3 new liberal faces emerge as groomed Aurora city council candidates

AURORA | Aurora City Council could become considerably bluer this fall if three candidates, all graduates or soon-to-be alumnae of a program designed to get more Democratic women involved in politics, are as successful as their peers across the state and country.

A trio of women running for three different city council posts this November were each molded by Emerge Colorado, an organization that guides women — who are also registered Democrats — through a six-month-long crash course in how to run a political campaign.

The three candidates are: Allison Hiltz, who’s running for one of two available at-large seats, Crystal Murillo, who’s currently the sole challenger to Ward I incumbent Sally Mounier, and Nicole Johnston, who’s vying for the up-for-grabs Ward II seat. The current Ward II representative, Renie Peterson, is term limited.

All three of the candidates running in Aurora’s upcoming election have not run for political office before. Both Hiltz, a policy associate for the National Conference of State Legislatures, and Murillo, who works in the admissions office at the University of Denver, graduated from the Emerge Colorado program last summer. Johnston, a community activist and consultant for non-profit organizations, is still in the process of finishing the Emerge program during its week-long summer intensive course.

The Colorado chapter of Emerge is the local spoke of a nationwide network, which comprises efforts in 21 states. Since it was founded in 2002, the group has trained more than 2,500 women across the country, according to the Emerge America website. The Colorado branch was founded in 2012.

But the organization has seen a considerable uptick in interest since last year’s presidential election, according to Jenny Willford, executive director of Emerge Colorado.

Willford said Emerge chapters nationwide saw a nearly 90 percent bump in inquiries. Locally, the chapter saw at least a two-fold increase in the number of inquiries, she said.

“It’s exciting to see all of the renewed interest and … almost like a sense of duty to step up,” Willford said. “And, yes, I think this new interest in politics is going to translate to municipal elections.”

After applying and paying a tuition fee, about 20 women in last year’s Emerge class attend 70 hours of training, which is spread over the course of about one weekend each month, according to Hiltz and Murillo. Training topics ranges from campaign finance to constituent relations to media navigation.

In Aurora, each of the Emerge-affiliated candidates said they want the local city council to better reflect the city it serves. That means candidates who are younger and of various political persuasions and backgrounds.

“I just felt it was necessary to add a different perspective, especially when realizing the lack of representation embodied on our current city council,” said Murillo, who is 23-years-old.

Aurora’s current city council is made up of six females and fives males, the vast majority of whom are white Republicans. The average age among council members is roughly 64 years old, according to voter registration records.

The median age in the city is about 37 years old, according to data compiled by Aurora officials. Nearly one-third of the city’s population identifies as Hispanic, according to census data. Less than half of the city’s some 350,000 residents report their race being “white alone,” according to statistics reported by City-Data.com.

Emerge has experienced wild success in Colorado in recent years, with a nearly 90 percent win-rate in municipal-level and state-level elections last year. Seven of the eight graduates who ran in a 2016 election won. Two of last year’s Emerge winners make up a portion of Aurora’s delegation in the state legislature; Dominique Jackson in House District 42 and Dafna Michaelson Jenet in House District 30.

And it’s not unusual for several Emerge candidates to run in the same race, as they are this year in Aurora, according to Willford. In 2015, three different Emerge graduates won three seats on the Westminster City Council. A previous Emerge alumnus, who was already on the council, brought the total number of Emerge Councilmembers in that city to four — more than half of the total seats.

Across the country, the group succeeds in placing about 70 percent of affiliated candidates into elected office, according to the Emerge America website.

But Willford said the Emerge Colorado graduates are not targeting specific cities with vulnerable seats. The organization and its participants are more focused on creating a more well-rounded government, she said.

“I would say the community is changing in a way that who is representing (community members) on council should be reflective of the voters,” she said. “At the end of the day, we don’t want to take over city council. We want a more reflective democracy.”

Aurora Sentinel reporter Cassandra Ballard contributed to this report.