In a few weeks Denver will elect a mayor. It will either be one of three serious challengers for the job or the person who’s held the title for the last eight years, Denver Mayor Michael Hancock. Voters will head to the polls May 7th to make their choice. If no one wins 50 percent of the vote, a June 4th runoff election will be the final test.
The three serious contenders for the city’s top job are Lisa Calderon, a community activist and college professor, Jamie Giellis, whose website identifies her as ‘part community organizer, part strategic planner, part people champion’ or attorney Penfield Tate, who also served as a state representative in the legislature.
At a recent mayoral debate at the Studios at Overland Crossing, Calderon, Giellis and Tate shared the podium. Though invited, Hancock was not present owing to a previous commitment. Each of his challengers made mention of his absence numerous times.
At stake for voters is living in a city whose boom times have catapulted Denver’s economy into the top echelons in the country or living in one where economic challenges are magnified every day. Everything is predicated on which rung of the economic ladder you occupy.
For those who’ve parlayed the boom, it has meant watching neighborhoods gentrify, new businesses open at a steady and heretofore unimaginable clip and a nearly unparalleled downturn in unemployment. On the other hand, gentrification has pushed rents as high as the cranes that dot the city’s skyline, filled the air with a film of carbon dioxide that often hangs like a stain over the city and tested the limits of the city’s traffic infrastructure.
The trio was given questions from the audience covering an array of issues including affordable housing, the environment, homelessness, managing growth and transportation.
Calderon, the lone Denver native, spoke about her first-hand knowledge of poverty, single-parenting and how, through hard work and focus, she found a way out of it and ultimately into the shoes of a community activist and academic. She is on faculty at Regis University.
“I was a single parent,” she told the fifty or so who attended the debate. But the difference, she explained, from her time as a single parent compared to today is “I could afford a two-bedroom apartment. I want my daughter to have the same opportunity as I did and not be priced out of a neighborhood.” One of her priorities is to “have a Denver that is affordable to everyone.”
Calderon also spoke of her time working to help abused women and the need to take aim at Denver’s growing homeless population, including dealing with mental illness. “We spend more on criminal justice instead of helping those with treatment.”
Giellis is an Iowa native who has lived the past twelve years in Denver. She has done consulting in Europe and Asia as well as a handful of municipalities across the U.S. “I learned a lot working with local governments,” she said. But Denver “is a place where I saw the opportunity to make a great city and a place where I could make a difference.”
In a phone interview before the debate, Giellis explained an aggressive 100-day plan if she’s elected. “I want to appoint people who know what they’re doing, not friends or buddies. Appointments need to be open and transparent,” indicating appointments made with community input. “I also want to move the Office of Housing out of Economic Development and make it a cabinet position.”
On wages and rents, Giellis said this tandem would be tackled “incrementally.” “I am very supportive of $15 minimum wage.” But she cautioned that she would also be thoughtful about not enacting policies that could hurt the business community. “I want to make the city business friendly and rents affordable.”
Tate, whose father was the first African-American mayor of Boulder, said running for mayor was never in the plan. “It wasn’t one single moment or misstep that made me decide to challenge Hancock,” he said. He was moved by persistent conversations about the Mayor’s “unethical behavior” and “corruption,” things that seemed to occur “over and over.” “I decided that Denver needed a mayor who was a proven leader,” one who would be accountable, accessible and ethical.
Tate also discussed his first 100 days in office should he win in May or June, if there’s a run-off. He spoke about prioritizing the growing homelessness problem. Homelessness, said Tate, “is not longer just a downtown problem” and that it’s “time we take bold action” that will guarantee safety and security both for residents and the homeless.
The former state legislator also pledged to address the absence of banks and grocery stores in some Denver communities, including Five Points. “I understand the needs of a community,” said Tate, a veteran of both the Pena and Webb administrations. “I want to push economic development by working with communities.”
While he may have been missing from the debate, Mayor Hancock, who has won two mayoral races, has participated in other similar forums with these three candidates. He also brings a lot to the table, most of which is good. His record as mayor, which has Denver’s economy flying as high as any in the country, is hard to argue against. He is well liked by the Denver business community and is thought to have an inside track to reelection.
To address the city’s ever-challenging needs, his office recently announced the creation of a new Department of Transportation and Infrastructure. The new agency would “better facilitate a multi-modal transportation system” and ostensibly ease the daily challenges of commuters into the city. Like his challengers, Mayor Hancock has also pledged to make a serious effort at solving the affordable housing dilemma.
Hancock’s term in office has been tarnished by claims of inappropriate behavior toward a co-worker in 2012. Hancock has since publicly apologized for sending inappropriate texts to a female member of his own security detail.
On Tuesday, May 7, Denver may have a newly elected mayor, either current Mayor Michael Hancock will hold on to his position, or one of one of the three front runners, Lisa Calderon, Penfield Tate, or Jamie Giellis could take the helm.