Campaign fundraisers for down-ballot offices like state Representative are not usually newsworthy affairs. They do not attract big-ticket speakers or high-dollar contributions, and they almost never generate any significant discussion among either voters or activists. They are a necessary chore of running for office; they occur and are then forgotten.

A fundraiser held last weekend to benefit a candidate in one of Denver’s most contentious Democratic primaries is upending that pattern, though, and roiling the contest for the future of northwest Denver’s House District 4. The district is currently represented by Rep. Tim Hernández, who was elected to the seat by a vacancy committee last August. The first member of Generation Z to hold state office in Colorado, Hernández is no stranger to controversy; a well-known local teacher and activist, local outlets were referring to him as “outspoken” and a “firebrand” long before he held office. But the fundraiser-based controversy emerging in the district is not about Hernández – it’s about his opponent, Cecelia Espenoza.

A retired appellate judge and law professor, Espenoza has been a familiar face in Denver Democratic Party circles in recent years. She has served on party committees, and has been the captain for House District 4. Now, she is running to represent the district she helped organize when she was volunteering for the party. This primary is not Espenoza’s first run for the seat, though, nor is it her first face-off against Hernández. When then-Rep. Serena Gonzales-Gutierrez vacated the seat last year after winning election to Denver City Council, both Espenoza and Hernández ran for the vacancy committee election. In the final tally, Hernández won 39 votes to Espenoza’s 27. With the election for a full term in the seat scheduled for ten months after the vacancy committee, Espenoza regathered her efforts and declared her candidacy. She will face Hernández on the June ballot.

House District 4

It was in that context that Espenoza’s campaign accepted the help and support of a Denver woman named Ellen Daehnick. Last weekend, Daehnick hosted a fundraiser for Espenoza. When a flier for the event started circulating online on Monday, though, eyebrows were raised. People recognized Daehnick, not just from her work as an online anti-trans gadfly, but from her appearance at the state Capitol to testify against trans-friendly legislation – an appearance which occurred only one day before the fundraiser she hosted for Espenoza. 

Now, prompted by the news that Espenoza held a fundraiser hosted by an anti-transgender activist over the weekend, some local Denver Democrats are speaking out about what they see as just the latest occurrence in a long record of discriminatory comments and behavior by the candidate. 

Ellen Daehnick has an eclectic work history, from management consulting at McKinsey & Company, to owning a bakery, to full-time unpaid transphobia. The 54-year-old Denver resident and political activist is also a precinct organizer for the local Democratic Party. But Daehnick’s involvement in politics, and with the Democratic Party, is a recent affectation: according to publicly available voter registration information, Daehnick registered as a Democrat in January of this year. 

With the exception of the two occasions – both this year – on which she has testified in opposition to trans-affirming legislation at the state capitol, the vast majority of Daehnick’s political activity has occurred on the website formerly known as Twitter, where she constantly posts about the only issue which seems to interest her: opposing the existence of transgender people in society. Since joining the website in October 2023, Daehnick has tweeted roughly a thousand times, and nearly every one of those posts has been about her issue of choice (though a small handful have also been about climate change denial). She regularly responds to the platform’s most prominent anti-trans voices, like J.K. Rowling and Jordan Peterson, and routinely engages with Colorado’s furthest-right legislators, like Rep. Ken DeGraaf. Daehnick also provides online “legislative resources” – form letters and the like – to help other Coloradans more effectively oppose trans-friendly policies.

When I called her for this story, Daehnick chose not to comment.

The only other political activity Daehnick is known to have engaged in is her support for Cecelia Espenoza, whom she caucused for, nominated at county assembly, and hosted last weekend’s fundraiser on behalf of.

When news of Daehnick’s support for Espenoza trickled out online, it was not greeted warmly in online Democratic circles.

“It’s 2024 and we have Denver Democrats having fundraisers hosted by anti-trans activists. Anyone endorsing Cecelia Espenoza, care to explain why you’re supporting a candidate that surrounds themselves/takes money from people like this?” tweeted Adrian Felix, formerly the elected Secretary of the Democratic Party of Denver, with a screenshot of one of Daehnick’s transphobic tweets.

Both Espenoza and Hernández can boast of endorsements from elected officials and other prominent Colorado Democrats.

When I called Espenoza to ask about her connection to Daehnick, she denied harboring any bigotry toward the LGBTQ community. She says she officiated the wedding ceremony for a pair of gay neighbors some years back. Before that, she campaigned against 1992’s infamous Amendment 2, which prohibited the state from enacting anti-discrimination measures to protect gay, lesbian, and bisexual Coloradans. The initiative temporarily earned Colorado the nickname “the hate state” in national media.

“When I was a law professor, back in the 90s, and Amendment 2 was around, we levied a whole anti-Amendment 2 fight as law professors, “ she told me. “That was my first public foray into standing up for the LGBTQ community.”

