In just over six weeks, Denver voters will elect the city's 46th mayor.
They'll choose between Mike Johnston and Kelly Brough, who led the field of 16 candidates in the first round of voting on April 4. Since none of the contenders topped 50% of the vote, those two are headed to a runoff election, with ballots due on June 6.
In the 10 mayoral elections since Denver entered its modern mayoral era — in 1983, when voters turned out the beloved machine politician who'd been running the city pretty much the same way as his predecessors had been for decades — voters have faced seven runoffs on the way to electing and reelecting just four mayors: Federico Peña, Wellington Webb, John Hickenlooper and the term-limited incumbent, Michael Hancock.
Johnston, a former two-term state senator from Northeast Denver, most recently served as president and CEO at Gary Community Ventures, a major local philanthropic organization. The former public school teacher and principal ran for governor in 2018, finishing third in the Democratic primary, and mounted a campaign for U.S. Senate in 2020 but withdrew after Hickenlooper — who served two terms as governor after his run as mayor — jumped in the primary.
Brough was president and CEO of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce for a dozen years before her most recent gig as chief strategy officer at Metropolitan State University of Denver. Prior to running the business group, she held top positions at city hall, including as director of human resources and as Hickenlooper's chief of staff.
Voters should have plenty of time to sort out the differences between the two. Instead of the usual five weeks between the first round and the runoff in previous elections, this year's interim lasts nine weeks, after the city changed the election calendar to allow for more time to deliver runoff ballots to military and overseas voters.
Different from recent runoffs, neither Johnston nor Brough can be pegged as the outsider — both Johnston and Brough are consummate insiders, though they come from different sectors — and neither appears to have a clear advantage heading into the final round.
Brough outraised Johnston in the first round, but the independent expenditure outfit supporting him raised and spent more than the group supporting her. Neither candidate nor their supporters are expected to lack for resources this time around.
Johnston finished a few percentage points ahead of Brough in the general election, and according the only poll that's been released in the runoff so far — a survey conducted by a business-minded group of civiv leaders — that's where they stand just over three weeks before ballots go out for the final round, with just under one-third of the likely electorate undecided.
In the seven runoffs since Peña took over from three-term Mayor Bill McNichols Jr. in 1983, Denver's final rounds have stubbornly refused to fall into a routine.
If you're looking for the kind of rules of thumb that often show up in election after election, you won't find many in the most recent 40-year run of Denver runoffs.
Some runoffs have been whisker-close and some have been blow-outs. Sometimes the turnout has gone up in the runoff, and sometimes it's dropped.
The initial first-place finishers have lost runoffs as often as they've won, as have the candidates with the most money.
About as many runoffs have stayed on the high road — with both candidates striving to keep it civil and running largely positive campaigns — as the number that have turned into slug-fests.
Although a few discernible patterns have emerged over the decades, they appear to be more akin to built-in features than reliable characteristics.
For instance, it's always a crowded free-for-all when Denver is set to elect a new mayor to an open seat, but that's mostly because it's such a coveted office and the barriers to getting on the ballot are low. That's what happened this year, when a record 17 hopefuls qualified for the April 4 ballot, though one dropped out before votes were counted.
While the office of mayor has been hemmed in by Denver's city council in recent years, it's still the most powerful elected position in Colorado by a long shot — one reason it was a genuine question whether Hickenlooper really wanted to run for governor in 2010 when he almost certainly could have counted on another five years as hizzoner, if he'd chosen to stay put and seek a third term.
The contest between Johnston and Brough may echo some aspects of earlier bouts, but as Denver's candidates — and voters — have demonstrated, it'll be up to all involved to write the story of this year's runoff.
Seeking his fourth full term in 1983, McNichols — the city's former public works director, he was the son of a former Denver auditor and the brother of three-term Gov. Stephen McNichols — faced a restive electorate still peeved over the city's bungled response to the 1982 Christmas blizzard. He finished third in the first round, behind Peña, a young state lawmaker, and Dale Tooley, who stepped down as district attorney to make his third run for mayor.
Calling on Denver to "Imagine a Great City," Peña harnessed previously marginalized voters and the growing city's newcomers to eke out a 4,000-vote win over Tooley in a remarkably cordial runoff, buffeted by the 6,000 new voters his campaign urged to register in the three days between the first round and the registration deadline.
Peña brought a fresh vision to city hall but struggled to manage the municipal apparatus during his first term — "Feddy and the Dreamers," critics dubbed his team — and faced a tough challenge in his bid for a second term in 1987. Don Bain, a 17th Street lawyer and former head of the state GOP, hammered the incumbent and came out on top in the first round but trailed Peña by 2 percentage points — the same margin as his first win — in a hard-fought runoff.
After Peña declined to seek a third term in 1991 — he was later appointed secretary of Transportation in President Bill Clinton's cabinet — a wide field of aspirants yielded a runoff between Norm Early, the district attorney who had been appointed years earlier to replace Tooley, and city auditor Wellington Webb, a former state lawmaker and member of the Carter administration. Webb wrote the book on come-from-behind campaigning on a shoe string and shoe leather, walking the city in his famous pair of sneakers on the way to a 14-point win in what was essentially a friendly runoff.
Four years later, beset with problems opening the new Denver International Airport and charges of cronyism, Webb faced a difficult reelection bid against City Council member Mary DeGroot, who won the first round by just 97 votes. Webb turned up the heat in the runoff, however, and won by a comfortable, 8-point margin.
The next mayoral runoff was for the open seat in 2003 after Webb's third term, and again a blizzard figured in the run-up to the election. While frontrunners Ari Zavaris, a former police chief, and Don Mares, the city's auditor, tore into each other, Hickenlooper introduced himself to voters who were stuck at home, buried under feet of snow, in a pair of humorous, quirky TV ads. By the time the snow melted, the geologist-turned-brewpub owner was on a trajectory and nearly avoided a runoff. He prevailed over Mares in the final round by nearly 2-to-1 margin.
Hancock, a member of city council, won his first term in 2011 by keeping it positive in the face of a barrage of attacks from runoff opponent Chris Romer, a former state senator and the son of former three-term Gov. Roy Romer, and his supporters, winning by 16 points.
In his bid for a third term in 2019, Hancock was met with spirited opposition from first-time candidate Jamie Giellis, an urban planner, in a runoff that turned nasty from the start. Both candidates hurled accusations — at one point they each compared their rival to Donald Trump — but Hancock eventually won by about 13 points.
Ernest Luning has covered politics for Colorado Politics and its predecessor publication, The Colorado Statesman, since 2009. He's analyzed the exploits, foibles and history of state campaigns and politicians since 2018 in the weekly Trail Mix column.
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