Organization devoted to helping Democratic women candidates severs ties with Colorado affiliate

Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
Lisa Calderón sits on the “State of our Streets” mayoral forum at DSST Elevate Northeast High School in Montbello. March 9, 2023.

Emerge America, a Democratic training and recruitment organization that aims to help women get elected to office, is severing ties with its affiliate chapter in the state, Emerge Colorado. 

In a letter written Wednesday, Emerge America said it made the decision to “immediately end our relationship with the current Emerge Colorado organization.”

A'shanti Gholar, the head of Emerge America, said the group received multiple complaints about the management of Emerge Colorado and conducted an extensive investigation. 

“The final report to the Emerge America board identified several areas that not only were inconsistent with our values and creating a supportive environment for all, but unquestionably violated our affiliate agreements and principles.”

This is the first time in the organization’s history it has terminated a relationship with an affiliate member, and Gholar said Emerge had worked to try to address the specific challenges rather than taking this step.

“Ultimately and unfortunately, their leadership team made an amicable resolution impossible.”

It’s not clear what this decision will ultimately mean for on-the-ground candidate recruitment and training for Democratic candidates in Colorado ahead of the 2024 election, but Emerge America said it would continue working in the state. 

The group has numerous high-profile alums in Colorado, including Secretary of State Jena Griswold, three state senators, 18 state representatives and many local elected officials. 

Emerge Colorado’s current Executive Director Lisa Calderón hit back against the separation announcement with her own concerns about how Emerge America operates. She said in an emailed statement that the national organization essentially competes against local affiliates by funneling local applicants and donations to the national site. 

“Chapters like [Emerge Colorado] do the hard work of recruiting and training women across their states while [Emerge America] reaps the rewards of the state chapters’ labor.”

Calderón also sent a legal demand letter alleging that Emerge America is improperly terminating the affiliation agreement and likened it to a “hostile takeover.”

She argues the move was made because Colorado is a wealthy state with one of the most successful chapters in the country and is an effort to stop local unionization efforts. Emerge America’s staff voted to unionize last year and were voluntarily recognized by the management.

Emerge America declined to comment on Calderón’s specific allegations. 

Colorado's Emerge chapter has been embroiled in drama for a while. Opponents of Calderón accused her of mismanagement and unfairly using her position to benefit her recent campaign for Denver mayor, though a campaign finance complaint that she used Emerge polling for her own gain was dismissed.

Democratic state Sen. Faith Winter was Emerge Colorado’s first executive director in 2014. She said groups like this are needed because women still haven’t reached parity in elected office.

“We can all do this work and hope we do it in a way that lifts each other up instead of tears each other down,” Winter said.

Winter added that she thinks Colorado is lucky to have a lot of people and organizations working to promote women's leadership and get more women elected. The last legislative session began with a historic number of female legislators, and the state ranked second in the country for the highest percentage of women lawmakers. And for the first time in state history, the three top House leaders are women.

But Colorado is also lagging in other areas. The state has never elected a female governor or U.S. senator.  

“I'm certain Emerge America will continue to support Colorado and I’m certain Calderón will continue to promote women running for office,” Winter said.

Emerge Colorado has an upcoming fundraiser gala planned just days before it’s set to no longer be able to use that name and branding. Calderón said the fundraiser will still move forward and is intended to celebrate the group’s 10th anniversary, founders and recent graduates. Secretary Griswold is scheduled to be the keynote speaker.

Editor's Note: This story has been updated with additional detail about Emerge America's unionization.