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COVER STORY | Insiders discuss what’s different about the divisions at Denver City Hall

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The Denver City Hall building is pictured on Oct. 3,2020. (Forrest Czarnecki/The Denver Gazette)

Power struggles within Denver City Hall are nothing new, but they just seem worse these days as Mayor Michael Hancock and a cadre of council members are constantly going at it.

Go back to March 25, 1894, when Gov. Davis Waite called out the infantry to City Hall to oust problematic members of the police and fire board, the council of the time. City officials barricaded themselves in and stationed the entire police force, armed with Winchester rifles, outside the building to hold off the soldiers. Federal troops from Fort Logan trained cannons at the city’s seat of power.

The standoff lasted until April 18, when a judge ordered the crooked council members to step aside.

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More than 20,000 people were said to have come to Denver City Hall at 14th and Larimer streets in the spring of 1894 to witness the standoff between the city's police and soldiers from the state militia and Fort Logan over the removal of corrupt politicians in city government. The three story building with a clock tower was built in 1886 and demolished in 1936.

The snide remarks and power struggles of today can hardly compare, but they are notable for an international metropolis that sometimes reflects its origins as a raucous cow town.

The conflicts between Hancock and the City Council are rooted more firmly in nearly 40 years of bad blood between the city’s chief executive and its chief policymakers. That’s when Denver expanded the powers of the City Council to stand up to the mayor.

Armed conflicts are history, but verbal exchanges that hinder progress live on in the present and, if nothing changes, guide the city’s future, as well. Colorado Politics interviewed more than a dozen current and former city officials to add context around the current discord and what's yet to come. 

A modern shift

Before and since the tipping point in the balance of power, council members chose to negotiate with the mayor when significant disputes flared.

That changed in 2019, when the city election meant, figuratively, a new sheriff in town.

Over the past year and a half, the City Council — whose dais seats five new members, three of whom beat out incumbents — has bared its rhetorical arms against the Hancock administration while taking down the modern tone of civil discourse in the process.

Council meetings, with Hancock nowhere in sight, waver between merely snarky and openly rebellious.

In November, council members pushed through — over the executive branch's objections but with voters’ approval — three ballot measures that chip away at the mayor’s power while further empowering themselves.

Ballot measures 2C, 2E and 2G collectively gave the council the ability to hire its own professional services without relying on administration officials, the final approval over key mayoral appointees, and the power to make budget changes mid-year.

Challenges from the 13-member council, however, come in packages both large and small.

Take the collective bargaining agreement with the police, the latest twist in the council’s long-fractious relationship with the department, heightened this summer by downtown protests and vandalism against police brutality and racial injustice, issues all too familiar to the city.

Routine vendor contracts from Denver Health Medical Center to private security at the city’s halfway houses turn into verbal tussles on the council floor, sometimes resulting in rejections that blindside the administration and even other council members.

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Councilwoman Candi CdeBaca joins fellow members of the Denver City Council inside the council chambers for their weekly meeting on February 3. 

Along came Candi 

Councilwoman Candi CdeBaca, the first Democratic Socialist elected to the body, is Hancock’s arch nemesis.

Anyone paying attention knows CdeBaca is shaking up the establishment, and the establishment doesn’t like it.

The freshman firebrand — who represents District 9, which covers the RiNo, Five Points, Globeville and Elyria Swansea neighborhoods — has been a sharp-tongued critic of Hancock and Denver’s strong mayoral system. She sees both as impediments to progress, transparency and accountability. 

CdeBaca votes down contracts that originate in the mayor’s office, grills his staff during meetings streamed over the internet and bucks up against her colleagues who don’t agree.

“I'm about trying to organize the power within our body so that we don't need to be afraid of (the mayor), because if we're organized and unified together, then we don't have to be,” she says. “We don't have to compromise. We can fight together.”

CdeBaca isn’t the only one taking shots, however. 

Council members Debbie Ortega, Amanda Sawyer and Robin Kniech led the fight to pass measures 2C, 2E and 2G to bring Hancock’s authority down to size.

“The culture of inclusivity and collaboration between the branches could be better,” Kniech notes, “and it requires going above and beyond and not just looking to what your ultimate power is, but what type of culture will create the best outcome.”

But many former city officials and political observers say that the current culture of the council lacks statesmanship. The disagreements over even minor legislation reflect an absence of focus on the council at best and an inability, or unwillingness, to negotiate and leave behind personal political agendas at worst.

“You can disagree, but not be disagreeable,” said Elbra Wedgeworth, a strong-willed former council member from 1999 to 2007 who has worked with five different administrations in her civil service career.

On this council, “I’ve seen theatrics, I’ve seen power grab and struggle. … So, has this gone to a different level than past councils? Absolutely.”

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Denver City Council President Elbra Wedgeworth, left, speaks, while council members Michael Hancock, center, and Rick Gracia, right, listen during a community meeting on civilian oversight of police at Hiawatha Davis Jr. Recreation Center in Denver, on September 15, 2004.

Out of step, out of time

When Charlie Brown served on the council from 2001 to 2015, he was anything but a shrinking violet.

It’s different now, though.

“They’re out of sync with many of the core values of Denver,” Brown said. “They’ve got to find a balance, and they haven’t found that yet.”

John Bennett, who served as the council’s executive director from 1988 to 2005, thinks it’s rooted in disorganization. 

“They don’t have anything to focus on … and so they’re reactive, and it’s a last-minute reactivity rather than three months’ time to plan for something,” he surmised.

