The Denver mayor’s race is heating up as the April 4 election inches closer.
For the second time in eight days, a cadre of candidates seeking to take the reigns from three-term Mayor Michael Hancock gathered on a college campus (this time Auraria) to debate some of the biggest issues facing a city dealing with major challenges when it comes to housing affordability, homelessness, rising crime and more.
The debate, organized by 9News, Metropolitan State University of Denver and the Colorado Latino Leadership, Advocacy & Research Organization, or CLLARO, was broadcast live on KDTV and on 9News’ streaming app. Moderators Kyle Clark, Anusha Roy and Marshall Zelinger covered a lot of ground in two hours in a debate that was at times much more combative than its predecessor a week prior.
Here were some key moments:
Fundamental disagreements on homelessness
There is a deep divide between candidates on how to address homeless encampments.
Most of the 13 candidates on the stage said they would continue the Hancock administration’s policy of forcibly sweeping homeless encampments in line with the city’s urban camping ban. Only Lisa Calderón, Leslie Herod, Terrance Roberts, Ean Thomas Tafoya and Jim Walsh indicated they would not.
Several said they would go further. Five candidates raised their hands when asked if they would arrest or involuntarily commit people to mental health institutions if they refused shelter or housing services from the city: Kelly Brough, Debbie Ortega, Trinidad Rodriguez, Kwame Spearman and Thomas Wolf.
“It’s a clinical determination whether someone is a danger to themselves or others,” Rodriguez said of guidelines behind his plan to use involuntary mental holds when seeking to move unhoused people off city sidewalks and into treatment or shelter. “That is exactly the idea. This is a health question.”
Calderón meanwhile has advocated for stopping the sweeps in favor of crisis intervention at encampments. She said Thursday that 10 years of the camping ban shows it doesn’t work and said that many of her fellow candidates “don’t know what they’re talking about.” Calderón was homeless as a teen trying to escape an abusive household.
“I do have expertise they don’t have. I have experience they don’t have,” she said of her counterparts. “I don’t think people are intentionally trying to be mean, but that’s the impact.”
Calderón specifically called out Spearman for what she said was a misinterpretation of data around the percentage of unhoused people who prefer tents to the city’s shelter system. Spearman, the CEO of the Tattered Cover Bookstore, said that if the city does not enforce the camping ban businesses like his that frequently have encampments near them lose customers and can’t afford to pay employees worsening the city’s affordability crisis.
How to attract more police officers
Several of the candidates advocated for growing the Denver Police Department’s authorized force and adding officers to the streets. But as Zelinger pointed out, the department has 148 openings today and only 70 recruits in its academy.
Candidates were asked if they would support bringing back qualified immunity that insulates individual officers from lawsuits in instances where they violate citizens’ civil rights and instead shifts the financial burden to the city in those cases.
Brough said she would support that.
“Sometimes the city settles claims with no admission of fault. Sometimes you settle claims because the city had a bad policy the officers are just following. I don’t think our officers should be at risk and I think this is hurting our ability to recruit officers,” she said.
Herod, who was the primary sponsor of the 2020 state legislation that peeled back immunity for individual officers, stood by the position.
“Our people deserve to be safe in our cities,” Herod said. “We shouldn’t have law enforcement that feels like they can violate someone’s constitutional rights.”
Mike Johnston, who said he wants to put 200 more uniformed first responders on Denver streets, said he thinks that can be achieved without decreasing educational or character requirements for those positions simply by shifting the focus on the jobs more toward community service and recruiting people who want to do that kind of work.
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Some areas of unanimous support
There were a handful of times when all 13 candidates on the stage agreed. All raised their hands when asked if Denver should have some sort of ban on assault weapons. All agreed that more regulations should be brought to bear on the Suncor Energy oil refinery north of town. All agreed that the city needs a departure from the leadership of the Hancock administration.
Hansen’s ad becomes a flashpoint
This week Chris Hansen debuted a new ad focused on how he is best suited to addressing the city’s homelessness and crime problems. The ad featured video footage of what appears to be mostly Black and Latino men.
Hansen disputed that the ad had anything to do with race, but other candidates did not see it that way.
Tafoya, who is Latino and Native American, said that the ad is based on tropes that have been broken forever, adding, “I am so disappointed in you. I hope you will denounce it and take it away.”
Herod, who is Black, said Hansen didn’t see racism in the ad because he’s white.
“You didn’t see what we saw because you’re not us,” Herod said.
Some candidates weren’t invited
There was controversy before the debate even started.
Four candidates whose names will appear on the April 4 ballot were not invited to be part of the event because they are not receiving public money through the Fair Elections Fund.
Renate Behrens, Al Gardner, Andy Rougeot and Robert Treta were on the outside looking in while their 13 counterparts who are receiving public matching funds took questions on stage.
Rougeot, who has donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to his own campaign, decried 9News’ decision to limit the debate to publicly financed candidates.
“9News and my opponents in this race may believe that taxpayer dollars are better spent on political consultants than on cleaning up our streets, but that doesn’t mean they should be able to silence the voices of those who disagree with their corrupt beliefs,” Rougeot said in a statement.
Unlike Rougeot and Behrens, who chose not to participate in the fund at all, Gardner and Treta filed paperwork to receive taxpayer funds but did not qualify because they did not meet the donation threshold in time. Treta showed up on the Auraria campus anyway to campaign outside the venue.
9News representatives said they were providing multiple avenues for voters to hear from all candidates and Thursday’s debate was not the end of their coverage.
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