Elizabeth Velasco seeks to take advocacy work to State Capitol
Editor’s note: This is the second of two stories on the two Democrats seeking election in the June 28 primary for the right to face Republican state Rep. Perry Will in the Nov. 8 general election to represent the new Colorado House District 57. A story on Cole Buerger appeared in Friday’s Post Independent, and can be read online at postindependent.com.
Whether working in the kitchen at some of the top Aspen hotels or helping share vital information to the Latino community during wildfire events, Elizabeth Velasco said she has gotten to know firsthand the issues and concerns affecting working-class residents.
After moving to Eagle County with her family from Mexico when she was 16, she set a course early on to earn her U.S. citizenship so she could eventually become an advocate for the working families who keep the region’s economic engine running.
“I’ve been a community leader and a manager in different work settings since I was 18, so I’ve been honing my leadership skills for a long time,” Velasco, now 34 and a resident of Glenwood Springs, said of her bid for the Democratic nomination to run for the newly redrawn Colorado House District 57 seat.
“I’ve also worked with some very diverse communities, from people who are here on work visas, to people who have been in the community for a long time, to people who are here visiting, and with clients from different upbringings who spoke many different languages,” she said. “So I think that’s where my love for people came from, and I see this as another way to serve the community.”
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in early 2020, she immediately jumped in as a volunteer to help connect people in need to resources, such as rent and food assistance.
Velasco also helped manage the public health response within the Latino community, doing contact tracing and disseminating information about the importance of quarantining and isolating, and eventually helping with vaccine clinics.
“That led me to participate in a national project with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Johns Hopkins University, where we were facilitating stakeholder conversations with the heads of public health from different states,” Velasco said. “So I feel like that’s when I found my voice, and also where I saw that there’s a disconnect between people in power and the people on the ground.”
That same year, when the Grizzly Creek Fire broke out in Glenwood Canyon and Interstate 70 was closed for nearly two weeks, she became involved on the public information side of wildfire incident management.
“I remember the ashes falling on the cars and the smoky days, and just being really scared and thinking, ‘What do I take if we have to evacuate? Where do I go?,’” Velasco said. “My father-in-law was living with us after having a stroke, and we were thinking about the five-hour detour if something happened, and is he going to be OK.”
She said it occurred to her that others in the community were having those same stressful thoughts, so she became involved in interpreting and translating for the community briefings and sharing information on Spanish-speaking radio stations.
“Last year, I got my red card and my wildland firefighter Type 2 certification, and I was deployed in California and Oregon for the mega fires out there, working with tribal communities, ranchers and landowners, and making sure people were safe,” she said of her continuing journey.
Velasco faces fellow Democrat Cole Buerger, also of Glenwood Springs, in the House District 57 primary June 28. Ballots for the election go out to registered voters on Monday.
The primary vote, which is open to both registered Democrats and unaffiliated voters, will determine the Democratic challenger to face incumbent Republican state Rep. Perry Will, R-New Castle, in the November general election. Will is not contested for the Republican nomination.
House District 57 was reconfigured with last year’s legislative redistricting, and now includes all of Garfield and Pitkin counties, and the Roaring Fork Valley portion of southwest Eagle County.
The candidates are set to meet in a primary election forum at the Glenwood Springs Library, 815 Cooper Ave., from 6-7 p.m. Tuesday.
Velasco moved to the U.S. when she was still in high school, graduating from Battle Mountain High School before earning a culinary arts degree from Colorado Mountain College.
She worked at the Ritz Carlton in Aspen and with Belle Resorts, which took her to places like Switzerland and different locations in Asia where she had the opportunity to work with celebrity chefs.
“I did that for almost 10 years,” said Velasco, who also worked toward and eventually earned her U.S. citizenship when she was 26.
“I love the kitchen, and now that I’m in firefighting it feels very similar; you know, very high-paced and efficient, and you have to make decisions fast,” she said.
Fire incident communication provides her an opportunity to interact more directly with people, and to learn about common issues and concerns, Velasco said.
She said she also became familiar with the many different backgrounds of the firefighters who come from all over to work wildland fires across the west.
“On one of the fires in Oregon, we were talking to this crew that came from Puerto Rico and learned how they’re training to improve their chainsaw skills so they can use that back home during the hurricane season,” Velasco said.
Those interactions also led to discussions and concerns around working conditions, pay, benefits and health issues associated with firefighting, she said.
Velasco places the main issues facing the 57th District and Colorado in general under the “four pillars” of her campaign — community resiliency, infrastructure, access to health care and supporting families.
“I see that a lot of the issues are interconnected, and things don’t get solved in a day,” she said. “It’s important to bring our community’s voice to the table to make sure we are working on these things in tandem.”
She relates that approach to everything from housing and health care to climate change and water concerns.
“I see things like fire and drought and higher temperatures as our new reality,” she said. “So we have to do things to support firefighters and other outdoors workers, and financially support forest health.”
That also extends to making sure communities have the resources to protect against loss of life and property during wildfires, Velasco said.
When it comes to water resources, she said that, alongside conservation efforts, efforts need to be made to ensure water system infrastructure is maintained and operating efficiently so that water is not being wasted.
“We also have to look at our agreements with surrounding states to make sure that we’re not diverting too much water and that we are holding all of the stakeholders accountable,” Velasco said.
Housing needs are connected to community resiliency and ultimately the economy, she said.
“Employers see that they’re understaffed and people can’t afford to live here, but it also goes together with getting paid a living wage and supporting families,” Velasco said. “We have to find ways for municipalities to have the resources to buy land and create affordable housing development, and make sure people have access to low-interest loans.”
The state should also further protections for mobile home residents and afford them the opportunity to buy their mobile home parks when they go up for sale, as recently happened in Dotsero, she said.
Protecting reproductive rights and supporting access to health care and making more provisions for paid leave for workers are also among the top priorities, she said.
“There are still many barriers to access for our community, especially because we are a rural community,” Velasco said.
As a trained facilitator and mediator, Velasco also said she believes she has the ability to work across party lines to come up with bipartisan solutions.
“We have to find those points of commonality … because we all want the best for our kids, and we want them to have access to opportunities and to resources,” she said. “I will work with anyone who wants common-sense solutions.”
Velasco has earned the endorsements of several labor unions in Colorado and said she’ll fight for workers’ rights. She has also been endorsed by the Latino advocacy group, Voces Unidas Action Fund and, if ultimately elected, said she looks forward to working with the Latino Caucus in the Colorado Legislature.
Senior Reporter/Managing Editor John Stroud can be reached at 970-384-9160 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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