Yadira Caraveo talks to District 8 voters.
State Rep. Yadira Caraveo, D-Thornton, makes a stop as part of her campaign to represent Colorado's 8th Congressional District. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

State Rep. Yadira Caraveo, the Democrat running to represent Colorado’s new 8th Congressional District, has since May 13 paid herself a salary of more than $39,000 from her campaign coffers, according to a Colorado Sun analysis of Federal Elections Commission filings.

There’s nothing illegal about the payments, first reported by the conservative blog Complete Colorado. But it’s unusual for candidates to pay themselves or their loved ones a salary because of the criticism it can draw. 

Republican U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn, for instance, has faced criticism for regularly paying his wife thousands of dollars out of his campaign’s funds.

Caraveo, who is running against Republican state Sen. Barbara Kirkmeyer, is being paid a biweekly salary of $3,382.18 by her campaign, which is the equivalent of what someone earning about $81,000 annually before taxes is paid. Caraveo’s campaign staffers are not earning as much each pay period, according to the candidate’s FEC filings. The campaign has so far raised about $3.2 million.

Caraveo, a pediatrician, entered the race to represent Colorado’s new, highly competitive 8th District in August 2021, meaning that she didn’t start paying herself a salary until well into her bid.

“My parents’ hard work allowed me to pursue my American Dream, becoming the first in my family to graduate from college and become a pediatrician,” Caraveo said in a written statement to The Unaffiliated. “But that dream to serve families across this community came with sacrifice. I am still paying off the hundreds of thousands of dollars in student loans needed to achieve my degree. The stakes of this election are too high, so I have stepped away (from) actively practicing as a pediatrician. But unlike wealthy politicians who can go without a paycheck, I, like many families across the 8th District, cannot go months without a salary.”

Caraveo’s personal financial disclosure filed in May showed she has student loan debt between $250,000 and $500,000. She was earning a $130,000 salary for her work as a pediatrician, on top of the $43,000 she earns as a state lawmaker.

Student loan payments were paused in August through the end of the year, though there was uncertainty for months before then about when the Biden administration would start requiring people to pay off their debt again.

Kirkmeyer said on conservative talk radio this week that Caraveo’s decision to pay herself a salary is “unethical and irresponsible.”

“When you’re out there campaigning and you’re telling people ‘Hey, I’m running for office and this is what I’m going to use the money for,’ I don’t think any of my donors would have envisioned that I was going to use it to pay myself a salary,” Kirkmeyer said on 710 KNUS.

Kirkmeyer faced criticism when she was a Weld County commissioner for racking up tens of thousands of dollars in mileage reimbursements, and her campaigns for county commissioner over the years paid her daughter thousands of dollars in consulting fees.

State Sen. Barbara Kirkmeyer, a Republican running to represent the 8th Congressional District, speaks to supporters at an event Saturday at her campaign’s headquarters in Thornton. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

Behind the scenes, Colorado’s political class has for years been debating pay for candidates and elected officials and how that affects who runs for office.

State lawmakers, for instance, are paid about $40,000 each year for their work, well below Colorado’s median household income of $75,000.

The pay is relatively low because serving in the state’s citizen legislature is supposed to be a part-time gig. But state lawmakers often say their work is full time, especially if they want to do it effectively. And there aren’t many professions that let people take off 120 days, which is the length of the legislative session.

Caraveo’s supporters argue the political system is set up to include only people who can financially afford to participate.

“For far too long, our halls of power where decisions are made have prioritized people with privilege and locked out women of color,” Laphonza Butler, the president of Emily’s List, said in a written statement on behalf of Caraveo, whom the nonprofit group has endorsed. “Yadira Caraveo has worked hard all her life to put herself through school, now giving back to her community as a pediatrician and state legislator. We need more leaders like Yadira in Congress.”

The race in the 8th District is one of the most competitive U.S. House contests in the nation this year. The outcome could decide which party controls Congress.

Caraveo had raised about $3.2 million through Oct. 19 and spent more than $2.5 million. Kirkmeyer had raised about $1.3 million through Oct. 19, and spent about $1.2 million.

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Jesse Paul

The Colorado Sun — jesse@coloradosun.com Desk: 720-432-2229 Jesse Paul is a political reporter and editor at The Colorado Sun, covering the state legislature, Congress and local politics. He is...