Two influential teachers unions have endorsed Cary Kennedy in the Democratic primary for governor. 

The Colorado Education Association and the Colorado chapter of the American Federation of Teachers both gave Kennedy their blessing Wednesday.

It’s the first time that CEA has endorsed in a gubernatorial primary, according to union president Kerrie Dallman. This is also the first competitive Democratic primary for governor in two decades. 

“Cary blew us out of the water,” Dallman said. “She aligns with all of our issues and values that our membes share and our hopes for what public education can be in the state of Colorado.”

Ellen Slatkin, president of the Metropolitan State Faculty Federation and AFT-Colorado, described Kennedy as someone with a precise mind and a big heart when it comes to education issues.

“A lot of candidates are good on the issue of education,” Slatkin said. “They care about kids, and they care about higher education opportunities. But Cary knows how to get it there. She knows what it takes to work legislative pieces, how to mobilize constituencies. She’s just so thorough, and at the same time, she’s just so kind.”

Kennedy is a former state treasurer and chief financial officer for the city of Denver who was the author of Amendment 23, a measure that requires the state to increase educational funding every year. The state doesn’t fully comply with that requirement because it can’t afford it. Union representatives cited Amendment 23 and the Building Excellent Schools Today program, which provides grants for school construction and renovation, as examples of what Kennedy has already done for education in Colorado.

Kennedy has made increasing teacher pay a key part of her education platform, which also also calls for universal access to preschool and full-day kindergarten. She says her ultimate goal is have every Colorado student in college or in the workforce by age 19. 

“As governor of Colorado, I will make public education our state’s top priority,” Kennedy said. “It doesn’t make any sense that our economy is one of the top-ranked economies in the country and our investment in our schools ranks at the bottom. We pay our teachers among the lowest salaries in the country. Teachers can’t afford to work here. They can’t afford to live here. And every day we’re losing great teachers from our classrooms.”

Kennedy acknowledges that enacting this platform would require changes to the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights to allow the state to keep more revenue. TABOR is considered nearly sacred in Colorado politics, but she thinks there is enough support among local Republican leaders to overturn it at the ballot.

“As governor, I will lead a bipartisan coalition to pass permanent TABOR reform so that we don’t have to keep cutting our school budgets,” she said. “Nearly every local government in the state has obtained voter approval to keep local tax revenue, notwithstanding TABOR’s limits, and I will lead the statewide effort to allow the state to keep tax revenue generated by growth in our economy to invest in our schools and our infrastructure.”

These endorsements come as anti-immigrant hardliner Tom Tancredo announced he was withdrawing from the Republican race for governor. Tancredo was seen as a likely spoiler in the governor’s race, and in announcing his withdrawal, he declared he did not think any Republican can win.

With Tancredo out of the race, many observers believe current State Treasurer Walker Stapleton, who beat Kennedy to get the job he holds now, is the Republican frontrunner.

Dallman stressed that she believes Kennedy can win in the primary and the general election, and she said her association’s 35,000 members would be making phone calls and knocking on doors to get the word out about their candidate.

Education has been a major issue in the Democratic campaign. U.S. Rep. Jared Polis is a former chair of the State Board of Education, and Mike Johnston, a former state lawmaker and educator, has drawn significant support from education reform advocates. Businessman Noel Ginsburg runs a program that provides apprenticeships for high school students.

With his close ties to the education reform community, Johnston was never in the running for a union endorsement. Of Polis, Dallman said, “He just didn’t align with us on all of our issues.”

Ready Colorado, the primary conservative voice on education issues in the state, does not plan to endorse in the Republican race. It’s not clear if Democrats for Education Reform will take a position in the Democratic race.

Chalkbeat’s Nic Garcia talked at length with Kennedy about her education ideas last year. You can read that interview here.

This story has been updated with comments from the announcement and interviews.