Bernie Sanders endorses Democrat Emily Sirota in primary challenge against Paul Rosenthal

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders meets with Emily Sirota at a rally for his Democratic presidential campaign on June 20, 2015, on the University of Denver campus. (Courtesy Sirota campaign)

Independent U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont on Thursday endorsed Emily Sirota, one of two Democrats challenging state Rep. Paul Rosenthal in a primary in southeast Denver’s House District 9.

Sanders, who carried Colorado’s 2016 Democratic caucuses by a wide margin as a presidential candidate, said in a statement he was “proud” to endorse Sirota, calling her a fighter for progressive values:

“Emily Sirota stands for the progressive values and platform that we have all been fighting for — pay equity, paid family leave, protecting the environment, Medicare for all Americans, and tuition free colleges and universities. I know she will continue to fight for these values in the Capitol for all Coloradans, and that’s why I am proud to endorse Emily Sirota for Colorado State House District 9.”

Sanders’ backing could translate into grassroots support and a fundraising boost for Sirota, although her campaign said Thursday she’s already raised more than $24,000 in the six days since announcing her bid — twice what Rosenthal, the incumbent, reported raising during the most recent three-month reporting period.

In a statement, Sirota called Sanders “one of America’s strongest and most powerful voices for social and economic justice” and said she’s running for the legislative seat because she agrees with him that “the status quo is completely unacceptable.”

“Right now, Colorado’s economy is booming — but we are not ensuring that this growth is benefiting working families,” Sirota said. “Many here in southeast Denver are struggling to afford basic necessities such as healthcare, housing, college, and retirement, all while our public education and infrastructure is underfunded. That must change. I am thrilled to receive Senator Sanders’ endorsement in this campaign — and I am excited to work with him, his supporters and everyone here in southeast Denver to make sure we have a representative who is standing up to the special interests and fighting for this community every single day.”

A social worker and educator, Sirota and veteran policy advocate Ashley Wheeland both launched challenges last week against Rosenthal, charging his voting record hews too far to the right and saying they’re troubled by allegations of sexual misconduct that have been leveled against him.

Legislative leadership last month dismissed one complaint that alleged Rosenthal inappropriately touched a campaign volunteer at a 2012 political event, ruling the alleged incident took place before Rosenthal was elected and was outside the scope of Legislature’s harassment policy.

Rosenthal has vigorously maintained his innocence and denied any wrongdoing.

In addition to Sanders, Sirota has received endorsements from state Rep. Joe Salazar, D-Thornton, former Denver Public Schools board members James Mejia and Jeannie Kaplan and former Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer, whose administration she worked in as a policy aide, her campaign said.

The Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which counts 18,000 Colorado members, also endorsed Sirota this week, saying her “bold progressive platform of paid family leave, pay equity, portable retirement benefits, and free preschool and kindergarten for every Colorado child demonstrates her commitment Colorado’s families.”

In addition, PCCC co-founder Stephanie Taylor said Sirota won the group’s backing because, “She refuses to take corporate PAC money, she a proud supporter of Medicare for all and she has pledged to fight to make sure Colorado communities are empowered to protect the environment from fossil fuel development.”

Salazar, a candidate in the crowded Democratic primary for attorney general and one of the first Colorado officials to back Sanders in early 2016, can attest to the power of a Sanders endorsement. When the presidential candidate included Salazar among several legislative candidates from around the country as beneficiaries in a May 2016b fundraising appeal, the Thornton Democrat saw contributions to his reelection bid pour in at a rate of roughly $1,000 an hour, eventually totaling about $85,000, he said.

The Sanders-aligned progressive organization Our Revolution endorsed Salazar’s attorney general bid in December, but until throwing his support behind Sirota, Sanders hadn’t weighed in on any of this cycle’s races in Colorado.

The primary election is June 26.

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