Five takeaways from the at-large city council debate at Regis University
All nine candidates showed to Monday night’s debate as part of the race for two open seats.
With the spring campaign cycle fully underway, there’s lots of talk about the big field for mayor. But there’s another group of candidates vying for favor from that same pool of voters (aka, the entire city): the at-large candidates for City Council.
Both seats are open, with Councilmembers Robin Kniech and Debbie Ortega (who is running for mayor) being term limited. And unlike the Mayoral and District Council races, which go to a run-off if no one gets at least 50% of the vote, there’s only one chance to vote for the at-large race, where the top two vote getters join Council on behalf of the entire city.
The field includes everyone from career politicians to the youngest potential Councilmember in Denver’s history, and lots of people in between. The candidates include Will Chan, Dominic Diaz, Serena Gonzales-Gutierrez, Tim Hoffman, Travis Leiker, Sarah Parady, Penfield Tate III, Jeff Walker and Marty Zimmerman.
Here’s a look at what all nine candidates had to say about issues facing Denver in a debate Monday night at Regis University.
There’s a lot of support for a “housing-first” approach to homelessness.
Many candidates used the phrase, which prioritizes finding housing as a major way to help people experiencing homelessness. Safe Outdoor Spaces, which let people camp in specific places with services and amenities, also received praise from a wide range of candidates, along with calls for more mental health clinicians.
Jeff Walker and Sarah Parady called for raising taxes to help respond to the growing homelessness problem. Parady said she wants to see a small, multi-county sales tax, and Walker advocated for a regional tax on developers. It’s something Denver’s done before; in 2020, voters approved a 0.25% sales tax to fund homelessness solutions.
Dominic Diaz and Will Chan called for using vacant property and city land for additional housing and shelter, something the city has begun doing in recent years, through actions like motel purchases. And Zimmerman said the city should partner with more nonprofits, another move from City Hall in recent years.
Candidates also had to answer whether or not they supported the urban camping ban and homeless sweeps. Hoffman, Leiker, Walker and Zimmerman stood in support of the ban, while Chan, Diaz, Gonzales-Gutierrez, Parady and Tate stood in opposition.
When it came to housing, everyone agreed on one thing: Denver needs more of it.
A popular solution included continued rezoning and assistance for Accessory Dwelling Units, which let homeowners build smaller housing units on their properties. There was also broad support for different forms of affordable housing and speeding up permitting times.
Tate spoke in support of rent control, which lets local governments regulate how much rent can rise in certain areas. Tate led a failed proposal to legalize rent control during his time as a state senator, but state Democrats have brought a new proposal at the start of this year.
Tate also disagreed with Leiker, who spoke in favor of a “market-based approach” with a combination of both market rate housing and “intentional affordable housing development.”
“We don’t lack market rate housing, that’s not our issue,” Tate said.
Parady called for stabilized rent, and for the city to build publicly financed housing, which would not be income restricted like affordable housing.
“These would be beautiful, well built new buildings with room for childcare at the bottom, where everyone pays 30% of their rent as income, but anyone can live at any income, and to finance that we should inventory the land and buildings that the city already owns,” she said.
No candidate raised their hand in favor of more police funding, but some did say they see as an urgent need to grow the force.
Leiker spoke in support of staffing up the Denver Police Department (DPD) to “at least pre-pandemic levels,” and dispatching officers to areas with higher crime, while advocating for additional “gentle policing efforts.”
“There was a point in time when DPD and other security officials were on Segways along the 16th Street Mall and other commercial corridors,” Leiker said.
Tate also called for staffing up DPD, particularly in ways that would make the force look like the communities they police. “Since we’re down so many police officers, let’s be aggressive about recruiting new cadets from our different public high schools,” he said.
In contrast, Parady advocated for shifting safety responses away from police. Many candidates supported the STAR program, which dispatches mental health clinicians and paramedics in place of police for nonviolent calls. But Parady said she wants the city to go a step further, creating alternate responder programs that do not involve police to begin with (currently, to reach STAR, people still dial 911).
“It’s very important to me that we begin to consider moving safety resources entirely out of police departments and putting them under control of community and under more appropriate professionals like medical professionals and social services professionals,” Parady said.
While perspectives on policing varied, many candidates spoke about the need for more after-school and violence prevention programs for children.
For state rep Gonzales-Gutierrez, the response should come from additional paid job and internship opportunities to lure youth away from gangs, as well as tackling root causes related to housing and mental health. Diaz said the city needs to make after-school program funding more sustainable.
Zimmerman called for investing in anonymous ways for kids to report crimes, and Hoffman advocated for City Council to do more to restrict gun access, particularly among people under the age of 21.
Walker’s answer is family: “Fathers, stay with your kids and guide them,” he said.
Many people spoke about the need for better transit, safer bike lanes and faster permitting.
Zimmerman said Denver approaches development backwards, and needs to update its area plans. “A developer comes and says ‘this is what I want to put in the neighborhood,’ and then there’s community input, as opposed to community input ahead of time from the neighborhood that’s really directing what that development is,” he said.
When it comes to downtown, Tate wants Denver to look into repurposing unused buildings, but also wants to talk with businesses about bringing their workers back. Gonzales-Gutierrez wants the city to focus on supporting small businesses downtown.
Parady said the city should think of downtown as a space not only for workers and tourists but also for people in surrounding neighborhoods. She wants the city to move away from big roads surrounding downtown, and voiced support for a potential highway cap over part of I-25 to connect Highlands to downtown.
On transit, Diaz said that Denver should invest in RTD while also owning and operating its own buses, which would be union-driven.
Of course, there’s a lot more to dive into than fits in one story, or even one debate. So if you’ve got a few hours on your hands, you can watch (and rewatch, and rewatch) the debate here.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to clarify candidates’ perspectives on rent control.