Casper Stockham is driving for Congress, one fare at a time
Author: Ernest Luning - September 19, 2016 - Updated: September 29, 2017
Casper Stockham idles at the curb on a crowded LoDo street at about 10 p.m., scanning the pedestrians who are surging and meandering in front of a popular Mexican restaurant. The Denver Broncos are playing just blocks away and the night is bustling, the sounds of cheers and music spilling onto the sidewalk. After a few minutes, a woman in her late 20s pokes her head in the open passenger window and asks, “Are you Casper? Are you my Uber?” Stockham smiles and leans across the seat. “That’s me,” he says. “Get in, and we’ll get you where you’re going.”
She isn’t traveling far, about three miles, to an apartment building in the Governor’s Park neighborhood, but after settling in for the ride, the woman strikes up a conversation with Stockham about his campaign. She asks first about the sign that features his picture and slogans — “Planting Seeds of Dignity” and “It’s a New Day!” — on the side of the black Hyundai Sonata.
“You’re running for Congress, are you?” she asks, and Stockham nods. She mentions that her mother is a state representative in New Hampshire and then offers her thoughts on the political landscape, two months before the election.
“I’m registered as an independent,” she says. “I wish there were more candidates that were in between. I feel like they’re on the extremes on either end. I feel there’s a middle ground people aren’t reaching. I wish Republicans would leave out all the social issues because it’s ridiculous and you’re never going to win it. But I think there’s something Republicans get when it comes down to finances, but I wish they’d leave out all the social bullshit.”
Stockham tells her he’s a Republican and that he agrees with her.
“I’m driving Uber right now until I get elected,” he says, navigating around some construction and coming up to speed. “I think politicians are too far removed from the normal, everyday activities of people. They’re passing laws and don’t realize, that’s really going to jack up my life down here.”
“I’d vote for Hillary because I’m that against Trump, but I’m not saying I love Hillary,” the woman says. “But I’m totally open. Republican, Democrat — it’s all about the person and what they have to say.”
That’s Stockham’s cue to list his priorities.
“I’m running on homelessness, veterans and jobs,” he says. She wants to know about his jobs plan.
After taking a moment to determine where the Uber app on the iPhone planted on his dashboard is telling him to go — it appears to be rerouting him around some heavy traffic — Stockham launches into a description of his platform.
“My jobs initiative is an acronym — Jobs, Opportunity, Business, Safety and Security,” he says. “Every area that has safety and security has more opportunity for businesses to come in and create more jobs. An area that doesn’t have safety and security has the opposite, you have boarded-up buildings, people don’t feel safe. Politicians, they like to divide and conquer people. When they drive a wedge between the police and the community, it makes things worse. So what we need to do is work with the local police — and, yes, there are problems, there are problems everywhere. But the answer is not to pull apart, the answer is to come together.”
She likes what she’s hearing and asks him to talk about his plan to tackle homelessness.
Stockham doesn’t get as far into that topic — his solution involves removing strings on the funds that go to homeless shelters, although he acknowledges that he can’t control much of that “as a congressperson” — before they’ve arrived at her doorstep and she’s gathering her things. He hands her a brochure and she gives it a look, flipping it over to read both sides.
“‘Casper for Colorado,’” she says with a big grin. “Look at you. I’m in advertising, so I like it.”
Then, before turning to her building, she says she’d “absolutely” consider voting for Stockham.
“I really appreciate someone coming out and talking to me and filling me in about what they believe in and what they say. I feel it’s way more knowledgeable than any other information I’ve gotten recently.”
“Thank you, Casper,” she adds, “and thanks for the ride home.”
Stockham, 56, started driving for Uber and its competitor Lyft about a year and a half ago, right after he decided to seek the Republican nomination to challenge U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette, the Denver Democrat who has represented the 1st Congressional District for two decades and is seeking an 11th term.
The entrepreneur and direct-marketing veteran — he’s the author of “The Golden Business Solution: A Survival Plan for New and Seasoned Burned Out Marketers,” a collection of training materials inspired by the similarities between being a new Christian and new to the marketing field — says he was preparing to launch a marketing business but realized that running for Congress would take up most of his time so signed up with the ride-share apps.
