The Local newsletter is your free, daily guide to life in Colorado. For locals, by locals. Sign up today!
Kelly Brough has never run for public office. But that doesn’t mean the current candidate for Denver mayor hasn’t been a major player in Mile High City politics. She worked as city council legislative analyst from 1990 to 1997, served as both director of human resources and chief of staff for then-mayor John Hickenlooper in the mid-2000s, helmed the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce as CEO for 12 years, and most recently worked as the chief strategy officer for Metropolitan State University of Denver.
“I think the next mayor has some tough work and tough decisions ahead,” Brough told 5280. “I am running for this office because I am ready for this moment and my experience has prepared me for it.”
Brough’s extensive resume—as well as her policies, which were more moderate compared to many of the other candidates in the field—helped her finish second in the initial round of voting in Denver’s mayoral election this past April, setting up a runoff with first-place finisher and former state legislator Mike Johnston on June 6. Ahead of the final round of voting, we spoke with Brough about how she would approach some of the major issues facing the Mile High City.
Read our conversation with mayoral candidate Mike Johnston here.
Editor’s note: The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
5280: You spent some time working for John Hickenlooper’s team while he was mayor. How are issues facing Denverites today different? And also, possibly, similar in ways?
Kelly Brough: One major similarity is that Denver is still a huge organization. It’s complex in multiple industries. I think the pride of the people who work for the city and their commitment to service is all the same. One of the things that’s changed is—and I think every employer faces this today—how we built our work systems around everybody being in the office all the time. We are rethinking that and how to ensure productivity and meeting your customers’ expectations in those jobs that can be done virtually today.
I think another similarity comes from my time as chief of staff in 2008 and 2009, when we were entering the Great Recession. It is much harder to build a budget when you have fewer resources. And there’s a chance the next mayor may face something similar. Another difference, though, would be that today our unhoused population is much larger, and it is more challenging to figure out how to shelter everyone. I think our commitment to do so is the same, though. Another difference: The amount of addictive and deadly drugs have increased the need for behavioral health and supportive services.
During your time as CEO of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce, you took some stances on issues that are out of step with a city that is increasingly progressive. For example, you were against a statewide effort to provide paid family leave and to raise the minimum wage. You’ve said you had to take some of those stances because of the interests you served as CEO. What do you want voters to understand about your time there and maybe how you might approach some of those differently as mayor?
Let’s look at paid family leave, for example. My values on this have never changed. I provided paid family leave to the team I was responsible for at the Chamber and actually helped other businesses do the same. It’s consistent—my value around it. Policy matters. The city of Denver today has not used the paid family leave that we all passed as voters. That provided a better benefit package, where every employee, even the lowest-paid ones, get 100 percent pay. I guess how I would describe it is that my entire career I have been hired to implement results—take a big idea or big issue and deliver on it. Not just pass legislation or give money away but actually do the work. And that is my strength. I am extremely good at producing results.
The lack of affordable housing has been a major topic in Denver the past few years. What does a successful affordable housing plan look like for the city?
The first step is that we actually need to create more rental product that is affordable, so people who work in our city can actually rent a home in our city. There are a few ways we could start to make some headway. One is the city’s inefficiency around permitting. Approval costs everybody more money, even organizations like Habitat for Humanity or the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless. We have to get more efficient. From my experiences working for the city, it seems like we’ve never done this job very well. And I’m proposing a full restructure to actually improve customer service and serve our community better.
I’m also interested in exploring ideas like master leasing, where employers or the city could issue a request for proposals to current landlords. You might say, “I’d like to lease 3,000 units for three years,” and we could buy down a little of the price of rent by guaranteeing payments, and then have your residents lease those. They would be able to save a little money in the short term, and it would lock in those rates for a few years. It could also help with prevention around homelessness because now there’s somebody else signing that lease who gets a phone call before someone is evicted to try to make sure we keep that person housed, which we know is significantly less expensive and more effective.
I am also interested in home ownership, especially for families of color, and I propose building some of the product myself. Today we do that for about four percent of our housing product or condos in the region. In other cities of our size, it is about 20 percent. There are a lot of surface parking lots on publicly owned land, and we could build above those so we still retain the parking. But it would be for sale product, where families could afford to live in neighborhoods they never could have gotten into, their kids could go to schools they never would have accessed, and they’d build wealth.
On the issue of homelessness, you’ve said that you will put an end to sweeps of homeless encampments that Mayor Hancock has used. If your plan is to move away from that policy, what do you hope can be the way forward on that issue?
