Denver mayoral candidate James Walsh is banking on people power in the 2023 election

A diverse spread of lived and professional experiences make up the roughly two dozen active candidates vying to be Denver’s next mayor.

Can James Walsh, a clinical associate professor at the University of Colorado Denver, stand out among a crowd that includes sitting members of the state legislature, a City Council member with decades of experience, well-known community activists, and others?

He thinks so.

Can he win? The former Duke University wrestler and founder of the unscripted theater group the Romero Troupe believes he can.

Here is a Q and A with the educator running one of the long-shot campaigns to be the city’s next chief executive. (This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

How long have you been teaching in Denver? 

This is my 25th year at CU Denver in the political science department. I specialize in labor, immigration, and community organizing. Also, the Irish diaspora is a big sub-specialty of mine. I’m from a big Irish Catholic family near Pittsburgh.

Why run for mayor?

I have always wanted to run for office and this seemed to be the perfect opportunity because it’s an open seat and because of the Fair Elections Fund.

Beyond that, I have always felt that Denver Democratic leaders and their politics are progressive in all but labor. They’re not anti-labor but they’re not pro-labor. I want to lead the city in a way where workers are put first. Denver workers first is one of our slogans.

Who is your base? 

My students pushed me, pushed me and pushed me to run. And after teaching in this city for 25 years I have legions of former students.

Our team is all volunteers. These are students and former students who just want to help and they believe in the focus and the message of our campaign.

That made me feel like I am a viable candidate. They’re energized. They’re galvanized. They’re moving.  And the energy that flows out of our meetings is infectious. We can’t imagine that any other candidate can match it. That’s the most important factor in a campaign is simply human energy.

How do you make Denver a workers-first city? 

The minimum wage should be a living wage which means that people making minimum wage should be able to pay their basic bills and survive and pay their rent. That means raising it even more.

And all public employees deserve to organize and bargain with their employers.

I would support expanding the universal basic income idea that has been used experimentally on a small scale but has shown promise. I would support expanding that for people who are really struggling at the bottom of the economic ladder.

What are the other focuses of your campaign? 

Immigrant rights have been central to my work, my life, my activism.

Denver is already fairly immigrant-friendly but there are still changes that can be made. Because we live in a society where a subset of people, their labor is welcome but their humanity is not.

Things like in-state tuition for people who are undocumented are important.

I would work with groups like the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition and the American Friends Service Committee on bringing immigrant voices including undocumented voices to the table to help shape future policies.

How would you address homelessness? 

I think this is related to my emphasis on harm reduction. Harm reduction is not just an idea related to substance use. It’s really an idea that spreads to public policy on any social issue.

I think first and foremost is confronting the idea the people who are unhoused are in that situation by some choice of their own or that it’s their fault. We need to understand there are underlying traumas.

I think the city can afford to provide some sort of basic, dignified shelter beyond traditional shelters. Basic dignified shelter for those who want it. Traditional shelters play a role but I think we can provide more options.

And again bringing to the table people who have lived on the streets, currently or formerly. No better expert than hearing directly from the unhoused community.

Can you win? 

No doubt about it. And the weeks to come will bear that out.

We don’t have the funding that the big names have. We don’t have the career experience that the big politicians have but we do have people power behind us and that trumps those in my view.

I think this campaign could shape up to be an epic contest between whether money or people win elections.

I don’t want to single out any of the candidates, and I won’t, but some represent huge insider amounts of funding. Our campaign does not. We have people. We have energy. And we feel that that will grow as the weeks go by and the people who encounter our campaign will feel that energy.

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