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Candidates in the at-large city council race have received racist, homophobic harassment (Local Tips & Reviews)

Will Chan says he’s dealt with anti-Asian hate throughout his life growing up in Denver.

The harassment, he said, got worse when former president Donald Trump won the Republican nomination after running a campaign that featured openly xenophobic and racist political messaging; a person once yelled “horrible things” and threw a bag of trash at his car when Trump was running.

Then came the coronavirus pandemic that, along with tragic loss of life, brought a wave of anti-Asian hate crimes. Chan said he got spit on and called slurs.

Now, Chan is running for an at-large seat on city council. If elected, he would be the first Asian American to serve on dais.

With the race fully underway, Chan and one other at-large candidate, Travis Leiker, say they’ve faced racist and anti-LGBTQ harassment in the form of hateful letters, text messages and in-person confrontations.

In filing to run, Chan said he expected a certain amount of harassment. But since he started his campaign last fall, Chan has received 18 physical letters full of slurs and veiled threats, more than 60 racist texts and direct messages and a few people yelling hateful language in person, to the point that Chan felt the need to file a report with Denver Police.

“Growing up in Denver, I see these microaggressions, I hear them, I’m experiencing them,” Chan said. “But I think on the campaign trail it’s amplified because you’re engaging with so many different people and you’re in the spotlight so much that you experience it definitely weekly, if not daily,” Chan said.

“I think any time you’re trying to be the first you’re gonna hit a lot of barriers and a lot of walls,” he said. “Getting a couple handfuls of letters has been a little jarring.”

Denver Police said the case is still open and would not release any reports. But Denverite reviewed a few of the letters and messages provided by Chan.

One letter, signed by “Every proud American,” referred to a “commy” “agenda” and “propaganda,” and said “we fought to keep you kind out of the blessed USA.”

Another letter used racist slurs, accused Chan of taking money from a different country to exert control in the U.S. and told Chan to “GO HOME.” The expletive-filled letter also referred to the “CHINA FLU,” a term similar to language used by Trump at the start of the pandemic. “WE WILL TAKE CARE OF YOU,” the anonymous person wrote.

Chan has also faced a few hateful experiences in person. When campaigning at a First Friday event, a person yelled at him about communism, socialism and propaganda. He was alone that night, and now tries to have another person with him when he goes out to campaign in person.

He also recalls times on the campaign trail, at a forum and in an endorsement interview when people asked him “Where are you really from?” rather than asking him about policy.

Chan has wrestled with coming forward about the anti-Asian hate becuase he doesn’t want the harassment to take over the narrative in his campaign.

“I’ve been trying to keep a lot of the identity politics aside and run based on the issues I want to focus on, but we’ve come to a point where it’s hard to ignore, and it’s a story that needs to be shared,” he said.

Chan’s father was an immigrant and his mother was a refugee to the U.S.

He has worked with the Denver Public Library on programs for immigrants and refugees, and volunteered with the Denver Asian American Pacific Islander Commission. As part of his work, he has encouraged others to report hate crimes to the police, but said it’s been difficult being in that position himself.

“It’s been interesting kind of going through the process of filing and reliving that trauma,” he said. “I’m seeing it from a different lens of experience. It’s such a regular, consistent basis now.”

Since the letters began, Chan has communicated with the police when checking his campaign’s PO Box. The police have also provided welfare checks and extra neighborhood rounds.

“You never know,” Chan said. “That’s the piece that’s scary right now. You just never know who is gonna hit that tipping point of taking it from paper to action.”

Denverite asked all nine candidates on the ballot running for Council at-large, who represent a diverse range of identities, if they’ve faced similar harassment on the campaign trail.

Five of those who responded said they had not received any hateful messages so far. Penfield Tate III, Sarah Parady and Dominic Diaz did not respond.

Travis Leiker said he regularly receives homophobic messages any time he does digital outreach to voters. Many of the texts include expletives and homophobic slurs toward Leiker, who is gay.

At-large candidate Travis Leiker stands in Civic Center Park. Feb. 7, 2023.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

“Have you no shame… In The beginning God made Adam Eve dude,” one person texted. Another accused Leiker of “denying biological reality” and accused Leiker of “sexual harassment and misogyny,” echoing recent transphobic language that has caught on nationwide.

“We think that we have progressed but we cannot rest on our laurels thinking that Denver’s more wholly and completely has moved beyond, or that society has moved beyond these unfortunate discriminatory and prejudicial actions,” Leiker said.

Denver has elected members of the LGBTQ community to Council before, but if elected, Leiker and Chan could become the first openly gay men on Council. Chan said he’s also received texts from voters that contain homophobic slurs, but noted that the attacks have been more focused on anti-Asian hate.

Both Leiker and Chan said that the homophobia and racism show that for marginalized groups, Denver isn’t necessarily the progressive safe haven many make the city out to be.

But despite the hateful letters and texts, Chan said that above all, he wants voters to know how much he loves Denver.

“I grew up in Denver, I love the city,” he said. “We are a welcoming town and we are a welcoming city and in spite of the one or two really dedicated angry people, there’s been overwhelming support as well.”

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