The Bernie Sanders of El Paso County

Electra Johnson poses a challenge from the left.

by Andrew Braverman; photos by Leo Turpan

 

At the El Paso County Democratic Party Assembly in March, Electra Johnson stood up—“with my child on my hip,” as she tells it—and presented the case for Sen. Bernie Sanders’ platform. She was a novice, “never having caucused before,” but after a speech advocating healthcare and student loan reform that echoed Sanders’ progressive initiatives, friends at the event informed her of the upcoming race for county commissioner. Johnson, long disturbed by local issues like the “sit/lie” ordinance, decided to run for a seat on a commission that hasn’t held a Democrat in over 40 years. “We need humanity back in politics,” she flatly asserts. 

For those unfamiliar with Johnson, or only familiar with the eggplant purple “Elect Electra” signs scattered in yards around the North End, she’s an architect and urban designer by training. She has a masters in both fields in addition to a bachelors in construction management and interior design. On top of it all, she’s a third generation Coloradan who wears her pride on her sleeve.

She rattles off her qualifications so quickly and energetically that sometimes off-hand comments like, “...and then I modeled in Europe for 17 years and all that...” are glossed over without a pause.

Johnson squeezed me into her schedule after an all-day symposium about new preventative burning methods for combatting forest fires. She spent the first 10 minutes of our conversaton excitedly unwrapping this issue, and it immediately became clear that her idealism had reached a boiling point—similar to so many other Americans in the past couple years. However, unlike so many others, Johnson has gone beyond taking an hour out of her day on Nov. 8. 

Her hope is that, “through political awakening…people will realize [the] significance of local elections.”

 Still, she almost came across as jaded at times, like when she suggested that, “the American dream has been a phenomenal marketing campaign.” But it seemed to me that there was more to this statement than apathy. 

As we talked, she chose her words carefully but spoke fast enough that it seemed her speech could barely keep up with her impassioned dissatisfactions. You can tell that she’s just begun to fit these frustrations into a traditional political narrative, jumping from rants about tangible inequities to putting forward vague ideas like “civil discourse” as a remedy. While this tangential speech belies her inexperience, it also struck me as characteristic of that “outsider” mentality which so much of the electorate has been looking for. At one point, after I commented on her impressive level of policy knowhow, she chuckled and retorted, “you probably know more about politics than I do.” 

Throughout our conversation, Johnson would lean forward and start saying something or crack a joke, and would quickly backtrack and ask that I not print that. She’d pound the desk when she was pissed and drop her voice to a whisper when she was talking about something that mattered, something that really mattered. While some might scoff and dismiss such quirks, it struck me as a glimpse of honesty shining through a political veneer so recently adorned. There was a vivacity to this county commissioner-hopeful that I’ve rarely seen.

So what is a county commissioner? I admittedly was unsure about this as I began this article and it even seemed that Johnson wasn’t 100 percent sure of the exact work she would be doing. 

A county commission is a group of officials who help to administer governance of a given county. In some places, county commissions have ceded authority because of the growth of megacities where municipal administrations hold more and more sway. Those that remain, however, work on a range of local issues from infrastructure, transportation, zoning and sanitation to law enforcement and public welfare legislation. County commissioners meet with other public employees day-to-day, figuring out how to address the most urgent issues in the county area. 

Johnson has interacted with county commissioners time and time again as an architect and urban designer, so she’s already gleaned an idea of the demands of the job. 

As Johnson campaigns, the issues that she hammers home in interviews, has pasted on her website and likely even shares with passer-bys are sustainable development, job creation, protection of natural resources, disaster preparedness, and community health and education. She’ll be vying to steal votes from GOP establishment member and local businessman Stan VanderWerf, who shares a handful of the aforementioned pillars with Johnson. 

VanderWerf served in the U.S. Air Force for 27 years, and since leaving has headed an aerospace defense company and a 3D printing business. He’s a Christian, a local, a veteran and an Elephant through and through. Given how entrenched the Right is in the local politics of El Paso County, Johnson thinks defeating VanderWerf will be quite difficult. She bemoaned the tight network of the local GOP, mentioning that Patrick Davis—the local Trump organizer—is Stan’s campaign manager and how the same guy who ran Darryl Glenn’s (tea party poster boy and aspiring Coloradan senator) social media campaign is running VanderWerf’s. She described a Pikes Peak leadership conference that Stan attended along with other aspiring Republican politicians in the area as “a Koch brother leadership training.” 

When I asked her what the most crucial differences between her and VanderWerf is, Johnson was quick to answer. “He promotes the status quo.” For her, this stasis is not an option. Things need to change, to adapt, to progress.

“My opponent can win by doing nothing,” she laments. 

Johnson is clearly under the impression that Stan sees her as a nuisance, describing his thought process as: “If he ignores me I’ll go away.” He’s been reluctant to engage her in debate or even acknowledge her campaign. 

She’s even insistent that there’s been “a target on left-leaning voters to keep them from voting.” Supporting this, she recalled a situation a few years back where letters were distributed around the Colorado College campus suggesting that students couldn’t vote because they weren’t from Colorado. Clearly deceitful, the letters were immediately redacted, but “the damage was done.” She emphasizes how the electorate can be controlled if it’s kept inactive and this is what she’s seen in El Paso County. 

Johnson is the first to admit, “most of [her] campaign” is composed of Bernie backers and champions of his “Our Revolution” theme. This was obvious throughout our conversation. I pressed her at one point, asking if she thinks she would even be running right now if it wasn’t for the fire of disillusion that Sanders lit.

She responded bluntly, “No.” 

“That reality was something I was drowning in,” she explained, “but didn’t have a lens. What Bernie Sanders did was put a lens on the reality of what was going on with Americans struggling in society right now.”  

 Stan VanderWerf, Electra Johnson's opponent in the upcoming race for county commissioner.

Stan VanderWerf, Electra Johnson's opponent in the upcoming race for county commissioner.

Johnson admitted that she will be voting for Hillary Clinton in November, but seemed to gag on those words as she spoke them. She abhors the Clinton campaign’s failure to officially recognize Sanders’ campaign. When I suggested that Sanders’ idealism could be unrealistic, she insisted that “maintaining your idealism is really important.” 

“The Colorado I grew up in wasn’t about parties,” she added. “We desperately need more than that…Our two party system is really broken.” 

Her distaste for two-party politics is palpable. She eventually exclaimed, “a fire does not choose a Democrat or Republican’s house to burn down!” 

“Certain people…run for office out of destruction of the things they hate, others for the protection of the things they love,” Johnson said in a low voice, leaning towards me and begging understanding with her eyes. She’s one of the latter, she adds. 

“It really disturbs me, the place we’re in, but at the same time, it makes sense.”     

It’s fairly clear to her, me, VanderWerf and most other politically-aware people in El Paso County that Johnson is going to have a tremendously difficult time winning this election. As if foreseeing this comment she carefully clarified that “this isn’t a one-term election. If I lose this, I will keep running until I’m involved.” 

Outcome of the county commissioner election aside, Johnson embodies the “political revolution” that our country has witnessed in the past twelve months. Previously static members of the voting bloc have been reinvigorated on both sides of the spectrum. She is certainly one of them.

Johnson is running because she’s angry. She’s angry because so much is so wrong with today’s legislators and the legislation they pen. She’s running so that she can do something about it.