Dressed in a plaid shirt and fishing-themed baseball cap, Representative Leslie Herod sat at a small table in Coffee at the Point. She had just come from a trip to Lincoln Hills—one of the first resorts for African Americans in the country—where she had participated in a fly fishing event focused on providing support and leadership mentoring for women. Although she learned a new fishing technique this time, she’s no stranger to these kinds of events.
Herod is always looking for new ways to help others find guidance and support as they attempt to make a difference in their communities.
Herod is the first openly queer, black person to serve in the Colorado General Assembly, receiving the highest number of votes of any state house candidate running a contested race in 2016. She is now the incumbent for District 8 seeking re-election. OUT FRONT sat down with her to discuss what re-election might look like, and how she feels about the issues we’re facing two years after her election.
Your last term focused on criminal justice reform, reproductive care, homeless youth, immigration rights, and supporting Colorado’s entrepreneurs. Are these same subjects going to be the focus of your next term if elected?
Yes, the work is not over. I want to keep serving on judiciary and financial boards to work on these issues. Criminal justice reform is nowhere near done. I want to get rid of private prisons in Colorado and look into carceral reform so that people who don’t belong in the system don’t end up there in the first place.
My scope will also widen to address mental health issues and addiction issues within the criminal justice system. That’s really important for me and for the state of Colorado, because right now our jails and our prisons are our main mental health facilities. That is a problem, and we have to address it.
Additionally, there are just some good government bills that I’m looking at running: making sure our elections are safe, making sure we have access to the internet through net neutrality, and making sure that Colorado entrepreneurs—especially women and minority entrepreneurs—are able to grow and thrive in our economy.
I’m also looking at bills that will specifically impact the LGBT community, including gay panic defenses, trans rights, and LGBT families.
Since we were just discussing the prisons and criminal justice reform, what do you make of the recent prison strikes that have been happening around the country?
Well I haven’t heard of one here, but I think it’s part of a much larger problem.
Inmate pay is extremely low. I have actually worked to increase inmate pay and was able to increase it last year through the budget cycle. Conditions in our correctional facilities can be improved. I worked to make sure women had access to tampons in our correctional facilities two years ago, and last year I worked to make sure young women had access to bras and undergarments, which they didn’t have before in our youth facilities. They only had access to training bras at age 17 and 18.
So those things need to change, but people are also in the system for the wrong reasons. We have to do something about that. I think it’s part of a bipartisan effort; it’s not a democrat or republican issue. It’s a bipartisan issue that’s costing the taxpayers money, not keeping our communities any safer, and it’s just not the right thing to do.
I saw in your issues on your website that you’re really focused on affordable housing and rent control. With all of these tech giants like Google and Amazon coming here, and stories about Jeff Bezos making billions while his employees are under the poverty line, how do you feel about making those companies pay their fair share?
Absolutely. If those companies create large campuses here, where they’re bringing in employees, where they’re basically bringing in their own mini cities within the city, they need to make sure they’re investing in Denver’s infrastructure and Denver’s people.
I believe that is something we must do. We are in a day and age where I believe we need to incentivize financial businesses less. Denver is a great place; come or don’t. And we need to put more directive on them, like, “What are you going to do to improve our public transportation system if you are going to be adding thousands of people to it? What are you going to be doing for our schools to ensure that our young people, especially our young people of color, have access to those jobs that you are creating? What are you doing to truly invest in and support and grow the Denver way of life?”
That also means embracing the culture that currently exists here.
Your website says you want to “foster a culture of inclusivity and fair treatment within the Capitol halls.” Now that you’ve been in the Capitol halls, what does doing this look like practically?
Making people understand that identity is important. Visibility and vocal visibility should be embraced. I model that behavior.
I check it when I need to with people if there’s a problem, but I ensure that people understand that I am a proud black, queer woman, and that I respect their identifies as well, and that our unique perspectives do influence policy for the better.
But I also want people who come into the Capitol or who look at politics, to see me and realize that they have a place there, that they don’t have to fit into some kind of mold in order to be effective leaders or legislators. We just have to do the work for the community, and we have to care about it and be authentic in our leadership. If you do that, I believe you do foster that sense of inclusivity.
It also means holding people who think it’s okay to be sexaul harrassers accountable. People who say homophobic things or engage in locker room talk are called out. You know, and that everyone who walks into the building, regardless if you’re the janitor or the governor, is treated with the same amount of respect.
I started out as an aide, as an intern. I walked in with no job and a resume. We have come a long way, and we can continue to do better.
Your website says you plan to “support ICE’s stated policy to focus deportation efforts on individuals that present a significant public safety or national security risk to Coloradans.” Does that mean you support keeping ICE as part of the government?
Well, I don’t have any control over ICE. My focus is on making sure that people don’t get into automatic deportation for a minor mistake and that people feel safe in their communities. People who are trying to support their families, live their lives, should not have to live in fear of deportation or harassment from their neighbors, community, or law enforcement. That’s what I’m going to fight to protect.
Is gun control an issue you’re focusing on for this campaign?
It’s an oversight, but I’m glad you brought it up. My dad is a hunter from Southern Colorado, so I get it. I believe that we need to have common-sense gun laws. I was actually talking to a fisher guy today about it, and he’s a rural guy, raised in a republican household, that I just don’t get why we can’t have common sense gun safety laws. He felt like he would abide by them; he already does abide by them. We want to keep guns out of the hands of people who want to do bad things or could do bad things.
We can and must do more to save lives from gun violence. I know that we can prevent gun deaths without any interference to our Second Amendment right, a right I deeply respect. Taking actions, such as enacting an extreme risk protection order law like the Zachari Parrish Violence Prevention Act and the reporting of lost and stolen firearms, can substantially help save lives in Colorado. Additionally, we must take every step to ensure that our schools are gun-free zones and defeat attempts to require that teachers carry firearms.
Do you have anything else you want people to know about you?
I mean, I’m the first African American, out LGBT person to hold elected office in Colorado. I don’t think I’m the first African American LGBT person to hold office in Colorado. I actually don’t think that’s true.
We can be out; we can run; we can lead, and we can win. In fact, we tend to win by big margins. We know how to fight, so don’t let your sexual orientation or identity hold you back from what you want. The thing that I would say, the number one thing that undermines your leadership or your ability to achieve, is when you’re hiding things.
People want authentic people leading them. Things have changed, and they’re gonna find out. So be visible, be out, inspire others, and win.
Photos courtesy of Facebook and Nicole Daniels