On February 10th, Ian Johnston interviewed State Senator John Kefalas as part of a planned series of interviews by Fort Collins for Progress featuring political leaders and prominent community members in the Fort Collins area. Below is the transcript of that interview (which has been lightly edited and condensed). We hope you enjoy!
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Ian J: For those of us that don’t know you, how would you introduce yourself?
Senator Kefalas: I have called Fort Collins home for almost 42 years. I’ve raised my family here. I graduated from Colorado State University in 1978 with a Bachelor’s of Science Degree in Botany. I served as a Peace Corps Volunteer from 1979-1980 in El Salvador as an Agricultural Extensionist. At the time El Salvador was at the start of a 10-year civil war, and my experience was transformative. I also learned Spanish during my Peace Corps assignment. My parents were first generation Greek immigrants, so growing up in New York we spoke Greek at home and thus I speak three languages. I’m a marathon runner (having run eight since 1992), and I run along the Poudre River Trail a lot. Running helps me keep a balance my many responsibilities.
Fort Collins has been my home and my community for a long time, and I care a great deal about this place. My current role, of course, is that I’m a State Senator (SD 14), representing the people of Fort Collins in my second year of my second term. I also served six years in the House.
Ian J: What are you most proud of about the communities that you represent?
Senator Kefalas: What I am most proud of is the success we’ve had over the years in creating opportunities for folks to engage and participate in our representative democracy. One of the fundamental responsibilities of being a state legislator is to facilitate community dialogue and problem solving. In so doing, we can help restore trust in the public sector and government, and this is important because we’re not exactly off the charts in terms of folks feeling like we can get the job done or that they should have a lot of trust.
You saw we just had a town hall meeting at the Old Town library and despite the snow we had about 50 folks gathered to deliberate and discuss important issues that matter to them. We’ve elevated the expectations bar, in my opinion. This kind of civic engagement is part of the job description of being an elected official and public servant. We don’t just make laws and all that. We have to provide opportunities for folks to participate in this representative democracy, and that’s one way that they can hold us accountable.
Ian J: So you’re proud of the community in that they show up and talk to you and say, “Here’s what we want.”
Senator Kefalas: Yeah, but it is not just about identifying problems in our community and offering solutions. One of the challenges of course is that people elect us (in the last election I won by 62%), and we are charged to represent everyone–including people that we may disagree with. I feel like I’ve done a good job of creating safe spaces for people to come and share opinions where there might be disagreement, and we engage and listen to each other in a better way. We should not model what we’re seeing at the national level. We need more civility and respect. We need more discourse and deliberation.
Ian J: What about the national level, what are you most proud of about this country?
Senator Kefalas: Right now, there’s a lot of divisiveness and too much ideology, frankly, both on the left and the right. So, what I’m proud of is the fact that people are now really paying attention. Elections matter, and people get it that they need to make informed decisions in this upcoming election.
I was at the women’s march in Denver a few weeks ago. It was actually gut-wrenching to hear the stories of sexual assault and harassment, but it was a powerful display of courage by the women who shared their stories. The fact that people are rising up, people are paying really close attention, means we’ll effect change.
Ian J: On the topic of sexual harassment and assault: at the state capitol, there have been some similar allegations against lawmakers and staffers. I know some efforts are underway to change rules or policies to address some of these things. How are those moving forward? Do you think that they’re sufficient?
Senator Kefalas: It’s critically important that we hold perpetrators of sexual harassment accountable. And at least two of the allegations have been found to be credible. One of them is against Senator Randy Baumgardner, and the second one, which came out in the press just the other day, is against Senator Larry Crowder.
The Senate President did not act on these investigations in a timely manner, and the Senate Democrats introduced a resolution on February 13 that I co-sponsored requesting the expulsion of Senator Baumgardner. There’s also an independent group that produced a report with recommendations on how we can improve the General Assembly workplace harassment policies and culture. If we don’t hold folks accountable it reinforces the idea, “Why should people come forward?” Because if it’s just a slap on the wrist, what’s the point? Women and men who are harassed or assaulted put themselves at risk when they go forward.
