Races for Colorado Senate, where Democrats currently have a narrow, five-seat majority, are ones to watch this year. Colorado Springs’s newly created Senate District 11 will see established politicians Rep. Tony Exum (D-CO Springs) and Colorado Springs District 4 City Councilor Yolanda Avila in a primary contest to compete against Sen. Dennis Hisey (R-Fountain).

Both Exum and Avila are well-regarded figures in Southeast Colorado Springs. Avila has worked to improve public transportation access and advocated for improved transparency and accountability from the Colorado Springs Police Department. Exum, who is term-limited in the House, has sponsored bills to help low-income Coloradans with access to school meals and regulations to help renters against predatory landlords, in addition to his work to mitigate and regulate dangerous PFAS chemicals which have contaminated the water in Fountain Valley.

Hisey, currently representing rural Senate District 2, is a former El Paso County Commissioner who touts his commitment to constituent service. The three candidates recently took part in a May 22 Zoom candidate forum hosted by the Colorado Springs chapter of the NAACP, and discussed their position on health care, the economy, climate change, and gun violence, among other issues.

Avila staked out strong progressive positions on health care, pushing for universal health care; climate change, touting Colorado Springs’ decision to shut down the Drake power plant ahead of schedule; and the economy, urging an end to TABOR.

“I feel like we need to have universal health care so that all citizens have access to health care,” Avila said. “What we’re finding now is people don’t get health care because they don’t want to leave their job, they don’t have the money, but what happens? They end up in the emergency room and we are paying those costs. Every one of us are paying those costs of people that aren’t insured and end up in hospital. I’m not interested in the profits of the insurance company. I’m interested that we are able to look for insurance providers and carriers to make sure that they bring their costs to be equitable so every person is able to access that health care. Here in Southeast Colorado Springs, we have high rates of diabetes, we have hotter temperatures here, we need that health care and we need it at the very beginning. We need preventative care and I will work toward a more universal health care system so all of us have health care.”

Avila also discussed her ideas for clean energy solutions. “Drake was set to close in 2025,” she said, “We stopped using coal in 2021 at Drake, and we are transitioning through gas, but ultimately to renewable energy. That was done with a lot of pushback because people are really enamored with coal. Already starting was reducing the impact of climate change. Looking at charging stations for electric vehicles, to get more electric vehicles on the road instead of the auto emissions that are happening now into the environment. Also look at — I attempted to put a fee on plastic bags. They take 500 years to decompose. They’re looking at that at the state legislature, and I would continue that fight in protecting our planet, making sure we stay clean and working in that direction.”

Avila’s proposed plastic bag fee would have increased funding to Keep Colorado Springs Beautiful, a nonprofit that receives a sole-source contract from the city for litter mitigation, but failed to provide adequate services for residents in Avila’s district.

Avila also proposed taking action on TABOR, which opponents say causes funding problems for local governments and schools. “Let’s face it folks, TABOR has not worked for us,” she said. “The part about TABOR, of going to the ballots, saying, ‘Yes, we’ll raise taxes and asking the voters.’ Of course, yes, let’s do that, but the ratchet down effect, when the economy is flourishing, we don’t get to tap into that and we send it back. It gets sent back, like here in Colorado Springs, via your utility bill. What if you have three working members in your household that have paid sales tax, only one person is getting that tax. I’ve done a trip to D.C. with the city, with the chamber, and we talked to our delegation up there, our senators and our congresspeople, and they go, ‘We don’t feel sorry for you. You guys did that to yourself. You did TABOR to yourself and then you turn around and you want more funds from us? You guys need to handle your situation.’ Yea, we need to really look at TABOR, because since TABOR was implemented, our schools have suffered, our health care system has suffered, so I would continue to work on that.”

Exum and political consultant Liz Rosenbaum during the May 14 El Paso County Democratic Party Gala.

Exum leaned heavily on his track record in the House on issues around the economy, expanding voting access, and gun safety. 

“We have done past legislation to boost the economy in the entire state,” said Exum. “One of the things we did was getting rid of that personal property tax, statewide. I know it was done in a number of communities. … We used some of the federal funds that we had — $600 million went in to replenish the unemployment insurance trust fund, because we know a lot of folks, during the COVID crisis, were laid off or their hours were reduced. We’ll continue to work on legislation to improve the economy like we’ve done in the past.”

