One election ends, another begins.
Mayoral candidates were busy at events across town Wednesday night marking what felt like the unofficial kickoff to the race.
At a RiNo brewery, Kelly Brough, a frontrunner, gave her first public speech. Across town, in Northeast Park Hill, several candidates spoke to roughly 100 community members about the city’s future. And then, on TVs across town, a long-rumored announcement from a potentially formidable candidate finally came.
“Believe in the Promise of Denver”
Brough’s campaign slogan may not fit on a yard sign, but it matched the theme she laid out in her speech to a crowd of supporters huddled together inside Blue Moon Brewery, waving green signs.
There were some familiar faces: City Councilman Chris Herndon and former ACLU of Colorado public policy director Denise Maes are co-chairs of Brough’s campaign. Former city councilman Wayne New was waving a sign in the crowd, which included Tim Jackson, who runs Colorado Auto Dealers Association.
In a short video, Brough recounted difficult times in her life, growing up in rural Montana and marrying a man of Native American descent, who later committed suicide, leaving her with two young daughters to raise.
Then Brough took the dais for her speech. “My heart comes from a place of struggle, with many heart breaks along the way and just as many outstretched hands,” she said. “It’s why I love the people of Denver and this place – where you all helped me build my family and my life.”
Brough ticked off challenges Denver faces: homelessness, rising crime, fentanyl and affordable housing. “Turns out mayor is a big job,” she quipped before touting her experience working in the mayor’s office. She was chief of staff under then-Mayor John Hickenlooper and “proudly managed” the 2008 Democratic National Convention.
On homelessness Brough said “we will end encampments.” Under her leadership, Brough said the city would use public-private partnerships and social impact bonds, and use data to more efficiently manage the significant money already spent on homeless programs. She said she’ll focus resources on people at greatest risk of homelessness to keep them sheltered, build affordable housing on publicly owned land and convert unused office space to homes.
On crime, Brough said she would expand the STAR co-responder program, which sends mental health professionals to certain emergency calls, so police can focus on what they’re better equipped to handle. She would “examine” police training and policies to build trust with communities.
When it comes to development, she promised to “pilot new ideas, reward innovation, and be thoughtful about what’s built, where it’s built, and when.”
Brough pledged to run a positive campaign and “not engage in personal attacks, distortions, lies, cheap shots.”
On the evening news…
Later, in an interview with Denverite, Johnston said the job of mayor offers a unique opportunity to try to solve big problems: homelessness, crime, affordability.
“I feel like the city is at a real crossroads,” said Johnston. “We have a chance to keep what’s great about the city and fix the parts that are broken about the city.”
Johnston believes that his experience running Gary Community Ventures, especially COVIDCheck Colorado, which provided testing and vaccination services, prepared him to run a large city government.
On Monday, current state senator Chris Hansen announced he was also a candidate for mayor. Hansen’s first campaign ad, up on YouTube, positions him as a family-first, cycling-friendly candidate in the vein of Marvel hero Iron Man planning to re-engineer Denver.
Meanwhile, across town, in Northeast Park Hill…
Around a hundred concerned community members came to the Park Hill Golf Course club house for a mayoral forum put on by Mobilize Denver — the first mayoral forum of the 2023 season.
Prominent community leaders packed into a room to ask questions of the candidates who decided to show. Frontrunners, including At-Large City Councilmember Debbie Ortega, Hansen, State Representative Leslie Herod and Brough weren’t there. Nor was Terrance Roberts — who made his mark on Northeast Park Hill as a leader in the Bloods gang and eventually as an anti-gang activist, sharing his nonprofit’s headquarters with now fellow candidate, then representative Johnston.
The first candidate to introduce himself was Thomas Wolf, an investment banker who has lived in many of the city’s fanciest neighborhoods. He said his number one priority was ending the encampments around town.
“The most inhumane thing we can do is to continue to allow these encampments and not provide shelter,” Wolf said. “Our city has excess buildings and property to use for this effort, and all districts need to contribute to the solution. If these resources are not enough, we need to engage with state and federal agencies until the crisis is under control.”
Ean Thomas Tafoya, who has lived all over the city and experienced the lack of affordable housing choices over the years, spoke about his various wins on environmental issues, criminal justice reform, the Fair Elections Fund, and housing. He presented an optimistic vision of a future Denver run from the bottom up, often complimenting his competitors and elaborating on their ideas.
He acknowledged issues the city is facing when it comes to water quality and public sanitation, spoke about solving both police violence and gun violence, and the importance of community-led decision making.
His slogan: “Together We Rise.”
Aurelio Martinez, who worked in tech and has a background in boxing, made the case that “the city is broken, and it’s in dire need of repair. And unless we get an administration in place to run the city and change the direction so that we put residents and neighborhood organizations back as priorities in the system, then we’re just going to self-destruct. And we’re not going to let that happen.”
While he’s not anti-development, he said he believes the city fakes community engagement processes when new plans are being proposed. Instead, he wants to ensure people have a say in the future of their neighborhoods.
Lisa Calderón discussed her 30 years as a community leader, from the time she was a student at Metro State College to her criminal justice reform advocacy and her work as the head of Emerge Colorado, a group working to get women Democrats elected. She described her run in the 2019 mayoral election, when she came in third and made history as the first woman of color to make the ballot.
She summed up her priorities with an acronym: T.E.A.C.H.: T for Transformational transportation, E for economic equality and environmental equity, A for affordability, C for community safety; and H for housing and health. Her slogan: “Reimagine Denver.”
A weird moment happened when mayoral candidate Anna Burrell spoke. She introduced herself as a candidate who grew up all over the world. Her parents worked in agriculture, and she wandered the onion fields of South America, learning about “the beauty of what happens when cultures come together.”
She only recently moved to Denver, a city she fell in love with. Early on, she was inspired to vote, but when it came to candidates, there weren’t many she was excited about. “There’s something fishy here,” she thought. So she decided to run herself, after several friends encouraged her.
But after a few minutes of talking at the forum, she withdrew from the race, saying “It is my absolute honor and it is my absolute pleasure to be able to say that I’m stepping out of this race, and my campaign is officially endorsing Dr. Lisa Calderon.”
Burrell carried her nameplate away and joined the audience.
In the crowd, mayoral candidate Jesse Parris, a frequent flyer to public meetings and one of Denver’s most dogged activists, sat and asked questions of his fellow candidates.
“What are any of y’all on this stage going to do specifically for Black people in the city that are being ethnically cleansed, gentrified out of our communities, out of our neighborhoods?” he asked.
“You should be up there,” one audience member said, pointing to Burrell’s microphone. But he didn’t go.
The candidates debating the issues in front of community members in Northeast Park Hill aren’t the best funded. Many aren’t that well known. None are widely viewed as the front runners in the election.
“I think there are a lot of us that would agree that the front runners are sitting here at the table, because they’re here with you at the very first meeting where people are actually coming together,” Tafoya said.
After the forum ended and audience members shuffled out to their cars, they found two fliers tucked under their windshield wipers. One was an announcement about a free turkey handout at a cigar shop ahead of Thanksgiving. The other was a 12×18, purple campaign sign for frontrunner Herod, who had been given just a couple weeks notice about the forum and was booked.
She was speaking in San Francisco to a group of Emerge alums about November election results. Last week she was reelected to represent the district where the mayoral forum was taking place.
Correction: This article has been updated to reflect that Denise Maes no longer works at the ACLU of Colorado.