Colorado’s 7th Congressional District, reconfigured for 2023, will get a new representative in Washington, D.C., as incumbent Democratic Rep. Ed Perlmutter retires after 16 years in federal office.
Democratic state Sen. Brittany Pettersen, of Lakewood, and Republican Army veteran Erik Aadland, a first-time candidate from Pine, are vying to succeed Perlmutter.
The 7th District, whose contours were changed during last year’s once-a-decade redistricting process, is anchored in Jefferson County and stretches into Broomfield and several mountain counties to the west and south. It leans in Democrats’ favor, according to past election results. Democratic Sen. John Hickenlooper won the district by 10 percentage points in 2020.
Here’s what you need to know about Aadland and Pettersen.
The candidates’ background
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Pettersen, 40, grew up in Jefferson County and received a bachelor’s degree in political science from Metropolitan State University. Before running successfully for the state House in 2012, she worked for New Era Colorado, a liberal group that aims to get young people more involved in politics. After three terms in the House, she ran successfully for state Senate in 2018.
Aadland, 41, is the son of a retired Air Force major general, and graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and served in the Army from 2002 through 2011. He received two Bronze Stars for his efforts during tours in Afghanistan and Iraq. He then worked in the oil and gas industry for Noble Energy, which has since been purchased by Chevron, and received a master’s degree in depth psychology from Pacifica Masters Institute in California.
The candidates’ top priority in Congress
Pettersen said her No. 1 priority is democratic reform, including protecting voter rights and ensuring that state officials can’t overturn the will of voters in a presidential election.
“We saw in 2020 how fragile our democracy truly is,” she said.
Pettersen said tax fairness to address income inequality is also high on her list.
Aadland said “addressing the polarization and division in our society, which I think is toxic” is his top priority in Congress. He said he’d focus on constituent services in the 7th District as part of that.
“Policywise, my chief concern right now is the economy,” he said.
Inflation & recession
We asked the candidates how they, as one of 535 members of the U.S. House and Senate, could help relieve inflation and potentially prevent a recession.
Aadland said he’d focus on curbing government spending, referring to a platform from Republican House leaders that calls for making the U.S. energy independent by boosting oil and gas production and strengthening the domestic supply chain.
Pettersen said investing in ports to improve the movement of cargo would help with supply chain issues and drive down consumer costs. She also believes loan forgiveness programs for people who enter fields with workforce shortages, such as education or health care, could aid the economy.
Pettersen said she’d vote for federal legislation to protect the right to an abortion across the U.S., noting her support earlier this year for a new Colorado law guaranteeing access to abortions and contraception.
“This is the most personal decision that you can make in your life and nobody should make that for you,” she said. “This is between individuals who are pregnant, their family, their doctors.”
Aadland said he believes abortion is an issue that should be decided by individual states. He also said he opposes the law approved by Colorado’s legislature earlier this year.
“I will not vote for a federal abortion ban,” he said. “I won’t support any (abortion) legislation whatsoever, whether it comes from Republicans or Democrats. It’s not Congress’ role to be involved in this issue.
“I’m personally pro-life,” Aadland said, but he didn’t go into specifics about what that means with The Sun or in recent forums.
Asked about U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham’s proposal to ban abortion nationwide after 15 weeks, Aadland called the South Carolina Republican’s bill “a political stunt that further divides the nation as we lead up to the midterms.”
Both candidates say young people brought to the U.S. illegally as young children, often referred to as Dreamers, should have a path to citizenship. Those people have temporary deportation protection under an Obama-era program called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.
But Aadland and Pettersen differ on other aspects of immigration policy.
Aadland decried “the open border policies of the Biden administration,” saying in at least two candidate forums that the U.S. should finish building a wall along the border that was a centerpiece of former President Donald Trump’s immigration platform.
“I think there needs to be a clear process for migrant workers and labor,” he said.
Pettersen said she supports increasing border security in a different way.
“Walls don’t work,” Pettersen said. “But we have the technology and investment — we have the resources there — where we can work on border security.”
Pettersen said many of the people who tried to come into the U.S. in the past year are fleeing violent regimes in South America and want jobs. She said more should be done to help those people fill gaps in America’s labor market.
Pettersen said she would have supported Democrats’ Inflation Reduction Act approved by Congress this summer, which dedicated billions of dollars to address climate change and sought to reform the tax code. But she says the measure didn’t go far enough.
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Pettersen said she’d like to see the nation’s energy grid improved so it has the capacity to store and deliver renewable energy.
