Arapahoe County cements blue shift with election of two Democrat commissioners

Campbell-Swanson and Summey bring diversity, progressive ideology

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In the race for two district seats on the Arapahoe County Board of Commissioners, voters cemented the county’s strong blue shift, electing two Democrats in Districts 2 and 4 and handing the party a 4-1 board majority. 

Jessica Campbell-Swanson of District 2 and Leslie Summey of District 4 won decisive victories over their Republican opponents after campaigning on progressive messages around public health, housing and the working class. They will now join the leadership board that controls policy decisions and hundreds of millions in spending for the 650,000-person county.

“I think people across demographics, age, gender, race, income, are starting to see some of the old tired ideas aren’t working and they’re ready for something else,” said Campbell-Swanson, a former English teacher, political attorney, campaign consultant and chief of staff for state Rep. Iman Jodeh. 

The five commissioners oversee Arapahoe County government and represent different parts of the county. District 2 includes Greenwood Village, parts of west Centennial, and part of the south Aurora and east Centennial area. District 4 covers southwest Aurora, roughly west of Buckley Road.

Tackling population growth 

While the Nov. 8 election may have been an endorsement of Democrats by voters — with every Democrat running for a county-level position winning their race — Campbell-Swanson said her victory was built on a broad coalition of progressive, moderate and conservative-minded residents. More often than not, she said, she could find consensus with voters she spoke to on the campaign trail about a host of pressing issues. 

Campbell-Swanson said she was surprised to hear a lack of appetite from voters for hard-line policies like a camping ban aimed at the unhoused, which was passed in Aurora earlier this year. “People are concerned about the growing number of our neighbors who are losing their homes and they want a plan,” said Campbell-Swanson, who previously told Colorado Community Media she would support more county funding to help residents at risk of losing their housing.

As a newly elected official, Campbell-Swanson said her top two priorities will be public health — particularly addressing mental health issues — and managing population growth, which she framed as the nexus for other issues facing the county such as environmental sustainability and cost of living. 

Campbell-Swanson had campaigned on embracing the county’s expected population growth, having said, “I just don’t think there's any use to try to stop growth or hide it.” By turning growth into an opportunity, Campbell-Swanson said she aims to support more housing diversity — from townhomes to denser developments — that can bring down home and rental prices, reduce environmental footprints and situate more residents near public transit corridors. 

A need to “debruce?”

As officials tackle the challenges of a growing suburban county, Summey said one way to help bolster needed services would be to exempt Arapahoe County from its tax revenue cap requirements mandated under the state policy known as the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, or TABOR. Many counties have already pulled out of TABOR requirements, allowing local officials to retain and spend all revenue generated within the year. 

Currently, Arapahoe County must return funds it collects if it exceeds a certain threshold each year (leaving the TABOR policy is known as "debrucing," named for TABOR’s author Douglas Bruce). The vast majority of counties in the state — 51 out of 64 — have all debruced since TABOR’s inception in 1992, according to the Bell Policy Center.

“We have conservative counties that have debruced,” Summey said, estimating the county could retain tens of millions of dollars more if it takes that step.

She enjoys receiving her TABOR refund check, but she’s willing “to take my $11 to $20 that I have in my family that I get back every year and put that toward something bigger,” Summey said.

After COVID conflict, eyes on new agency

As the county looks to stand up its own health department after the dissolution of the Tri-County Health Department Dec. 31, Campbell-Swanson said she wants a bigger focus on mental health for county residents. The controversies that led to Tri-County’s demise, namely the retaliation from Douglas County commissioners over masking policies, came amid a national backdrop of politicization of COVID-era public health policies. 

Campbell-Swanson’s Republican challenger Mark Gotto told Colorado Community Media during his campaign he would support appointing a board of “not all health experts” for the county’s new department. The board of health, separate from the county commissioners, is the policy-making body for the new department.

Campbell-Swanson, in response, said she would support “public health experts who will be committed to data-driven, science-based, equitable policy” for board positions. 

The issue is one that may have been central to voters’ appeal to the Democratic commissioner candidates, said Kristin Mallory Westerberg, the Arapahoe County Democratic Party chair.

“What people wanted was for science-driven, data-driven people to make decisions for the next health department,” Westerberg said.

More diversity on board

The victories of Campbell-Swanson as well as Summey, a Black county resident, expand diversity on the county commissioner board. At 39, Campbell-Swanson said she will bring a younger voice to the county and will be the first openly LGBT commissioner.

 Campbell-Swanson is also a renter, believing she can bring a different housing and economic background to the board.

“The more representative perspectives on decision making … means you have a better informed realistic understanding of what’s going on,” Campbell-Swanson said, adding she hopes board diversity will open conversation and tamper polarization.

“People are open to other perspectives and that’s one of the biggest lies that’s come out of the last five years is that people aren’t open-minded," she said.

Summey feels her "journey in life" enabled her to understand others who are struggling. "There’s all those kitchen-table issues that people have to deal with every day, talking about putting food on the table, how do we keep the lights on," Summey said.

She said the road has not always been smooth for her, her husband and their five kids. On her mind is the county government’s responsibility in ensuring quality of life in Arapahoe County.

Westerberg said the candidates’ wins represent the continued shifts in a county that has for years trended bluer. “The reality is our district is changing, we are younger, we are more diverse, we are working class,” Westerberg said. “I believe this is the beginning of a thriving Arapahoe County where no one is left behind.”

jessica campbell-swanson, leslie summey, arapahoe county, arapahoe county democrats, election 2022

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