Stockham drives nearly every night, sometimes even turning on one of the apps after he’s attended a campaign event. If he appears a little bleary-eyed in the daytime, it’s because he’s often behind the wheel until 3 or 4 a.m. On a typical night driving, he says he’ll pull in between $120 and $150.
“I was downtown one day and thought, I should be getting out of the car and talking to people because these are my constituents, but then I thought, just talk to the people when they’re in the car,” he says while cruising down Lincoln Street near the Capitol, waiting for the app’s chimes to announce he’d been summoned by a customer. He applied the campaign decals to the side of his car — “rolling billboards,” he says with a smile — and hasn’t looked back. “So I’m getting a double whammy, driving around with the stickers and people see that all night, and sometimes they’ll strike up a conversation.”
On a recent night driving in central Denver, not all of Stockham’s passengers wanted to talk politics — “Animal-wise, I like elephants, but that doesn’t have anything to do with my political affiliation,” said a woman who was part of a group riding from one nightclub to another on Capitol Hill — but several did.
At least a few said he might have won their votes, although three Texans heading from Larimer Square to the Grizzly Rose admitted that their support didn’t mean a lot, since they live in Fort Worth.
“You’re gonna get it,” said one, tipping his cowboy hat. “Have faith.”
Stockham is facing an uphill battle in his run against DeGette. Not one of her opponents has surpassed 30 percent of the vote in her nine runs for reelection — former Lt. Gov. Joe Rogers received just a hair over 40 percent in 1996 in DeGette’s first successful run for the seat that had been held by Democrat Pat Schroeder for 12 terms before that — and she’s outraised Stockham by a wide margin, reporting just over $1 million in campaign contributions to his roughly $25,000, according to the most recent campaign finance reports.
He’s pressing DeGette to add an earlier debate to the one the campaigns have scheduled for Oct. 12 at the University of Denver, charging that her “white privilege elite status is showing” in an open letter to DeGette posted on Facebook. “The people of CD-1 are being robbed from hearing both sides of this race. Now, time is running out and it is obvious you are playing political games and I say ENOUGH is ENOUGH.” (The candidates had agreed on a debate the night of Oct. 4 but had to reschedule after realizing that was the same night as the vice presidential debate.)
Last month, Stockham staged a sit-in outside DeGette’s office to encourage her to schedule debates. He says he isn’t planning on letting up anytime soon, although her campaign says the congressional schedule makes it challenging to schedule debates. “Congresswoman DeGette takes every election seriously,” said her campaign manager, Michael Whitehorn, in an email.
Stockham says he’s serious about his run, too, although he acknowledges he’s taking a highly unconventional approach.
“Because I’m not a politician, I’m not interested in doing what everyone else has done,” he says while driving through downtown toward Union Station in search of a fare. “Obviously, what they’re doing isn’t working. From Day One, I’m like, I’ve got to do something different. I’ve been thinking of ways to reach people that’s outside the box, and I think I’ve done that.”
Last week, Stockham, who is African American, gathered Republican officials and candidates for a news conference in Five Points to call attention to the plight of Selman’s Record Shop, which is in danger of closing due to the area’s gentrification, he charges. He outlined plans to pursue historic designation for the iconic store and locate his congressional office there as a way to help “bring prosperity back to the Five Points area for black-owned businesses,” he said in a statement announcing the event.
“When I do get in conversations with people, whether it’s on the street or in the Uber or at the Young Democrats’ social, we can talk to each other and, at the end of it, we’re not killing each other,” Stockham says. “Most of the stuff, we’re agreeing on. ‘I agree with you,’ they say. ‘I know!’ It’s not Republican or Democrat, it makes sense. They try to pin me into this box, they try to put me into this Republican box that’s racist, bigoted, homophobic, everything else. I say, ‘I drive all manner of people all night all around.’”
One of his favorite stories, he adds, is the night he pulled up outside Charlie’s, a gay country-and-western bar on Capitol Hill, and his fare turned out to be a drag queen.