Espenoza’s campaign website also declares her support: “Attacks on our LGBTQI+ community from the right-wing are disgusting and dangerous,” she wrote, adding that she supports “legislation that protects gender-affirming care, strengthens our hate-crime laws and gives resources to LGBTQI+ youth who face discrimination and isolation.”

I asked Espenoza if, despite her own credentials and stated position on the issue, she could understand why some local Democrats were troubled to learn of her association with Daehnick. “I struggle with this,” she told me. “I can take personal responsibility for any position that I have, but I can’t vet and take personal responsibility for every person that expresses support for me.” 

It is true, to Espenoza’s credit, that unwanted hangers-on have plagued many campaigns, and that candidates are not necessarily responsible for what their supporters do, say, or believe. It is equally true, though, that voters are likely to judge candidates based on their associations. When we initially spoke on the phone, Espenoza did not seem to view that as fair.

“Ellen approached me about becoming a delegate to attend caucus, and supported me through that process, and offered to have a fundraiser. Did I vet every position that she had in her life, or was it my responsibility to do so? I didn’t think that was something I had to do to talk to people who were supporting me.”

Again, this is true: Espenoza cannot vet every position that a supporter has ever had in her life. The difficulty with applying this standard to Daehnick, though, is that her virulent transphobia is not just any position that she has held at some point in her life: it is virtually the only position about which she has been outspoken, and she has built a sizable portion of her identity around it: Daehnick described herself just last month as a full-time “gender crank.”

Espenoza was the first source I spoke to for this story. After I called other sources in Denver Democratic Party circles, and word got around that individuals known to have had difficult relationships with Espenoza had spoken to me, Espenoza called me back. In that longer and more substantive conversation about these issues, Espenoza spoke at length about her support for the queer community, denounced Daehnick, and told me that she had returned the money Daehnick contributed to her campaign.

“I had no knowledge of how hateful her tweets were,” Espenoza told me of Daehnick. “Subsequent to your call and really looking at where Ellen is coming from, I just want to make sure that I’m clear that I do not believe that anything she is saying is appropriate. I do not believe in hate, and I think it’s important to make sure that we are protecting trans individuals.” 

“I think she raised, you know, she asked me about my position with regard to trans rights, and I told her from the very beginning that I supported individual rights,” Espenoza said of her interactions with Daehnick. “And her statement to me was, well, I think we disagree on that issue, but I support you on other issues and therefore I want to support you. That’s as far as it went.”

“She did not affirmatively disclose to me the length or nature of her hate, and so I did not know that until all of this came out. That was the first time I had heard that.”

When I contacted the Hernández campaign for this story, they did not comment on Espenoza or her association with Daehnick, but Hernández reaffirmed his support for the LGBTQ community. “Trans people are under attack in the Colorado State Capitol and across the country. I stand in firm solidarity with trans people, which is why I have proudly voted to expand gender-affirming care and to make it easier for students to update their chosen names to reflect their gender identities. I will continue to fight alongside the LGBTQ+ community for dignity, justice, and equality as long as I hold office– and beyond.”

Tim Hernández and Cecelia Espenoza

Understandably, Espenoza does not want an affiliation with one bigoted supporter to overshadow her campaign. She is running, she says, because her career as a public servant and her years as a Democratic Party activist have prepared her to bring “pragmatic leadership” to the statehouse. She pointed to her roster of endorsers: “Part of the reason I believe they have endorsed me is what they’ve seen over the past six years, as district captain, that I’ve really worked hard to develop HD-4.”

It is her time spent as a party activist, though – and the bad blood she seems to have generated in certain circles during that time – which all but guarantees that the dust-up will continue to grow: since news of her fundraiser with Daehnick broke, other local Dems have shared their own past experiences with Espenoza, alleging a track record of problematic comments and behavior around gender, sexuality, and race.

Adrian Felix was not surprised to hear that Cecelia Espenoza had a fundraiser with an anti-trans activist. In his role as the former party secretary, Felix, a gay man, says he had a string of “negative and anti-LGBTQ experiences” with Espenoza. Felix alleged that when Espenoza was the local party’s Diversity and Inclusion captain, she was hesitant to allow the use of pronouns on name badges, saying that she did not want “gender identity ‘shoved in our faces.’”

Espenoza acknowledged that she pushed-back on the inclusion of pronouns on the name badges, but says that her objection was only about the available space on the badges.

“They’re like half-inch badges, and the type on them was very large,” Espenoza told me. When the idea to include pronouns on the badges was raised, Espenoza says, “My immediate reaction was wait, why? And how are we going to make that fit? Just thinking seriously about the logistics of that.” Espenoza said that she was not up to speed on the issue of pronouns with regard to the trans community at the time on account of having retired a few years prior. 

