News

Ulibarri not seeking reelection, Moreno running to take his seat

Author: John Tomasic - February 26, 2016 - Updated: February 27, 2016

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State Sen. Jessie Ulibarri, D-Westminister, the youngest member of the chamber. (via Presidents Leadership Class)
State Sen. Jessie Ulibarri, D-Westminster, the youngest member of the chamber. (via Presidents Leadership Class)

State Sen. Jessie Ulibarri, a rising star freshman Democrat, announced to his constituents in a letter this morning that he would not seek reelection this year. Ulibarri has accepted a full-time job at national progressive organizing group Wellstone Action, and he has endorsed House Assistant Majority Leader Dominick Moreno, D-Commerce City, to replace him in the Senate.

“My colleagues have been overwhelmingly supportive of my decision. I’ll miss them and I’ll miss the work of the Senate,” Ulibarri, D-Westminster, told The Colorado Statesman on Thursday night. “At the same time, I feel like I’m changing titles but not changing my focus. (Wellstone Action) is about developing a different kind of politics. You can see it this election cycle, Americans are hungry for politics that are more people centered, not centered on big corporate interests or just the interests of the wealthy and well-connected.”

Ulibarri will finish his full term this year.

He said he has been weighing his options for “a couple of weeks” and that he finalized the decision not to seek reelection during a trip to the Wellstone offices in Minneapolis this past weekend.

He said Moreno was the obvious first choice to take up his work in the Senate.

“Dominick is the only state House member who lives in my district,” Ulibarri said. “We’ve known each other for a long time. We grew up just two blocks from one another. My mom was his Sunday School teacher, and I deeply respect what he has done in the state Legislature. So, yeah, he was the first person I thought to ask.”

Even before Ulibarri’s announcement, it has been clear that Moreno, who is serving only his second term, has been a lawmaker to watch. This year, he is assistant majority leader in the House. Like Ulibarri, he was first elected to his seat in 2012. That year, he drew 68 percent of the vote and he was reelected in Republican-wave year 2014 with 64 percent of the vote.

Rep. Dominick Moreno, D-Commerce City, in his House office Thursday. (Roxann Elliott/The Colorado Statesman)
Rep. Dominick Moreno, D-Commerce City, in his House office Thursday. (Roxann Elliott/The Colorado Statesman)

Ulibarri said that his endorsement of Moreno doesn’t preclude others from running for his Senate seat.

“There’s enough time for other candidates to file and run for the seat and to petition on (to the ballot) if they want to,” he said. “There’s a lot of ways for folks to weigh in. If other folks want to run, they certainly can.”

The surprise news comes just three days ahead of the state’s primary election caucuses, giving Moreno the weekend to knock doors and rally supporters to back his bid. But he clearly has a head start on any would-be opponents. In addition to Ulibarri’s endorsement, Moreno’s House district falls within Ulibarri’s larger senate district, so the men share constituents.

Moreno told The Statesman that he is gathering strength for the run. “The new race will certainly be a test of my organizational capacity,” he said, but he noted that he can switch over the money he has already raised for reelection. He raised $6,950 last quarter and reported $2,138 cash on hand.

He added that there is “calculated risk” in switching to the Senate, and not just electoral risk.

“A clear distinction is that I’m in the majority in the House and (Ulibarri) is in the minority in the Senate. I think I could be effective in the minority. I’ve managed to build great relationships across the aisle in the House and I would look to do the same in the Senate — but I’m optimistic that the Democrats will win back the majority in the Senate, and I’m excited to help them with that work,” he said.

He acknowledges he has big shoes to fill.

“Jessie just has such great knowledge of procedure and legislative rules, of how you get things done and how to be strategic … But, hey, people confuse us all the time, so maybe no one will even notice,” he joked.

Moreno said that he plans to endorse Adrienne Benavidez to take his seat in the House. Until Jan. 31, Benavidez was Denver’s executive director of General Services. Before working in government, she was executive director of community group Color of Justice and a bankruptcy attorney.

Ulibarri’s District 21 is roughly twice the size of Moreno’s District 32. The Senate district stretches like a side-turned baseball cap over the top of Denver, from Westminster near the foothills of the mountains to the far side of Denver International Airport on the plains.

“I told Dominick that the Senate takes more time to deliberate,” Ulibarri said about his discussions with Moreno. “I said there isn’t the rush of running for election every year, essentially, and that he’ll still be able to work on the things he’s passionate about, the things he’s done in the House to represent Commerce City.

“Residents of our districts elected us at the same time when we were the youngest members of the our respective chambers … I think we have showed it was possible to make change regardless of where you come from and he’s going to continue doing that work in the Senate, and I’ll be helping to tell the story around the country of what we’ve done in Colorado.”

Ulibarri has been working at Wellstone for three years. It’s the largest progressive activist and organizing group in the country. Ulibarri will be managing all of the group’s training programs, which host activists, candidates and elected officials.

Ulibarri is a native of industrial Commerce City who spent the early years of his life living in a trailer park, his parents working day and night jobs. “ I learned early on that our economy doesn’t always work for everyone,” he has said. He was elected to his seat in 2012 with 65 percent of the vote. He has been an articulate champion in the Capitol of working class and minority Coloradans.

