Three candidates face off in one of Colorado’s most competitive legislative districts

Democrats Exum and Avila head to a primary while the Republican Hisey hopes to claim Senate District 11 for GOP

By: - February 24, 2022 5:00 am
Adams Park mural

A mural by Paes 164 is shown at the John Adams Community Playground in Southeast Colorado Springs on Feb. 23, 2022. (Julia Fennell/Colorado Newsline)

In one of the most competitive legislative districts in the state, two Democrats with deep community ties prepare to face off in June, while a state senator whose new address puts him inside the redrawn district’s lines is hoping to sway voters to the Republican side.

This is Senate District 11, which contains the diverse neighborhoods in Southeast Colorado Springs. Long neglected by city planners and developers, the Southeast’s economy has grown in recent years thanks to the advocacy of community leaders and new resources from state and local government. The district also includes new development east of the Colorado Springs Airport, including areas the city recently annexed.


The district boundaries were redrawn last year during the decennial redistricting process. It was the first redistricting since Colorado voters supported constitutional amendments to move the process under the purview of a nonpartisan commission.

State Rep. Tony Exum, in his fourth term in the Colorado House of Representatives, and Colorado Springs City Councilmember Yolanda Avila are both running for the Democratic nomination to the Senate seat. Meanwhile, state Sen. Dennis Hisey, who was originally elected in 2018 to represent Senate District 2, has launched a District 11 campaign.

Between Avila and Exum, the latter has the benefit of legislative experience. He’s received donations from House Speaker Alec Garnett and from political committees associated with Senate President Steve Fenberg, Sen. Jeff Bridges and Sen. Janet Buckner, among others.

“I think I served the people well, because otherwise they wouldn’t have reelected me four times,” Exum said. “I’m hoping the voters will remember the work that I’ve done.”

A retired battalion chief with the Colorado Springs Fire Department, Exum was first elected to the Colorado House in 2012. He lost in 2014 but won back the seat in 2016, 2018 and 2020. Term limits prevent him from running for the House again.

“In the four terms that I ran, it was always a vulnerable seat,” Exum said. “I’ve won by larger margins each time except in 2012.” Exum never takes voters for granted, he said — knocking on doors each campaign cycle and asking to hear from constituents, including those who supported him in past elections.

Among his proudest accomplishments: 2013 legislation he sponsored to provide free breakfast at schools with a high population of low-income students and a 2020 bill to implement state regulation of toxic PFAS chemicals.

Avila, first elected to represent District 4 on Colorado Springs City Council in 2017 and reelected in 2021, said Exum has represented the district well, but she believes she has the drive to “to take it to another level.”

“When I ran for City Council,” Avila said, “I ran for public transit more than anything, and then infrastructure.” Avila was diagnosed in 1998 with a degenerative eye disease that has a prognosis of blindness, and after losing her ability to drive, she was appalled at the lack of access to public transportation for people with disabilities.

“We got increased bus routes seven days a week, evening and more fixed routes, and right now we have five 15-minute frequency routes,” Avila said. “I make things happen. I get on an issue and it usually happens to be very personal to me, and if it’s personal to me, it’s personal to thousands of people, constituents.”

On City Council, Avila has fought for investment in Southeast infrastructure — such as the 13-acre, $9 million Panorama Park — and urban renewal projects. At the state Legislature, she wants to work on policies that improve access to affordable housing and public transportation.

“One of the things I really want to work on is the housing crisis and building that opportunity to home ownership,” Avila said. “And I’m going to continue on transit. I’d like to see a more regional transit system, whether that be rail or light rail, that’s environmentally conscious, because by the year 2050, we’re going to be larger than Denver.”

This next cycle here, the Republicans I think have an excellent chance to take that seat so it could be a pickup for the Senate.

– State Sen. Dennis Hisey

Hisey served from 2005 to 2017 on the El Paso County Board of Commissioners, where his county commissioner district included part of the new Senate District 11, he said.

Voters in the district “care about public safety,” Hisey said. “Are their streets safe? Can they let their kids walk to school and walk home and feel comfortable with that? Can they get out at night? And so public safety is going to be huge. Also, affordability. SD 11 has somewhat probably the more affordable housing in Colorado Springs so the people that live there, they feel it when the prices go up at the grocery store, when they go up at the pump.”

Hisey’s previous address in Fountain, listed on candidate paperwork as recently as October, would have put him in District 12 after redistricting — a district represented by Republican Sen. Bob Gardner. But the new address Hisey listed on a November affidavit announcing his intent to run for District 11 puts him about 8 miles to the north, in the Colorado Centre neighborhood southeast of the Colorado Springs Airport.

