Editor’s Note: A previous version of this story incorrectly reported that Mayor Hancock vetoed a plastic bag fee Ortega sponsored in 2013. The ordinance failed after Hancock threatened a veto.
City Councilwoman Deborah “Debbie” Ortega filed paperwork today to run for mayor of Denver in the Spring 2023 municipal election.
“For over 40 years, I have been a trailblazer in Denver, advocating for meaningful policy to address the issues that matter most to our neighbors and local businesses,” said Ortega in a statement to Denverite. “It is time for Denver to chart a new course. This will require a leader who works side-by-side with the people, as I have for my entire career. Together, we will find the best path forward to balance growth and development with critical infrastructure.”
Many view Ortega as a formidable candidate, having served almost 28 years on city council. She is currently an at-large city councilmember, meaning she has won a citywide race before.
“It is due time for a woman to lead the city of Denver,” said James Mejia, a political observer and former mayoral candidate in 2011. “It would appear there are very qualified woman candidates, including Debbie Ortega”
Former Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce CEO Kelly Brough announced two weeks ago. And state representative Leslie Herod says she’s considering a run as well.
Ortega has a history of getting votes. No other citywide candidate in the last municipal general election, in 2019, received more votes than Ortega, including Mayor Michael Hancock. Ortega got almost 23,000 more votes for her at-large council seat than Hancock received for the first round of votes in the mayor’s race.
Ortega is known for her focus on environmental and safety issues, she blocked a plan to build a medical waste incinerator in 1991 in North Denver. She has advocated for safer freight railroad shipments through the city. She pushed successfully for several key amendments to marijuana laws, including limiting consumption and display of marijuana within 1,000 feet of schools.
Still, her legislative accomplishments have been limited, despite her many years on city council. That’s partly a reflection of the role city councilmembers play in Denver’s very strong mayor system of government.
Ortega has shown an independent streak, especially when it comes to challenging mayors. She sponsored an ordinance to limit plastic bag use in 2013, that failed when Hancock threatened a veto and she co-sponsored a flavored tobacco ban last year, also vetoed by Hancock.
Ortega pushed back on the administration’s airport projects — she was one of two ‘no’ votes on the multibillion dollar DIA Great Hall remodel, which turned out to be disastrous, leading to an expensive dismissal of the contractor, delaying completion, and shrinking the scope of the project.
She has a history of this. She boasted to The Denver Post in a 2003 profile, during an unsuccessful run for Denver Auditor: “Both Federico Peña and Wellington Webb have called me in to note that I wasn’t voting their way,” she told the reporter Susan Greene. “That is how I have led, following my own path, never letting people tell me how to vote.”
Born in Raton, New Mexico, Ortega moved with her family to Denver when she was 13. She graduated from West High School, and earned a business certificate from Barens Business College in 1975. That same year, just old enough to vote, she got a job as a secretary for Colorado Lt. Gov. George Brown. In 1978, she was briefly an aide in U.S. Sen. Floyd Haskell’s Denver office.
Not long after, Ortega took a job as an aide to Denver City Councilman Sal Carpio, she later moved into the district, and was elected to his seat in 1987. She represented North Denver and downtown.
She takes pride in being a community advocate during the development of Lodo, Ball Arena, Coors Field. She served four terms until 2003 when she was term-limited.
In 2011 she was elected to one of Denver’s two at-large council seats, and she was reelected in 2015 and 2019. She is term-limited again.
After 12 years of a Mayor Hancock administration, this is expected to be a change election. Ortega enters the race with a unique profile, having been in city government most of her professional life, but also showing a willingness to challenge the powerful mayor.