Englewood Municipal Judge and former Mayor Joe Jefferson still answers the phone at his mother's Chinese restaurant, the Twin Dragon on South Broadway. “I don't have any choice,” Jefferson, 38, …
Englewood Municipal Judge and former Mayor Joe Jefferson still answers the phone at his mother's Chinese restaurant, the Twin Dragon on South Broadway.
“I don't have any choice,” Jefferson, 38, laughed. He doesn't work as much as he used to, but he still helps his mom out with the business and sometimes even delivers food.
In the 1980s, the Twin Dragon often had a line of people pouring out of its front door. That's Jefferson's favorite memory, from back when he was a child, of the place where his mother — who was born to Chinese parents in North Korea — lived the American dream, he said.
He didn't know it then, but that foundation would point his life in a direction of service to the city where his mother achieved so much success.
'Welcomed in Englewood'
Despite coming from outside the United States in the mid-1900s, Jefferson's mother, Shiou Yun Wang, now 69, was always accepted in Englewood, Jefferson said.
“She lived the American dream right here in Englewood, Colorado,” Jefferson said.” So I felt (like I should) give back and lift a community up.”
Jefferson's about as local as local gets — he was born at Swedish Medical Center and runs a legal practice right next to his mom's restaurant — but initially, he was far from considering a run for public office in Englewood.
“In law school, I started getting a little civic-minded,” said Jefferson, who graduated from Cornell University in New York and studied law at the University of Denver. Before DU, he worked as a broker at Morgan Stanley in downtown Denver. “Initially, it was just volunteering with the city.”
He started on the Keep Englewood Beautiful Commission, which volunteers to support environmental quality of life, when he was a law student. Shortly after, in 2007 — still a law student — he won a race to become an Englewood city councilmember for District 1, the northwestern part of the city.
“I started to realize,” Jefferson said, “I had something valuable to contribute.”
His mother's immigrant history gave him a perspective of gratitude for the opportunities that the local community gave his mom. Wang was born in North Korea after her family was forced to leave China during World War II. She grew up in South Korea, went to college in Taiwan and got a master's degree in Japan.
Wang bought the Twin Dragon around 1977 after coming to the U.S. Jefferson said his business acumen and desire for success came from his mom, who built a decades-deep name for her restaurant — it's won accolades from 7News KMGH and Westword and 5280 magazines.
“I encouraged him (to volunteer and serve) with the city,” Wang said. I “felt like I was always an outsider, not an insider. So I wanted Joseph to be involved. Plus, I think, (in) my age in Asia, as a woman, we couldn't do a lot of things. I feel like it was part of my dream, too.”
Becoming a leader
Now, Jefferson's gone from a volunteer to becoming mayor in 2015, and on Jan. 8, he took the oath as municipal judge. And observers and insiders alike say Jefferson has been successful in his leadership.
“Joe carried on the need for improvement and growth in Englewood established by former mayors,” said Randy Penn, mayor of Englewood from 2011-15. “He was very strong in the city's financials as well as continued work with other” mayors and cities.
Doug Cohn, a member of the Englewood Historic Preservation Society, said the Englewood City Council has become increasingly divided in recent years but that Jefferson has learned to keep order while allowing everyone to express their views.
“In more recent times, he has asserted his power as mayor to focus the opposing views and oversee more orderly meetings,” Cohn said.
Jefferson's always been a team player, said Laurett Barrentine, Englewood city councilmember.
“Joe has an amazing work ethic — I'm sure he has his mother to thank for that,” said Barrentine, who said Jefferson has kept a “great sense of humor” through all his work on city council. “As mayor, he was tireless in representing the city.
“Every month, (he) held a District 1 meeting so he could discuss issues and concerns with the citizens. I understand in the 10 years he served District 1, only one meeting was ever canceled. That takes dedication,” Barrentine added.
Councilmember Linda Olson said Jefferson is well prepared for his new position.
“He has had to navigate contentious meetings and perspectives, which should serve him well as he moves into the judgeship,” Olson said.
Lifting Englewood up
As Jefferson will tell you, Englewood's image is on an upswing.
There was the new Englewood Block Party that brought thousands to the historic 3400 block of South Broadway in October. Better communication with residents. The first “state of the city” address in Englewood history. Even the city's new magazine is part of the shift, Jefferson said.
“All of that communication has had the net accomplishment in 2017, which is improving perceptions in 2017 of Englewood as a place to do business,” Jefferson said. “I think what all of those things have done is highlight points of pride and hope for our future.”
But behind the scenes, Jefferson wants to improve the city in a less visible arena: How Englewood residents interact with their municipal court. Now, he'll finally get the chance.
“Priority number one — I think it's technology,” Jefferson said. I “know we're budgeted for some improvements in the court,” and “I hope (they) have some outward-facing functions, such as paying a traffic ticket online.”
Making the court more accessible is a main goal — making the court docket, or schedule, available online along with other information to improve appearance rates is another target for Jefferson.
He chose law as a study because he wanted to “help and empower people,” he said.
That idea comes through perhaps most strongly in Jefferson's vision of “restorative justice” in Englewood's court — looking for opportunities for youth offenders “to make right where there was a wrong.” If a young person sprays graffiti, for example, their punishment would be graffiti removal to teach them the damage of their actions— or other targeted community service.
“I want to create more local options in the city — in the community where (the offense) took place,” said Jefferson, who aims to work with neighboring cities to consider what the program would look like.
Weeks ahead of stepping into the position, he was learning from Vincent Atencio, Englewood's previous municipal judge.
“The main purpose of a court is to deter and punish crimes and not necessarily to generate revenue,” Jefferson said on what he's picked up from Atencio. He added that garnering large amounts of revenue from traffic tickets isn't what a court is for. “I like the idea of focusing on this kind of reminder of why we're here in the first place.”
Jefferson's task now is to make his campaign slogan, “justice with dignity,” a reality.
For someone who's built trust with the community for more than a decade, that shouldn't be too hard. Wang recalls how his growing up in her restaurant made Jefferson into a down-to-earth citizen who can connect with everyday people in Englewood.
“They know him,” Wang said. “He's like family.”