Democrat Yadira Caraveo makes her case to represent Colorado’s 8th District

Listen Now
26min 05sec
Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Democratic state Rep. Dr. Yadira Caraveo is running for Congress in the new 8th District against Republican state Sen. Barbara Kirkmeyer.

Democrat Yadira Caraveo said she approaches issues like homelessness, fentanyl and health care from the community perspective her parents instilled in her. That perspective is what led her to run for the U.S. House, in the race to represent Colorado’s newest 8th Congressional District.

In an interview with Colorado Matters, Caraveo said she always liked politics. Even when she was in medical school, she wanted a large part of her career to be in advocacy. She currently serves in the Colorado State House.

Affordable housing and unsustainable costs of living, Caraveo said, was what made her want to get into politics in the first place. She said her home in the northside of the Denver metro used to be affordable while still close to the city. But in the past few years, Thornton, Northglenn and Westminster have become unaffordable.

Caraveo also thinks her experience as a Latina helps her connect best with the new congressional district, which has the highest Latino population in the state. She said she knows what it feels like to be ignored and to have your vote taken for granted, but she’s made an effort in this election to reach out to voters. She also touted her success in passing the Multilingual Ballot Access Bill.

Caraveo is running against Republican Barbara Kirkmeyer

This interview has been edited for clarity and length. 

Ryan Warner: Doctor, thank you for being with us.

Yadira Caraveo: Thank you so much for having me.

Warner: Your parents came to Colorado from Mexico. All four of their children, you included, graduated college, and you went to CU for medical school. You have said that is a testament to the American dream. What aspects of your experience, personally or professionally, propelled you into politics?

Caraveo: For starters, it was the sense of community and helping people out that my parents — It wasn't even an act of teaching, it was something that we saw them do as we were growing up. My parents' house was always where everybody landed when they were coming through Colorado and they were always helping people out. I think every single one of my uncles probably lived with us for some extended period of time when we were growing up.

Warner: Do your parents still live in that house?

Caraveo: They still live in that house in unincorporated Adams County. Correct.

Warner: Do you think that the sense that your parents instilled in you around service was the seed being planted for political service?

Caraveo: Well, service and education. They emphasized that they had grown up in a tiny town that didn't even have a high school. They had to bike over to the next town to go to high school. It was both being that center for people and [instilling the idea] that we were going to really advance ourselves through education. 

Warner: When did the idea of political service enter your mind?

Caraveo: It really was not until after residency. I knew I always liked politics. When I was in medical school and I decided to be a pediatrician, I knew that a large part of that was going to be advocacy. We take that very seriously in pediatrics because children can't advocate for themselves.

Once I started practicing in private practice, I got increasingly frustrated with all of the things that legislation touches and all of the different aspects that touch people's health that I couldn't do anything about. I was talking to kids about underfunded schools and how different it was from when I was in school: How many services they couldn't provide, even when kids had special needs. Or, I was spending hours on the phone talking to health insurance companies or telling patients, ‘this is the treatment I would prescribe to you, but you can't afford it. How are we going to maneuver that?’

Warner: As a state lawmaker, you have kept your medical practice going, adding weekend hours to see patients. While Colorado has a citizen legislature, Congress is such a different animal. Would you keep your private practice if you are elected to Congress?

Caraveo: I don't think I would be able to. There are very specific rules about who can keep up their practice or their job outside of Congress. I think I would continue to keep my license and volunteer to do different medical things, but not work full time. I really see [Congress] as a different way of taking care of my patients.

Warner: CPR News spoke with voters across the state about their concerns leading into this election. Amanda Cohen, of Brighton, lives in the 8th Congressional District and told us that homelessness is one of the biggest issues on her mind. There are no doubt many contributors to homelessness, including the cost of housing. In Congress, how will you tackle the unsustainable cost of living?

Caraveo: That's exactly one of the issues that propelled me to run, first for the state legislature and now for Congress. I completely agree with Amanda: This is about people; It's not about [political] games. I could have stayed in my clinic and been frustrated by all of these issues, but decided to take on different roles to be able to tackle this. At the state legislature, I've really tried to work to deal with the housing crisis. This is something that we have particularly seen in this district: when Denver became unaffordable, people could afford to go to Thornton, Northglenn, Westminster. Now that's unaffordable. I know a nurse in my practice who was only able to buy a house in Greeley and now she commutes in over an hour every single day because that's the only place that was affordable for her.

