Who’s thinking about — or who are people talking about — running for mayor in 2023?

The way-too-early list.
14 min. read
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

UPDATE 5:49 p.m.: This story has been updated to include more potential candidates.

Mayor Michael Hancock's seat is not even cold yet. In fact, he's still sitting in it. But the election to replace him is just 16 months away and the next mayor of Denver is already on the minds of lobbyists, activists and campaign donors.

Hancock will be term-limited after 12 years in office. This will be the first Denver mayoral election without Hancock on the ballot since Jay Cutler was the Broncos starting quarterback (for non-fans, that was back in 2007, when John Hickenlooper won reelection to mayor in a landslide.)

There are a lot of reasons to want the top job. Denver has a (very) strong mayor form of government, it's the most populous city in Colorado, and it's the state's economic driver. And Denver owns and operates the most critical piece of transportation infrastructure in the state -- Denver International Airport.

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Beyond that, it has in recent years also proven to be a stepping stone to other offices for those interested in continuing their political careers. The last mayor became governor, then a U.S. senator. Another became a cabinet secretary.

However, like many cities in the pandemic era, Denver faces substantial challenges. Crime and homelessness are rising, along with the cost of living. Many downtown offices remain empty as the pandemic stretches on. The airport is showing its age, and the Great Hall remodel was an expensive mess.

It's those challenges that motivate some to actually want the city's top job. So who are they?

This list of potential candidates is curated from dozens of interviews with the potential candidates themselves, lobbyists, donors and political watchers. We tried to contact all the potential candidates.

Names are categorized by interest in the job (higher = more interested), and then listed alphabetically (to be fair).

Any names you think we're missing, feel free to reach out.

The Most Talked About

Kelly Brough, Chief Strategy Officer at Metro State University

The longtime head of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce served as chief of staff for then-mayor Hickenlooper. She also headed human resources for the city and set up 3-1-1. Brough left the city in 2009 for the Chamber. She accepted the newly formed position at Metro State University in November.

"While I'm flattered that people would consider me a mayoral candidate, I have no plans at this time to run for any public office," Brough said in a statement through MSU.

The position at Metro, a public university with a diverse student body, is seen by some as a way for Brough to distance herself from the business community. Her time at the Chamber, which opposed issues like paid family leave, would likely be used against her by progressive candidates.

Alec Garnett, Speaker of the State House of Representatives

Garnett was instrumental in passing key legislation at the state legislature. He helped broker bills on sports gambling, construction defects, and criminal justice reforms. His district includes parts of Capitol Hill down to Platt Park.

Garnett was executive director of the Colorado Democratic Party before winning election to the state house in 2014.

But the non-partisan mayor's office?

"Definitely something I'm thinking about," said Garnett, who feels his ability to solve problems makes him a good fit for the job. But "it's a big job and I have three young kids. Can I be the mayor Denver needs and the dad I want to be?"

Leslie Herod, state house representative

Herod is a staunch progressive, representing a Denver district that stretches from Five Points to Park Hill.

She's ushered a number of landmark police and criminal justice reform bills into state law, accomplishments that will figure prominently in a potential run for city office. She pushed successfully for a city sales tax to fund mental health and substance abuse projects.

"I'm definitely considering running," Herod said. "Contentment has never been my goal. I've been effective in my career as a state legislator."

Her work in criminal justice issues is either an asset or a liability, depending on your point of view.

Robin Kniech, Denver Council member-at-large

Kniech is term-limited. She is seen as very smart with a deep knowledge of the city. She has won three elections in an at-large seat meaning she's one of the few potential candidates who has won a citywide race.

Kniech is a strong progressive but has worked to build diverse coalitions with the mayor's office and city council to get ordinances passed on a wide range of issues, most notably affordable housing and raising the city's minimum wage.

Kniech did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Definitely Running

Jesse Parris, activist

Parris is a regular at City Council meetings and a self-described "social justice advocate."

He ran for an at-large City Council seat in 2019 but finished last. Parris is a Denver native who said he attended Denver Public Schools and graduated from Metropolitan State University. He was homeless for a time, and advocates against the camping ban and for affordable housing.

Strongly Considering

Lisa Calderón, executive director at Emerge Colorado

Calderón ran for mayor of Denver in 2019 but failed to make it to the runoff election. She then became chief of staff for Denver City Councilmember Candi CdeBaca. Calderón left CdeBaca's office over the summer to run Emerge Colorado, an organization that identifies and supports Democrat women candidates for office.

Calderón was "thrilled" that Herod, an Emerge alum, may run for mayor. But Calderón also didn't rule out a run herself.

