Looking Back and Talking Forward With A Senator
The 2018 midterm elections were one of the most closely watched and highly anticipated off-year election in American history. The Trump administration’s divisive policies and rhetoric have awakened and stirred both parties to become politically active and this resulted in the highest midterm voter turnout in history. Colorado had the nation’s second highest turnout rate during the 2018 midterm elections with a 61.9 percent turnout for eligible voters. This rate was second only to Minnesota, with a 64.3 percent rate.
Colorado rode high on the predicted blue wave by winning the governorship, house, and senate. The increase in democratic power means that right-leaning conservative groups will have a tougher time advancing their agendas. So, the question for most is “What’s next and where do we go from here?”
In late November, after the election results marinated in our minds, I sat and spoke with Senator Angela Williams at her State Capitol office in Denver. Senator Williams serves on the Senate Business, Labor and Technology Committee, as well as the Joint Technology Committee and, is the Chairperson of the Colorado Black Democratic Legislative Caucus.
Denver Urban Spectrum: Now that the election is over, what is your assessment of Colorado’s local election?
Senator Angela Williams: I think it’s a clear sign that the voters have spoken. They understand that the policies of the President of the United States and the values he represents do not reflect the values of Colorado. They sent a big message that we are Colorado, and we will work to protect our fellow Coloradans. We are ready to protect immigrants, we are going to protect the underserved, and we are going to fight for the values that Coloradans represent. So, I think we did experience a blue wave. But I also believe that there are still some voters out there looking for smart ways to advance these priorities, as you will notice that voters did not pass any tax increases, so we are going to have to be smart about how we govern.
DUS: Now that you have won the trifecta; the house, senate, and governorship, is there anything we can expect soon, or are there any issues that are going to be at the top of your agenda?
SAW: I am excited that Democrats have achieved a trifecta at the Capitol. But what we have to be smart about is that we don’t swing too far left too soon. I do believe that Coloradans have an expectation that we’ll look at legislation like the Red Flag Bill, all-day kindergarten, and we still have not solved $9B in transportation needs and health care coverage for all.
I think we are going to have to look at the Family and Medical Leave Act (FAMLI), which I am playing a major part in. It has not had my support in the past simply because it did not take small business owners and low wage earners into consideration. I’m taking the lead on conversations with small business owns to ensure passage, but we must come to a compromise and find a solution, that the small business owners can live with so that these are not too impactful to small businesses and law wage earners.
DUS: So, the Red Flag Gun Bill, which was rejected by the Republicans in May, will come back up.
SAW: I expect it will and will pass the legislature.
DUS: One thing I know that is important to you is the skyrocketing cost of living in Colorado and the Denver area as far as rent and housing cost. You introduced a bill that required landlords to give receipts after tenants paid rent. If someone does not have money in the first place, they still may end up on the wrong end of the exchange. Is there anything else long that line that you will introduce that may help some of those people?
SAW: SB 18-010 Residential Lease Copy and Rent Receipt bill was successful by working with industries, with a lot of different organizations and the Colorado Apartment Association, is just good common sense business. If you pay for something, you go to the grocery store and get a receipt. If you sign a lease, you get a copy of that document. That’s common business sense to me. I believe that we still have challenges around the housing.
Housing costs continue to rise, but our wages are not keeping up with that cost, so my biggest concern is how do we create a fair system? Most families are living paycheck to paycheck. Minimum wage right now in Colorado is $10.20 an hour, and that’s not enough to make it in Colorado.
I did introduce Right to Cure legislation last year but unfortunately, it failed. I will introduce legislation in the 2019 session that prevents people from being kicked out of their apartments and or their homes that they are renting due to a hardship. We need to be able to keep people in their homes if we can, that’s what we need to be able to do, it the right thing to do. We do not need more people on the streets homeless. That creates more issues. This will come with good fair policies that also protect the landlord.
DUS: You along with Kent Lambert co-sponsored Senate Bill 86, Cyber Coding Cryptology for State Records, which encourages state agencies to research the use of blockchain technology. Are we going to try to get blockchain technology incorporated in Colorado for future state records protection?
