There’s lots of debate about what it means to be a progressive these days, but to state Rep. Emily Sirota (D-Denver), correctly labeling what she does is far less important than discussing the reasons why she does it.
“I also have a degree in social work, and I think a lot about how the underpinnings of that profession are rooted in social justice,” Sirota explained. “And so I think that for me when I say progressive, what I mean is I pursue policies that seek to address racial, economic, environmental, and social justice.”
Still, Sirota calls herself a progressive Democrat, even as she explains that the word has been used in so many different contexts its meaning is getting more and more opaque.
“I suppose I use that word because it’s an identifiable word to the public that signals certain belief systems,” Sirota said. “But I think that its meaning has probably diminished over time so that now, you know, it’s a word that almost any Democrat in Colorado, probably at least two-thirds of Democrats in Colorado, would be happy being referred to as.”
Sirota’s commitment to her conception of progressivism has guided her throughout her career inside and outside of politics.
After graduating from Indiana University with a degree in Political Science, Sirota worked as a legislative aide in Washington D.C. before joining former Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer’s administration in 2005. It was in Montana when Sirota began to feel something nagging at her. That maybe she was going to take a different path outside of the political realm.
“I really loved working for Governor Schweitzer. I loved his team,” Sirota said. “Politicians are always worried about the next election. People have donors that they have to listen to. That just weighed heavily on my heart. And so, I realized that I wanted to try this from a different angle.”
Sirota explained that her drive for going into politics initially was that she wanted to help people. But over time, she found that she had a desire to be more hands-on with her service. She wanted to do things with people rather than just for them.
“So often policymaking felt to me like people in a conference room somewhere making choices that impacted thousands or millions of people’s lives without truly understanding them,” Sirota said. “I didn’t like that.”
So, Sirota went to the University of Denver to pursue a master’s degree in social work and did field work at Warren Village, a nonprofit that provides safe transitional housing for low-income, single-parent families in Denver.
She then joined the Colorado Progressive Coalition, a progressive advocacy group that is now part of the racial justice group Colorado People’s Alliance. There, Sirota focused on community organizing around progressive issues including support for paid sick days.
During our interview, Sirota repeatedly said how she never expected to be an elected official. She thought she would either stay out of politics completely or remain in the background, working as an organizer or a policy aide.
“I just never really saw myself as a person out front,” Sirota said. “And it’s funny to think about, but I still don’t necessarily see myself that way.”
But her preference for behind-the-scenes work was uprooted in 2018 when Sirota announced her candidacy to represent House District 9, spanning southeast Denver, in Colorado’s House of Representatives.
“I think I ultimately came back to politics because public policy has such an impact on people’s lives,” Sirota said. “And I think that, you know, unless we make these changes at a macro level, what we continue to do is just Band-Aid over all the problems that we have in society.”
In 2021, Sirota completed her third legislative session. During her time in office she has gained notoriety as one of the most progressive Democrats in the caucus. She has a 100% lifetime rating by Conservation Colorado’s Legislative scorecard, a 100% lifetime rating by the Women’s Lobby of Colorado, and a 7% rating by the right-wing American Conservative Union.
Sirota’s bills are also indicative of her political ideology. She touts her work fighting for worker’s rights, campaign finance reform, and environmental justice. In 2021, Sirota sponsored a bill that paves the way for universal pre-K in Colorado by 2023 and is continuing to work on the new state agency in charge of it.
“I think it is really exciting work,” Sirota said. “I think it doesn’t necessarily get all of the publicity and the attention and interest of folks, but I very much love working on early childhood issues that are impacting Colorado’s children and families.”
Earlier this year Sirota introduced a bill to raise income taxes on wealthy individuals and corporations in the oil and gas and insurance industries. The bill, signed into law in June, ensured tax breaks for people with children, small business owners, and middle-to-low-income Coloradans.
Three sessions in the state legislature have taught Sirota some very valuable lessons, she explained. She pointed out how state lawmakers are pressured by special interest groups and lobbyists when voting on or introducing a piece of legislation. Sirota does not feel like she has had to compromise her ideals because she is now part of the state legislature.
“I guess nobody ever gets everything that they are trying to get when you require a certain number of votes in the House, a certain number of votes in the Senate, and a signature by the Governor,” Sirota said. “That requires compromise because it’s not a dictatorship.”
Sirota explains how she has learned to take the lead when she’s an expert on an issue, like tax reform, and when to take a supporting role on a bill she’s not as knowledgeable about.
“You can’t specialize in everything,” Sirota said. “But I can recognize in my colleagues, this person knows a lot here, so I can take a supporting role to Senator [Julie] Gonzalez or Representative [Serena] Gonzalez-Gutierrez when it comes to criminal justice reform. I can support Representative [Steven] Woodrow or Representative [Dominique] Jackson when it comes to housing policy.”
Sirota is pleased with how the 2021 legislative session went; lawmakers passed over 500 bills this year. But she mentioned that she still wished there was more action taken on climate. Sirota explains that competing interests from politicians compounded by lobbying can be frustrating when trying to meet the needs of her community or the planet.
“It’s inevitable that you cannot always do everything that you set out to do,” Sirota said. “But I don’t know, you get some of it. And that feels like a pretty crappy answer in a time when we’re breathing in toxic air.”
The U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a damning report last week outlining that humans need to drastically change behavior to prevent more extreme weather events and other effects of climate change.
“Nobody feels like things are being responded to with a sense of urgency that this moment requires,” Sirota said. “This moment does not require incrementalism, and yet that is how our system is set up to function. And when you live in a state like Colorado where we are just bound by policies like TABOR that have created just a nonsensical, preposterous system for trying to fund the needs of the state. It makes that problem so much harder for us to deal with it than somewhere else.”
The Value of Grassroots Pressure
When talking about other lessons she’s learned while in office, Sirota emphasized the need for progressive activists outside the system to continue to press politicians for action, including but not limited to climate issues.
“There are many powerful interests at work that will continue to make their wants and interests known so it is critical for the same to be said for our community,” Sirota said. “I very much want to hear from people in my community what they need me to do.”
Sirota quoted Frederick Douglass when citing a specific example of how someone outside the traditional political system can influence policy.
“It’s that saying, ‘Power concedes nothing without a demand,’” Sirota said. “You don’t get big systemic change unless there is demand and pressure from outside the system to make that change. For example, I don’t believe that it is a coincidence that Colorado was the first state to pass that sweeping police reform bill that we passed last June. That wouldn’t have happened if we hadn’t been sitting in that building with the entire Capitol surrounded by people protesting and demanding change”
Last year, Colorado passed a groundbreaking, unprecedented police reform bill that was spurred by police brutality protests across the state.
Sirota clarified that much of the legislation included in the bill was the result of years of work from different lawmakers and advocates around Colorado, but that the protests were certainly an impetus for the bill passing into law.
“And I think that that that kind of organizing work is essential for getting us where we need to go,” Sirota said. “It won’t happen without community pressure because the ‘powers that be’ still have more money and more lobbyists to be able to impact policies in a way that suits them. What does the community have, though? Well, the community has less money, but it has more people. And it has more voices. It’s just a matter of organizing and reminding elected officials who they represent and who they should be working for.”