Warner: Greeley is also in the 8th District?

Caraveo: Yes, exactly. I've done a lot of work at the state legislature on my own bills that focus on renters because so many people are unable to afford buying a home. [I wanted the bills to] make sure that renters weren't subject to exorbitant fees and that we were really looking at the eviction system, especially in the middle of the pandemic. I've supported a lot of the legislative efforts to look at affordable housing, making sure that we can build it in different areas and that we are funding it correctly. And in Congress, I would continue to focus on that funding piece.

Warner: Many voters in the 8th District are unaffiliated. If you talk to the people who are crushed by inflation and who have no particular allegiance to the Democratic Party, they may think what we need is a change. Why keep Democrats in power in the U.S. House, which your race could help determine?

Caraveo: First of all, I think there's a difference between what we've been able to do at the state legislature. It has been controlled by Democrats, but there's only so much that we can do at that state level. That's one of the reasons that I've decided to run for Congress. 

I think it's really important to elevate people who have been fighting for these issues at a state level. When we are thinking about who should represent us at the Congressional level, I have fought to make sure that things are easier for working families in Colorado. But we're just one state out of 50 and one tiny piece of a giant economy that has been dealing with inflationary issues that you could attribute to a whole host of things.

I think it's really important to raise up people who are like you, who have that working-class background, who have seen the struggle of families like I have in every single clinic interaction that I've had.

Warner: But I think someone might look at the cost of things here and say, "Democrats have not been successful in this."

Caraveo: We can see this in a whole host of different pieces of legislation that we've passed. We have made sure to lower taxes for working families by closing loopholes on corporations and those who were not paying their fair share. We extended our version of the Child Tax Credit, which Congress has failed to do at the national level. It was a temporary program that brought a lot of the children that I see in the clinic out of poverty. It was a 50-percent reduction in child poverty that then political games were played and it was not continued at the federal level. But we did continue it at the state level. 

Even with the TABOR refunds: We saw that people were hurting with inflation and were having to pay a lot of extra money for basic needs, so instead of delaying [the refunds] for when everybody filed their taxes, we made sure to change the fee schedule so that the people that need the money the most are the ones that are benefiting the most.

Warner: Meanwhile, Democrats were going to raise the Gas Tax and then they said, "Oh, you know what? Let's put a hold on that." And there's that new fee for delivered items. So it's a mixed picture, isn't it?

Caraveo: With legislation, there's all sorts of things that we have to balance, and we've seen that the economy has changed from the time when those pieces of legislation were voted on. That's why there's been a delay in so many of those fees because we know that families are struggling —

Warner: The Gas Tax and the Delivery Tax still went into effect.

Caraveo: Right. I think that is something that we continue to analyze and make sure that our legislation isn't hurting working families while we're making sure to provide for things like infrastructure.

Warner: Which is what that delivery fee pays for. The notion of what the impact is on those roads.

To the core of the concern from Amanda Cohen, which is homelessness, no doubt you've seen folks experiencing homelessness. As someone who holds a leadership position in the state, what goes through your mind when you see encampments?

Caraveo: I go back to the families that I saw in the clinic. That was one of the things that was frustrating me when I was a doctor: I had a few different families who talked to me about homelessness. They were living in their car or they were living in a motel, and it was frustrating as a doctor not to be able to provide them with any service other than saying, "Well, here's a list of shelters and different programs that might be of assistance and hopefully I see you again in three months when it's time for your kiddo’s next checkup."

As a legislator, I took a lot of that energy and that empathy for my patients and have applied it to make sure that we're trying to fund programs that will help end homelessness. In particular, around housing issues, because so much of that is at the root cause in Colorado. But also around mental health issues and substance-abuse issues, by making sure that we are funding those programs and ensuring that we're covering all of the different aspects that affect people's health, people's ability to house themselves and really get at the root causes of homelessness.

Warner: Once again, I hear you saying, "I've made investments towards those," and yet it seems that those problems are as intractable as ever.

