GREELEY — For the first time in decades, House District 50 has a Democrat primary and the outcome may indicate the direction of the Democrat party in Greeley and possibly across the state.
The race pits popular, longtime political statesman and former HD 50 Rep. Jim Riesberg against a relatively new political player in Greeley city councilwoman Rochelle Galindo, both hoping to replace former Greeley educator Dave Young, who is term limited.
HD 50 encompasses most of Greeley east of 35th Avenue, Evans and Garden City.
The race features two candidates with very different supporters. One candidate is backed mostly by labor union proponents and education forces banking on Galindo to unravel the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, while Riesberg is backed mostly by healthcare advocates and anti-gun proponents.
Some have called it the left versus the left-of-left race, mirroring a just-published N.Y. Times article that asks how far left Colorado is willing to go in a story about Democrat Gubernatorial candidate Jared Polis, saying a Polis victory would turn an already purple state solidly blue.
“If Mr. Polis is successful, he would be the country’s first openly gay man to serve as governor, and he could bring his husband and their two children to this city’s hilltop Executive Mansion — an idea that would have seemed impossible just a few years ago,” the article says.
Galindo, who has secured Polis’ endorsement, could also make history in November as the first openly gay, Latino, woman representative from House District 50.
She’s already taken on a historically conservative community and won.
“In November 2015, I broke my first glass ceiling becoming the first openly gay elected official to the City of Greeley,” she says on her website.
A victory would be a substantial shift in politics in a historically conservative Weld County.
Galindo served just two and half years of that four-year term, but believes she made enough inroads into the political community that it was time to push forward to continue her efforts at a statewide level.
She stepped down from her position on the city council after she was nominated by her party with 69 percent of the vote at the County Assembly in March. The city’s Home Rule Charter rules don’t allow a member to seek another office while serving on the council.
Prior to her term on city council, Galindo was active in President Barack Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign as well as the deputy campaign manager for outgoing HD 50 Rep. Dave Young. She also served on the Greeley Youth Commission.
Her opponent, Jim Riesberg, is a veteran statesman. Riesberg, who snuck onto the ballot with the minimum required 31 percent of the vote at the county assembly, represented HD 50 for nearly eight years from 2005-2011. In 2011, Gov. John Hickenlooper appointed him to serve as the state’s insurance commissioner. Young has held the seat since then. Riesberg has served on numerous boards and commissions over his lifetime.
According to the book The Blue Print: How the Democrats Won Colorado, when Riesberg first won election in 2004, Republicans held a “six-point generic party identification advantage” in the district. Even though HD 50 is in conservative Weld County, voter demographics have changed significantly.
According to the Weld Clerk and Recorder’s Office, among active voters in the district, Democrats now out-number Republicans by nearly 1,000. But unaffiliated voters dwarf both parties by nearly 4,000 and more than 5,000, respectively.
The secretary of HD50 for the Weld County Democrats, Tommy Butler, doesn’t believe there is much difference between the candidates other than their support group.
“The two have similar views,” Butler said. “Either one would be a great pick.”
Butler said the far-left progressive ideas brought forth by Bernie Sanders during the 2016 election may be expressed more by some members of the Democrat party, but they are ideas all members share. He believes it’s not the Democrats that are shifting further left, but society in general that is now talking about the same things Democrats have supported for years.
“It’s a new and exciting energy,” Butler, 28, said, adding he doesn’t think Democrats are split with some more progressive than others. “It’s not an either/or, but a melting together of what people want to see. Since 2016, more outside people are talking about the ideas they haven’t talked about in the past.”
Galindo, however, sees a difference between her and Riesberg. She told Westword, she believes she “better reflects the district.” She was critical of Riesberg votes to deny undocumented immigrants the ability to apply for business permits and supporting a bill that prohibited hiring undocumented workers.
Riesberg supporter and retired educator Tannis Bator, said she really likes Galindo and was excited about the changes she was making on city council, so she was disappointed Galindo left that seat so quickly into her term. Bator also believes there are enough differences in the two that Riesberg is more electable in November.
“I do look for who I feel can win in District 50,” Bator said. “Even though I think (Galindo) is a wonderful voice for people who don’t always get heard, in looking ahead to the November election, I think Jim is more moderate, more electable to the general public.”
Bator said she supports Riesberg because the first time around he proved to be a good public servant.
