DENVER | Two of the more moderate candidates for Denver mayor in the unusually large and divergent field of 16 contestants pulled far ahead in initial results Tuesday night.
If early results hold, Kelly Brough, the former president and CEO of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce, and Mike Johnston, a former state senator, could be pushed to a runoff election. They would leave behind the more progressive candidates in a largely left-leaning field.
All are vying for an increasingly powerful position in a city that faces a rising crime rate not seen for decades, growing homeless encampments and dizzying housing costs.
The fear that undergirds the race is clear: Denver — the fast-growing, relatively young, business and tech hub of the U.S. Mountain West — is tumbling toward a fate similar to that of other major cities.
“We do have the same problems that San Francisco and Seattle face,” said Johnston, after taking the lead Tuesday night. “If we get that wrong, you end up like a lot of other big cities where no middle class people can live. … We want to show there is a different way for cities to grow.”
While the election is officially nonpartisan, the more progressive candidates include Leslie Herod, a Democratic state representative, and Lisa Calderón, the executive director of Emerge Colorado, which supports women’s campaigns for public office.
Calderón, who has landed in third after the first batch of votes, said “the stakes are between a progressive Denver or a continuation of a corporate Denver for the wealthiest.”
Core disagreements among candidates have arisen over whether to enforce a ban on the growing homeless encampments, further fund the police, impose rent control and allow what are often called “safe injection sites” — where people can use drugs under supervision to prevent overdoses.
Brough, who said she’s feeling overwhelmed with the initial results, explained that what Denver voters want “is somebody who actually knows how to run the city, who has had experience as a CEO.”
Johnston, who lauded his opponents who fell behind in Tuesday’s results, agreed with Brough on why the two of them pulled ahead. When it came to his and Brough’s success as moderate-leaning contesters, Johnston said it was in part due to voters’ “belief that there are not profound ideological divides that are right on one side or the other; it’s a matter of how you take the best ideas from multiple sides.”
The election likely won’t be decided until a June 6 runoff.
All of the candidates are also vying for the political post that’s become a steppingstone for ambitious politicians.
Former Democratic Mayor John Hickenlooper launched a successful gubernatorial campaign, which propelled him into the U.S. Senate, where he now represents Colorado. Going back further, after his tenure as Denver mayor, Democrat Frederico Peña went on to become U.S. Energy Secretary under former President Bill Clinton.
The other candidates in the race — including a former boxer, an investment banker, a state lawmaker and a former Crenshaw Mafia Gang member — were further behind the two frontrunners in the initial batch of votes. By the end of Tuesday night, just over 100,000 votes, in a city of half a million registered voters, had been counted.
Current Mayor Michael Hancock, who has run the city since 2011, can’t run again because of term limits. Hancock’s long tenure in office has been the norm for Denver mayors over the last half century. This year’s winner will be only the sixth mayor elected since 1968.
Whoever wins will inherit a city that boasts a large aerospace and tech industry, six professional sports teams, a proud beer culture and one of the fastest growing economies in the country.
The future mayor will also inherit a city experiencing a rise in gentrification, the highest crime rate in decades, and an increased rate of homelessness that grew by over 12% in the preceding two years — as well as an unprecedented surge in opioid overdoses that reached 473 deaths in 2021. Denver and the broader metro area has nearly doubled in population in the last three-decades — reaching roughly 3 million people in 2021.
The question of whether to enforce Denver’s camping ban, which is aimed at curtailing homelessness and a legacy of Hancock’s administration, has divided the contestants. Most candidates, including Johnston and Brough, said they would enforce the ban.
Two bills moving through the Colorado Legislature have also split candidates. The pieces of legislation would give municipalities, including Denver, the power to impose rent control and allow safe injection sites. Both proposals have left candidates split along roughly the same lines as they fall on a spectrum from moderate to progressive.
Jesse Bedayn is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.