Caraveo: Yes, and it's because it's a big, complicated issue that we have to work piecemeal on, especially with the fact that we are part-time [at the legislature]. We have four months to cover the 600 bills that we're trying to cover for Colorado, and then like I said, we're one part of 50 states that the federal government has so much control over. That's precisely why I'm trying to take some of this experience onto the federal level where every decision has a bigger impact.

Warner: Would you have voted for the Inflation Reduction Act, which did a whole host of things, from green energy investment to prescription drug reform?

Caraveo: Exactly. I would focus on the different pieces of that legislation that I think are remarkable in terms of their passage, in particular around healthcare costs. That's something that I've been working on at the state level. The fact that we are finally allowing Medicare to negotiate prices on medications and that we have lowered the cost of insulin for, at least, the people who are on Medicare — it really should have been much more broad, because I've seen patients who are having to ration their insulin because the cost just gets jacked up even though it's the same drug that has been around for a hundred years.

The fact that we are finally focusing on climate change and making sure that we're investing in different kinds of energy that are going to lower the prices for energy consumption for different families. I think all of those pieces of that legislation are great, in particular for working families.

Warner: I take it that you would have voted for it, if it had come before you in Congress?

Caraveo: Well, it would depend on the circumstances and reading the bill at length if I had been there, but I think that those pieces, in particular, are things that I absolutely would have supported.

Warner: How does your background as a physician, particularly a pediatrician, inform your view of abortion?

Caraveo: The biggest piece is recognizing how important it is to have that relationship between a doctor and a patient that is not interfered with by anyone else. Not insurance companies, not drug companies, and certainly not the government. There needs to be the ability for a doctor to make a decision based purely on their medical training, on what is going on with that patient and in consultation with their patient rather than having a lawyer or a legislator kind of looming over them impacting their medical decision.

Warner: For you, is this about physician autonomy or patient autonomy?

Caraveo: It's patient autonomy, at the heart of it. That is something that is taken very seriously in medical training. We came from a system that used to be paternalistic in terms of medical decisions, and we put decisions squarely in the hands of patients now. Every single medication that I discuss, every single treatment option that I discuss with families, is in conjunction with a family and not something that I think anybody should interfere with. It should be a true conversation where ultimately the decision is on them.

Warner: On “60 Minutes” recently, President Biden said, "The pandemic is over. We still have a problem with COVID. We're still doing a lot of work on it, but the pandemic is over." After criticism, he later added that the pandemic is not where it once was. Was it responsible for him to say the pandemic is over?

Caraveo: I think he was coming from a place where the pandemic has changed. It is sadly going to be a part of our lives every winter, just like the flu is. I got my COVID and flu shots yesterday, and I worry when statements like that are made. In terms of trying to make sure that people still take this seriously, and that they realize it is a disease that's going to be around us, especially this winter, and that they need to continue their prevention efforts by vaccinating and getting boosters.

Yes, the pandemic has shifted, but it is still here and we need to take it seriously and make sure that we're protecting ourselves.

Warner: You don't believe it's over?

Caraveo: I think that it has shifted.

Warner: Do you hope Biden runs again?

Caraveo: I'm not really focused on that. The world could be a very different place [in two years]. We know, obviously, it's a different place than it was two years ago. What I'm really focused on is this election and keeping in mind how incredibly important it is. We could go from a Congress that is protecting your right to choose, that is really focusing on worker issues, to one that is going to institute a national abortion ban and go back to cutting taxes for the wealthy. I think that this election is so important that we should be really focused on this and not speculating on who's going to run for president.

Warner: If abortion protections were so important to the Democratic Party, why didn't they pass legislation with the decades-long looming possibility that Roe v. Wade would be struck down? Isn't this electoral convenience for the party?

Caraveo: It's definitely not electoral convenience. We're really reacting to what the Supreme Court has done and stripped a right women had for 50 years.

Warner: Democrats could have been proactive, no?

Caraveo: Those are discussions that I know that we've had at the state level. I would have loved to have done something preemptively. And to be fair, Colorado did. We saw what the decision was that was coming and so we passed the Reproductive Health Equity Act this last session before the Supreme Court decision came out. To make sure that in Colorado, a woman's right to contraception, and to carry a pregnancy or not, are enshrined in statute.

