“As Long as Exploitation Is the Default, We Won’t Get to a Place of Liberation.”

Candi CdeBaca

We caught up with Candi CdeBaca, a democratic socialist on Denver’s city council who took on the city’s for-profit prison system and won. She spoke to us about growing up working class and becoming a socialist: “When I got to college, I really recognized that the game was rigged.”

Candi CdeBaca is a member of Denver's city council and a democratic socialist. (Facebook / Candi CdeBaca)

Interview by
Meagan Day

Candi CdeBaca is a democratic socialist and a member of Denver’s city council, elected in June. Earlier this month, the Denver native and member of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) convinced the city council to drop contracts with two for-profit prison companies, which also run Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE) facilities.

CdeBaca’s action faced plenty of blowback. A viral video circulated of her saying at a candidate forum in April, “I don’t believe that our current economic system actually works. Capitalism, by design, is extractive, and in order to generate profit in a capitalist system, something has to be exploited.” The video generated plenty of right-wing press coverage, along with the personal threats filling her inbox that such coverage always generates these days. The red-baiting was unsuccessful: CdeBaca won anyway.

Jacobin’s Meagan Day spoke to CdeBaca about working-class life and socialist politics in Denver and beyond.


You grew up in a working-class family in Denver. What was your upbringing like?


I grew up in a single-parent household. My mom had three of us, and I was the oldest. We lived in a tiny house, about 700 square feet. Throughout my upbringing, we had extended family living in the two bedrooms. At some points, there were eight of us living in that household.

My mom raised us in partnership with my grandparents, and we grew up on public assistance. My mom took jobs cleaning. My grandma was a janitor at the hospital in the area. I was told over and over that school was my way out of poverty, so I was always an overachiever, always excelled academically. Living in a food desert and a superfund site, those things were unconsciously shaping who I would become, but that didn’t fully come together until I went to college.

I was the first person in my family to graduate from high school. I was fortunate enough to get a full-ride scholarship anywhere that I was accepted. And so I moved out to the University of San Diego and started college out there. But I had to move back after my first year because my grandmother, who I had been the primary caretaker of since the age of fourteen, had a heart attack without health insurance, and her surgeon put a lien on our house.

And so after that first year, I transferred back to a university here in Denver and was a commuter student. I worked often two to three jobs to get myself through school and keep my household going.


You mentioned that individual achievement was always explained to you as a pathway out of poverty. How did you come to the realization that the solution, not just for you but for everybody, needed to be collective and political?


It was when I experienced a real juxtaposition of my community with the one I encountered at college. I had been led to believe all of my life that I had to get out of my community, to escape poverty, to succeed. When I got to college, I really recognized that the game was rigged. My peers at home were no less intelligent than the ones that I was sitting next to in my college classes. They were just blacker, browner, and poorer.

And so it was after that first year of college that I started to really dive deep into understanding systemic injustice and social inequality. Eventually I began to recognize the myth of individualism and that definition of success that we’re fed, especially in the types of communities that I grew up in. I’ve dedicated the rest of my life to dismantling systemic injustice.


How did you arrive on your journey at socialism?


It really wasn’t a journey to socialism. It was more a recognition of socialism in all that had been good throughout my life. In the community that I grew up in, the culture was one that socialists dream about. I often see that in impoverished communities. You have people who recognize the value of shared paradigms and shared societies, though not necessarily for the same reasons that socialists in the traditional sense recognize it. But we recognize it as a survival mechanism and a way to not only make survival possible, but to make survival as enjoyable as possible.


When did you start to feel comfortable calling yourself a socialist?


I always thought that the people who would run this country most effectively are the single moms who raised kids with little to no resources. They knew how to make smart decisions and collective decisions.

Over time, I started to recognize the flaws of capitalism and the flaws of our current government structures, but it didn’t happen right away. It wasn’t until the last five years, where people actually started talking about alternative economic structures and governance structures, that I found a name for what I believed in.

That was kind of a trend throughout my life. I didn’t always have the language and the access to the scholarly or political work to help me define an experience. That’s common across communities like mine. We know what works, we just don’t talk about it in the same way.


When you say you started to grow acquainted with socialism in the last five years, are you talking about the impact of high-profile democratic socialist candidacies like Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez?