“Coal and oil and gas are much dirtier than natural gas,” she said. “So, in the meantime, that is … our transitional energy source while we’re building capacity” for renewables.
Aadland, in an interview with The Sun, didn’t provide specific plans on how to address climate change, saying, “I think that there’s a lot of competing narratives about how we are impacting the environment.”
In one candidate forum, he talked about “balancing” use of fossil fuels, expanding nuclear power and continuing use of renewable energy.
“Congress can work toward balance, energy reform,” he told The Sun. “Now, I don’t see any balance whatsoever coming out of the Biden administration.”
Pettersen said she supports the Respect for Marriage Act, which would guarantee same-sex couples the right to marry. The bill was passed by the U.S. House and is awaiting action in the Senate.
“I support the rights of individuals, the freedom to marry who you love,” she said.
Aadland said he supports gay marriage but that the issue should be left to states to decide.
“It’s one of those issues where it’s not part of my platform,” he said. “It’s not one that I’m going to advocate for or champion. I don’t think that it’s an issue.”
The Sun asked Pettersen and Aadland, who have each talked about their mothers’ battles with opioid addiction, how Congress could address drug addiction and recovery.
Aadland falsely claimed that Pettersen “started a clean injection site. I’m vehemently opposed to such methods.”
Pettersen was among several sponsors of a bipartisan bill in 2018 that would have allowed such a site in the city of Denver as a temporary pilot program. But the measure was rejected in committee. Harm-reduction leaders hoped the bill would be introduced in 2019 by Pettersen and other state lawmakers, but amid intense political pressure from Republicans, it was not.
“I was the one that stopped it at the state level,” Pettersen said. “Even though doctors recommend this — and we know that we can save lives. It is something that is used to stigmatize and bring fear and misinformation around the most vulnerable individuals.”
At the federal level, Pettersen said ensuring Medicaid expansion to cover substance abuse disorder treatment would be a significant step. She noted that she’s sponsored legislation in Colorado to put more money into treatment programs.
Aadland didn’t offer a federal solution to the issue.
“There is this idea that Congress is responsible to solve every problem and that’s not true,” he said. “It’s ultimately not Congress’s responsibility, but it is an epidemic.”
Changing one’s mind and compromising
The Sun asked Pettersen and Aadland to share a time when they changed their minds on an issue.
Pettersen said she favored repealing Colorado’s death penalty until she heard a Democratic colleague in the legislature, Rhonda Fields, talk about the murders of her son and his fiancee at the hands of two men who were convicted and sentenced to death. Pettersen then voted against repealing the death penalty in 2013 while on a House committee.
(Pettersen was marked excused when the Colorado Senate voted to repeal the death penalty in 2020.)
Aadland said his views on abortion have evolved.
“As a young man, prior to being a father, I wasn’t concerned about this issue,” he said. “I’ve also recognized that there’s a difference between what (opinion) somebody might hold as a private citizen, and what they must do as a representative.”
Asked about a time when he’s compromised with others, Aadland replied, “I haven’t been an elected official. So I’ve never had a compromise with a specific vote.”
Pettersen said virtually every bill she’s worked on in the legislature has required some level of compromise. She pointed to a program allowing private employees to create retirement accounts, an effort that became law in 2020 after several years of trying.
“We still had banks that weren’t happy with that bill,” she said. “But it was incumbent upon us to solve the problems facing Coloradans and the people we represent in retirement security and access to saving plans is a huge gap, especially for me and my generation and people coming behind us we are not offered retirement plans at work like previous generations.”
She added: “A lot of times, the opposing side has important perspectives that you need to take into consideration to make your bill better.”
Did Joe Biden legitimately win the 2020 presidential election?
“Yes,” Pettersen said.
Asked if she’d like to have Biden campaign with her, she said, “I would be happy to have the president here.”
Aadland acknowledged that Biden “is the legitimate president. I have said that many times.”
The Sun asked about reports that he said the election was illegitimate. In June, he told a Republican group the election was “undermined by fraud, how they were corrupted, and now how we have an illegitimate government in power.” The Washington Post included him on a list of election deniers.
“I said it was rigged,” he told The Sun. “That’s different.”
Asked if he’d like Trump’s endorsement, Aadland said he wouldn’t.
“Trump’s not on the ballot, thankfully, and I want to stand on my own merit,” he said. “I don’t want to be assessed based on Trump’s actions. Trump is a divisive figure, especially here in Colorado.”
CORRECTION: This story was updated at 3 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 13, 2022, to correct an error about when Erik Aadland, the Republican candidate in the 7th Congressional District, talked about the 2020 presidential election being illegitimate. He made the remarks in June.