“Public Information Officers are not supposed to be the story,” said semi-retiring Denver Clerk and Recorder Public Information Officer Alton Dillard who affably answered the phone on Tuesday afternoon as he does most of the time when journalists call. Even when things are tough. Even when things get heated.
“I really try to make sure that whomever is calling, whether it’s a member of the media or a City Council member, their staff or someone, if they’re looking for information, I always did my best to try to provide it,” he said. “Not only quickly, but also accurately.”
Only this time, we weren’t asking about elections — a subject that has become increasingly heated in an era of widespread election skepticism and and flat-out denial.
We were wondering why he’s talking about his job in the past tense and something we’d read about on his personal Facebook page: Dillard is retiring…or, rather, “semi-retiring.”
“After 30 years in the pressure cooker of government communications, I’m going into semi-retirement at the end of the year,” he wrote. “2021 was a tricky health year for me, and while I bounced back it brought my priorities into sharper focus and after a stressful 2022 it made no sense to keep grinding until 65 if I stroke out before then. I’ve been working since I was 13. I’m going to take some time off, rejuvenate and then fire my consultant practice back up or seek less stressful work down the road. It’s been my honor to serve the voters of Denver and the residents of the state of Colorado all these years. I’m good. It’s time.”
To be honest, facing another municipal election — no matter how “entertaining” he’s sure it will be — sounded exhausting, he said.
After all, this year there are already at least 20 mayoral candidates — nearly twice the number that ran in the most competitive mayoral race Dillard can recall, 2011, when Mayor Michael Hancock made his first bid for the position. If all of those candidates secure 300 petition signatures, they could all conceivably be on the ballot.
And he’s confident it’s going to be a wild election.
“I’m telling you what, man, and I’m not being hyperbolic here,” he said. “You’re gonna see people ratting on each other about yard signs. You’re gonna see people ratting on each other about residency. A lot of my colleagues have not worked a municipal election before, and it’s like, I’m telling you, you just need to be prepared for what you all are getting into.”
In 2021, he faced a cancer scare. During the summer of 2022, he dealt with burnout. Learning of GOP State Rep. Hugh McKean’s premature death, Dillard thought the time was right to do something more relaxing.
“Life’s too short,” he said.
Dillard grew up in Denver, in a family that took pride in participating in municipal government.
Whether someone’s working in the Solid Waste Division or for the police force, people took pride in giving back to their community.
“There’s just a badge of honor where I come from,” he said. And getting into government runs in the family.
“My grandmother worked at the old Air Force finance center out off of 38th and York, and was also a block warden during World War II,” he said. “So government service has always sort of been in my blood. And, you know, it’s been an honor.”
Dillard got his start in communications as a student at the University of Northern Colorado. One of his first jobs out of school was working for a rental car shuttle, at the old Stapleton Airport.
Stapleton, he acknowledged, is now a verboten name to speak — particularly after the Stapleton neighborhood, named after the airport, changed its name to Central Park to quit honoring former Denver Mayor Ben Stapleton, a Ku Klux Klan member. So Dillard, in turn, has redubbed the airport the “Central Park Airport.”
When he was working that job, he met then-Congressman Ben Nighthorse Campbell, who was running for U.S. Senate. Dillard secured a job on his campaign staff and after Campbell won the race, Dillard joined him in Washington D.C. for a time.
When Campbell switched political parties in 1995 in the wake of a squabble with the Colorado Democratic Party, Dillard had a crash course in crisis communication — a skill he uses to this day.
“That pre-dated social media,” he said. “So instead of threats to come kick your a**, people would actually show up at the office.”
After Campbell retired in 2005, Dillard started doing communications work for agencies that didn’t have an in-house staff person. That included what was then called the Denver Election Commission — work that eventually morphed into his current position.
“The rest, as they say, is history,” he said.
His first gig as spokesperson was during what he referred to as the Denver Elections Disaster of 2006, when 20,000 people were turned away without being able to vote.
One of the perennial issues he’s faced in municipal elections is confusion about what order candidates are listed on the ballot.
“A lot of people don’t understand that because it’s a nonpartisan office that you literally have to draw names for a ballot position,” he said. “So because these people don’t come up through any kind of caucus or convention or anything like that, it’s literally a drawing the names out of a container. So we have used everything over the years, from a historic octagonal glass ballot box, to a brass bingo ball turner, with the names crumpled up inside of them, and then we turn the crumpled pieces of paper and draw the names out.”
One of the greatest challenges the office faced, he recalls, happened after the late City Councilmember Carla Madison passed away. His office had to organize an election with roughly 40 write-in candidates.
“It gives you an idea of how nimble our operation is,” he said.
While Dillard is looking forward to a break, he’s not exactly planning to retire for good.
“Once I get a chance to relax a little bit, I’m probably just gonna hang out a shingle,” he said. “You never know. You may see me working on a ballot security team. You may see me in a black SUV sitting in front of the ART Hotel waiting for a pickup. You just never know.”
One thing’s certain: He’s not going to be running comms through the 2023 election.
“I’ve gotta de-stress my life, man,” Dillard said.