Well, I had visited Cuba before either one of them were a thing. And I remember being in a place that my entire life I was told was this evil, uncivilized place because it was communist. But I loved what I saw around me. I remember feeling I had been lied to my whole life. It was eye-opening. I saw that this was one of the most educated populations in the world. This was an entire country that really rests on the weekends, because they don’t believe in rampant consumerism. It was similar to my college experience in that it juxtaposed my life to an alternative.

That experience pushed me to dig deeper into terminology and really defining my own political and economic beliefs. And then we had these incredible candidates emerge who were really reflecting back to me what I had just discovered about myself.


When and why did you decide to run for Denver City Council?


I had been asked to run for many years, starting in 2014. I had lived in Washington, DC, for about six years, and returned to Denver in 2014. When I returned, Denver was experiencing rapid change, not all positive. In fact, very poor communities and communities of color were being displaced at rates we had never seen before, including my own community.

I immediately dove deep into policy advocacy from a community perspective and operated in my youth development nonprofit as a mini city council, for people who weren’t ready to step into the city and county buildings but had real issues with the way that the city was being shaped around us. And many times, people said, “If you know all this stuff, why aren’t you the city council person?”

I rejected it for a long time because I wasn’t raised in a family that trusted government or believed in the power of politics. I had some of that residual mistrust. But I worked on the Obama campaign, I saw how exciting it could be. And then, later, seeing Bernie emerge and hearing him talk about a whole different economic structure, and watching an entire country rise and feel connected to that message, I started to think that maybe this political system can transform things if you have the right people in those spaces.

Then we just hit a breaking point in our community. We didn’t have anyone who wanted to run against the person who I ran against. We had incredible issues of inequity and a complete lack of representation. The day I hit my breaking point, I was with my ten-year-old niece, and she asked me “Qell, if you don’t like it, why don’t you run?” I said, “You know what? You’re right.” And so I took her with me on my lunch break and printed out the papers, notarized them at our bank, and we went and filed the papers then and there. We figured it out from there.


You’re a DSA member. What was DSA’s involvement in your race?


Yes. I announced eighteen months before my election. Initially, I thought it was a mistake to have announced so early, but ultimately I think it was really smart to have done that, because I had a longer time to get on people’s radar. But it took us over a year to get a team assembled. It took until the January before my May election to even raise enough money to hire a campaign manager. And it was mostly a process of convincing people what I had spent four years convincing myself of, which was that we can actually win this.

DSA was one of the early adopters of my platform and my vision, and they were barely getting started here in Denver. We were kind of growing our organizations together. I had announced before AOC had announced her race, but having this parallel race on another side of the country inspire DSA to go harder and organize more quickly and effectively, I think that propelled people to pay attention to what DSA was doing, even as they were barely getting started here. The brand of DSA, from what was happening in New York, really translated here in Denver, even without the same level of organization, and it catalyzed other people to jump on our team.

I also had very deep relationships in the nonprofit community and the organizing community. And so people knew my work and were simply trying to find the funding to participate in a municipal election. Most of the organizations that endorsed and helped us do not typically participate in municipal elections.


On the campaign, you experienced a fair amount of red-baiting. I’ve seen the video  that went viral of you at a candidate forum in April. I shared it immediately, but the right-wing press also got ahold of it, and you experienced some serious backlash. Can you talk a little bit about that, what that felt like, how you handled it, and how you ended up overcoming that to win?


It was really unexpected. I had no idea that a message of communism or socialism would be the focal point of my race. It was kind of accidental.

During our first debate, I had three opponents at that time, including the incumbent. And one of the opponents was brand new, really out of place for this type of race, representing a right-wing background in a very liberal city. He had done his own recording of the debate and cherry-picked a moment where I was simply talking about a community land trust that we had started here in Denver, which had been my work for a couple of years leading up to the election, and he was baiting me.

It was incredible how fast that caught fire. It actually caught fire on my birthday. We had a huge storm here in Denver, they called it a “bomb cyclone.” And so our power was out, and my phone was buzzing all day long, but I didn’t want to turn it on because I didn’t want to use power. So I just let it buzz without looking at it. I thought it was birthday wishes. And when I finally got power the next day and I turned it on, I realized the clip had gone viral and these were all death and rape threats.

