This is a series profiling Denver’s City Council members. Each month we grab coffee and take a car ride in their district. Along the way, we get an intimate look at their lives, their worldview and most importantly, their goals for their districts. Go here to read past profiles.
“Most days, I don’t consider this work,” Christopher Herndon — who represents District 8 on the Denver City Council — told 303 Magazine.
Before being elected to the council in 2011, the West Point grad served almost seven years in the United States Army. Herndon spent time working in management roles at United Airlines before diving into the world of politics.
“All I care about is service. Service can mean several different things,” he said. “You can continue as a public official. You can run a nonprofit or you can go to the private sector and do corporate social responsibility. Service encompasses all avenues and sectors that you want to work in. That is what is great about being a servant. You can do it in several different ways.”
The Councilman served as a financial literacy teacher at his local church and has spent time tutoring young African American boys at a nearby high school.
Herndon has used his position on the council to serve the community in a different way. “If you could frame what our office does, I think that it is in and out-of-the-box thinking,” Herndon remarked. The Northeast Denver Leadership Week — founded by Herndon after he was elected — is all about showing students what is possible.
Denver is rich with opportunity, but “a lot of our youth in northeast Denver don’t know about those opportunities,” the Councilman said.
Instead of just telling students about careers in public health, he takes young people to Kaiser Permanente. Instead of just discussing law careers, he takes young people to law firms. Students who participate in the free, week-long program are exposed to a wide variety of industries and leaders.
“As we take them to these locations, we put presenters in front of them that have their same backgrounds … who grew up in Montbello or in a challenging environment,” he said.
Students who participate in the Northeast Denver Leadership Week have chaperones throughout the duration of the program — some of whom are police officers. During the first few days, these individuals show up in regular, civilian clothes.
But on safety day — which is dedicated to exposing students to careers in the police and fire world — the chaperones show up in their uniforms. Herndon shared a story about one student’s response to realizing that her chaperone was a police officer.
“A couple years back, one student — an African American female — stood up and said, ‘I don’t know how to act right now. I can tell you that I hate police officers. But I love Marika.’”
Later, that student wrote Marika a thank you note, saying — “I now think I could be a police officer.” Herndon says that the program gives students an opportunity to break down walls.
“You will talk to communities of color who have struggles with men and women in uniform. How do we break down those barriers? One way is getting to know one another. People say, ‘Hey, I have challenges with the police.’ [I say] how many police officers do you know?”
In comparison to other cities, Herndon believes that police-community relations in Denver are “absolutely on the right track.” Mayor Hancock appointed Paul Pazen Denver Police Department chief, which Herndon approves of.
“The community is excited about Paul Pazen. He recently selected new commanders for each of his police districts, and they are all dynamic leaders. The community and even the men and women who serve are excited about the future.”
Another out-of-the-box project that Councilman Herndon is proud of is the Denver City Council’s acquisition of 8315 East Colfax, which was once a strip club.
“If you would have looked at police reports, you would have known that 8315 East Colfax was a challenge to the neighborhood. Whether it was drugs or prostitution, a lot of our resources were being drained at this particular location,” he said.
He gave props to the District 2 police team that covers East Colfax. “They did a series of operations and finally had the opportunity to shut it down because of the crime that was happening.”
The Council hopes to take what was formerly a strip club and turn it into something that serves the community.
Councilman Herndon’s office said, “The Denver Office of Economic Development (OED) is anticipating release of the Request for Proposals (RFPs) within the next few weeks for 8315 E. Colfax.”
This is just one part of the broader effort to develop East Colfax. Councilman Herndon and Councilwoman Susman lead the Steering Committee for the East Area Plan and work with community members to discuss what they want to see on this avenue.
“What type of smart development are we going to do that is community-serving? What do we want this to be by 2040?” Herndon said. These questions guide the conversation.
Although Councilman Herndon spends a lot of time focusing on out-of-the-box ideas, he also works to fulfill his more traditional duties.
“People have expectations of what council offices are supposed to do. We are serving our constituencies, making sure we are present and going to events — that’s the in-the-box.”
Herndon pointed to the leaps that his district neighborhoods — Park Hill, Stapleton, East Colfax and Montbello — have made in the realm of affordable housing.
“We are not just concentrating on one neighborhood,” he said.
Herndon notes Stapleton’s for-rent options through Northeast Denver Housing Center and for-sale options through Thrive Home Builders. His district also has the Park Hill Station Apartments. Volunteers of America’s project — Meadows at Montbello — has senior housing for those 62 and up.
“We are hitting the affordability challenge head on throughout the entire district,” the Councilman said.
Herndon is extremely proud of his team and how accessible their office is.
“We are changing the stereotype of elected officials. We meet with anybody. Whether we know that the meeting is going to be positive or negative, you are going to get it,” he said.
To Councilman Herndon, there are no small tasks or small issues.
“We can get a phone call from a constituent who is mad about graffiti on a Tuesday and we can reach out to Public Works and have it removed within 48 hours. We have just made that person’s day. Those differences mean the world to those individuals that we are serving.”
Go here to check out our other profiles on city council people in our Coffee and Car Rides series. Do you want to connect with Councilman Herndon? Follow him on Twitter or find his contact information here.