“I thought he was a wonderful representative,” she said. “He kept us in touch with things going on with town halls. He listens to people and takes everyone’s ideas in and then makes a decision. He has a lot of connections and is very much involved in Greeley and Evans, he volunteers everywhere. And also within the state, he’s stayed up with what’s going to happen as the state ages. I think it’s good he’s stayed in contact with people at the capitol.”
“He has institutional memory that will serve us all well,” Bator said.
The intensity on how Galindo and Riesberg have run their primaries is as different as their supporters.
Galindo has hosted numerous meet and greets, phone banks, has walked door-to-door nearly every weekend. She also has a large social media presence.
Riesberg on the other hand, has been all but non-existent on the campaign trail, relying on his reputation. He has a website, but no social media accounts, and he has made no major announcements about fundraising or canvasing events.
Financially, Galindo has outpaced her opponent nearly three to one, raising about $32,000 through the last reporting period compared to Riesberg’s $11,000.
Although many of Galindo’s donations have been in the $50 or less category, she has received some big help from several union political action committees (PAC), Denver-based attorneys, and a couple heavy hitters on the political front in former Colorado Attorney General, US Senator and Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, and current Colorado Speaker of the House Crisanta Duran, through Duran’s PAC — Duran for Colorado Leadership.
Riesberg, too, has been funded by several PACs, mostly affiliated with healthcare and anti-gun groups; however, the bulk of his funding has come from local sources.
It’s the endorsements lining up behind Galindo that read like a who’s who list, including Conservation Colorado, AFL-CIO, Emily’s List, Former Denver Mayor Frederico Pena, US Congressman Ed Permutter, Colorado State Representatives Joe Salazar, Faith Winter, Brittany Petterson, Chris Kennedy, Daneya Esgar, Adrienne Benavidez, among others. Additionally, Colorado State Board of Education Member Rebecca McClellan and Greeley-Evans School District 6 Board of Education members Roger Dewitt, Rhonda Solis, Terry Pappas, Julia Richard, along with a host of other statewide politicians and organizations have signed on to Galindo’s message.
Many of Galindo’s supporters contacted wouldn’t go on record with their ideas about the race, but retired attorney and longtime Greeley resident Jeri Shepherd said she supports Galindo because she has shown she will stand “with us and for us.”
“She has proven she is a leader and will continue to do so as our HD 50 rep,” Shepherd said. “She comes from a blue-collar background and works at a blue-collar job and will work hard at policy that will create well-paying jobs.”
Riesberg hasn’t announced any major endorsements. However, the Greeley Tribune endorsed the veteran politician saying: “He already has shown an able ability to represent the district well,” the editorial said in part. “… It’s his years working in the Legislature that make him a strong candidate. He’ll bring a depth of knowledge about the legislative process to the halls of the Capitol in a way few legislators do.”
Galindo, who on her website says she is focused on jobs, education and transparency, says she is running because there is mistrust in government on both sides of the aisle.
“I learned at a young age what kind of difference I could make just by speaking up,” Galindo said. “Since then, I have dedicated my life to standing up for those that are unable to stand up for themselves. I am committed to ensuring that every Coloradan has access to the quality of life that our state has to offer.”
She also believes her own life experiences as a Latino, gay, female who grew up in a working class home can break down the barriers and promote effective change.
“I want to ensure that every Coloradan has access to well-paying jobs, quality education, and transparency in all levels of government,” she says on her website. “It is time that we empower people to feel excited about the future of their government.”
Riesberg, who says some of the things he will focus on include universal healthcare, a “living wage,” mass transit, and environmental issues, believes his track record is all he needs.
“I entered this race because I see a vital need in our current political environment for strong leaders with positive values who are not going to just criticize, condemn and complain, but will stand up to find positive solutions to difficult problems,” he says on his website. “Over the years I have demonstrated my dedication to collaboration, inclusiveness, continuous learning, constituent communication, and accountability.
“My strong passion to serve is guided by my moral and ethical standards, integrity, personal experiences, and the belief that I have the right skills, knowledge, talent, credibility, and time and energy to truly make a positive difference in how we govern.”
Whoever wins will face another political newcomer in Michael Thuener, who does not have a Republican primary opponent. Thuener, however, has an uphill battle in the predominantly Democrat district. The last time a Republican held HD 50 was Pam Groeger, who was appointed in 2004 to replace Tambor Williams after she resigned to lead the Department of Regulatory Agencies.
Regardless of who wins, the successor will need to replenish his or her war chest in what could prove to be one of the costliest House races in the state.