"2023 will be the year of the woman," Calderón said. "The only question is which one."

Mowa Haile, president and CEO, Sky Blue Builders

A name not widely known in city politics, Haile is active in the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce. He's lived in Colorado for 40 years and is a graduate of Colorado State University.

"Yes, I am strongly considering running for Mayor, but will not make a final decision until next year," wrote Haile in an email.

Chris Hansen, state senator, District 31

Hansen is "seriously considering" a run for mayor. Hansen has a PhD from Oxford University and was an energy industry analyst at IHS, a business consultancy firm, for about 10 years.

Hansen served in the state House from 2016 to 2020 and in the state Senate since 2020. Both districts encompass central Denver.

Streeter McClure, president at Streeter Flynn Liquors, DigitalSafe Online and DigitalSafe Alarms

McClure is a businessman who isn't known in local political circles. He's the author of a book called "The Single Man's Guide to Cooking With Beer," which is available used on Amazon for $5.98. He has spent the better part of a year promoting his vodka brand to local venues and stores, according to his Instagram.

Reached by phone, McClure said: "We are putting some ideas together. We are going to put an exploratory group together, a committee, and evaluate what that looks like."

The Hard "No"

Albus Brooks, vice president of Milender White, former Denver City Councilmember

Brooks lost a bid for a third term on Denver City Council in 2019 to CdeBaca. He's been an executive at Milender White, a construction company, for the last two years.

Brooks said he would not run for mayor, but added that he would be very involved in fundraising efforts and said this mayor's race is for the "soul of the city."

Stephan "Chairman Seku" Evans, activist

Chairman Seku has been a regular presence at city council meetings over the years. He's a provocateur, who has something to say on just about every city issue. He ran for mayor in 2015 and 2019.

Seku said he will not run for mayor in 2023.

Cary Kennedy, Senior Advisor for Gov. Jared Polis

Kennedy is a former state treasurer. She was also chief financial officer and deputy mayor of Denver for Hancock.

When asked if she was thinking of running for mayor she immediately responded, "no ... you can take me off your list." She said she's happy with her current position.

James Mejia, president and CEO of Denver Film 

Mejia ran for mayor in 2011 but failed to make the runoff. He was in charge of large city projects under mayors Hickenlooper and Wellington Webb, including the Justice Center bond and construction, and he was the first CEO of the voter-approved Denver Preschool Program, from 2007 to 2011.

Mejia said he would not run for mayor, adding that he wants to focus on Denver Film, where he became CEO in 2020.

Paul Pazen, Denver chief of police

Crime has become a central issue in mayor's races across the country. Eric Adams, a retired police officer, even won the race for mayor of New York City this year. That win opened a lot of eyes in city politics across the U.S.

And so Pazen has been thrust into the mayor conversation. He's a native Denverite, North High School grad, and U.S. Marine Corps veteran. He has served two decades as a police officer in Denver. He faced questions earlier this year over how the department handled the response to last summer's protests.

When asked by email if he was planning to run, Pazen said simply "no." But for the Pazen fans out there, some sources believe that "no" may not be absolute.

The Unknown

Candi CdeBaca, Denver City Councilmember District 9

CdeBaca shocked the Denver political world when she beat incumbent Albus Brooks for the District 9 seat, in 2019. The district covers downtown Denver to Globeville and Elyria-Swansea.

She's a Democratic Socialist, and some on City Council and in the mayor's office dislike her aggressive style that has challenged the police department and mayor's priorities.

She did not respond to requests for comment.

Tami Door, CEO at Q Factor

Door was a longtime leader of the Downtown Denver Partnership, which according to her Linkedin handles everything from "urban planning, economic development, public policy, marketing, transportation and housing." She left DDP this month to join Q Factor, a development and property management company.

She did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Mike Ferrufino, businessman, president and CEO of the Colorado Hispanic Chamber of Commerce 

Ferrufino helps run Latino Communications, his family's local media company, that owns four Spanish-language radio stations in Colorado.

He did not respond to an email request for comment.

Jamie Giellis, president of Centro Inc.

Giellis made the 2019 mayor's race runoff but lost to Hancock. Giellis is president of Centro Inc., a city planning expert and past president of the RiNo art district.

Giellis said she has not made a decision yet, but she's weighing her options and the impact of a campaign on her family and her business.

Stacie Gilmore, City Council District 11

Gilmore and Kniech are widely considered to be the two City Council candidates most likely to run for mayor. But City Council is not historically a pipeline to mayor; Hancock is the only one to successfully make the jump.