The sweeps are inhumane and ineffective. It doesn’t improve living conditions for people who are unhoused or the neighborhoods where they live. People are dying while living unhoused in our city. Last year, I think 173 people died, and the year before, I think the number was 269. I propose that we get people to safer locations as quickly as we can. To do this, I’d certainly try to get everyone indoors that we could, but we don’t have enough space or the right space immediately. So I would temporarily sanction safe outdoor sites where we’d have running water and bathrooms and trash, and we’d bring support and services to people. I would get [unhoused people] to those locations instead of endlessly sweeping them. At the same time, I would be working with the region to build housing and shelter, as well as to modify our shelter system to meet our needs to get everybody indoors.
Both you and your opponent have indicated change is needed for Denver Public Schools to succeed. The mayor’s ability to do much on that front is limited given the influence of the school board. What would you envision your relationship with that group being like in order to affect change?
I spent a lot of time in neighborhoods with parents and teachers and students talking about how little confidence our community has in our school board today. Currently in Denver Public Schools, fewer than one in four of our kids of color or low income are reading at grade-level in third grade. If you’re not reading at grade-level, the prediction is that you’re not going to graduate from high school—and that you’re significantly more likely to go to prison. People are feeling the urgency to have a school board that is focused on delivering real results, and I will put my weight behind trying to make sure that’s the case. In November, three seats on our school board are up for election. I will work with our communities throughout Denver to identify the three people running who we believe could start to restore that confidence in our school system, and I would put my political weight behind them getting elected.
At the same time, I would also focus fully on being a partner to ensure we’re supporting Denver Public Schools and helping educate our kids. This includes things like finding partnerships where we can save money by having joint purchasing opportunities, housing for teachers, and potentially maintenance of school grounds. I would also reinstitute the school coordinating committee. It was there when I was chief of staff, and I think it’s highly effective. I would also look at filling some of my positions in the city with paid internships and apprenticeships for kids in high school.
We’re still in the first decade of legal cannabis in Denver. How do you think that has gone for the city? And what do you hope to accomplish on that front moving forward as we reach different phases like rolling out hospitality licenses?
I was endorsed by the marijuana industry group. And that was a little surprising because I’ve been very honest about not voting for the original legislation. My husband struggled with addiction, and I’m open about how substance-addiction issues worry me. But the minute [recreational cannabis legislation] was passed, I respected the voters’ decision. Since then, implementation in our state has served as a model to others. We know there are some gaps. For example, we never really thought about the fact that visitors would come here and want to go out and enjoy marijuana, just like having a drink. I would be committed to making sure we get those gaps right as well.
In a number of polls, Denver voters have indicated that public safety is a top issue for them. What is the greatest public safety concern at the moment, and what would you do about it as mayor?
One of the biggest challenges we face is what happens when you call 911. Calls aren’t picked up as fast as we need, and we need more operators. Oftentimes, we don’t have an officer that can be deployed immediately. That’s going to require the mayor and the mayor’s team to really look at what’s preventing people from being interested in those jobs. I’d also try to improve that response by making sure we can send a mental health professional when possible.
We also really have to think of drivers of crime. We know what prevents it: kids getting a great education, people having access to true economic opportunity, stable housing, recreational programs where our kids are building healthy relationships with their peers and with adults through our parks and rec department or our libraries.
You have a voter standing in front of you and they tell you they can’t decide who to vote for between you and Mike Johnston. What is your final pitch to that person on why they should choose you?
There are a few things that are different about us. One is my life story, which is so similar to that of many people in Denver today. My father was murdered when I was an infant. And I know how hard it is to put the pieces of your life back together after your family has suffered such great loss and trauma. My family received government assistance, and I know the shame that you can feel when you need that help. I would be proud to be the mayor for someone who needed help getting back on their feet. And I’d never make them feel less than because of it. My husband struggled with addiction, and my girls and I lost him to suicide. I understand that what helped my family navigate that time in our lives was community. As mayor, I will very intentionally build community, bring us back together, close the divides. My experiences built values in me and a sense of resilience. When I look at Denver residents today, I see the same strength that I see in my family. I see the same path to getting through hard times that I could see for my family.
My professional experience certainly is another difference [between Mike Johnston and me]. I was responsible for the day-to-day operations of the city, for building the budget and managing to it when I was chief of staff for Hickenlooper. I’ve had a number of executive jobs, where I was responsible for running the organization and taking responsibility for running it. I think that’s very different from being a legislator.
The third thing is that I’ve never run for office before. But maybe more importantly, I’m not going to run for another one. I think the residents deserve to have a mayor who makes decisions about what is best for them and this city and not about their political future.