The last time a Denver mayor lost a re-election bid at the ballot box was in 1983.
So it’s not an exaggeration to say that in two months when Denver voters cast ballots in the first open mayoral race since 2011 when Mayor Michael Hancock was first elected, they could dictate the course of the city for more than a decade.
Whether that opportunity — or the stakes — will drive turnout up over the 40% of voters who cast ballots in the city’s May 2019 election when the term-limited Hancock was last elected remains to be seen. Regardless of how many ballots are cast, political observers, economic development professionals and candidates agree, the April 4 election will be critical and potentially history-making for Denver. Ballots will be mailed out the week of March 13.
“I think it’s very important,” Paul Teske, the dean of the University of Colorado Denver School of Public Affairs, said. “I think the term inflection point is sometimes overused in all of our discourse but it does feel to me a little bit like the city is at an inflection point.”
It’s not just the open mayor’s race., the race for auditor, or the 10 out of 13 contested races for City Council seats.
Denver, like many cities, is at a precarious point on such critical issues as public safety, the cost of housing, homelessness and the future of its downtown core.
Downtown Denver’s office real estate market remains a shell of what it was before the COVID-19 pandemic. The Hancock administration has taken early steps to shift the focus away from commercial space and zero in on more housing in the urban core, but the city’s next batch of leaders will shape downtown’s future.
Under Hancock’s final budget, Denver will spend more than it ever has on housing and homelessness in 2023. The massive investment — more than $250 million with federal dollars folded in — comes after the city saw a 15% increase in homelessness between 2020 and 2022, according to point-in-time counts. The next mayor will have to decide whether to carry on policies launched over the last 12 years, like sweeping homeless encampments, or charting a new path on one of the city’s most visible crises.
The 2023 election will also operate differently than any other in the city’s history.
This is the first time Denver is providing public financing to candidates in accordance with voters’ wishes from 2018. The Fair Elections Fund means millions of dollars is available to support candidates who might otherwise not have had the financial wherewithal to compete. The impact of the program is already on full display with 17 people qualifying for the ballot for mayor. Of those candidates, 13 have qualified to receive Fair Elections Fund payments.
Public financing does not rule out the possibility of outside spending influencing outcomes this spring. An independent expenditure committee is already going to work on behalf of at least one mayoral candidate, and dark money is expected to play a visible role as Election Day nears and particularly in the likely event that the mayor’s race and possibly other races go to a runoff election in June.
Finally, after 165 years as a city, Denver voters have a chance to do something they have never done: elect a woman mayor.
“We’ve never had a woman as mayor or indeed as governor of Colorado,” said Teske. “We have some very strong women candidates. Will that change things even symbolically?”
Crime and the downtown economy
At a forum organized by the Denver Business Journal last month, the first question moderator Ed Sealover asked focused on what the five candidates on the stage — Kelly Brough, Chris Hansen, Leslie Herod, Mike Johnston and Debbie Ortega — would do differently to reduce crime downtown and citywide.
As Sealover put it, the number of people working downtown every day is still a fraction of what it was pre-pandemic, “in part because some employers say their employees are scared to come back downtown
Crime statistics available through the state of Colorado show that violent crime has been on the rise in Denver since 2014 but the recent spike that coincided with the pandemic has been especially steep. In 2019, Denver police recorded 6,014 violent crimes in the city. In 2022, that number rose to 8,072 crimes, a 34% increase.
Property crimes are also up with auto theft leading the way. According to the state’s statistics, 15,221 vehicles were stolen in Denver last year, an increase of nearly 10,000 thefts over 2019.
“First and foremost, crime is a huge concern,” Adam Burg, vice president of government affairs for the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce said of what the organization is looking at heading into the municipal election.
For the chamber, that starts with a commitment to enforcing laws already on the books.
“While encouraging people to come downtown, we also have to ensure that our cities are safe or reinvestments in things like the 16th Street Mall won’t lead to it being fruitful,” Burg said.
Downtown Denver and downtowns across the country have gone through a generational magnitude shift in how they are viewed and used in less than three years during the pandemic, said Kourtny Garrett, CEO of the Downtown Denver Partnership.
The number of people coming downtown to work was still roughly half of what it was pre-pandemic as of November, according to the partnership. But Garrett and her team found demand for housing downtown has not waned despite the economic and safety concerns.
“How we move forward relies squarely on the priorities set by our elected officials. That’s why it’s so important that we have the right leaders in place,” Garrett said. “We see industry sectors struggling like commercial office. We need boldness, collaboration, all of those things if we want to maintain our position and continue to move forward as a city.”
Hiring cops just part of the puzzle
The Hancock administration earmarked more than $8 million in the city’s 2023 budget for hiring 188 police officers.
Candidates running to succeed him have also vowed to increase the size of DPD whether it’s through cops on the streets or investigators working to close cases. But the current administration and would-be mayors have also focused on the need for alternative responses to 911 calls that may not require armed law enforcement officers.
Multiple police controversies occurred on Hancock’s watch, Teske noted. A federal jury last year found that the city violated 12 people’s constitutional rights during the racial justice protests that followed the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis in 2020. The city was ordered to pay out $14 million.
“How do we have an effective police department and public safety department that keeps citizens feeling safe but also doesn’t discriminate or have the problems we have had around the George Floyd protests and maybe the overreactions there?” Teske said. “This feels like it’s been lingering in Denver for quite some time.”