This year, legislation he has sponsored includes bills that would require employers to provide paid sick leave, expand local affordable housing, grant in-state tuition to members of Indian tribes with ties to the state, clarify the outlawed practice of law-enforcement racial profiling, and streamline the process through which transgender Coloradans can change the gender designation on their birth certificates.

Ulibarri raised $20,445 for reelection last quarter and has $2,877 cash on hand. He sent the letter below to constituents this morning:

Dear Friends,

I have some exciting news about a tough, but important decision that I wanted you to hear directly from me.

I will not be seeking reelection for a second term to the Colorado State Senate this year.

Most of you know that, in addition to my part-time position in the Senate, I’ve been working full-time with Wellstone Action, a national nonprofit organization that is dedicated to building a democracy where everyone is in, no one is out, no exceptions. I’ve focused my efforts on helping progressive community organizers, candidates and elected officials to think strategically and take bold action to make positive, concrete changes in our country.

I’ve helped advocates in Kansas to fight back against the Koch brothers’ efforts to defund the state court system, I’ve trained winning progressive candidates in the birthplace of the Tea Party (Orange County, CA), and I’ve led trainings convened at the White House for city officials to think big about their plans to fight for the middle class. From this national vantage point, I’ve been able to see how wealthy and well-connected interests are trying to distort our democracy for their own personal gain, and how real people can make a huge difference when we fight back.

To that end, I was recently offered the opportunity to serve as Wellstone Action’s Vice President of Impact and External Affairs, and I accepted. Late last year, Wellstone Action absorbed two other national nonprofits, Progressive Majority (a leadership development organization) and the New Organizing Institute (an organization that integrates data/digital strategies into community change work). With these additions, Wellstone Action is now the largest training organization in the country for the progressive movement. In my new role, I will be responsible for managing all of our training programs, which will help to strengthen the governance approach for thousands of community leaders, candidates and elected officials across the country.

I want you to know that I did not come to the decision lightly. My four years in the Senate have been the most rewarding and the most challenging in my life.

As you may know, my hometown of Commerce City is surrounded by an oil refinery, multiple landfills, a defunct military arsenal for chemical weapons, a wastewater treatment facility, and a power plant. I spent my earliest years of life in the Lamplighter Trailer Park in Federal Heights, where we were often disparaged by strangers as “trailer trash.” When I was 15, two men tortured Matthew Shepherd and left him for dead on a fence just a few miles north of my home. As a closeted gay kid at the time, his murder left me terrified and ashamed. As a young person, the overwhelming messages I received about myself and our broader community was that we were disposable and without value. I refused to accept those messages, but those early years of life set me on a lifelong path to build an inclusive democracy, which has been my guiding charge in the Senate.

When I took office, I promised my constituents that I would take action on issues important to our hardscrabble community, and I’m proud to say that I remained true to my commitment. Here is a list of just a few of the legislative accomplishments I helped to secure during my time in the Senate:

• a statewide renewable energy standard to reduce dependence on carbon-based energy;
• tax incentives to clean up toxic waste sites;
• an expansion of health insurance coverage to over 300,000 low-income Coloradans;
• free breakfast and lunch programs for all children living in high-poverty areas;
• the largest investment in affordable housing in the state’s history;
• a statewide wage enforcement division to help workers recover wages unfairly withheld by their employers;
• modernizing our election system, making it one of the most secure and accessible in the country;
• civil unions and full marriage equality for same-sex couples;
• enhanced workplace protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual and/or transgender people;
• in-state tuition rates for undocumented residents attending state universities;
• a driver’s license program for undocumented residents;
• prohibiting the use of credit scores in hiring/promotion decisions;
• prohibiting the use of solitary confinement for people with mental health needs;
• eliminating debtor’s prisons; and,
• overhauling the state’s foreclosure processes to protect homeowners.

During this time, I learned that building a more prosperous future can be achieved, but it takes hard work, collaboration and an unwavering commitment to our shared values. It takes sacrifice, time and strategy. And most importantly, this work cannot be done alone.

I am incredibly fortunate and thankful to be surrounded and supported by a loving family, friends, staff and community, who have helped me along this journey. I could not have achieved these feats without them or without you. I will deeply miss the people and the work in the Senate, but I’m excited to have a few more hours in the day to spend with my family.

My decision to leave the Senate is rooted in understanding that we can grow our impact in the world, if our struggle is equipped with the tools, training, network and support to take on the big fights. I might be changing titles, but I remain unwavering in my commitment to the movement we’re building together.

I plan to finish my full 4-year term, and help my colleagues recapture the Democratic majority in the Senate this election year. To that end, I’m very excited to share that Representative Dominick Moreno, my friend and our local hero for working families, has decided to run for my seat in the Senate. He is a tested leader who always puts our community first, and I’ve enthusiastically endorsed him for this race. I hope you will help him to victory, as much as you’ve helped and supported me during my time in the Senate.

I know you may have questions or comments about my decision, and as always, I hope you’ll reach out to me directly. You can call me on my cell at 720.434.3747 or by email at Jessie.Ulibarri.Senate@state.co.us.

With deep commitment, love and gratitude,

Jessie

— john@coloradostatesman.com

John Tomasic

John Tomasic

John Tomasic is a senior political reporter for The Colorado Statesman covering the Colorado Legislature.