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Lorena Garcia, a Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate in Colorado, talks to supporters at a petition signing event on Jan. 21, 2020 at Blush and Blu in Denver. (John Frank, The Colorado Sun)

Inside a lesbian bar on East Colfax Avenue in Denver, a stream of Democrats — overwhelmingly young, diverse and hip — gather in front of a table with clipboards. 

The white petitions glow in the neon light and beckon the three dozen in the crowd to help Lorena Garcia, a little-known candidate, qualify for Colorado’s marquee U.S. Senate race. 

With petitions in hand, the 37-year-old queer Latina casts herself as the true progressive in the contest as she talks to supporters. She is hoping to tap into the same voter discontent with traditional candidates that pervades the Democratic presidential race.

She touts an endorsement from Denver City Councilwoman Candi CdeBaca, who ran as a far-left insurgent candidate, and aligns herself with New York’s U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a leading progressive voice in Washington.

“We are in a place in history — you see it across the nation and in Colorado — where people are wanting candidates that are willing to fight against the status quo, that are willing to speak out against what’s been acceptable for too long,” Garcia said. “Because what’s been acceptable for too long has only created a growing wealth gap, it’s only created more poverty, it’s only created more discrimination.”

Her competition for this mantle is former House Speaker Andrew Romanoff. Both candidates back a “Medicare for All” health care system, support the Green New Deal environmental jobs plan and want to implement a ban on fracking.

And both want to position themselves as the alternative to former Gov. John Hickenlooper, a moderate Democrat with backing from the party’s leaders in Washington.

Garcia’s campaign began in earnest Tuesday — the first day that candidates could begin to collect signatures to get their names on the ballot for the Democratic primary for U.S. Senate in June.

The petition path is a difficult one

Garcia and Hickenlooper will need at least 10,500 valid voter signatures — 1,500 from each of the state’s seven congressional districts — in the next 57 days to make the ballot. Romanoff plans to qualify for the race through the party caucuses that start in March.

The Hickenlooper campaign, which reported raising $2.8 million in the final three months of 2019, will spend big money to hire an outside firm to collect the bulk of its petitions. But Garcia — who raised about $50,000 through September and spent most of it — is using her three-person campaign staff and volunteers.

The difficult task began for Garcia at Blush & Blu, the bar in Denver where supporters signed petitions and volunteers learned how to collect even more. 

Democrat Lorena Garcia, a candidate for U.S. Senate in Colorado, is seeking to qualify for the ballot through the petition process. She started collecting signatures Jan. 21, 2020 at an event at Blush & Blu in Denver. (John Frank, The Colorado Sun)

“We don’t get to certain levels of change abiding by the status quo,” said John Ronquillo, a supporter, as he energized the crowd. “And right now I feel that we have some candidates who scream status quo.”

Kaitlyn Hickmann is one of the first to sign her name on Garcia’s petitions. She’s undecided on which candidate to support in the Democratic primary but wants to see diverse candidates. Both Hickenlooper and Romanoff are white men. 

“I think we need more women and people of color on the ballot,” the 23-year-old from Denver said. “I also know she’s progressive and I want more progressive people on the ballot.”

The petition route is risky. A voter’s signature can only count once, so the candidate who submits it first can count. As a safeguard, Garcia, a nonprofit executive director and political organizer, set a goal to collect 20,000 signatures — nearly twice the total needed — and turn them in ahead of the March 17 deadline.

“A lot of people have doubts about our campaign, so we want to show … the true support we have across the state,” said Chris Meisner, her campaign manager.

MORE: Here are the Democrats running to unseat Republican U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner in 2020

The risk for Garcia: playing the spoiler to help Hickenlooper

If she makes the ballot, Garcia risks splitting the progressive vote with Romanoff, a move that would make it easier for Hickenlooper to win the party’s nomination. 

But Garcia said she’s not worried about it. “If Romanoff was a real progressive, maybe,” she said, “but he’s not a real progressive, so I’m not concerned.”

Garcia highlighted Romanoff’s record on immigration and his work in 2006 to pass restrictive measures on people living in the U.S. illegally as well as his platform from a failed bid for Congress in 2014. “He was running on a moderate ticket,” she said. “He’s a candidate that runs on what’s trendy at the time.”

Romanoff has apologized for the 2006 legislation, calling it a mistake. In an interview, he touted his record, pointing to his work leading Democrats to a majority in the state House, helping to create a school construction fund and raising awareness about mental health. 

“She and I agree on a number of issues,” he said.

What gives him the advantage, Romanoff said, is his elected experience. It means he knows how “to get big things done,” he added.

But Garcia’s allies say it’s time for a fresh start. CdeBaca told the crowd at the bar that Democrats don’t need more bridge-builders, they need truth-tellers. This election, she added, is the chance to send a message. “We cannot continue to elect the same people,” she said. “We need a fresh perspective.”

John Frank is a former Colorado Sun staff writer. He left the publication in January 2021.