Hisey believes his work on an upcoming bill to address the fentanyl overdose crisis will appeal to voters in District 11, as well as the pro-school-choice policies he’s supported.

“They absolutely want to be able to have a say in how their kids are educated,” Hisey said. “They want their kids to have a better education and live a better life than they’ve had. So it’s what’s important to voters, and I think I’ve got the voting record that shows I support that.”

The redrawn Senate District 11 is one of the most competitive districts in the state, though Democrats have a 2.4 percentage point advantage, according to an analysis of past election results by nonpartisan redistricting staff.

The previous Senate District 11 was won by Democrats in every general election since 2006, Hisey noted.

“This next cycle here, the Republicans I think have an excellent chance to take that seat so it could be a pickup for the Senate,” he said. Republicans last held control of the Colorado Senate in 2018 and are now outnumbered 20 to 15. They’re hoping to retake the chamber this year.

Exum leads candidate fundraising

Each Senate District 11 candidate had filed one quarterly fundraising report as of February 2022. So far, Exum stands out as the top fundraiser. Hisey ended the quarter with the least cash on hand, but he so far doesn’t have a primary opponent to contend with.

Avila raised $10,500 from October through December 2021, according to reports filed with the Colorado secretary of state’s office. That included $400 from Aram Benyamin, the CEO of Colorado Springs Utilities, and $200 from John Paré, executive director of advocacy and policy at the National Federation of the Blind.

Both Avila and Exum received $150 donations from state Sen. Pete Lee, a Colorado Springs Democrat who now lives in the redrawn District 12 — the same district inhabited by Republican Sen. Bob Gardner, who was elected more recently. Lee therefore isn’t eligible for reelection in 2022.

Avila’s campaign spent $1,880 in the last quarter of 2021, including $500 on a sponsorship at the El Paso County Democratic Party gala in October and $400 on consulting services for website updates.

Avila loaned her campaign $5,000, ending the quarter with $13,600 on hand.

A view of the Colorado Capitol on July 7, 2021. (Quentin Young/Colorado Newsline)

Exum reported $20,600 in donations during the last quarter of 2021. That included $400 from Building Bridges for Colorado, a state political committee that lists state Sen. Jeff Bridges, a Greenwood Village Democrat, as its registered agent, and $400 from the Fenberg Leadership Fund, a political committee tied to the Senate president. Exum also received $1,000 donations from AFT Colorado, a state affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, and the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees.

Exum’s campaign spent $350 on fees associated with the ActBlue fundraising platform and $460 on printing services for business cards, envelopes and postcards. His expenditures for the quarter totaled $1,440. Exum ended the quarter with $19,100 on hand.

Hisey reported $12,400 in contributions during the last quarter of 2021, including $8,400 that was transferred from his former Senate District 2 campaign committee. He received $2,000 from the small donor committee of COPIC, a Denver-based medical liability insurance provider, and $400 from BobPAC, a political committee for which state Sen. Bob Gardner is the registered agent.

Hisey’s campaign spent $1,770 in the last quarter of 2021, including $221 on fundraising expenses at a printing business and $350 at the U.S. Postal Service. Hisey ended the quarter with $10,600 on hand.

Deadlines ahead

To get on the June primary ballot, major-party candidates for the General Assembly must either turn in the required number of petition signatures by March 15 or qualify for the ballot through the county assembly process, which must take place by March 22.

To qualify through the assembly process, a state Senate candidate must receive at least 30% of the votes at the Democratic or Republican county assembly this year. Or, they can qualify with at least 10% of the votes at assembly if they also submit at least 1,000 petition signatures from registered voters in the Senate district. Candidates have about two months to collect signatures.

Hisey will likely run unopposed in June, unless a Republican challenger qualifies for the ballot through the assembly process without gathering petition signatures. State legislative candidates don’t necessarily need to declare their candidacy until the day of the county assembly.

Exum is attempting to collect at least 1,500 signatures as well as qualify through the assembly process, because, he said, “I couldn’t take the chance of not getting on the ballot.”

He noted that while normally organizations will wait to endorse a candidate until after the primary election, he believes he received early support from labor unions “because of my record and the trust that I’ve developed, and the body of work that I’ve done in these four terms.”

Avila hopes to qualify for the primary ballot through the caucus and assembly process. She plans to focus on energizing the Democratic base to turn out and support her, but if she wins the primary, Avila hopes to garner support from some unaffiliated voters and maybe even Republicans: “I’ll work with people and let them know I’m willing to listen to everything,” she said.


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Faith Miller
Faith Miller

Faith Miller was a reporter with Colorado Newsline covering the Colorado Legislature, immigration and other stories.