With ballots now in the hands of some Denver voters, 11 leading mayoral candidates gathered at a school in northeast Denver on Tuesday for a televised debate that was noticeably nastier than previous gatherings as the cluster of people in the race sought to create separation.
Lisa Calderón, Mike Johnston, Kelly Brough, Chris Hansen, Debbie Ortega, Leslie Herod, Al Gardner, Thomas Wolf, Trinidad Rodriguez, Terrance Roberts and Andy Rougeot were the 11 of the 17 people running for mayor in the April 4 election invited to Tuesday’s showdown, hosted by 9News and aired on sister station KTVD.
That roster was decided via polling commissioned by 9News, Colorado Politics, the Denver Gazette and Metro State Univeristy at the end of February. Taking the temperatures of 594 likely Denver voters, that poll found Calderón, Johnston and Brough had the most support. They were in a three-way tie with just 5% support in a poll with a margin of error of 4.9 percentage points. Every candidate who polled at 2% or better was invited Tuesday.
With 58% of voters in the poll saying they were undecided, the urgency to make an impression was evident on the debate stage.
Here were three big clashes from the debate:
Calderón goes after Brough on paid family leave
Moderators asked Brough to defend her opposition to an effort in the state legislature to enact a paid family leave program for workers in 2020 when she was head of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce. Voters in the state eventually voted to approve that program on their own. She was asked how she would either support or oppose the implementation of that law if elected mayor.
Brough said she strongly supported paid leave and offered it to her employees at the chamber. But she still feels the state program doesn’t go far enough in making workers financially whole when they take time off. She said would continue on the path the city is already taking of opting out of the state program to offer a more robust internal leave option.
Calderón called Brough’s account “revisionist history” and went after her record as a member of the city’s leadership under then-Mayor John Hickenlooper.
“She led the opposition against family leave as she did in terms of gutting worker pay,” Calderón said. “So part of making sure you are a good steward of taxpayer dollars is making sure you are taking care of our workers. You don’t pass policies that cut their pay, make it longer for them to retire (and) stop automatic pay raises.”
Brough said the policy changes she was part of while in the Hickenlooper administration only stopped automatic raises for workers who were not meeting expectations, evidence she is a good steward of public money.
Rodriguez’s plan to involuntarily hold the unhoused is blasted
Seven of the 11 candidates on stage are committed to continuing to enforce the city’s camping ban to at least move unhoused people living on the city streets along to new locations. But Rodriguez has faced ample criticism about his plan to use involuntary mental health holds to move people who refuse services into drug and mental health treatment programs against their will. Some have referred to the idea as akin to creating city-run internment camps.
Asked if his plan is moral and ethical, Rodriguez said it is the right thing to do for public health and to save lives of people struggling with addiction.
“This is not an interment camp, this is a place where we can provide a standard of care for healing for people who are suffering and dying on our streets today,” he said, referencing the city’s overdose crisis.
Again, it was Calderón — a vocal opponent of the sweeps who holds a law degree — who was at the forefront of attacking that plan. She said the executive branch doesn’t have the power to unilaterally put someone on a mental health hold and that a judge and legal process has to be involved.
“A mayor is not an emperor,” she told Rodriguez during a back-and-forth between the two.
Rodriguez maintained that his plan is backed by state law.
Later in the debate, Gardner likened the plan to the internment of Japanese people during World War II, a comparison that Rodriguez said was offensive.
Rodriguez also said he was considering utilizing National Guard personnel to support care for unhoused people that are put in involuntary treatment.
Multiple candidates needle Johnston about financial backing
Johnston has the largest independent expenditure committee of any candidate in the race, with more than $930,000 in spending by the “Advancing Denver” group supporting his run so far.
Independent expenditure committees are barred from coordinating with candidate campaigns, but they are not subject to city campaign finance limits.
With the likes of Reid Hoffman, the co-founder of LinkedIn, and hedge fund billionaire Steve Mandel pouring money into the committee backing Johnston, Wolf referenced coastal billionaires having a say in Denver politics.
Hansen also jumped on that topic during a portion of the debate that allowed candidates to ask questions of each other.
“Can you please share with the Denver voters what those donors are going to expect if you win this race?” he asked Johnston.
Johnston said he has not had conversations about expectations because there is no coordination with those donors. He differentiated between megadonors like those backing his candidacy and local interests like developers that have traditionally impacted city races. The money is coming in behind him, he argued, because he has the best chance of affecting change in the city on issues like housing and homelessness.
“There are people who back leaders they believe have the capacity to be transformational on hard problems,” he said.