Harrison Wendt has always thought of running for public office – although he did not necessarily plan to do it at 23 years old.
Wendt decided to run for Durango City Council last summer after police officers killed George Floyd, a Black community member in Minneapolis. Months of nationwide and local protests followed, led by those calling for police reform and racial justice. During the protests, Wendt spent time with the Southwest Movement for Black Lives and hearing from people who were marginalized, such as Indigenous and Black residents.
“I really wanted to put some of my effort and anger into local government to try to see changes that I was wishing to see,” Wendt said.
Wendt is one of seven candidates running for three open seats on City Council in the April 6 elections. The candidates will replace Mayor Dean Brookie, who is term-limited; Chris Bettin, who declined to run for re-election; and Melissa Youssef, who is running as an incumbent candidate.
Wendt, who is from Minneapolis and attended Fort Lewis College, describes himself as a community organizer and activist. The youngest candidate running for council, he said he can represent younger residents and the working class while advocating for bold, progressive change.
He is also the first City Council candidate to openly identify as a member of the LGBTQ community, according to city staff members.
“We have a huge population of young people who stay here after college,” said Wendt, who moved to Durango in 2017. “I believe there needs to be representation of young people on the council, too.”
Wendt works as a youth camp coordinator with Durango School District 9-R’s after-school enrichment program. He has started two nonprofits: Safe Together, a now-dissolved, Minnesota-based nonprofit that he founded at 18; and the Animas Rooted Theatre Co., which he co-founded in Durango in 2019.
He has also experienced firsthand the financial burdens of trying to get by in Durango, he said.
“I’m qualified because I am the working class. I am the struggling Durango. I’ve done the ‘Durango Tango,’” Wendt said.
His top priority if elected would be addressing income inequality in Durango, he said. City Council seems to cater to the wealthy or second homeowners, he said. He wanted to see a local mandate to raise the minimum wage to $15 by 2023, similar to the national push for a minimum wage increase.
“If we want to root out some systematic inequalities within our government and within our city, we need to start with working- and middle-class people,” Wendt said.
One key responsibility for City Council: deciding how to distribute Durango’s $102 million city budget. Wendt said he has never handled a budget that size.
“I make $22,000 a year and that’s about all I manage for myself,” he said, but his role on City Council would be about checks and balances. “I’m confident I can go into City Council, to make decisions based on the good of all community members.”
An active social media user, Wendt often takes progressive stances on environmental and social issues. He advocated for the removal of the Chief sign outside Toh-Atin Gallery. The sign has created divisions in Durango, with some saying it is a racist symbol.
Wendt doesn’t split hairs, on social media or in person. If he believes there is gentrification happening in Durango, hypocrisy in government, or straight and white-dominant views in town, he says it.
“I live ... the struggles within Durango,” Wendt said. “I’m not talking about the struggles of race or gender, but I am a queer man. I have experienced the hatred that some receive.”
He said he has been called vulgar names in Walmart and downtown Durango. People, who he said have conservative views, have attacked him for his sexuality because of a photo referencing the TV show, “Tiger King,” in which he is dressed in a leopard-print outfit.
“I’m also working class,” Wendt said, which allows him to understand the experience of others trying to make it on lower income. “I’m young, I’m progressive. I have a fresh view. ... We need someone who understands and who lives the current struggles.”