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In the days leading up to the municipal election on April 4, Denver residents will file ballots and head to their local polling station to vote for their new mayor.
If nothing else, they have plenty of choices.
With incumbent Michael Hancock term-limited after holding the office for the past 12 years, a group of 17 candidates vying to be his successor will appear on this year’s ballot (one of those candidates, Kwame Spearman, dropped out after his name was already printed on the ballot, meaning any vote cast for him will be counted as an undervote). For the past several months, candidates have been attempting to differentiate themselves from an unusually crowded field of opponents on what have emerged as three of the most pressing issues of the campaign: housing affordability, public safety, and homelessness.
This is only the fifth open mayoral election in Denver since 1959, which helps explain why it has attracted so many candidates. In the final stretch, the race remains tight, if also a bit unsettled. A recent poll commissioned by 9News, the Denver Gazette/Colorado Politics, and Metropolitan State University of Denver showed that 58 percent of respondents are undecided, with only three candidates—Lisa Calderón, Mike Johnston, and Kelly Brough—polling at a leading five percent of voter support. Aside from Chris Hansen and Debbie Ortega, who follow closely with four percent of polled support, the poll splintered out into a virtually even spread among the remaining candidates.
If none of the 16 remaining candidates receive a majority of the votes, the top two vote-getters will head to a runoff on June 6, a scenario that appears all but guaranteed.
Voters will also have their say on eight city council seats in this municipal election, along with several referred questions—including the highly debated measure on whether to lift the Park Hill Golf Course’s conservation easement. But to help voters navigate the vast mayoral candidate pool, here’s a breakdown on each of the contenders hoping to become the city’s next chief executive.
Editor’s note: Ballots submitted by mail must be sent in by March 27, or can be submitted at drop-off boxes around the metro area by 7 p.m. on Election Day, April 4. Voters can also cast their ballots on Election Day at in-person vote centers around Denver. Visit the Office of the Clerk and Recorder’s website for more info.
Background: Prior to her most recent role as the longtime CEO of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce, Brough served as chief of staff to John Hickenlooper when the current U.S. Senator was Denver’s mayor; a policy analyst for Denver City Council; and chief strategy officer at Metropolitan State University. She has received endorsements from the Denver Gazette and former Governor Bill Ritter. She has been the most prolific fundraiser of the group, with $774,300 remaining cash on hand for her campaign at the end of February.
Platform: Describing the challenges facing Denver as “real and urgent,” Brough has stated that her top three priorities are community safety, homelessness, and housing, putting her in line with many of her fellow candidates. She supports a more aggressive recruitment of police officers, particularly from communities of color, and wants to expand co-responder models that pair police officers with trained civilian responders.
To address homelessness, she believes Denver needs “more complete and sophisticated data to inform individualized intervention and better measurement and accountability,” and should expand Safe Outdoor Spaces and other sanctioned camping initiatives as a “short-term step to ending encampments.” Brough has promised to “eliminate unsanctioned encampments” within her first year in office by enforcing Denver’s contentious camping ban and, as a “last resort,” arresting houseless people who are unwilling to temporarily relocate to a sanctioned site or treatment center. Brough believes more housing should be built on “underutilized public property” and wants there to be a greater focus on high-density housing and communities.
Background: Calderón is executive director of Emerge Colorado, an organization that aims to increase the number of female Democratic leaders from diverse backgrounds through recruitment and training. She is on the faculty at Regis University and has been a college professor for 15 years. In 2019, she unsuccessfully challenged Hancock, finishing third in the mayoral race with less than 20 percent of the vote. As of early March, she was tied with Kelly Brough and Mike Johnston in the 9News, Denver Gazette/Colorado Politics, and Metropolitan State University of Denver poll, with each of them garnering voter support from five percent of respondents. She has received endorsements from the Colorado Working Families Party and Denver Democratic Socialists of America.
Platform: Having experienced homelessness as a teenager, Calderón is opposed to “ineffective, wasteful sweeps” and wants to utilize crisis response workers to support those living on the streets with necessary resources. Her long-term plan is centered around publicly financed and publicly owned social housing managed by the city, and wants to both build new housing and convert unused office space into apartments. She wants to repurpose “brown and grey space” into dense and affordable housing while supporting renters by formulating a tenants’ bill of rights. To address crime, she will aim to invest in preventative measures like community safety initiatives and mental health care.
Background: Johnston served two terms in the state senate, from 2009–17, representing northeast Denver. He unsuccessfully ran for governor in 2018, finishing third in the Democratic primary at 23.5 percent, as well as for the U.S. Senate in 2020 before dropping out of the crowded primary field vying for former Senator Cory Gardner’s seat. A former high-school teacher and principal, Johnston was most recently the CEO of Gary Community Ventures, a local non-profit that works to “ensure school readiness, youth success and family economic mobility.” Among the top contenders for the position, Johnston is second only to Brough in fundraising, and received an endorsement from the Denver Post earlier this month.
Platform: Johnston touts his housing plan as “the most ambitious” of anyone in the race, calling for the construction of 25,000 permanently affordable housing units within eight years and increased down payment assistance to help local residents buy homes. He wants to build 10 to 20 micro-communities made up of 1,400 tiny homes throughout the city for unhoused residents while providing mental health and addiction care, which he has described as “a compassionate approach to ending homelessness without sacrificing the safety of our public spaces.” His public safety policy proposal includes putting 200 more first responders on the streets—including mental health professionals, EMTs, and police officers—and adding an auto theft unit to the Denver Police Department.
Background: Hansen is a state senator currently in his second term, representing District 31, which includes parts of downtown and the central east side section of the city. Prior to that, he was a two-term representative in the state House. A systems engineer, Hansen has more than 20 years of experience working in the renewable energy industry and has prioritized the transition to cleaner energy in his time as a legislator. He has received an endorsement from former Governor Roy Romer.