Warner: Earlier this year, we hopscotched the 8th Congressional District and stopped in Thornton, Fort Lupton and Greeley. We also spoke to several Latino organizers in the district, which is Colorado's most Hispanic district, and I won't forget these remarks from Michael Cortes of CLLARO, the Colorado Latino Leadership Advocacy and Research Organization:

Michael Cortes: Traditionally, Latinos are assumed to be mostly Democratic, but the Democratic Party does not invest heavily at all in trying to get voter registration drives targeting Latinos. They wait until the election is too close and then spend too little money trying to register people. They treat other Democrats much better.

Warner: What's your reaction to that?

Caraveo: As a Latina, I know exactly what he is talking about. We are taken for granted, I think a lot of the time, and the assumption is that we're going to be good Democratic voters and people come and talk to us every two to four years and then they forget about our issues in the interim.

Warner: Is that happening this time in the 8th District?

Caraveo: It's not. I can tell you that it won't be with me. As somebody who grew up with immigrant parents who has been part of the Latino community my entire life; Whose first language is Spanish. This is a community that, for me, is integral. It is not a group that I'm going to just come and talk to when it's convenient, in terms of an election. 

This is a group that I've been fighting for since my first election when, for example, I noticed that as much as people want us to vote, the TABOR language and ballots were not accessible when it was written in English. I came across a lot of future constituents — voters at that time — who were really interested in voting, who had gone through the process of naturalizing and wanted to vote, but they couldn't understand their ballot, and so that's why — it took me three years sadly — but I was able to pass a Multilingual Ballot Access bill that is going to make sure that people can understand the ballot and vote in the language that they're most comfortable in.

Warner: You make a reference to TABOR there because when tax-related questions are on the ballot, there's this boilerplate language that was befuddling to those who were not as fluent in English as others, and that was a reason you wanted a multilingual ballot. Is that correct?

Caraveo: Exactly. I can tell you that as somebody who has been through college and has a doctorate, sometimes the language is confusing to me and I speak English fluently.

I've been able to sit down with my parents and walk them through what the ballot says. Not everybody has that.

Warner: To the question of engagement, Dr. Caraveo, the 8th Congressional District also has some of the lowest voter registration numbers out of any Congressional district in the state, so what kind of a challenge is that for a candidate, not only who has to say, "Vote for me" but "Vote"?

Caraveo: It starts with the redistricting process. A lot of people are busy; They're out working two to three jobs, they're taking care of their kids. They didn't follow the redistricting processes as closely as us political nerds did, and so the conversation really starts with, "Hey, did you know that you're in a brand-new district?” [Then, you say,] “it's not just automatically going to be a Republican who is going to represent you, especially in the area around Weld County. You have a real choice, and this is why voting is important and why I think I'm the best of the two candidates to represent you."

Warner: That's an interesting thing. In other words, there are people in the 8th Congressional District who have been drawn out of districts that were a shoe-in for Republicans. Part of your mission is to convince them this isn't like those last elections. There's a potential here that did not exist before. Is that what I hear you saying?

Caraveo: Exactly.

Warner: It cuts both ways.

Caraveo: Yes.

Warner: In 2019, you voted for a law that reduced penalties for possession of certain drugs, including fentanyl. Prosecutors and law enforcement objected at the time. Then this past session, you voted to reinstate tougher penalties after fentanyl deaths skyrocketed. Was your 2019 vote irresponsible, given the deaths?

Caraveo: What we were doing at that time was looking at the context of many different substances and making sure that we were looking at it holistically and how people needed access to treatment and prevention and not just punitive measures.

We reanalyzed and saw that perhaps we needed a different approach with fentanyl in particular because it had reached Colorado by that time, we were seeing an increase in deaths and overdose deaths and that we needed to make sure that we were holding people accountable for distributing this substance in our communities, and that's why I was very happy to vote, to make sure that we're treating criminals as criminals and instituting stiffer penalties for fentanyl.