Housing and homelessness in one of America’s most expensive cities
Whoever wins the mayor’s office will be faced with twin challenges that the outgoing administration and leaders across the country have struggled with for years: runaway housing prices and growing homelessness.
“I think the biggest issue is that we need to see a mayoral candidate that is 100% focused on directing housing resources to those populations that are in the greatest need and at the greatest risk of displacement,” said Cathy Alderman, chief public policy officer for the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless.
Alderman pointed to research from the National Low Income Housing Coalition that found that as of April 2022, the Denver metro area was more than 82,000 housing units short of demand for rental properties aimed at people living on less than half of the area median income. For a family of four, $58,600 was 50% of the Denver area median income last year, according to the state.
The Metro Denver Homeless Initiative found that 4,798 people were homeless in Denver on Jan. 24, 2022. But there are limits to the accuracy of a point-in-time survey conducted on a cold winter day and that figure is almost certainly a significant undercount, Alderman said.
Homelessness is primed to get worse even with the city rushing to invest dedicated tax revenue in more short and long-term housing options. Eviction filings in the city have risen past pre-pandemic levels, and pandemic-era supports like federal rental assistance and the child tax credit have dried up.
“If we don’t put systems in place to be the safety net for the people that are feeling this pressure many more of them are going to be entering the cycle of homelessness,” Alderman said.
The median sale price of a single-family home in metro Denver was $600,000 in December, according to the Denver Metro Association of Realtors. Price gains have slowed as mortgage interest rates increased but that doesn’t make the market easier to crack for young families. A recent report from real estate data firm Zillow pinned the metro Denver area as the eighth most expensive housing market in the country.
“It’s daunting for people just to stay in Denver and rents are up,” Teske said.
Public financing and dark money will have a say in 2023
Denver voters approved a ballot measure that overhauled campaign finance laws in city elections way back in 2018.
The law change and the $8 million it set aside for establishing, administering and paying out candidates from the city’s Fair Elections Fund is finally coming to bear this year and it is having a visible impact on the 2023 race for mayor.
Of the 17 mayoral candidates who qualified for the ballot, 13 received enough support from Denver donors to qualify for public matching funds. Some of those candidates said explicitly that the fund is the reason they jumped into the race.
“I just think the field is bigger and broader and more inclusive than I can remember ever seeing. So that’s fantastic,” said Owen Perkins, a campaign finance reform activist who led the 2018 effort that got the Fair Elections Fund law passed.
The fund, which matches donations of up to $50 on a 9-to-1 scale (turning $50 into $500), has already paid out more than $4.2 million to candidates across races. More than $1.6 million of that has gone to mayoral candidates.
The law change banned corporate donations and brought the cap on private donations to mayoral candidates down from $3,000 to $1,000. For Fair Elections Fund candidates, that cap is $500.
But city law doesn’t overcome federal precedents that allow for unlimited campaign spending.
Dark money, or outside spending, will play a role in the 2023 election, experts agree.
So far only one mayoral candidate, three-term City Council at-large member Debbie Ortega has an independent expenditure committee supporting her that has raised any money. The committee, Protect Denver’s Future, recorded a $10,000 donation in October from Westminster-based Mission Yogurt. That money was put toward digital ads, city records show.
Independent expenditure committees can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money and can use shell entities to mask the identities of their donors. They cannot legally coordinate with the campaigns they support.
Research about the impact of outside spending is imprecise but suggests that voters are less receptive to ads when they can’t easily identify who is behind them, said Seth Masket, the director of the Center on American Politics at the University of Denver.
But in a big field of mayoral candidates who voters might not know much about, it doesn’t take much to sway an outcome, Masket said.
“We’re in an era where there is a lot of money in campaigns. Donors are particularly generous,” he said.”If there are limits on how much they can spend on a race, they will find other ways to spend it, whether it’s by giving to a party or an independent expenditures group or some other organization.”
Spending from an unknown source has already resulted in mailers going out across the city that appear to attack the voting record of District 9 City Councilwoman Candi CdeBaca on housing and homelessness. The Denver Clerk and Recorder’s office is looking into the mailers, officials said, as is CdeBaca.
“It suggests that there is a lot of money that is going to play in this election and it begs the question of what do they have to lose in this election?” CdeBaca said.
The final countdown
There are parallels between the 2011 election that ushered in the Hancock administration and 2023.
In 2011 the city was still feeling the effects of the Great Recession and the housing crisis. In his inauguration speech, Hancock delivered an optimistic message about Denver’s future saying it was “time for us to take our place on the global stage.”
What followed was an unprecedented period of economic growth for the city. Its population boomed, growing by 115,000 residents between 2010 and 2020, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
The growth coincided with Denver becoming one of the leading cities for gentrification in America, trailing only San Francisco when it came to the economic displacement of existing residents between 2013 and 2017, according to one study.
Now the city finds itself on uneven footing as it deals with the fallout of the pandemic and many interconnected challenges.
Bree Davies hosts City Cast Denver, a daily podcast that dives into city politics, culture and other issues.
Davies said she will be listening to the narrative candidates craft around the future of Denver. What they want the city to look like will say a lot about how they will lead and what they will do.
“It’s just such a big moment for us, I think,” Davies said of the city as a whole. “I think there is a nice note to it which is that we get to envision someone as a leader of Denver for maybe the next decade plus. And what does their Denver look like? Who is included in their Denver?”