SAW: SB 18-084 came about because I heard from my constituents, “What are we doing to protect our personal information?” We’ve had compromises of information with Wells Fargo, and with Equifax. We are concerned about protecting personal information. So why would we not address protections (blockchain technology) into a government environment? That’s what the Cyber Coding and Cryptology Bill will do for Coloradans. There will be a Blockchain ledger technology that we’ll start to implement in the state of Colorado. If you think about it, we handle a lot or personal information; Department of Human Services, Motor Vehicles – that’s private information and sensitive information! We’ll look at how the college systems will be able to help us research and implement programs that will help us protect government records. I think what you’ll see in 2019 is how we are moving toward blockchain technology for other uses including crypto currency and bitcoin.
During Denver Startup Week, I actually went downtown and worked with a lot of those blockchain crypto currency companies that actually use the crypto currency in financial transactions. I loaded software on my mobile phone and loaded crypto currency onto the application. Then I went to a money machine to cash $5.00 and then loaded the money onto my phone and then I went to purchase something with it. I think that’s what we are going to be moving towards. How does the state approach crypto currency? How do we regulate it?
We need to look at how the federal government is doing around this new crypto currency. I think you’ll see a lot of conversation around crypto currency in the next session, a conversation which I am thrilled to be a part of.
DUS: There’s a shortage of African Americans majoring in computer science. The NCC (National Cybersecurity Center) in Colorado Springs is trying to make some progress in exposing more people to STEM technologies and cybersecurity. Do you foresee doing anything to make sure African Americans and other underrepresented groups are exposed to this technology?
SAW: I think it starts with our education system. We have quite a few schools in our state that focuses on STEM technology. It starts there. And I think as you move up to secondary education and college, we do need to look at program support for people of color to be exposed to technology. We have to create a pipeline. Right now, I’m working with Reverend Downing of the New Hope Baptist Church. They have a technology program that they run for our young people every summer. And I’m working the Colorado Technology Association on how we partner to bring more exposure to African Americans in technology. We have to close that digital divide very early in life.
DUS: Are there special challenges of being one of the women of color in the state legislature?
SAW: There are challenges of being one of the few African American women at the state house. The challenges are having others understand that African American women are leaders, they represent all communities, all issues, and I don’t think there’s only one issue for women, but to bring the perspective of an African American Woman’s input is very important. And I think that’s a lot of what I work on. The other challenges I face are bringing other women to see other views and that we all are women and our issues don’t change. What changes is how it affects our communities.
And that’s what I always said since I’ve been elected at the time in which we weren’t going to have any African Americans in the (indiscernible 12:50) back in 2009. It’s about African American women being recognized as leaders and as being as important as our peers and other women in the state house.
DUS: One of the hot potato items was the house bill 1256. The agreement changes the makeup of the seven-person, governor-appointed body to mandate that it comprise three Democrats, three Republicans, and one unaffiliated member. Three of the members will have to represent business interests, as well, and the commission will now be subject to the legislative audit. Also if the Senate rejects one of the governor’s appointees, the governor will not be able to reappoint that person for two years. Are you satisfied with the outcome of that bill? You stated that the “bipartisan compromise changes the trajectory, but not the mission of the (Colorado Civil Rights Division)” Can you clarify what you mean by that statement?
SAW: When I say it changes the trajectory but not the mission, I mean ensuring we have a commission that is representative of the state, where we have people that are Democrats, people that are Republicans, and people who are unaffiliated. Look at how we passed the redistricting laws on the ballot this year. We have more unaffiliated voters in this state than we have republicans or democrats, and the unaffiliated are represented in the redistricting process. If we want the unaffiliated to have a voice in this state, why wouldn’t we make sure they have a voice on the Civil Rights Division? The goal is to make sure we have all voices there. It’s not necessarily driven by political affiliation but bringing all voices to the (CCRD) Colorado Civil Rights Division and from rural parts of the state. We want to make sure that there are a broad voice and representation on the CCRD and not just party affiliated.
DUS: Can kids sell lemonade in your neighborhood?
