43, was also attended by U.S. Rep. Jason Crow and CU Regent candidate Ilana Spiegel.
Wilson, wearing a blue dress, a white mask and a name tag, told the crowd about a pivotal moment in her decision to run.
“The thing that got me started in this race was gun violence … The Parkland shooting happened on my daughter’s 18th birthday,” she said. “We were so sad … and (my daughter) was like ‘this is going to keep happening,’ and so I said ‘I promise you I will do everything I can to make a difference on this issue.’”
Wilson, who is running to be the District 3 representative on the board of commissioners, is an entrepreneur by trade and has been involved in local politics for about five years. She focused on school board elections — supporting Anne-Marie Lemieux, Wendy Vogel and David Ray in 2015, and Anthony Graziano, Kevin Leung, Chris Schor and Krista Holtzmann in 2017 — and in 2018, she volunteered with Crow’s congressional campaign.
Wilson’s campaign largely focuses on providing Douglas County residents an alternative candidate to Republican incumbent Lora Thomas. She plans to prioritize public health, bringing in local jobs and conserving the county’s resources.
Another focus of the campaign has been on the current commissioners’ decision to leave Tri-County Health Department, a choice Wilson has called “irresponsible.”
Commissioners voted to leave Tri-County the day after the health department approved a mandatory mask-wearing order for Douglas County. Thomas has since said she wanted to leave not because of the mask order, but because of the way Tri-County votes on such decisions. Wilson argues that leaving the health department during a pandemic puts citizens at risk.
If elected, Wilson plans to support rejoining Tri-County.
‘There for a reason’
Wilson, 49, moved to Highlands Ranch in 2009. She is originally from a small city just outside of Houston.
That’s where her ideas about politics began to take shape, she said. Her parents encouraged her to excel in school and finish college in order to have the most opportunities possible, she said.
“I just really feel like education is the way out of poverty for a lot of people. For me it was the way out of the lower middle class. We were always struggling,” she said in an interview with Colorado Community Media. “I’ve seen a lot of times when bad things happened to good people and the safety net was there for a reason.”
After graduating from high school, she attended Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas. That’s where she met her husband, Joe, who is now her campaign manager.
After graduating from college, Wilson and her husband moved to Austin, where she started a business manufacturing fashionable baby carriers. The couple lived in Austin for 17 years until her husband, a coder, decided to start his own business. They sold Wilson’s business and moved their family to Highlands Ranch in order to be in compliance with her husband’s former company’s non-compete contract, Wilson said.
Now, Wilson serves as the vice president for their company and helps manage finances, hire contractors and make big-picture decisions.
‘I need to get involved’
Wilson, a mother of three kids — ages 9, 16 and 20 — was mainly attracted to Douglas County because of the strong school system, she said. But a few years after moving to town, she didn’t like the direction the school district was headed.
“When our schools were taken over by the reformers… That was when my kids started being hurt,” she said.
The “reformers” were the largely conservative board directors who enjoyed a majority on the board for several years and implemented controversial changes, including a market-based pay system for teachers.
After seeing many of her daughter’s teachers leave the district and her son struggle with a lack of guidance in his learning, she started to get involved in the school district.
“In the 2013 school board election, I thought ‘well I’m sure our side is going to win,’” she said. “We lost that election and I was like ‘oh, I guess I have to get involved to make a difference.’”
In 2015, she began knocking on doors of voters to talk about the school board candidates she supported.
“The impact of working on the school board elections and winning made me realize that I had the ability to influence my community in a positive way,” she said.
In 2018, the Parkland shooting happened and she promised her daughter she’d take action to make change. Then, in May 2019, when a fatal shooting happened at STEM School Highlands Ranch, she found clarity on what that action would be after picking her daughter up from school.
“As I was walking back to the car, we just got soaked with rain and … I just decided in that moment,” she said. “That someone has to challenge Lora Thomas.”
After working on the Crow campaign, Wilson was encouraged to apply to Emerge, a national program that teaches Democratic women how to run for office. She began the six-month program in January 2019 with no intent of actually running for office, she said. Not long after the program, she kicked off her campaign to challenge Thomas.
During her campaign, Wilson has received heaps of criticism from those who oppose her candidacy, with many focusing on her ties to Emerge and its other graduates.
“The Douglas County GOP tries to make Emerge into this big scary thing, but they really only train people who fit their district,” she said. “So there are some pretty progressive people, but they’re running in progressive areas. They train more moderate people in more moderate areas.”
On social media, many have posted videos and photos equating Wilson to other graduates of the program including Candi CdeBaca, a member of Denver City Council. A photo of the pair has circulated with quotes from the councilwoman that many believe show her support for communism.
“It’s ridiculous. It’s like, because you are in a picture with someone, you believe every single thing they’ve ever said in their life,” she said. “Of course not.”
In a recent campaign advertisement from Thomas, the incumbent included a video of Wilson speaking during a public video call about school resource officers. In the clip, a portion of what Wilson said is played in which she says, “What it would mean if the SROs were removed from Douglas County schools.”
“What would it mean?” Thomas says in the ad, “It would mean that our kids are a lot less safe. If you can’t understand that, you’re not ready to lead.”
Wilson says this video clip is taken out of the context of a much broader conversation following Denver’s decision to remove SROs.
“There was a call to other school districts in surrounding areas to do the same thing…it was never ‘we should do this,’” she said. “I do not and did not ever have any plans to get rid of SROs.”
Other criticisms of Wilson include that she’s too far left for Douglas County and that she will incite riots similar to those in Denver and other major cities. Wilson calls these claims ridiculous.
“Of course I don’t want riots. I live here because I love the peace and quiet,” she said. “I’ve never supported defunding law enforcement.”
Wilson said she wants to focus on listening to all of those she would represent and making decisions based on science, data and facts.
“I’ve run two successful, award winning corporations that I built out of nothing so to call me a communist, it’s just wrong. It’s just silly,” she said. “I’ve been creating jobs for almost 20 years.”
For Wilson, her driving force in the campaign is to serve her community, she said.
“I don’t need power, I have a perfectly good life,” she said. “I want to be able to look my kids in the eye and say I did something about the state of our society.”