As the half-way point in Denver's municipal election approaches, voters appear to be casting their mail ballots at a leisurely pace.
It could be because there's a glut of choices in the top race — 17 candidates are running for mayor, a modern record — making it hard to pick from a strong field of contenders.
Or maybe it's because few of the mayoral hopefuls have yet inspired a critical mass of voters to fill out their ballots and return them.
According to the scant handful of available polls, the vast majority of Denver voters remained undecided before ballots went out. A SurveyUSA poll conducted a month ago for the Denver Gazette/Colorado Politics, 9News and Metropolitan State University of Denver, for instance, found an astonishing 11 candidates in a statistical tie for the lead, with none polling above 5% support and a jaw-dropping 58% of voters without a preference.
The race has to have sorted itself out some since then — a half dozen candidates are spending big, with some benefiting from substantial outside spending on their behalf — but no one can say exactly how.
At a recent after-hours gathering of Colorado politicos, one conclusion predominated when talk turned to the Denver election — the tremendous uncertainty surrounding this year's balloting, particularly compared to the last election that shared similar circumstances.
There seems to be a consensus that the real race won't start until April 5, the day after ballots are due for the first round and the two top vote-getters embark on a nine-week sprint to the June 6 run-off.
A dozen years ago, Denver voters were faced with a crowded field vying to fill the figurative corner office at city hall, just as they are today. In 2011, popular two-term mayor John Hickenlooper had won election as governor months earlier and handed the reins over to his deputy mayor, public works manager Bill Vidal, who decided against running for the position. This year, the candidate who won the 2011 election, Michael Hancock, is term-limited after serving three terms.
There's no shortage of accomplished public servants and seasoned community leaders campaigning for the chance to succeed Hancock, but so far the field doesn't appear to have yielded the sort of contrasts that defined the 2011 election.
While a top tier of perhaps six or seven candidates appears to have developed this time around, nearly every strategist, politician and keen observer consulted for this column agreed: There's no shaking the sense that this year's mayoral scrum lacks a certain something.
For whatever reason — the grim pall that shrouds politics these days, an ever-more fractured media landscape, possibly pandemic fatigue — the 2011 race, political veterans say, was more engaging, more freewheeling, more — in a word — fun.
On paper, the line-ups are similar.
In 2011, out of an initial field of 18 candidates, the 10 who qualified for the ballot boasted a former state lawmaker, three city council members, a former city department head and school board member, a former prosecutor and an assortment of hopefuls punching above their weight, including a UFO activist.
This year, 17 mayoral candidates turned in enough petition signatures to make the ballot out of more than two dozen who launched campaigns, including three current and former state lawmakers, a city council veteran, the former longtime CEO of the city's business chamber, nonprofit heads, business owners, social justice advocates and others from a variety of perspectives.
The 2011 ballot included former state Sen. Chris Romer, the son of former three-term Gov. Roy Romer; City Council members Carol Boigon, Michael Hancock and Doug Linkhart, former Denver Parks and Recreation director James Mejia, who was also a former school board member; and former Judge Magistrate Theresa Spahn; city employee Ken Simpson; activist Jeff Peckman, who sponsored an unsuccessful ballot measure a year earlier to establish an extraterrestrial commission; city employees Ken Simpson and Danny Lopez, the latter of whom ran against Hickenlooper in the 2007 election; and venture capitalist Thomas Wolfe, the only candidate who ran in both 2011 and 2023.
In addition to Wolfe, this year's Denver mayoral ballot lists Lisa Calderón, executive director of Emerge Colorado and an unsuccessful 2019 mayoral candidate; finance specialist Trinidad Rodriguez; business owner Aurelio Martinez; information technology executive Al Gardner; anti-gang and social justice activist Terrance Roberts; German immigrant Renate Behrens; state Sen. Chris Hansen; nonprofit head and former state Sen. Mike Johnston; university teacher James Walsh; civil rights and environmental justice advocate Ean Thomas Tafoya; former business owner and Army veteran Andy Rougeot; state Rep. Leslie Herod, Robert Treta; City Councilwoman Debbie Ortega; former Denver Chamber of Commerce CEO Kelly Brough; and Tattered Cover co-owner Kwame Spearman, who withdrew from the race earlier this month.
