Colorado Common Cause's Elena Nunez: "We have such opportunities because we're in crisis"
Growing up and watching Crossfire in Tempe, Arizona, 33-year-old Elena Nunez learned to trust her local government approximately as far as she could throw it. In the late '80s, Arizona Governor Evan Mecham was impeached on grounds of misusing funds and obstruction of justice, and the event, followed by others, drew her attention. "There was scandal after scandal after scandal," she says. "I grew up with this impression that government is something you have to keep an eye on."
To some extent, that's what she now does for a living.
It's appropriate then, that the formative years of Nunez's adult career have centered on the issue of money in politics. Most recently, in fall 2011, Nunez was appointed the director of Colorado Common Cause, the first state branch of the national nonprofit organization. But she's been on the staff for years -- a period marked by the passage of Amendment 41, the 2006 campaign ethics legislation that restricted gifts to government employees and public officials.
"Sure, there are a lot of important issues we can work on in our society, but making sure that everyone has a voice who wants one is at the core," Nunez says. "Those powerful lobbyists who could take politicians to dinner or a Broncos game had greater access to them than the general public or nonprofit lobbyists with smaller resources. I believe strongly in leveling the playing field."
Elena Nunez speaks to a crowd at the Occupy the Courts rally on January 20.
Achieving this goal wasn't easy. Even though the amendment earned the support of 62 percent of voters, Common Cause was subsequently accused of shutting down the way politics functioned. The legislation was later challenged in court, but it escaped without major impact.
After studying political science and gender studies at Columbia University, Nunez moved to California for an early job pushing campaign finance reform before eventually relocating to Colorado to focus on public transportation through Environment Colorado. She joined Common Cause in 2006, and in her new position as the Colorado chapter's highest official -- upgraded from a program director -- Nunez is acutely aware of the tension inside modern politics.
"If you look at the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street, they're on completely different sides of the spectrum, but there's this huge fury inside the political system coming from both sides," she says. She describes the political climate as both "wonderful" and "paralyzing." In her words, "I think there's a huge opportunity for political change stemming from these issues, but it's a double-edged sword. The reason we have such opportunity is because we're in crisis."
Nunez's office inside the Alliance for Sustainable Colorado building on Wynkoop is shared with two other employees, one of whom is the second member of Colorado Common Cause's two-person full-time staff. The office is open, and the group is small. Rounded out by a twenty-person volunteer board, the statewide organization is also focused predominantly on Denver, which is something she hopes to change.
Down the line, Nunez wants to see smaller local chapters and a wider reach across the state. One of the issues she feels could unite the branches is also one of the most divisive in modern politics: corporate personhood. Although Colorado Common Cause is proud that Boulder was the second city in the country to vote on (and against) guaranteeing corporations the legal rights of individuals, the group hopes to push the topic to a statewide consensus.
But in the near future, the CCC's focus is settled on what is consistently its primary purpose: voter access. Some of its smaller efforts include taking calls to answer precinct questions and sending citizens Google Maps to their voting addresses. But the larger step of legislation could be in the offing. Earlier this month, Nunez and a bill writer met to settle on the final framework of a bill the CCC is pushing through the state legislature to aggressively prohibit potential voter suppression tactics.
In addition, Common Cause is campaigning to squash another bill that would require voters to provide photo ID and thus alienate those who don't have one, she says. "You see what is happening with the Republican party, but once we get closer to the general election, it's going to be ugly," Nunez says. "This is such a huge year in politics -- I know that could be said every year -- and we want as many people as possible to take part in it. And we have no intention of letting politicians and legislation stopping people or misdirecting them."
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More from our Politics archive: "Miriam Pena of Colorado Progressive Coalition has personal experience with the racial divide."