Gilmore has been in leadership roles on council since 2018 and is currently president.

"I'm focused on doing the best job in this role and supporting my constituents in District 11," said Gilmore in an email statement.

Julie Gonzales, State Senate District 34

Gonzales has worked as a policy director and paralegal at a local immigration law firm and is still serving in her first term in the state legislature, where she's focused on housing, criminal justice reform, economic justice issues and COVID-19 disparities. Her district encompasses about a third of the city, from northwest to downtown.

Gonzales was amused when asked if she was considering a run for mayor, and said only that she's learned to never close doors on opportunities.

Allegra "Happy" Haynes, executive director of Denver Parks & Recreation

Some said she was a strong "no," while others wouldn't be surprised if she ran. Haynes did not respond to our requests for comment.

Haynes has a long history in Denver politics, serving on City Council and the Denver Public School board and at CRL Associates, the city's most powerful lobbyist firm.

Haynes, a Hancock insider, would struggle to distance herself from the previous administration, should that be what voters want.

Kalyn Heffernan, hip-hop artist and disability advocate

Heffernan, the head of hip-hop band Wheelchair Sports Camp, still uses the Twitter handle @kalyn4mayor. She was a long-shot candidate for mayor in 2019, and her campaign began apparently as an April Fools prank.

She did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Christopher Herndon, Denver City Councilmember, District 8

A West Point graduate, Herndon served for seven years in the U.S. Army. He then worked at United Airlines and DIA. He was instrumental in drawing council district boundaries 10 years ago and made news pushing a repeal of the so-called pit bull ban.

A staffer from Herndon's office said only that "he was focused on the remainder of his term on city council." He is term limited in 2023.

Walter Isenberg, president and CEO of Sage Hospitality

Isenberg considered a run in 2011 for mayor. He's been a major part of the downtown business scene for decades, and he was a part of the group that redeveloped Union Station.

He did not directly answer a text about whether he would run. According to sources, it's unlikely, but they say he remains deeply concerned about crime and homelessness in downtown.

Mike Johnston, president and CEO at Gary Community Ventures

Johnston, a former state senator from northeast Denver, has unsuccessfully run for two statewide offices. He lost the Democratic primary for governor to Jared Polis and then ended his 2020 U.S. Senate campaign when Hickenlooper entered the race.

Johnston did not respond to requests for comment. Many were skeptical that he would leave a prime spot at a well-funded foundation.

Paul López, Denver Clerk & Recorder 

López is a former three-term City Councilmember, where he represented southwest Denver. He did not respond to requests for comment, but was believed by multiple sources to be unlikely to run for mayor. He's still serving in his first term as Clerk.

Amber McReynolds, CEO National Vote at Home Institute

McReynolds is a vote-by-mail expert and was recently appointed to the  Board of Governors of the United States Postal Service. She helped set up Denver's vote by mail system.

McReynolds said she has been approached about running, but she was non-committal since it's early.

"We do candidate selection backwards," said McReynolds.

She would prefer that potential candidates find out what voters care about first.

Deborah "Debbie" Ortega, Denver Councilmember at-large

Ortega has served in political office in Denver going back to the '90s, and, like Kniech, has won citywide office in an at-large council seat.

Ortega was viewed by sources as highly unlikely to run, but she did not dismiss it entirely in an email statement: "My focus is on completing projects before my term ends in 2023."

Murphy Robinson, executive director Denver Department of Public Safety and deputy mayor

Seen by some as ambitious and capable, Robinson has some law-and-order bonafides, since his department oversees the Denver sheriff and police departments. He was a police officer in Brighton for three years early in his career.

Robinson is also the deputy mayor, and that close connection to Hancock could make it difficult to navigate the election if voters want something different.

Robinson did not respond to a request for comment. Sources were mixed on whether he'd run.

Janice Sinden, president and CEO of Denver Center for the Performing Arts

Sinden was Hancock's first chief of staff, from 2011 to 2016. Before that she ran the pro-business group Colorado Concern.

Sinden did not respond to an email seeking comment, but a source close to her said she was a "no."

Penfield Tate III, lawyer and former state lawmaker

Tate has run unsuccessfully for mayor twice, in 2003 and 2019. Tate comes from a political family; his father was the first black mayor of Boulder.

Tate did not return a call for comment.

Alex Valdez, state House representative, District 5

Valdez was on many insider lists, but he did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Valdez was elected to the State House in 2018 and represents a slice of the city from the I-70/I-25 interchange to Athmar Park.

He did not respond to requests for comment.

Editor's Note: This story has been updated to correct a quote from Amber McReynolds.

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