Editor's Note: A previous version of this story erroneously reversed the endorsements in the HD-17 race.
In both a blessing and a curse, Democrats in Southeast Colorado Springs are voting on tough primary races in both Senate District 11 and House District 17.
Ballots went out in the mail last week to all active voters with a valid mailing address. Ballots must be received by the El Paso Clerk and Recorder by June 28. The Clerk and Recorder suggests mailing in a ballot no later than June 20 to make the cut-off. Ballots may also be deposited in any of the official drop boxes around the county, or at an official voting service polling center location until Election Day on June 28.
NOTE: Voters registered as unaffiliated will have received a ballot for the GOP, and one for the Democrats. Only turn in one of those ballots. Sending in both will invalidate both.
In the newly drawn SD-11 district, the primary contest is between the two best-known politicians of color from the area — current HD-17 Rep. Tony Exum and current District 4 Colorado Springs City Councilor Yolanda Avila
The winner between Exum and Avila will face Sen. Dennis Hisey (R-SD2) in the November election.
On the GOP side, columnist and radio host Rachel Stovall is running.
"A lot of folks are going to be torn on how they're going to vote," Exum acknowledges.
Both Democratic candidates for SD-11 say they're working hard, reaching out to the community this primary season ... something they wouldn't normally have to do except both of them have such good name recognition.
They each also have substantial track records to lure primary voters.
"Half a billion [in new economic investment and grant money] to the Southeast and the airport [in her time in office] ain't bad," Avilla boasts. She mentions the urban renewal projects she brought to the area after years of the area being ignored, and the millions in additional dollars she helped advocate for during the redevelopment of Panorama Park as tangible examples of why she deserves higher office.
Exum however can point to multiple bills he's shepherded through the legislature from the house side, and his clear experience advantage in legislative matters.
Though there is considerable overlap in platform, there are differences in what priority each of them state.
Exum says his priorities have stayed largely consistent during his time in the legislature: education, infrastructure, jobs and the economy, air quality and now Covid recovery.
"I believe I have a strong voting record on those," he said.
Exum also mentioned his co-prime sponsor status on the state's school safety bill, and his support of red flag laws, like the one passed in Colorado in 2019.
"It's needed and still allows due process," he said.
Such laws allow for the temporary seizing of firearms from individuals if a court deems them to be a threat to themselves or others.
Avila lists her priorities as being housing (access and purchase assistance), followed by economic development, transportation [being blind and dependent on public transit making it personal to her], trans rights and abortion rights.
"I'm concerned that women keep dominion over their own bodies," she said.
There are some topics where the two are in complete agreement ... like how the fact that their GOP opponent Hise just moved into the newly drawn SD-11 borders (stretching from Manitou in the west, along the Highway 24 corridor to include much of southern Colorado Springs and most of Stratmoor) recently will be an easy avenue of attack.
"For me, I'm five generations here in Colorado Springs," Avila said.
"I've been here 60 years, so I welcome the debate," said Exum.
Both candidates also talked about the importance of voter awareness and turnout. Avila said she's used to such struggles, having to campaign for city office in April before. But with unaffiliated voters being the largest voting block, they each stressed the importance of everyone, not just Democratic primary voters to be ready to cast a ballot in November.
"When you don't vote, you lose your voice," Exum said. "Have a voice."
English says she is confident, and that this is the best campaign she's run.
"The people deserve someone who's mature, who's well rounded, who has been through some things, someone who has a track record for getting some things done for a lot of people," she said.
She points to Harrison School District's steady financial footing as proof of her qualifications. English also points to education and the power of public schools as a catalyst for positive change in communities.
Smith by comparison talks more about energizing the base, and bringing new excitement to the house race. She's quick to dismiss the "new to politics" label.
"I've got 10 years of experience in politics," she says, pointing to her resume which includes working as an organizer on the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign, a staffer for the Pete Buttigieg presidential campaign, and the Deputy Political Director for the John Hickenlooper senate run. She's also gone through the Lead Colorado and Emerge Colorado training programs in preparation to run and win public office.
But, why run herself?
"I think it was the pandemic. Seeing in real time the lack of representation that we have nationally, and sometimes locally in different districts."
She also brushes off the "too young" critique.
“That’s what they tell every woman,” she said, countering by saying that younger Coloradoans deserve representation in the legislature too.
English says equity will be at the forefront of her legislative agenda, tackling housing problems and the issue of gentrification.
"You just have to be intentional, and take a compassionate and focused approach to making lives better for constituents," English said.
Smith said her top priorities will be education, mental health and housing.
She says working seven years in education, holding a degree in mental health, and being a Millennial actively trying to buy a house in the Southeast right now makes her uniquely qualified.
“I think it’s easier to fix an issue when you’ve experienced it," she said.
English has the endorsement of Exum, while Smith has the endorsement of Avila.
The race is a momentous one in terms of representation. All three candidates are Black women, a fact not lost on any of them in the campaign.
"I've got mad love for my sisters," English said, "but I believe I'm the best candidate."
“Regardless of who you’re supporters, get out and vote,” Smith said. "Every vote matters, so do your research, follow our track records, check out our websites, follow the money.”