Neighborhood activist targets Dem incumbent

Dems Houck vs. Labuda in southwest Denver’s HD 1
The Colorado Statesman

Denver House District 1 Rep. Jeanne Labuda is term limited in 2014, but that hasn’t stopped community activist Corrie Houck from challenging the three-term Democratic incumbent this year in what has turned into a heated primary.

Labuda said she isn’t surprised by the intra-party challenge, particularly because she had been speaking with people in the district about finding a potential replacement for when she retires. She speculated that Houck decided to run in order to build name recognition for the 2014 election.

“Maybe talk like that brought her out early,” Labuda said. “She wants to get her name out there, which is fine.”

Houck, who works as a communications specialist at North High School in Denver, said that she decided not to wait another two years to run for the seat because she feels the needs of HD 1 constituents — especially the Latino community and senior citizens — are not being addressed by Labuda.

Houck said that concerned HD 1 residents met with the House Majority Project — a political organization that funds Democratic legislative candidates — before the 2010 election to express their discontent with Labuda’s legislative priorities, but at the time they were without an alternative candidate.

In that same time period, a group of constituents including Houck’s campaign treasurer Michelle Moss met with Labuda to express their desire to form a steering committee, but the representative assured them she would address their concerns in the upcoming legislative session. Both Houck and Moss worked on Labuda’s campaign that year.

“I’ve been watching this happen for five years now and I can’t do it anymore,” Houck said. “I want someone to fight for my neighborhood, the schools, all the businesses that are going belly-up. The kids in our neighborhood only have one shot at a quality education, and if I wait two more years I can’t do anything to better that.”

One policy issue that has taken center-stage in the contentious primary is the regulation of the payday lending industry.

Payday lenders specialize in small, short-term loans, which often come with bloated interest rates. There are many payday-lending outfits located within the southwestern Denver district.

Labuda was one of five Democrats to vote against the successful HB 1351 bill to limit payday loan interest rates in 2010.

“I voted against it because I think that we have recently passed a lot of legislation to reign in payday lenders, and I’m waiting to see if those procedures work,” Labuda explained.

Labuda said she understands her constituents’ frustration with the industry — which is seen by many as exploitive towards people in dire economic circumstances — but she likened the regulation of the industry to the laws regulating alcohol.

“Alcohol is legal, but there are always going to be some people who abuse it,” Labuda said. “There are always going to be some people who abuse the payday lending system and use it too much.”

Houck said while she does believe payday lenders serve a purpose, she would support any measure to reform the industry, which she views as problematic to the community.

“If you’re in a desperate situation, all you’re doing is creating more desperation with the outrageous fees and pricing,” Houck said. “There’s no reason I should have to pay back $220 on a $100 loan.”

HD 1 became a minority majority district after reapportionment was finalized last December, with Latinos now comprising 51 percent of the district population.

Labuda believes the biggest challenge facing the Latino community in the district is becoming more actively engaged in politics.

“The political procedure is how we increase education possibilities and business possibilities,” Labuda said. “I’ll knock on their doors, like I’ve knocked on doors in the past, and ask for their feedback.”

The representative also said she would be supporting the ASSET bill, which offers in-state college tuition rates to undocumented students who graduate high school in Colorado. The bill recently passed the state Senate.

Labuda said that the district used to be split on the issue, but that the ASSET bill now has broad support within HD 1.

“These are kids who speak English as well as you or I, most of them have been educated entirely in the American public school system,” Labuda said. “If colleges are willing to accept them at in-state tuition, why not let the colleges do that?”

Despite Labuda’s support for the bill, Houck said she does not believe Labuda takes the Latino community in her district seriously. One of the deciding factors that influenced Houck’s decision to run, she said, was the refusal by Labuda to print bilingual campaign literature.

Houck — who served as the HD 1 “get out the vote” coordinator in the 2010 election — has also criticized Labuda’s work ethic when it comes to campaigning.

“I volunteered for her for two and a half months,” Houck said. “When I realized she wanted me to work harder for her than she was willing to work for herself, I quit the campaign.”

Labuda said she is devoting as much time as she can to campaigning for the upcoming election with the Legislature in session.

“I don’t have time to do too much during session, but what I have had time to do, I have done,” Labuda said.

The representative is sponsoring the maximum number of bills allowed for the 2012 legislative session. She said she is most proud of HB 1041 and HB 1131, which create an electronic death registration system and a child loss awareness plate, respectively.

The second bill carries a personal meaning for Labuda, who lost a son just before his third birthday. The license plate would generate awareness for childloss.org, a website devoted to providing support to parents who have lost children.

“We were fortunate because we were in Denver and were immediately put in touch with other people who have gone through that same thing,” Labuda said. “In rural areas, you don’t always have that, so maybe this license plate will help somebody find support.”

Denver Democratic Party Chair Cindy Lowery-Graber said that the HD 1 primary “should be an interesting race,” but the party rules preclude her from getting involved in primaries, so she won’t be endorsing a candidate.

Lowery-Graber said that Denver resident Dolores Atencio was considering entering the primary as well at one point, but has since decided against it.

According to Lowery-Graber, 58 delegates indicated a preference for Labuda on caucus night, 29 of the delegates were for Houck, and 18 were uncommitted.

Houck is confident she will make it onto the ballot, as she only needs to reach a 30 percent threshold of delegate support. She also suggested that the number of uncommitted delegates was a weakness for Labuda.

The Houck campaign is small, but not lacking in experience.

“I have a core of eight people that sit on my kitchen cabinet, six of whom have been leaders in the community,” Houck said. “They have over 75 years of campaign experience, collectively.”

Houck’s campaign treasurer Moss ran Fran Coleman’s campaign in 2004. Coleman — who was the last representative to hold the seat prior to Labuda — was termed out of office in 2006.

As for raising money, Houck said it would be a challenge to raise funds within HD 1 and anticipated approaching outside groups for support.

“We just don’t have that kind of money in our neighborhood,” Houck said. “It’s tough, because it’s a big sell to people that I’m challenging an incumbent, but I can tell you that I’ve gotten lots of support from people who understand how ineffective [Labuda] is.”

So far, Houck has raised a total of just under $2,000 to Labuda’s $5,490.

While explaining why she is running despite the challenges ahead, Houck related a story of a vacated building — formerly the site of a Target store — that sat undeveloped on Sheridan Boulevard.

Houck said she approached “everyone from charter schools, to Denver Public Schools, to actual developers” attempting to turn the large empty building into a new school for the community.

“One of the things they asked me was, ‘who are you?’” Houck said. “Because I’m just Corrie Houck from the neighborhood, and they didn’t take me seriously.”

Ben@coloradostatesman.com