Ian J: What would you consider your greatest accomplishment or what are you most proud of in terms of accomplishments legislatively or otherwise in public service?
Senator Kefalas: If you go to my page on the general assembly website, you’ll see that there’s about 7 pages of legislation since I have been in office – 12 years so far. These are bills that have passed into law and bills that have not, as well as resolutions that I’ve sponsored. This information gives a good overview of what my priorities have been based on the issues that matter to regular folks – bread and butters issues.
But, to answer your question more directly I would submit the following: In 2013, I was the sponsor of SB13-001, the Working Families Economic Opportunity Act. This legislation that became law restored state Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) at 10% of the federal EITC. Low to moderate-income working families receive a refundable tax credit from the state and the amount of additional money in people’s pockets depends on income and family composition. The federal EITC was passed into law with bi-partisan Congressional support in 1975. The EITC has proven to be one of the most effective tools for addressing childhood poverty.
Now it is part of the Colorado tax code. So, when folks file for the federal EITC and they meet the eligibility criteria and let’s say they’re getting a $5,000 refund they can now get an additional $500. And that’s money in people’s pockets and I’m pretty darn proud of that.
Ian J: Do you have a biggest legislative disappointment, where you thought: Well there was something that could have been done and it didn’t quite happen.
Senator Kefalas: Of course not all legislation passes, and there are lots of reasons for that. Maybe it’s not the best policy or sometimes bills are defeated due ideology politics. I feel like Don Quixote on affordable housing, though, because it has always been a high-priority issue for me. One aspect of this issue that I have championed is manufactured housing and manufactured housing communities, more commonly known as mobile home parks. They provide affordable housing to working families or elders on fixed incomes, and this type of affordable housing is unsubsidized. People can own their less expensive manufactured homes, but still pay a lot rent if they don’t own the land underneath, which is the arrangement in mobile home parks.
We’re losing these mobile home parks for many reasons including re-development of the property and displacement of the residents and homeowners. I’ve run bills for 4 years to incentivize resident-owned communities. This can occur when residents form an HOA or a co-op, and then have an opportunity to buy the property if the owner of the park is willing to sell to the residents. There’s a lot of movement around this issue, and I’ve tried to make various statutory changes to protect and preserve manufactured housing communities without success.
Ian J: Based on your experience, what advice would you have for people to aspire to run for political office?
Senator Kefalas: [laughs] To think about it really carefully. It’s a lot of work, and you have to put your heart and soul into it so you need to understand what you’re getting into. And if you have young children there may be some logic in waiting until those kids grow up a little bit. That’s one bit of advice. A second bit of advice is to always take the high road. I’m old-fashioned. Always hold up the banner of integrity. Listen twice as much as you speak. But also, be really clear on why you want to do this. Is it because you see it as an honorable way to do public service? How much of your ego is involved in it? You know, it’s often said that politicians should not exemplify humility, and I totally disagree.
Ian J: You’re saying that’s the way it should be…
Senator Kefalas: We should conduct ourselves with humility. We should conduct ourselves with integrity. And one more thing on running for office–there are a lot of good organizations out there that help train people to run for public office. There are organizations that particularly encourage women to run for office. There are actually good books, too…from the Paul Wellstone Center and other organizations that have information and guidelines for developing a campaign plan and running a successful campaign.
Ian J: So, you’re saying that if you’re interested in making change, then going into politics and becoming a legislator is not the only way to do it. What advice would you give to activists who maybe don’t want to be an elected official but still want to effect change? How can they do that more effectively?
Senator Kefalas: Do an assessment of the issues that are important to you and then find the community-based organizations in Fort Collins, in Larimer County, and in Colorado that are focused on those issues and find a proper way to engage with those folks. What we do at the legislature is one way to affect change. It is NOT the only way to effect change. However, if you still believe in the system, it is critical to develop relationships with folks like me because when you have those relationships then there is trust.
