Denver mayor: Who’s running and what you need to know about the race

The mayor is the most powerful elected official in Denver — and arguably also Colorado.
15 min. read
The South Platte River and downtown Denver, viewed from a northeast angle. Dec. 3, 2021.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

Denver's about to make a monumental decision: Who will be the city's CEO for the next four years?

Mayors are tasked with overseeing roughly 13,000 municipal workers. They appoint hundreds of municipal leaders including the head of one of the world's largest airports. Mayors set a multibillion-dollar budget, exercise veto power over City Council decisions, oversee and enforce contracts. They ensure potholes are filled, streets are swept and cops aren't using excessive force while successfully managing crime.

Denver's mayor is the most powerful elected official in the state, said former mayor and governor and current Senator John Hickenlooper, when we spoke to four of Denver's past mayors about how to pick a mayor.

Previous mayors also say the winner needs to be a visionary, an excellent manager, a stable hand in troubled times, and a person who can see the city from 30,000 feet up in the air and in the weeds.

So who's on the ballot (and in what order)?

Lisa Calderón

Lisa Calderón, the third-place candidate in the 2019 mayoral race, has been rabble-rousing since childhood. She's received a law degree and a PhD in education. She currently leads Emerge Colorado, recruiting and training Democratic women to win elections. She teaches at Regis University and the University of Colorado Boulder. She's fought the Park Hill Golf Course redevelopment and was Councilmember Candi CdeBaca's chief of staff. She's also filed a federal lawsuit against Denver, after the city canceled a contract for her jail reentry program, a move she claims was retaliation by Hancock for criticism against the city. Calderón's been pushing the idea of decentralizing Denver government and stripping power from the mayor. She built her homelessness platform in collaboration with doctors, outreach workers and people experiencing homelessness.

Here's her promise if elected: "It's time to reimagine Denver. We need to move away from false choices: renters vs owners, housed vs unhoused, drivers vs bike riders, etc. Multiple truths can co-exist. We need both affordable housing and green spaces; community safety and police reform; and multimodal transportation options. Together, we can reimagine a city that works for all of us."

Read Calderón's responses to our questionnaire.

Trinidad Rodriguez

Trinidad Rodriguez is the son of former Denver City Council and school board member Rosemary Rodriguez, a Democratic Party powerhouse. Rodriguez describes himself as a city builder who grew up in public housing and spent his career financing public housing and other projects. He has sat on multiple boards, including the Downtown Denver Partnership, Urban Peak and the Denver Housing Authority. His most recently worked in finance with D.A. Davidson from 2013 to 2021.

Here's his plan on homelessness and mental health, and his promise to the city: "I have spent the last several months in city builder and community builder mode, listening to community members and leaders and sharing my vision and solutions for Denver's most pressing challenges and what's possible for our city's future. I found that these ideas both resonate and have given reasons for hope over despair... I am ready to develop and implement fair and equitable strategies to achieve real solutions."

Read Rodriguez's responses to our questionnaire.

Aurelio Martinez

Aurelio Martinez doesn't have your typical political background; he's a former boxer, boxing coach and CEO of Inside Boxing. He grew up in Cole and Five Points, and has worked as a neighborhood organizer, advocating for more input from registered neighborhood organizations. He wants to see more housing for minimum-wage and low-income workers and more youth programs. He doesn't see himself as "anti-development," but he wants neighborhoods to have more of a say. There's one thing he thinks everyone can agree on: "The city is broken."

Here's his promise to the city: "It's been going in the wrong direction for a very long time, and unless we get an administration in place to run this 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."

Martinez has not returned a completed candidate questionnaire.

Thomas Wolf

Investment banker Thomas Wolf last ran in 2011. He has worked at JP Morgan in New York and Credit Suisse and Morgan Stanley in London. In 1999, he and his wife did "a deep wine-fueled analytical matrix" of where to raise their family and picked Denver. He's currently the managing director of the investment bank and private wealth management company Crewe Capital. Ending street homelessness is his focus. His priority is clear: "Encampments, encampments, encampments."

Here's his promise to Denver: "I will restore competent leadership and attract a superior team to make Denver safer, cleaner and smarter. Fundamentally, I'm drawn to public service to do the greatest good for the greatest number of Denverites -- similar to the common goal of utilitarians."

Wolf has not returned a completed candidate questionnaire.

Al Gardner

When he's not working as an IT professional at Salud Family Health, Al Gardner has spent his time on many boards and commissions throughout Denver. Some of these appointments include on the Denver African American Commission and the Citizen Oversight Board. He also used to work as IT director at Denver Rescue Mission, which previously included anti-LGBTQ language in its employee handbook. "I definitely don't agree with that," Gardner said. As mayor, he wants to focus on affordable housing, safety and homelessness.

