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Editor’s note: This story was most recently updated at 2:30 p.m. on April 6.
Well, we made it, folks. April 4—Election Day—has come and gone, capping off a long campaign season in which we saw enough mailers, spam text messages, pop-up ads, and unoriginal commercials from candidates to feel like we collectively ran a civic marathon. And did we mention that 16 candidates were vying to be mayor?
But this was always going to be an important election: The office for Denver’s mayor was ostensibly up for grabs for the first time in 12 years (with Mayor Michael Hancock term-limited), the fate of the Park Hill Golf Course hung in the balance, and 10 contested city council seats were on the line. It’s no cliche to say that Tuesday’s results will chart a course for our city’s future.
But beyond the more straightforward winners and losers—the names and questions on your ballot—we also feel that there are a few others who chalked up big W’s and massive L’s this week. Below, our takeaways from this historic Mile High referendum.
Winners: Mike Johnston and Kelly Brough, the Candidates for the June Runoff Election
Since Denver’s rules require candidates for most elected offices to receive more than 50 percent of the vote to win outright, no mayoral hopeful in the field of 16 names ever had a serious chance of hitting that mark and sealing the deal on Tuesday. As much as we’d all like to know who Denver’s next chief executive is, this race was destined for a runoff between the top two vote-getters. But which pair of candidates emerged from the scrum?
It took until 2 p.m. on Thursday (when the Denver Elections Division finished counting ballots) to get a clear answer: Mike Johnston received the most votes with roughly 24.5 percent and Kelly Brough had the second-most with 20 percent.
In addition to being more moderate candidates, Johnston and Brough also happen to have the two best-funded campaigns; each candidate raised well over a million dollars in campaign funds, and both had independently run super PACs spending record figures (about $2.2 million for Johnston, including money from LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman, through the organization Advancing Denver, and nearly $1 million for Brough, including $300,000 from the National Association of REALTORS, through A Better Denver).
Johnston had focused his campaign on housing and homelessness, including a lofty promise of ending chronic street homelessness by the end of his first term by building more short-term housing solutions. Brough touted her government and business experience, including being president and CEO of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce. Brough is aiming to become Denver’s first female mayor.
But this isn’t over yet. Now, Denverites will vote all over again in the runoff election on June 6, 2023. Similar to the election we just had, the Denver Elections Division will soon send out runoff ballots to all registered voters, which can be mailed in or dropped off at ballot boxes. So buckle up for two more months of campaign mailers, TV ads, and text messages.
Loser: Westside Investment Partners
Even by 7 p.m. on Tuesday night, when the first results were released by the Denver Elections Division, it appeared that Referred Question 2O, which asked whether the Park Hill Golf Course could be redeveloped, was headed for a sound defeat. This perception was confirmed when, by the end of ballot counting, nearly 59 percent of voters rejected the measure.
That makes Westside Investment Partners’ $24 million acquisition of the 155-acre plot of land look like a boondoggle. The developer had always assumed financial risk when it bought the defunct golf course in 2019, owing to a conservation easement that restricts development on the property that has been in place since 1997. Westside’s gamble hinged on whether it could lift the conservation easement to pursue residential and retail construction. The stakes were set in 2021 when Denver voters decided to put the question on this year’s April 4 ballot.
With the defeat of Referred Question 2O, the conservation easement stays in place and Westside’s plans to donate 100 acres of its land to the city as a park and develop the remaining 55 acres of the land have to be put on ice. Critics—including the Denver Post editorial board—had pointed out that even the smaller, 55-acre parcel is worth an estimated $184 million without the conservation easement, and called the idea of Westside getting to develop it a “sweetheart deal.”
Now that Westside Investment Partners will not be able to move forward with its redevelopment plans, Denverites are left with a number of questions. Will Westside ask voters again to lift the conservation easement in a future election? Will it attempt to sell the property to someone else (even back to the city)? Would it consider building a Topgolf, or reopening the golf course, as may be allowed under the current zoning rules? Time will tell, but for now, Westside just lost big.
Loser: Denver’s Voter Turnout
Look, municipal elections may not have the flashiness of presidential elections—in which Denver typically has high voter turnouts—but this year’s citywide races had a lot of drama going for them. We had scandals over TV ads, accusations on top of accusations, and spicy television debates. Despite that, the majority of Denver voters did not cast a ballot in the election; at last check, the Denver Elections Division said that it collected a total of 175,000 ballots, representing just 38 percent of active registered voters. That’s just below the voter turnout of 39 percent in Denver’s 2019 municipal election, which didn’t even feature an open seat for mayor. So what gives? Did the sheer number of mayoral candidates intimidate voters this year? Will we see more people participate in the June 6 runoff?
As much as we may admonish Denver’s overall turnout, though, we can’t fault the boomers. By comparing Denver’s election data with the most recent U.S. Census numbers, around 64 percent of voters aged 65 and older participated in the election. As for voters aged 25 to 34? Just 27 percent casted ballots. One way to read that is that Denver’s senior population had a disproportionate impact on this election.
Winner: 9News Mayoral Debates
Hosting a two-hour-long mayoral debate with as many as 13 candidates on stage could have been a disaster (remember the Republican presidential primary debates from 2016?). But you’ve got to hand it to Kyle Clark, Marshall Zelinger, and Anusha Roy of 9News: Over the course of two well-crafted debates, the news anchors deftly steered crowded stages of candidates through substantive conversations about their policy positions while still allowing for some organic moments of debate and bluster. One example: In 9News’ first debate, candidates’ criticisms of state Senator Chris Hansen’s television ad depicting crimes and homeless encampments involving mostly people of color led to a revealing conversation about racial disparities and policing in Denver. But even in the 9News’ debates more structured moments, Clark and Co. did a fine job finessing questions to urge the candidates to state their positions on a wide variety of topics, including less common ones like supervised injection sites and rent control.