The 2011 campaign lasted a month longer, with voting in the first round taking place in early May instead of this year's Election Day in early April, intended to give voters more time to consider their choice ahead of the June runoff.
Perhaps because there were fewer candidates in 2011, the top contenders — Romer, Hancock, Mejia, Boigon, Linkhart and Spahn — emerged relatively early, with the ranking affirmed in the ensuing months in polls, fundraising totals and endorsements.
In polling as the first round of voting neared its conclusion, however, Romer emerged as the solid front-runner, with Hancock and Mejia running neck-and-neck for a spot in the run-off. Shortly after ballots went out, Boigon dropped out and threw her support behind Hancock, who finished second behind Romer and then went on to take the lead in the final round.
Both year's races featured a plethora of candidate forums and debates in the roughly six months of active campaigning between when the fields began to cohere and the first round of voting — around 30 this year but nearly 50 in 2011. From the start, the 2011 confabs yielded memorable lines and colorful exchanges.
At the first major forum in that race, in December 2010, hundreds of residents gathered to hear the candidates discuss the city's parks system at an auditorium at the Denver Botanic Gardens. At that event, candidate Eric Zinn — who didn't wind up qualifying for the ballot — declared that Denver is too fat and said he proposed a city-wide weight loss challenge, aimed at residents losing 1 million pounds during his first six months in office.
An early debate took place in January 2011 in Sun Valley, Denver's poorest neighborhood, bounded by the 6th Avenue freeway and West Colfax Avenue, and Federal Boulevard and the South Platte. With simultaneous translations into Spanish, Somali and Vietnamese — reflecting the area's large immigrant population — Fairview Elementary School second-grader Matthew Deferse opened the debate with a series of multiple-choice questions in the organizer's version of “Are You Smarter than a 5th Grader?”
At a business forum held a couple months later, Peckman acknowledged that his proposal to create a UFO commission “might sound like a weird thing" and then followed up by suggesting that Denver create its own currency.
As ballots were set to go out in mid-March — it would be Denver's first all-mail election — some of the candidates went all out for the occasion. Romer took RTD's No. 15 bus from Colfax and Broadway to his campaign headquarters near City Park, while Linkhart invited supporters to a concert featuring a John Denver impersonator and Hancock staged a symbolic passing of the sneakers from former Mayor Wellington Webb, who wore out several pairs of the footwear in his famous come-from-behind victory in 1991 by walking hundreds of miles around the city.
Perhaps the most emblematic episodes in the 2011 mayoral race were produced by New Era Colorado, the progressive organization that encouraged young people to register and vote.
In an homage to the popular MTV show, New Era made a splash with its version of ""Candidate Cribs," producing a video that memorialized visits to each of the leading candidate's houses for a cheeky tour, including a peek inside all of their fridges and a look at Romer's climate-minded electricity monitor, Linkhart's rock collection and Boigon's checkers game.
The campaign's signature event, however, took place about a month before ballots were due in the first round when the six major candidates — Boigon, Hancock, Linkhart, Mejia, Romer and Spahn — converged on a bar in LoDo for New Era's "Candidate Survivor, billed as the "biggest, baddest, and quite possibly the sexiest candidate debate for the next mayor of Denver."
In front of a boisterous audience of young voters, the casually dressed candidates — most of them sporting Hawaiian shirts — cavorted on the tropical-themed stage as a panel of judges clad in referee uniforms peppered them with serious and outlandish questions, at one point challenging them to get up and deliver their renditions of The Dougie to a bouncy hip-hop beat.
The refs then asked the candidates to pontificate on a series of props, from a soccer ball and a rainbow flag to an orange traffic cone and a freshly harvested carrot. Handed the carrot, for instance, Hancock extemporized that he wanted to establish a network of urban farms in Denver, drawing cheers.
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