Platform: Public safety has become a focal point of Hansen’s proposed vision for the city. Among other measures, his plan calls for an increased investment in the Support Team Assisted Response (STAR) program, enforcing the city’s unsanctioned camping ban, and increasing police foot patrols in areas reporting to a large percentage of the city’s violent crime. In a February debate, Hansen was criticized by several of his opponents for a 30-second public safety ad they believed played into racial tropes. Leaning into his environmental background, he hopes to transition Denver to a 100-percent clean energy city through steps like electrifying heating and cooling systems, electrifying city fleets, and building out the city’s electric vehicle infrastructure.
Background: Ortega has been a consistent presence on the Denver City Council for much of the past 40 years. Currently a city councilwoman at-large—a post she has held since 2011, representing roughly 750,000 local constituents—Ortega previously served on the council from 1987–2003, at which point she was term-limited. Ortega also serves as the board president of Del Norte Neighborhood Development Corporation, an affordable housing nonprofit in the Highland neighborhood, and was the inaugural executive director of the Denver Commission on Homelessness. She’s the only candidate in the field who has been elected citywide to public office.
Platform: Ortega, whose daughter is a major in the Denver Sheriff’s Department, has proposed a Metro Crime Task Force to stop the flow of drugs and guns while stepping up enforcement against car, bike and catalytic converter thefts. She was one of the co-sponsors of the ordinance that created the Public Safety Review Commission, which works to address police accountability. She has said she will declare homelessness a public emergency in order to bring in more resources from local, state, and federal agencies to combat the issue. Though she wants it done in a “compassionate, productive” manner, she wants to end encampments. Her housing platform calls for identifying vacant public lands for housing.
Background: Herod has been a state representative since 2016, when she became the first LGBTQ+ Black person ever elected to the Colorado legislature. She is also a co-founder of New Era Colorado, a local youth civic engagement organization. Herod has earned a number of notable endorsements, including from former Denver mayor Wellington Webb and former Colorado first lady Dottie Lamm (who is also her campaign treasurer), but has also faced allegations from former colleagues and associates about fostering a toxic workplace culture.
Platform: Herod’s legislative track record has been defined in part by her work to overhaul the criminal justice system, particularly in the aftermath of the police murder of George Floyd in 2020. She was a prominent sponsor of a 2020 bill that barred qualified immunity as a defense for police officers who allegedly violate the civil rights of others. She has called for Denver’s first ever Social Housing Competition, in which developers, architects, general contractors, and community members compete to be a part of a public-private partnership where the winning team builds social housing on land provided by the city.
The lone Republican in the field, Rougeot has proposed adding 400 more officers to the Denver Police Department, along with “more training and better funding for law enforcement.” A former U.S. Army officer, he supports enforcement of the camping ban, and wants to end programs like safe-injection sites and universal basic income that he believes contribute to homelessness. He is self-funding his campaign after selling his business last July that specialized in maintenance for self-storage facilities.
Rodriguez’s background is in finance, but he has been active in civic roles for more than 25 years, serving on the board for the Denver Housing Authority and the Downtown Denver Partnership. He was also a policy advisor for former Governor Roy Romer in the 1990s. The Denver native plans to use his experience in organizational leadership “to develop and implement fair and equitable strategies to achieve real solutions,” like homelessness, public safety, and affordability.
Ean Thomas Tafoya
Tafoya is an environmental activist and the co-chair of the Colorado Environmental Justice Action Task Force. He hopes to use public banking—along with state and federal funding—to accelerate the transition to renewable energy while addressing the harm done to marginalized communities by pollution and other forms of environmental racism. He unsuccessfully ran for city council in 2015.
A former member of the Bloods in Northeast Park Hill, Roberts has since dedicated himself to anti-gang activism and social justice initiatives. He believes the creation of a public bank that funds social housing can end homelessness in the metro area and improve public safety within the community. He has called for other structural changes like reducing the term limit of the mayor and instituting ranked-choice voting.
Wolf is the managing director at Crewe Capital, a Salt Lake City–based investment bank and private wealth management firm, and is running for mayor for a second time after finishing in seventh place in 2011 with 1.9 percent of the vote. His policies on homeless encampments have been at the forefront of his campaign, noting that “we need to acknowledge this as the humanitarian crisis it is and use the full force of Denver’s land, buildings, and budget to remedy this crisis.”
Gardner, an information technology executive, has a public safety plan that focuses on police response times and increasing the number of officers. On his campaign website, he says that Denver is “at an affordable housing crossroads and the future direction we choose will determine whether or not our city will be for some or all.”
Walsh has worked as a professor at the University of Colorado Denver since 1998, teaching history and political science. As mayor, according to his campaign website, he would “make Denver the most worker-friendly city in the U.S.” by raising the minimum wage to at least $20 per hour and giving all workers the right to unionize.
In addition to his plans for homelessness, which would prioritize ramping up the building of cost-effective housing, Treta has focused on renewable energy and other environmental issues as part of his campaign. A builder by trade, Treta has proposed using money from existing tax increases to be used for various green measures like installing electric vehicle charging stations on city streets.
A small-business owner and former boxer, Martinez doesn’t mince words on his campaign website’s homepage, declaring that “Denver is a broken city.” A large part of his platform focuses on housing affordability, including a potential rent cap. His goal is “to stop Denver residents from having to move out of Denver because they can no longer afford to live in Denver.”
Behrens is a native German who has lived in Denver for about 15 years. She has experienced homelessness and has made addressing it a central part of her campaign. She has proposed buying structures like mobile homes and installing them on public land in the city.