Here's his promise to Denver: "I think Denver is going in the right direction from a public safety standpoint, and I think we need to keep that, keep that momentum... increasing wraparound services to the homeless, continuing to partner with those community partners that are willing to broaden the service offerings, and seeing where the city can really plug in to make a difference without sacrifice and safety."

Gardner has not returned a completed candidate questionnaire.

Terrance Roberts

The former Blood gang member turned activist entered the race early, riding glowing media coverage of a book and documentary about him. After serving a prison term in the early 2000's, Roberts was running an anti-gang organization in the Holly neighborhood when he shot and paralyzed a man in 2013 -- a jury found that he was acting in self defense. He's also sued the city for police brutality. Roberts has been a leader in criminal justice reform, working on police accountability bills at the Statehouse.

Here's his promise to Denver: "I'm ready for radical change in the city... me and my team said instead of trying to protest and get things done, we might as well do what we can and try to see if we can get into office and make the necessary changes that we think that we need to do."

Roberts has not returned a completed candidate questionnaire.

Kwame Spearman's name will appear on the ballot, but the Tattered Cover owner announced on March 16 he was dropping out of the race.

Renate Behrens

Renate Behrens has a minimal online presence. She was raised in Germany and has worked as a caretaker and a secretary. She wants to improve air quality and public transportation. Behrens hopes Denverites quit growing grass in their lawns and raise food and local plants, too. She says the city should use prison labor to rebuild the city's sidewalk system and fix potholes.

Here's Behrens promise to Denver: "We are governed by old guys, by old gentleman, and we the women can do that too, but we can do it better because we are not aggressive, we are not warmakers. We are peacemakers," she said. "Why not an elderly woman?"

Behrens questionnaire responses are in the works. 

Chris Hansen

State Senator Chris Hansen grew up on a farm on the Kansas-Colorado border. He's been a Democratic leader in both the state House and Senate, most recently representing Capitol Hill. Hansen has advocated for cutting property taxes, ending ties with businesses operating in Russia and banning gas-powered lawn equipment, the last of which didn't make it into the Governor's ultimate climate bill. As mayor, he said he'd keep the urban camping ban, and focus on building housing faster.

Here's his promise to the city: "The city government in its day-to-day operations are: Pick up the trash, make sure the streets are in good condition, move the snow out of the way after a bad storm. Responding to customer needs and providing services -- that's what local government is so good at, and I think ultimately ... that is the main objective of what the mayor's office needs to do."

Read Hansen's responses to our questionnaire.

Mike Johnston

Former State Sen. Mike Johnston has worn many hats. He's been a high school teacher, an author, a CEO of the foundation Gary Community Ventures, and an architect of affordable housing policy. He's also lost major races He came in third place in the 2018 governor's race, and then he ran for U.S. Senate in 2020, dropping out when now Sen. Hickenlooper entered the race. He's backed a successful initiative to tax cigarettes for social programs, and withdrew a different initiative to tax marijuana for other programs. He's also a prolific fundraiser.

Here's his plan on homelessness, and his promise to the city: "Denver, it's time to come together to build a city that offers a good life. More than that, it's time for us to go back to our defiant roots and prove to America that it is possible to unite and build a remarkable American city-by all, for all."

Read Johnston's responses to our questionnaire.

James Walsh

James Walsh brings an academic perspective to the race; he studies immigration and labor movements at CU Denver. He's a grassroots candidate who's staff includes a dozen students, without a typical background in politics. His political experience comes instead from his work with the theater group Romero Troupe, which works with community organizations to create plays about political issues. He launched his campaign with a tour of Denver's 78 neighborhoods.

Here's his promise to the city: "We're witnessing a movement in the United States today around workers' rights that we haven't seen. Workers are reasserting themselves in their workplace. They're demanding dignity and respect, particularly low-income workers. And I think the city has an obligation to be a part of that movement."

Walsh has not returned a completed candidate questionnaire.

Ean Thomas Tafoya

Grassroots advocate Ean Thomas Tafoya describes himself as a lifelong public servant who has worked in three branches of local government, served on dozens of community boards, and led successful ballot initiatives. Those include the recently passed "Waste No More," which mandated recycling in apartments and businesses, and the Green Roofs Initiative. He's the current co-chair of the Colorado Environmental Justice Action Task Force and the founder of Headwater Protectors, which provides trash and water services to unhoused people.

Here's his promise to Denver: "Denver and our great region are facing huge challenges - climate crisis, a lack of attainable housing, and a need for improved public health and safety. It's time to come together to find solutions. To do this, our administration will focus on: regional cooperation, housing, environment, public health and safety."

Read Tafoya's responses to our questionnaire.

Andy Rougeot

Andy Rougeot, a former army officer who served in Afghanistan and graduated from Harvard Business School, ran RG Maintenance, a security repair company with roughly 30 employees focused on statewide self-storage facilities. He's been shoveling snow in Denver to spread the word about his campaign and prove he'll roll up his sleeves and get to work. He's running as a law-and-order candidate and is the rare registered Republican in the nonpartisan race in Blue Denver.