Exum explained his personal concern for voting reform measures. “This is the poll tax receipt from 1964 when Blacks had to take tests and pay to vote,” he said, pulling the document out of his coat pocket during the Zoom forum. “Now, there are a number of bills across this country, voter suppression laws. We have fought against that here in our state, making sure people not only have access to the ballot but are not intimidated when they’re in a line to vote. How do we improve that? We can improve upon the great system that we have by increasing the number of voter locations, making sure people have access to vote early and that the polls are open early before people go to work and that they stay open after they got off. Right now the polls are only open the last three days of the voting time. I would change that. They’re open, but they’re not open early and late, and I would change that for early voting — make sure the polls are open at 7 a.m. and they stay open until 7 p.m., to make sure people have a chance to drop their ballots off.”

Exum also discussed his support for gun safety legislation during his time in the House. “We’ve done, at least since the time I’ve been in the legislature starting in 2013, we’ve had some very aggressive gun safety legislation, to make sure we have more background checks, and [to close] a number of the loopholes in gun sales,” he said. “Also, we need to educate individuals that are purchasing guns or would like to have guns about the dangers, and then we need to put more money into education, behavioral health, to make sure people have access to mental health services when they’re having issues in their life. We need to make sure that we work with law enforcement and the community on educating folks about the dangers of gun violence, and then holding individuals accountable when they’re involved in domestic violence. We did a red flag law, that cosponsored, that says that when somebody has access to a weapon and they threaten somebody’s life, through due process, law enforcement can obtain that weapon for a specific amount of time given by the judge.”

Hisey, the lone Republican in the forum, spoke positively about mail-in voting, while offering a market-based solution for Colorado’s economy and voicing his support for Second Amendment rights.

“Voting being a hot topic, [this is] a good chance to point out that there are extremists on both sides of many issues, and this being one of them,” said Hisey, during an election season that has been dominated by Republican candidates espousing conspiracy theories about the 2020 Presidential election. “I want every eligible person to vote. I’d prefer for them to also be somewhat educated on what they’re voting on, but I absolutely want every eligible person to be able to vote. To do that, it’s got to be convenient. I really don’t have a problem with our mail-in voting system. It’s worked really quite well in Colorado. I did feel badly for some of the states that had never done mail-in balloting before, that did not have the measures in place that Colorado does to ensure accuracy. One change that I probably would make — I do like our dropbox system, I think about 90% of people drop their ballots off.”

On the economy, Hisey offered a brief defense of TABOR before addressing the importance of workforce training programs. “I’d like to point out that employers, they’re businesses,” he said. “They’re there to make a profit, except for the few of us that work for the government, in which case we need to be doubly responsible because we’re taking your money. However, to address those employers, they have 50 states they can go to around the nation, and to attract them, while our tax code does have to be competitive, it’s even more important that they have a trained workforce. If we can show businesses, particularly those that pay better wages — we’re not really interested in getting every call center in the nation here in Colorado, I appreciate the work they do — but those businesses that need skilled workers, if we can give them the skilled workers they will come, regardless of what our tax code is. I think we need to focus on education, we need to focus on training beyond high school. It doesn’t always take a four-year degree to get a good job. I’ve carried many bills that have enhanced vocational education, so my focus would actually be on having a good, trained, reliable work force.”

Hisey, who will be attending this weekend’s Teller County Republicans Big Tent Event, which will be giving away a rifle, voiced his support for Second Amendment rights. “It will surprise no one here that I am a strong proponent of Second Amendment rights, but safety is absolutely the key,” he said. “Safety, education. I grew up rural, I grew up around guns. We didn’t play with guns. Guns were in the house. I still remember the first .22 my dad got me, I was less than 10 years old, but it wasn’t a toy. It never was a toy, and education is a huge part of it. I’m not entirely sure how we get that into our urban culture where those opportunities aren’t there. People are getting guns and using them in means that hopefully they never intended to, but find themselves in a circumstance where they’re using guns for illegal purposes, and I have no sympathy for people that are doing that. The other factor is behavioral health. Absolutely, when we were debating gun laws in the legislature, I would go back to behavioral health, and I have supported many behavioral health bills just based on that’s really where the problem lies, is with the person.”

Avila and Exum will compete in the Democratic primary on June 28.