The people who sign Denver’s checks, make Denver’s laws and choose what gets built where will look a lot different next month, with new personalities and agendas shaping the city as we know it.
On July 15, five fresh political faces will take their seats on the Denver City Council. Women will hold a majority with eight posts on the 13-seat body. One member will be the city’s first to use a wheelchair. Another is a democratic socialist.
“Council is such an interesting thing, with 13 very unique, very strong-minded individuals, but we operate like a body,” City Council President Jolon Clark said. “It’s almost more like a living organism and it takes time to figure out what that looks like.”
And they’re all shaped by different experiences that will play out on the legislative floor. Alliances will form. Disagreements are inevitable. Yet the 13-member body will have to act as a singular force at times to check Mayor Michael Hancock’s power.
The elected body will disagree, but cannot be dysfunctional, Clark says, because it cannot “cede the little power it has in a mayor-strong system to somebody else.”
Some big changes that will alter the Council’s calculus:
Community activist and democratic socialist Candi CdeBaca will replace Albus Brooks, an urbanist whose tenure has been marked by votes and development policies to encourage compact, walkable homes and businesses. He also sponsored the city’s urban camping ban bill back in 2012. CdeBaca is not against development but says he played a major role in making their north-central district unaffordable for locals.
Financial analyst and urbanist Chris Hinds will replace Wayne New, a councilman whose strength came especially from Cherry Creek and other wealthy and older neighborhoods in their central Denver district, according to election results. He framed himself as tough on developers but voted in favor of every redevelopment request in his district over the last four years, save for one when he was absent. Hinds, who uses a wheelchair, says he was voted in by a younger crowd that typically rents homes and favors density and walkability over single-family homes with big yards.
Amanda Sawyer, who does not have a paying job but is a licensed attorney, will take over the seat of Mary Beth Susman, a pro-density politico with a record of advocating for walking, biking and transit infrastructure, in Denver’s east-central district. Sawyer aims to give neighbors more power in development decisions and told the Denver Post her district is “nearing capacity.”
Councilwomen-elect Jamie Torres and Amanda Sandoval represent less radical changes behind the dais, but changes nonetheless. Torres says she and outgoing Councilman Paul López have “similar core philosophies” aimed at hearing under-heard groups in their westside district. Sandoval used to work on outgoing City Councilman Rafael Espinoza’s staff on his bread-and-butter issue: rezonings that dictate how land is used.
Espinoza thinks the election of the New Five is a wash, politically.
“I largely think because of the net effect of the losses and the gains, the Council will largely stay the same on most decisions,” Espinoza said. “It will be interesting as the mayor moves on his final term to see some of the maneuvering that might occur with council members that have mayoral aspirations.”
His top concern is whether the body, which operates under a strong-mayor system, will push back against the Hancock administration — and whether the administration gives it a reason to.
“It depends on what kind of mayor we get in his final term,” Espinoza said. “If he continues to disregard the … people who didn’t vote for him in this city and not care about development and growth concerns, then you’ll see an adversary pop up. Otherwise, I think what you’ll see is those who have higher aspirations sharing the limelight with him.”
Espinoza said he thinks CdeBaca will claim his role as an outlier who uses a “bully pulpit” to change the conversation — even if there aren’t enough votes to change the decision.
It’s not just new people, but new issues to tackle.
Torres points to big changes in her westside district because of Sun Valley’s impending redevelopment, along with a new entertainment district around the Bronco’s stadium.
“Housing is going to be changing in Sun Valley and West Colfax,” she said. “For Sun Valley, it will be a transformative decade for that neighborhood. We have to make sure we don’t lose the history but at the same time make sure it’s a better place to live.”
Yet the council’s responsibilities remain essentially the same: Shaping growth and development, approving billions of dollars in contracts with private companies, making laws, approving the budget.
“The feeling is always that because there are new people, there will be different conversations but fundamentally our work is still the same,” Council President Clark said. “And so I think that it will take some time to see.”