“Once it was explained, I was like, oh, okay. I just don’t logistically understand how it’s going to fit, but if people want to do that, that would be great.” Espenoza noted that she now has her pronouns on her own name badge.

The spat over name badges was not the only incident Felix says he had with Espenoza. 

“‘The problem with gay Latinos is that they are gay before they are Latino,’” Felix claims Espenoza said. “I’ve been vocal about these instances for years,” he told me, “so it made sense that she is being supported by those that endanger the lives of trans children, particularly with a fundraiser for her campaign on the day before Trans Visibility Day.”

Another Democratic activist, who asked not to be named out of a desire to avoid the squabble of a Denver Democratic primary, alleged that they have heard Espenoza use the word “faggot.”

When I asked Espenoza about her alleged use of offensive words referring to members of the queer community, she denied it, laughing off the question, saying that it “would be a surprise to all of my gay friends.”

Though Espenoza claims to have been a lifelong supporter of the queer community – “This is not an issue that, in terms of my life and experience, has any validity; it’s just something that’s trying to be thrown at me” – Felix claims that she came to him in December 2023, as she started gearing up her run for office, to make amends for her past behavior.

“She and I had breakfast at Two Brothers Cafe on Federal Boulevard on the morning of December 1st, 2023, during which she placated me and my experiences, stating that she had grown on the subjects and learned to do better,” Felix told me. “Evidently, that’s not the case,” he added, “as she is continuing to dance with bigots that jeopardize the wellbeing of some of our most vulnerable communities.”

When we spoke for the second time, Espenoza acknowledged the December meeting with Felix, but said she remembers the occasion differently. 

“I sat down with Adrian Felix before I launched the campaign to say, look, I think you were the person spreading this anti-gay statement against me, and I need to know why, and I want to ask you specifically, have I ever treated you with disrespect? And his answer was no.”

Though she struck me as genuine in her remorse over having associated with a figure like Daehnick, Espenoza’s track record of controversial comments and positions predates her time in Denver Democratic politics, and has not been confined to issues around gender and sexuality.

In 1987, when Espenoza was the assistant prosecutor for Salt Lake City, she was quoted in the American Bar Association (ABA) Journal discussing “infighting among minority professionals for jobs.” In the article, Espenoza alleged that Black attorneys were preventing Hispanic and Latino attorneys from advancing.

“Being burned by other minorities is common,” Espenoza said. “For example, we feel that blacks have the power in the ABA and try to keep it to themselves.”

In our second conversation, Espenoza said that much of her legal career, especially as a law professor, was spent specifically fighting against discrimination. 

“My background is that I’m a critical race scholar. I was at the cutting edge of LatCrit theory. I worked with the leading scholars in critical race theory. These are my credentials. These are my bona fides in terms of understanding intersectionality and being one of the first people to write about intersectionality as it impacts the law.”

“That’s why this is so hurtful to me,” Espenoza told me, “because these are the things I fought for my whole career. Intersectionality, understanding issues.”

Espenoza was sincere when we spoke, and I believe her when she says that she does not consider herself bigoted. Even in our second conversation, though, she declined to take full responsibility for the allegations made against her. Instead, she framed the allegations of bigotry as part of a political plot orchestrated against her by a group of progressive organizations, a handful of Latino and Latina elected officials, and a labor union.

“The Latino Caucus is behind Tim, Senator (Julie) Gonzales is behind Tim, Serena (Gonzales-Gutierrez) is behind Tim. Working Families and DSA are behind Tim, and those people are affiliated with those organizations. I am not.”

“To the extent that some of this is coming after me, it is definitely coming from those groups. And SEIU is the same,” Espenoza told me, adding the Services Employees International Union to the pile. “The people leading this charge come from those three groups. There’s nothing I can say about that except that I am running as a Democrat in the Democratic Party, and I am not going to affiliate with a third party to get their endorsement,” she said, referring to a requirement of the Working Families Party’s endorsement process. Despite the Working Families Party having minor party status in some states, neither WFP nor DSA are official political parties in Colorado; both organizations endorse in Democratic primaries

Plot or not, Espenoza says the attacks do not reflect her, and that she supports what she called the “human right” to express gender identity, sexual orientation, and sexuality freely.

“These values are not something that I have put on for this campaign,” Espenoza told me. “They are what I live and believe.”

Even if she says the right things going forward, some local Democrats believe it will be too little, too late; that her actions speak louder. “Remember, phobia comes from the Greek for fear,” Christopher Nicholson, a Democrat running for a seat on the RTD Board of Directors, and one of Tim Hernández’s endorsers, told me. “The test isn’t whether she’ll use the word faggot in public, but who she chooses to surround herself with.”

“Tim has hired LGBT people to staff his office and run his campaign,” Nicholson said. “Cecelia has a long record of embracing people openly hostile to our community. I guess in 2024 I thought we were better than that.”