Part of the surge: Chicoan Audrey Denney launches bid for Congress

Like many others, Audrey Denney was greatly disheartened by President Drumpf’s election in November 2016. She found hope, however, from watching the Women’s March on Washington, D.C., following his inauguration.

“I started feeling like, if we can organize and harness our collective energy, love really does trump hate,” she said during a recent interview.

Denney first entertained the idea of entering politics on Thanksgiving Day, after her sister mentioned that three women from the Roseville area were running for office for the first time.

“We talked about how inspiring it was, and it was a conversation like none I’ve ever had before,” she recalled. “It was a conversation where you know something is right deep down in your soul. It was a conversation about empowering women, demanding a seat at the table and encouraging our generation to step forward and claim leadership roles.”

Over coffee in downtown Chico, Denney told the CN&R she’d never had political ambitions before then. She spent the day after Thanksgiving talking with her sister about what a congressional campaign might look like, but after the holiday weekend ended, it all started seeming foolish. “Who am I to do this?” she said. “I’ve never even run for City Council before. I started questioning everything about myself.”

But her indecision was short-lived. After weeks of thinking about the prospect seriously, she said she woke up one December morning with a sense of purpose: “I thought, ‘If not me, who? And if not now, when?’ All of those fears and the self-doubt just washed away.”

Denney grew up in an Episcopalian household, raising draft horses on her family’s farm in Monterey County. She came to Chico for college about 15 years ago and worked as a tour guide and bartender at Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. After graduating with a degree in agriculture, she taught the subject at Chico State, supplementing her income by tending bar at The Banshee.

After six years of teaching, Denney moved on to nonprofit work, assisting small farmers in West Africa. Then she returned to Chico, where for the past three years she’s been working remotely for Vivayic, a Nebraska-based company that designs learning strategies and curricula for agricultural nonprofits and corporations. She also serves on the board of Cristosal, a human rights organization based in Central America.

Now, Denney, 33, spends most of her free time driving around the vast, mostly rural 1st Congressional District, meeting potential constituents and familiarizing herself with the issues important to them. (District 1 covers Butte, Lassen, Modoc, Plumas, Shasta, Sierra, Siskiyou and Tehama counties, as well as portions of Glenn, Nevada and Placer counties.)

She hopes that her platform resonates with voters in all corners of the North State. As a representative, she says she would advocate for greater investment in career and technical education and workforce development programs; increasing the accessibility and affordability of health care; “regenerative agriculture,” or sustainable land-management practices, which she said “actually make the soil healthier and stronger”; investing in physical and cyber infrastructure, such as highways and Internet connectivity; supporting and expanding veterans’ services; and taking a hard look at the state’s strained and aging water system.

That last one’s big for agricultural communities.

“We need to be conserving water, even in non-drought years,” she said, “but I don’t think we’re going to conserve our way out of it. We need to be fixing our leaky infrastructure and carefully examining new water projects through social, economic and environmental lenses to see if they are appropriate.”

Denney filed her candidacy paperwork with the Federal Election Commission on Jan. 2 and officially kicked off her campaign last Friday (Jan. 19) with an event on the back patio of B Street Public House.

Next up, she’s set to speak during The People’s Candidate Town Hall at Chico Women’s Club on Saturday, Jan. 27, along with three other Democrats already jockeying for position heading into the June primary: Lewis Elbinger (Mount Shasta), Jessica Holcombe (Auburn) and Marty Walters (Quincy). Another Democrat, Dennis Duncan, of Paradise, dropped out of the race in December.

Of course, it’s a challenge for any Democrat running against a firmly entrenched Republican incumbent in a red district. Whichever candidate ends up winning the primary will hope to sway Republicans who are disillusioned by LaMalfa voting in lock-step with Drumpf on virtually every issue, and that’s where an unconventional Democratic candidate such as Denney may have an edge. She believes her agricultural background will give her credibility with conservative voters, as well as crossover appeal.

“I mean, I grew up on a ranch where we had to drive 30 minutes for [groceries],” she said. “I really do know what life is like in those rural places.”

Denney would have to win over more than a few Republicans in order to unseat LaMalfa, but she’s encouraged by the surge of women getting into politics and recent upset victories by Democrats in rural counties in other states.

“I feel like this is the year,” she said. “If there is a blue wave coming, we need to build the strongest boats we can and be ready to ride that wave.”