“And he’s tall — all these drag queens are always tall — and he gets in the car and he starts to un-drag, he takes off his wig,” Stockham says, chuckling. “He does lip-synching, so he’s tired. We’re just talking about stuff. It’s like a 20-minute ride, and I get halfway to his house and he says, ‘I’m probably the first drag queen you’ve given a ride home to,’ and I say, ‘Sorry to bust your bubble, my friend, but no. In fact, I’ve lost track of how many drag queens I’ve given a ride home to.’ He said, ‘Really?’ I said, ‘I know you thought you were special, but you’re not.’” Stockham erupts in laughter and then turns his attention to the Uber app as it chimes, announcing a fare.
Pulling into traffic and signaling a turn, he says he’s talked politics with close to 2,500 passengers since he started campaigning and driving, out of close to 4,000 passengers he’s driven around.
“There’s not a topic we haven’t talked about this year. They ask me about Trump, and I say, ‘We’re pretty screwed, we’re pretty screwed,’” he says with a chuckle. “But out of thousands, I have had three that were, ‘Ah, I can’t believe you’re a Republican!’ I say, ‘Excuse me, I did not know there’s a rule about that!’ But that’s out of thousands.”
Still, Stockham argues that the typical approach Republicans take to winning over Denver voters could be flawed.
“The things that these folks are concerned with are not the things that Republicans are concerned with,” he says. “I try to explain that to Republicans and they look at me like I’m crazy.” Shaking his head, he says he does what he can to communicate to the GOP what he’s learning from riders. “Republicans love talking about First World problems — they’re talking about the budget, Iran, ISIS. If they want to start relating to these folks, they need to start talking Third World issues — jobs, homelessness. Day-to-day, how do I get food on the table, how do I keep my kids safe, just basic stuff. I have been focusing on that, and that’s why I think my message resonates here with the folks in Denver.”
There aren’t a lot of fans of Donald Trump among his riders, he notes. “Nope. Nope. I find a lot of people who don’t like him, and they don’t even know why. They’ll say he’s a racist or something. That’s pretty shallow.” Trump might say “something off-color,” Stockham admits, but making what he refers to as “stupid comments” isn’t the same thing as being a racist.
“I haven’t seen anything Trump has done that makes me think he’s a racist. I have seen things he’s done that makes me think he has concern. He hangs out with Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton — I’ve got pictures, fairly recent. If he’s a racist, what does that make them?”
There’s another chime, summoning the Hyundai to LoHi, in the growing neighborhood behind Union Station. That fare turns out to be a couple on their way home to the southern edge of the congressional district, which reaches down to Belleview and also includes a chunk of Jefferson County toward Chatfield Reservoir. On the 20-minute ride, the woman, who says she works in the criminal justice field, tries to persuade Stockham to oppose the death penalty, although she also advocates for a sort of rough-justice approach, throwing everyone, including convicted Aurora theater shooter James Holmes, in with the general population.
After dropping the couple off — she said she’d give his candidacy some thought as she accepted a brochure, although her companion was mostly silent for the entire ride — Stockham says that was the first time anyone had brought up the death penalty and admitted she’d given him plenty to think about.
“There is no pretty way to deliver justice to somebody who does something like that,” Stockham says, referring to Holmes, who was spared the death penalty by a jury last summer. “There are a lot of people who are incorrectly convicted. DNA is showing these folks are innocent all the time. But the death penalty needs to be an option for a legitimately smoking-gun case.” He shakes his head and says sometimes he’s glad some things aren’t up to members of Congress. “I don’t know what the answer is,” he says, turning onto Broadway and heading north for the drive back into town.
It’s approaching midnight. Stockham observes that he can probably drive for another three or four hours and get some good fares, particularly since the Broncos won, so people will be happy and out late celebrating.
“The day after the election,” he says, “I’m going to be sleeping. When I win, I’ll have to go to D.C. the following week, but I’ll need to get some sleep first.” With a smile, he adds, “I’m still going to drive after I’m elected, but not like this, maybe once a quarter. I want to still be plugged in to the community, still be out here. I feel like I’m a part of what’s going on when I’m doing this. I think politicians remove themselves too much from this level of life.”