SAW: They can sell lemonade in the City and County of Denver without a permit. Denver City Council has passed legislation where kids under the age of 17 who run an occasional business not be required to obtain a permit. I’m going to bring legislation “Legalizing Minors’ Businesses” in the upcoming session which will be a statewide law that will not require minors to obtain a permit to run an occasional business. Colorado is open for business and we need to be encouraging our children entrepreneurship, not discouraging them.
DUS: Is there something that you would like to do now (since the results of the past election) that you have not been able to do in the past?
SAW: I would say that there are some policies that we were not able to pass through the legislature in the past session that I feel have a greater opportunity to pass in the upcoming session. One of the bills I’ve been running is a business opportunity bill which would require the Department ofPersonal and Administration to perform a disparity report in state procurement contracts. We know that there are millions of dollars being spent on state procurement contracts.
However, the number of contracts being awarded to minorities, people of color and women is less than one percent. It is past due for the state to be assuring that communities of color are receiving some of those contracts out there.
Economically, when all of our businesses succeed, and black and brown businesses succeed, the state of Colorado Succeeds. We know there are disparities. I believe that with the new leadership in the governor’s office and with Democrats controlling the Senate, we have a greater opportunity to bring some equity around state procurement contracts.
This state has never had a disparity report. DPA cannot currently track whom contracts are being awarded to. That’s how old the computer systems are in this state. The legislation will require an outside consultant to conduct this report. The outside consultant will make recommendations on how we rectify this problem to insure there are equitable contracts being awarded.
I will also work on repealing the death penalty. It’s time for Colorado to do this. The three men on death row in Colorado are all African Americans. We know that the death penalty does not deter crime. The amount of money we spend is so exorbitant on the criminal justice system and we know that there are inequities in sentencing, so I believe it’s time for Colorado to repeal the death penalty. Twenty other states have abolished the death penalty, and now it’s time for Colorado to do the same.
On two occasions the State Department of Corrections and was asking for $11, $13, and $15 million more dollars to open up CSP II (Colorado State Penitentiary II). We have worked hard to make sure criminal justice reform is addressed in this state and we remain committed to not open additional prisons in our state. I promise you, you’ll hear from me on that one, because the jails will be filled with blacks and Latinos.
If you commit a crime and the criminal justice system gives you a full trial and one is found guilty of a crime, they should serve that time. Inequities in sentencing are also a part of this conversation. We continue to evaluate those that have been sentenced for minor offenses, and victims of indiscriminate sentencing that are filling the jails…there was a CNN series I watched this summer, a whole series on how the criminal justice system is designed to put people in jail because it’s a money-making endeavor. We are going to ensure that CSP II in this state will not receive the funding to reopen.
Another thing that I’m working on from a business perspective is the cannabis industry. There are huge inequities of African Americans trying to access the cannabis industry. This is over a billion-dollar industry in the state of Colorado. I’m going to be working with the cannabis industry and we are going to create legislation together that will allow access for African Americans to have access to this billion-dollar industry. We are going to work on getting rid of (unwarranted) felony charges that prevent people from getting licenses for the industry. Also, I’m going to be looking at programs where they have more access to microloans. It’s a very expensive business to get into. We have to look at ways to get bring equity to the industry. Maybe some type of mentor program, where they team-up with a current cannabis business. It’s kind of a business to business mentoring so they have someone who is helping them along the way when we remove the barriers into this industry to help them succeed.
In Colorado, I only know two African Americans that are in this business and succeeding in it. We only have one African American lobbyist here at the capital who is part of this conversation when we look at legislation. To me, it’s about breaking down the barriers and helping our community succeed in bringing equity to the opportunities.
Nothing is really easy, but I feel like I’ve been elected because I’m here for the people. And that’s what I’ve been doing for the last eight years; removing barriers and creating opportunities, to make sure everyone has an opportunity to succeed in our state, and that’s what I’m going to do. That’s what I’m passionate about.
After the interview, Senator Williams rose from her chair behind her desk, thanked me, and proceeded to attend to the business of moving to a new office. Most of her belongings were already packed and I may have been holding her up, even though there was no indication she rushed through the interview. I walked away thinking that the people of Colorado were in good hands. Senator Williams is dedicated and passionate about her responsibilities to all Coloradans.
In light of our current toxic political environment, speaking with politicians that actually care for their citizens was a breath of fresh air.