I was kind of taken aback and didn’t really know if it was going to be a good thing for our campaign or a bad thing. Who would have thought this little local race would have gone viral and national so quickly?

I wasn’t ashamed at all of what I had said in that video, and I was fully prepared to explain what I was talking about and educate people even further. I thought it was a great opportunity for learning. But what I recognized quickly was that the people who it had caught fire with are not the learning types.

And so I had to spend a couple of weeks recalibrating and figuring out how to block out the noise of those people who were coming at me from other parts of the country. Most of it was all coming from outside of the state. I had to just insulate myself. I created some protective layers in my campaign where I wasn’t checking the messages. Other people on the campaign were, so that it wouldn’t send me on a spiral wanting to respond to all of the critiques or the comments or the ignorance.


It wasn’t a death knell for your campaign, obviously, since you’re on the city council now. Do you think it’s possible that actually it did boost your profile a little bit?


Yeah, I absolutely do think that. It sent a whistle to people who understood what I was talking about, and people who wanted to see alternative models of existence. And so it put me on the radar of people who I had never communicated with before. I think that helped us attract an entirely new segment of the population or activate them in a way.


Recently you made headlines again for pushing the Denver City Council to cut contracts with two for-profit prison companies. What are these companies, and why did you want Denver to cut contracts with them? And then how did you persuade people to get it done?


These two private prison companies, GEO and CoreCivic, are the biggest in the nation. They are nimble and they are smart about generating profit, and they know that there’s a movement nationally to address mass incarceration. So they’ve figured out how to adapt to the language of our good intentions and make more money off of community corrections than private prisons. They make money off of halfway houses, ankle bracelets, and drug testing.

So instead of people in cages in these private prisons, we now have basically prisons in our community. It’s kind of like convict leasing in our communities, and people don’t really recognize that we’re paying for that with tax dollars. These companies are making money off of us, and still not really keeping anyone permanently out of prison. In fact, they’re banking on half of them going back.

It was perfect timing for me. I had recently just been at a protest of a GEO detention facility for immigrants in our neighboring city. So the name jumped out at me as a red flag, and I did a little bit of research and saw how they monopolize our community corrections.

I brought this to our Department of Community Corrections, and it was really their response to me that deepened my resolve to do something about it. Their response to me was that nothing could be done because they were the only ones who owned the land that was zoned appropriately for this. And we had no other choice as a government but to give them $10 million to do this work.

For me, when I think about governing, the first thing I think about when making decisions is, are we maintaining leverage as a government to maintain quality or meet the needs of our residents? And that was a clear no with these contracts. So I put a call out to the experts in our community to testify and present the information in an unbiased way so that my colleagues could make an informed decision.

I really hate the idea of counting votes before you propose something in order to know if you should propose it at all. It feels manipulative, and it’s lazy, and it cuts out the public. So I don’t count votes. I count on my community. I believe in giving people all sides of the story and letting them decide. And fortunately, they took in the information and they made the right decision.

So we denied the twelve months being proposed for a renewal, and we forced our mayor to renegotiate those contracts to be shorter and commit to full divestment. We have shorter-term contracts that just were authorized, and a commitment from our Department of Community Corrections to find other providers, because we will not be renewing them when they expire again.


What do you think working-class people deserve that they’re not getting under capitalism?


They deserve everything that the upper-class people have the luxury of access to.

I think that people should be able to work a single job and pay their bills. I think that we should have free time to be creative, to be family members, to be social. I think that we should have the ability to save money, to go on vacations or to do things that we love to do, to learn, to take workshops and classes.

Those are the types of things that working-class people don’t get to do. You’re on a hamster wheel of work, work, work.

You know, I never took a vacation with my family as a kid. We were always worried about food and gas and light. At the end of every single month, we would go without something, and it alternated every month. The idea of lacking something was normalized, and it shouldn’t be. You should be able to obtain all that you need and more, to be able to enjoy your life and be happy.


Do you think that we’re going to ever be able to guarantee that level of dignity and security for working people under capitalism? Or is it going to require some kind of revolution in our political economy?


This is where I have to basically quote what I said in that video that went viral. The capitalist structure is by default extractive. You have to exploit something in the structure to generate a profit. And as long as exploitation is the default, we won’t get to a place of liberation. So I do think that demands not just a political revolution, but an economic revolution.