Colorado 8th Congressional District: Democrat Yadira Caraveo

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.

Democratic Congressional candidate Yadira Caraveo knew from the age of three that she wanted to pursue medicine. It was a dream she said her parents made possible when they immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico before she was born.

“My mom would've loved to have gone to medical school. My dad would've liked to have been an engineer, but there were too many barriers to that in Mexico and so that was the reason that they came here,” said Caraveo, a pediatrician who has balanced seeing patients when she’s not serving as a representative at the the state capitol during the four month long session.

Caraveo’s parents raised four children in Adams County, where they still live. Their home lies within the House district Caraveo seeks to represent: Colorado’s newly created 8th Congressional District. 

Caraveo, who lives in Thornton, said her father was able to support their family on his wages as a construction worker, something she finds hard to imagine today. The increasingly high cost of  living is one reason she decided to get into politics in the first place. 

“The suburbs were an area where people from Denver moved when Denver became unaffordable. Now they can't afford to live here, and they're moving to places even further afield, like all the way up to Greeley,” she said. 

Caraveo’s interest in politics started as a child; she remembers watching the debates with her uncle when George H.W Bush was running for president. But with her parents busy with work and children, it was an interest she mostly had to pursue on her own.

“It was just something that I developed naturally, I think in large part because I saw so many of the things that my family was able to take advantage of, like free education and healthcare and so many things that were decided on by politicians,” she said.

The district Caraveo seeks to represent is the most diverse of any in the state; nearly 40 percent of the population is Latino, while another eight percent are Black, Asian American or Indigenous. Agriculture, manufacturing, oil and gas, and construction are some of the major industries in the area, which is also home to a growing string of bedroom communities along US-85.

Caraveo said, voters here, “whether they're part of the Latino community or the more general population of CD8, they really want the same things. It's the ability to live here, to provide for their kids, to have access to good healthcare and a good education.”

Caraveo is running against  Republican State Sen. Barabara Kirkmeyer who served for almost two decades as a Weld County commissioner. 

The eighth is also the most competitive congressional race in Colorado this year; which is no accident. Colorado’s independent redistricting commission had an eye to political balance when it set the district’s boundaries. Another major goal was creating a seat in which the Latino community would be a large voting block.

Caraveo notes the state has never sent a Latina to Congress.

“So it’s high time in 2022 that we have somebody from a very growing immigrant and Latino population in Colorado be able to be a voice in Washington.”

Her record as a state lawmaker

During her four years at the statehouse Caraveo has been the legislature’s only physician. She’s used her medical background to push bills on health care issues and has not shied away from sponsoring a number of contentious bills. 

During her first session she was the lead sponsor of a measure to update the state’s 2013 comprehensive sex education law and set aside money to help smaller school districts fund the program.

Under the new policy, abstinence-only curriculum is prohibited. Colorado is also among the small number of states in the country that require schools to teach students about consent.

Last year, Caraveo sponsored a bill that became law aimed at preventing teens from getting access to highly potent cannabis products. It tightens the rules for a doctor to recommend someone for a medical marijuana card, restricts the amount of high-THC product medical card holders can buy on a daily basis and increases purchase tracking, among other things.

She also cosponsored a bill, inspired by the death of Elijah McClain, to limit how the powerful sedative ketamine is used in law enforcement settings.

And in the wake of the COVID pandemic she worked on legislation to address health care worker burnout and a diminished workforce, to try to set up a reserve corps and help with student loan relief if people serve in a disaster emergency. 

She backed a bipartisan law to protect the personal information of state and county health care workers, some of whom faced threats and attacks for implementing COVID restrictions. Those workers now have the ability to remove their personal information from public internet records. 

She has also waded into the debate over oil and gas development. Caraveo was a main sponsor of a bill this year to require more public disclosure of certain chemicals used in oil and gas production and during her first session, she signed on to sponsor a sweeping overhaul of drilling regulations which requires state regulators to prioritize health and safety when deciding whether to grant new permits.

“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.” said Caraveo.  “I can tell you that there are a lot of people in the eighth district who are also very concerned about fracking sites being right next to kids' schools, or are near hospitals.”

One of Caraveo’s early high profile efforts, however, failed. Her 2019 bill would have increased taxes on nicotine products, including vaping, and used the money for education and mental health care. But Democratic opponents in the state Senate voted it down, arguing the tax was regressive and would hurt small businesses. 

A year later, voters approved a similar tax increase, with the money going to expanding pre-K education.

On the issues 

Caraveo was the first major candidate to announce a bid for the eighth district — declaring her candidacy before the final lines were even set. That early start helped her solidify the support of the national party. No other Democratic candidate managed to qualify for the primary ballot. 

She said she is running on the record she has amassed as a state legislator and how her party has led the state during the pandemic.

Republicans, however, have found plenty to criticize in her record.

In 2019, Caraveo voted for a bipartisan law that reduced the penalty for possession of four grams or less of most Schedule I or II drugs, including fentanyl, to a misdemeanor. Prosecutors and law enforcement objected at the time and have argued since that the lighter punishment has contributed to the rising rate of fentanyl deaths in the state. This past session she voted to reinstate tougher penalties for a gram or more of the drug. 

Caraveo told CPR’s Colorado Matters that she stands by her votes on both bills. She said she decided earlier that she supported efforts to look holistically at the issue of drugs and consider preventive measures and access to treatment, rather than a purely punitive approach. But she agrees that the state also needed a different approach.

“We needed to make sure that we were holding people accountable for distributing this substance in our communities.That’s why I was very happy to vote to make sure that we're treating criminals as criminals,” she said about this year’s bill. 

Caraveo has also been attacked by Republican groups for voting in favor of a measure that imposed a new fee on gas and deliveries to pay for transportation projects. In the face of climbing gas prices, Democrats voted this spring to delay the gas fee for a year.

“With legislation, there's all sorts of things that we have to balance,” said Caraveo. “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.”

Caraveo highlights her efforts to cut costs for working families, noting she was part of creating Colorado’s new Prescription Drug Affordability Board that has the power to review — and cap — the prices of prescription drugs. Opponents argue it could have unintended consequences, such as harming small pharmacies and potentially leading to highly effective medications becoming unavailable in Colorado.

Reproductive rights is another centerpiece of Caraveo’s campaign, and a place where she diverges starkly from her opponent, who opposes legal abortion. Caraveo said she thinks the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe vs. Wade will motivate a lot of women across the political spectrum this election. 

“Certainly something that we're hearing at every door, at every event (is) how angry women are — and actually people in general — about a basic right over their autonomy and their healthcare being taken away.”

At the legislature, she backed the Reproductive Health Equity Act which codified legal abortion in state law.

The race for the eighth district has drawn a lot of money. By the end of June, Caraveo had raised $1.1 million, well ahead of her competitor, Barbara Kirkmeyer, who’d brought in just under $400,000.

But with control of the U.S. House coming down potentially to a handful of seats, the real money is coming from outside groups. Groups aligned with Kirkmeyer have spent nearly $3.4 million dollars on the race, while groups backing Caraveo have put in around $2.8 million, according to the website Open Secrets.

The national implications of this race aren’t lost on her. With crime, inflation and gas prices all high, Caraveo is left trying to convince voters not to punish the party in power: hers.

“Basically the majority runs, not just through Colorado, but specifically through Adams, Weld and Larimer counties,” said Caraveo. “People really need to think about that when they cast their vote.”