It’s also important to strike a balance in terms of what matters to you, the issues that are important, and self-care. Community activists and legislators generally do not do the best job of self-care. Sometimes nonviolent social change practitioners can inflict a form of violence on themselves because they’re not taking care of themselves. There are actually many appropriate times when we should breathe more deeply, step back, pause, look at the snow on the trees, etc.
Ian J: As activists what should we be doing to make sure we get the attention of lawmakers? Should we be calling? Should we be showing up at your office? All of the above?
Senator Kefalas: Well if you want to come and occupy my office in Fort Collins, you’ll have to have come to the extra bedroom because that’s where I work, and I’ll get a pot of coffee going or a beer and we’ll have a good time [laughs].
But, to be less flippant, if I may, that gets back to relationships. So if you know me, you could be asking: “What’s the best way to communicate with you?” Is it email or is it something else?
We have so many ways that people provide input – social media, email, phone calls, in-person at the Capitol or in the Fort Collins community, etc. People will try and communicate with me through something like Messenger about complex issues, and this is not the best way for me to discuss complex issues with concerned residents. Talk to me; we can find the time because I’m happy to sit down and build that relationship and understand where you’re coming from. That’s how you figure out the most effective way to communicate.
Ian J: So, I understand that you’re running for Larimer County Commissioner, why?
Senator Kefalas: Because there are many issues that I have worked on at the state level such as: affordable housing, multi-modal transportation, open and transparent government, health and human services, workforce development, environmental protection, conservation and others that I want to address at the local and regional levels. I want to apply what I’ve learned at the state capitol these past 12 years and my track record of solving problems, and transfer these experiences and skills to solving problems at the local and regional levels. I want to come home and work collaboratively with others to make our communities better.
Ian J: What would be your highest policy priorities?
Senator Kefalas: One of my highest priorities would be to address the affordable housing crisis, and I have ideas on potential solutions that I would present to public and private-sector stakeholders. It is unacceptable that more and more people can’t afford to live close to where they work.
And then I’d want to look at a regional approach to improving our transportation system to establish an effective multi-modal transportation system. I’d want to analyze the pros and cons of creating a Regional Transportation Authority (RTA) and engage Weld County and the various municipalities such as Loveland, Wellington, Fort Collins, Estes Park and other communities.
Ian J: Going into your past, I understand that you have a history of nonviolent civil disobedience and war tax resistance.
Senator Kefalas: That is correct.
Ian J: When is that kind of civil disobedience justified and how do you think it is best used?
Senator Kefalas: Thoughtfully and as a matter of conscience. For me, what I saw in El Salvador during the beginning of the civil war opened my eyes to the reality that sometimes our government is on the wrong side of history, and, in this case, supporting right-wing dictators and oppression of the Salvadoran people. Understanding that our federal tax dollars were being used to support war, I openly redirected 50% of my federal tax liability to peace and justice causes, and I did this for a period of time and accepted the consequences – ultimately paying my taxes with penalties and interest.
I consider myself Christian – raised Greek Orthodox, but I try not to wear my faith, religious and spiritual beliefs on my sleeve. Nevertheless, such beliefs provide a guide to me for living a life of hard work, service to others and honesty, and such beliefs align with matters of conscience. Martyrs such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, and Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador, who was assassinated three weeks after I was evacuated from the country, have stated that sometimes you have to obey higher laws. If your conscience dictates that you need to nonviolently disobey unjust human laws then so be it.
Ian J: So let me ask you about an example: we have a huge problem in this country with the cost of healthcare and, in particular, prescription drugs. What do you think about just buying prescriptions from Canada? That’s technically illegal at a federal level, but do you think that it is defensible to buy a drug from Canada for 1/5 the price?
Senator Kefalas: I think that it’s up to the individual to determine if he or she wants to take the risk. Because when you do something like that there are always risks involved. But I certainly support people making decisions based on conscience and based on financial realities. During this legislative session there was a bill to allow the people of Colorado to legally purchase medicine from Canada, but the bill was defeated. We must keep our eyes on the prize.