Importantly, what that bill also did was look at the balance and the need for mental health resources and substance abuse resources to both prevent the use of this substance and to treat the people who have fallen into this pattern of addiction. It's sadly something that I have seen in clinics treating hundreds of babies who have been born addicted to substances, and seeing patients who have lost their parents or other loved ones. I decided not to play political games, like my opponent did with this last fentanyl bill, and to make sure that we were not just importantly making sure that our communities are safer, but also making sure that we're keeping them safer by investing in programs that are really going to get to the root cause of the fentanyl crisis.

Warner: Did that 2019 bill lead to deaths?

Caraveo: I don't know. I think that, as a scientist, I would have to look at the literature around it and see what that data is precisely. I know that that was a bipartisan bill as was the last bill that we passed to increase penalties, and so it had a whole host of people who were supportive and the important thing is that we reanalyzed what the legislature did and made sure to fix some of those issues.

Warner: What do you mean to say that your opponent is playing games with fentanyl? You don't believe she's genuinely concerned about fentanyl deaths?

Caraveo: I think that if she was, she would have voted to make sure that communities have substance abuse and mental health treatments funding put in place by this last bill. Instead, what she decided was that she would not vote for increased penalties because she was talking about the original bill and not making sure that she joined the legislature in fixing this problem.

Warner: She said that she wanted the bill that came this past session to be stronger and heed the views of law enforcement.

Shifting gears, let’s talk about climate change. Do you picture a day when oil and gas drilling is a thing of the past?

Caraveo: In a world where we have as much plastic use and a continued reliance on fossil fuels, I think that the day where we completely are not reliant on extraction is probably far away. I think of that every single time that I use gloves in the clinic, or when we prepare our crash cart to make sure that we have intubation tubes in case a kid stops breathing. Those are all reliant on plastic that at this point is reliant on the use of oil and gas.

That does not mean that we should not invest in making sure that we move as far away from that reliance as we can in order to make sure that we have clean air, that we are fostering a healthy environment for future generations and really investing in renewable sources.

Warner: Now that is a 180 to some extent for your district, which is very oil and gas heavy.

Caraveo: I wouldn't say it's a 180. I would say that it's a balance of looking at what our needs are and what the needs are going to be of future generations. I think we did that when we passed Senate Bill 181 — which I was part of — that really looked at the oil and gas industry in Colorado and said, "It's an important part of our economy. It provides a lot of jobs, but we also need to be looking at the health and safety of our communities." 

I can tell you that there are a lot of people in the 8th District who are also very concerned about fracking sites being right next to kids' schools or near hospitals. What I have been looking at in legislation, and I think what we have been doing in Colorado, is looking at that balance. How do we keep these jobs and make sure that we continue to protect a part of our economy, but also make sure that we're keeping people safe and healthy?

Warner: Aren't those at odds? In other words, how do you keep people safe and healthy in the face of climate change if you're also trying to maintain those jobs? It sounds like you're trying to have it both ways.

Caraveo: No, I think it's realizing that as we move away from this industry, there are different ways to train future generations to make sure that we are creating more jobs in terms of renewable energy in Colorado as we slowly come off of what is an industry that we will be moving away from.

Warner: Have you ever broken with your party on an issue, and if so, would you give us an example?

Caraveo: I think that I have pushed back on my party a lot, in particular on issues around healthcare. For example, the Colorado Option: The very first iteration of that bill this year would have punished doctors for things that they can't control, for not being part of networks that health insurance companies really have an upper hand in when they're negotiating and would have really severely punished them by affecting their license. That was something that I pushed back against considerably in the state legislature, knowing what the desired outcome was and that we had good networks to make sure that patients have access to the doctors that they want, but was looking at it in a way that would have been punitive to doctors and actually would have hurt their ability to take care of patients.

Warner: The Colorado Option is the notion that there would be a state-backed health insurance option, because in many parts of Colorado, there isn't really the competition to drive prices down.

Caraveo: Exactly.

Warner: Were Colorado Democrats wrong to help Republican election deniers in the primary?

Caraveo: That's something that I really didn't have a hand in that happens outside of the actual campaigns.

I think that it's dangerous to possibly push for a candidate that runs against the basic tenets of our democracy, to put them on a pedestal where they could win and then end up in Congress is a dangerous game.

Warner: Thanks for your time.

Caraveo: Thank you so much. Pleasure talking to you today.