Rougeot's promise to Denver: "As Mayor, Andy will Deliver for Denver by cracking down on crime, enforcing the camping ban, and increasing affordable housing."

Read Rougeout's responses to our questionnaire.

Leslie Herod

Recently reelected State Rep. Leslie Herod has been a progressive voice at the Statehouse, fighting successfully for criminal justice, police and mental health reform and championing co-responder programs. She's the first LGBTQ Black woman to serve in the Colorado Capitol. She has a long track record as a community organizer and legislator, but recently got a state penalty for not filing required personal financial disclosures required of state legislators.

Here's more about her community safety plan, and her campaign's promise if she's elected: "As Mayor, she'll focus on addressing the day-to-day issues impacting our lives: affordable housing, safer streets for our families, and addressing the homelessness crisis. As she has throughout her life, she will bring people together to get things done, meet the moment, and create real change for Denver."

Read Herod's responses to our questionnaire.

Robert Treta

Robert Treta is a contractor who wants to fix how Denver builds housing. He's built homes in the city for over 20 years, and wants to see faster, more affordable permitting, along with other incentives for developers to build affordable housing. He also wants more infrastructure for electric vehicles, and plants to cut street sweeping tickets to $25 on day one.

Here's his promise to the city: "I can't sit back and watch it happen anymore. I'm a builder. We have a homeless problem. I build homes. I can build cost effective homes... We need to get the people to fall in love with Denver again."

Treta has not returned a completed candidate questionnaire.

Debbie Ortega

City Councilmember Debbie Ortega has served two stints on Council: one from 1987 to 2003 and another from 2011 to the present. She's fought for environmental cleanup in Globeville and Elyria-Swansea and affordable housing. Between those years in office, she was the first head of the Denver Homeless Commission. She also chaired the 2020 Census. She has voted against Mayor Michael Hancock's urban camping ban and the Denver International Airport Great Hall remodeling plan.

Her promise if elected: "I'm running for mayor because I believe hardworking Denver families need a strong voice in City Hall. Special interests and powerful politicians are not the answer. The people are the answer. That's who I am and who I always will be."

Read Ortega's responses to our questionnaire.

Kelly Brough

Kelly Brough rose from a hardscrabble childhood and early adulthood and has built a successful career in Denver politics and business. She has championed scholarship programs for Denver Public School students and worked to address the lack of equity in business. Her résumé includes a year as the Chief Strategy Officer at the Metropolitan State University of Denver, a decade as CEO of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce, and time as then-Mayor John Hickenlooper's chief of staff. It's her time at the Chamber, and the litany of conservative positions it took, that could prove challenging to her campaign in a progressive city.

Here's more about her homelessness plan, and her promise if elected: "Kelly has walked a unique path to become Denver's next mayor. She knows this city and knows how to lead it. Her leadership, collaborative nature, and boundless energy is what we need to get our city working for everyone again."

Read Brough's responses to our questionnaire.


Four people are running as write-in candidates, which means they didn't get enough signatures to qualify, but you can write their name in on election day. Here's who they are:

Long-time Denver activist and City Council public comment regular Jesse Parris, who ran unsuccessfully for an at-large council seat in 2019.

Ballet dancer and singer songwriter Paul Fiorino, who ran unsuccessfully for governor five times, for senator once and for mayor twice.

Abass Yaya Bamba, who runs his own cybersecurity and software company. He's lived in Denver for over 20 years, but in 2019, unsuccessfully ran for president of his native country, Côte d'Ivoire.

Matt Brady, who we haven't been able to connect with yet. There are a few Denver-based Matt Bradys out there, so if you're the one running for mayor, drop us a line!

What's at stake?

Denverites tell us they're concerned about homelessness, housing affordability, public safety and crime. Education matters (though the mayor has little say in it). So does transportation (also not a big mayoral issue). The environment, health and wellness and a mistrust of municipal government are also big priorities.

Downtown and neighborhoods alike are still suffering from the effects of the pandemic. Office buildings sit empty. Restaurants have boarded up their walls and still haven't reopened. On top of it all, an already raging opioid crisis has worsened.

The next mayor will inherit a housing crisis, skyrocketing homelessness, a fentanyl epidemic, the fallout from the pandemic, massive expansions of downtown and Cherry Creek, the potential Park Hill Golf Course redevelopment, unionization and dissatisfaction among city workers and untold other issues that will arise.

But the next mayor will hopefully make Denver a safer, more vibrant and affordable place, managing the likely continued growth of the city while keeping the people who already live here from being displaced.

Need more help voting? Check out the rest of our voter guide here.

Editor's note: Candidate biographies previously appeared in the article titled "Here are the mayoral candidates who qualified for the ballot." They have been updated here as needed. This post has also been updated with links to candidate questionnaires and to reflect that Spearman is no longer running. 

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