Loser: Tattered Cover
Before he dropped out of the mayoral race, one-time candidate and Tattered Cover owner and CEO Kwame Spearman found himself buried in controversy—especially around the topics of homelessness and immigration enforcement. In one instance, he told conservative talk radio station KNUS that Denver should resume cooperation with federal immigration agents—a policy that Denver abandoned during the Trump presidency. In another instance, he misstated a report by the advocacy organization Denver Homeless Out Loud and insisted that more than 50 percent of Denver’s homeless population wanted to live in tents, despite evidence, like a recent survey of more than 800 unhoused people, to the contrary.
Spearman’s various comments upset some voters enough that they said they wouldn’t buy from Tattered Cover book stores any longer. “I don’t know if I can shop there again after listening to this guy,” said one Twitter user. Many others agreed. “I have been a devoted Tattered Cover shopper for over 30 years,” said another Twitter user, “I may have to reevaluate this. Joyce Meskis would be so disappointed.”
Perhaps the vitriol led to this latest development: On Wednesday, April 5, Spearman announced that he is stepping down as CEO of Tattered Cover (although he will remain an investor, he says). Spearman told 9News that he’s thinking about running for Denver school board in November, and that when it comes to Tattered Cover, “it’s best that I separate politics from my role there.”
It was a good night for already-seated office-holders. Granted, some of them—including Paul López for clerk and recorder, Jamie Torres for council district 3, Paul Kashmann for council district 6, and Stacie Gilmore for council district 11—ran unopposed. But even most of the incumbents with challengers fared well on Tuesday. By 11:30 p.m., Denver auditor Timothy O’Brien was sailing to re-election with more than 60 percent of the vote (despite his challenger outspending him), and councilmembers Amanda Sandoval and Kevin Flynn looked on track to handily beat their opponents as well.
That leaves two other first-term councilmembers, who didn’t quite secure victory by Tuesday night, but are headed to the runoff (since they did not secure more than 50 percent of the vote). They include councilmember Chris Hinds of district 10, who secured roughly 36 percent of his district’s vote, and councilwoman Candi Cdebaca, who ended up finishing about 200 votes ahead of her challenger Darrel Watson in district 9.
Losers Winners: The Most Progressive Candidates
It looked like it was going to be a disappointing referendum for a slate of candidates endorsed by the Democratic Socialists of America and the Colorado Working Families Party. In early returns on Tuesday night and Wednesday morning, the left-leaning groups’ preferred candidate for mayor, Lisa Calderón, seemed out of reach of the runoff, and another high-profile progressive, Candi Cdebaca, was struggling in her bid for re-election in council district 9. Add in the actual defeats of Tony Pigford for council district 4 and Tiffany Caudill in council district 2, and it seemed like many Denver voters were having a hard time bending far-left.
But once again, progressives affirmed the stereotype that they tend to vote late; in ballots that weren’t counted until Wednesday afternoon and into Thursday, progressive candidates did extremely well. Their late surge teased the possibility of Calderón overtaking Brough to make the runoff election (in the end, Calderón came up just a few thousand votes short), and city council candidates Shontel Lewis (district 8) and Cdebaca (district 9) both pulled ahead of their challengers, positioning them well for the June 6 runoff.
Finally—and most significantly—progressive candidates Serena Gonzales-Gutierrez and Sarah Parady ended up winning their bids for the two up-for-grabs Denver City Council at-large seats. In that race, the top two vote-getters win without necessitating a runoff, and so with both candidates placing ahead of their competitors, the future of Denver’s City Council looks farther left.
Winner—and Loser: Fair Elections Fund
Is it fair to say that something can be a winner and a loser? We think so, and that dual label applies to Denver’s new Fair Elections Fund, which Denver voters passed in 2018 with the idea of creating a taxpayer-funded pool of money that might limit outside spending on races and help grassroots campaigns by giving them 9–1 matches (in taxpayer money) for qualifying donations. This election was the first time that Denver enacted the new fund.
On the plus side? Many candidates, including those for mayor, credited the Fair Elections Fund for inspiring them to jump into the race. These included anti-establishment candidates like Terrance Roberts and Ean Thomas Tafoya, who both brought refreshing and unique perspectives to the mayoral race. Roberts, a former gang member who now focuses on preventing youth violence, brought unmatched insights on gun violence and the criminal justice system, having experienced both himself. And Tafoya, a longtime activist in the Denver area, repeatedly centered his focus on environmental issues and climate change, which other candidates largely ignored until the 36-year-old Colorado state director for GreenLatinos forced them to talk about it.
But you could also argue that the Fair Elections Fund failed because even the more establishment candidates, including Johnston and Brough, participated in the program; while the Fair Elections Fund prevented either candidate from receiving donations above a certain amount—or money from corporations—those large checks simply went to the PACs that were supporting their campaigns instead. When voters approved the Fair Elections Fund in 2018, they likely intended for it to elevate lesser-known candidates. Many of its backers might be disappointed with this year’s runoff candidates, considering that both Johnston and Brough not only raised more Fair Elections Fund money than other candidates, but also had the most outside spending bolstering their campaigns.