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Denver City Councilman Charlie Brown listens during a Public Safety Committee meeting at the Denver City and County building on July 11, 2007.

Others familiar with City Hall point to the emergence of a more independent, activist-minded council — which has historically been Democratic, though is technically nonpartisan — as a product of the times.

“When (Donald) Trump was elected, it really created a changed environment in politics nationally: federal, state and local,” said Alan Salazar, a long-time political strategist who’s been Hancock’s chief of staff since late 2017. “One of the consequences of Trump has been that public service and political activism just seem to have a different color and a different tone.

“There's a lot of anger out there, a lot of frustration. I don't discount that there's reason for it … but I've never thought of city council members as people who were coming to make national political points or … using the bully pulpit of the city council to try to bring attention to very, very challenging, tough issues that are not really necessarily exclusive to the City Council,” Salazar said. “There’s just a new dimension in local politics.”

Roxane White, the chief of staff to then-Mayor John Hickenlooper from 2009 to 2014, shares a similar view.

“We’re in a political environment now across the country that just says, ‘Oh, a split vote is what’s supposed to happen. Conflict is what happens,’” said White, historically one of the state’s most respected strategists, who Hickenlooper tapped for his presidential campaign last year. “Denver is part of a national trend now for there to be more activist politics happening, whether it's in City Hall, the legislature or in Congress. Sometimes we think this is just happening in Denver, and it’s not.”

Hancock’s muscle

Since its charter was established in 1904, the city and county of Denver has operated under a protocol that made the mayor the city’s political strongman.

In 1912, however, reformers accused Mayor Robert W. Speer of corruption and were frustrated by taxes he implemented. They created a commission government, rewriting the city charter to remove the mayor-centric system. Denver, instead, was run by a nonpartisan commission.

But after three years, the commission grew widely unpopular, blamed for its dysfunction that put city business on hold. Seeing an opportunity, Speer returned to the helm in 1916 and passed the Speer Amendment, which not only reinstated the mayor-council form of government, but strengthened it, as well.

Executive power was centralized, an untethered council was formed and the role of the independent auditor was established to keep watch. 

The mayor had the power to appoint all officials without confirmation and remove any city employee, with the exception of the fire and police forces, at the chief executive’s discretion. The power of municipal initiative, referendum and recall fell to the voters — a structure that largely remains today.

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Denver Mayor Michael Hancock delivers the annual State of the City address on the balcony of the Denver Museum of Nature and Science on July 27, 2020. 

Like Denver, most major cities across the country use the strong-mayor form of government with a mayor-council system. Even some smaller cities, such as Colorado Springs and Pueblo, have recently moved from a council-manager system to a strong-mayor form of government for efficiency and accountability.

Many former and current officials agree the strong-mayor system is the right one.

“It seems to have worked for this long where, through collaboration and cooperation, we were able to manage this city very well and grow the city to the degree of success that it is,” said Andrew Hudson, who worked as former Mayor Wellington Webb’s press secretary from 1995 to 2003.

A city native and Manual High graduate, Hudson is one of many current and former Denver civil servants who worries about what happens next, especially given the passage of 2E and 2G.

“A ship has a captain, because you need someone in charge to get where you want to go,” he said. “You simply can't have 13 captains, and you certainly can't give 13 captains the power to throw over the captain's first mates.”

Parallels to the past

Although most politicos agree that this council is unlike any other, in the past there have nevertheless been big personalities on the dais and organized efforts within the body to make structural changes to the balance of power.

The most notable came in the early 1980s, under a coalition started by Cathy Donohue during the Bill McNichols administration. The council rallied to put a charter amendment on the ballot that gave the council the power to approve or reject contracts of more than $500,000.

“Prior to that change, the administration could give out a $100 million contract without blinking an eye in our direction,” said current City Councilman Kevin Flynn, who covered the city hall beat as a Rocky Mountain News reporter from the McNichols administration to Hickenlooper’s, until the paper closed in 2009.

The class of council members from 1975 to 1983 was “probably the most seriously disruptive council,” Flynn recalled. “But it was a very productive kind of disruption. It wasn’t a chaotic disruption,” a characteristic he and others on and off the dais observe now.

Jeanne Faatz, who served as a councilwoman under Hickenlooper and Hancock, also considers herself a disruptor of sorts.

“I was a Republican in a sea of Democrats,” said Faatz, who voted no back then just as often as CdeBaca does now.

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District 2 City Councilwoman Jeanne Faatz speaks before the City Council at the City and County Building in Denver on July 18, 2007. The City Council members were discussing Mayor Hickenlooper's recommendations for a package of bond projects likely to appear on the November ballot.

But there’s one big difference between the two, she and others are quick to point out.

“I didn’t go on and on and on and on making my piece, generally, because I knew I was the minority on many things,” she said. “You need to raise the issues, but you don’t need to harangue them.

“We also, I believe, respected tradition,” she added. “We respected each other, more or less — sure, you don’t like everybody on council; you don’t like everybody in the administration — but we gave them the respect that the position demanded.”

Bridge-building branches

Political observers in Denver agree there has always been a tension between the mayor and the council, one that is “healthy” to ensure a check on the most powerful position in the city. The quality of relationships between the two branches, however, has waxed and waned over time.

Under former Mayor Federico Peña from 1983 to 1991, the relationship was “guarded” and “not great, but it was functional because it was well-intentioned,” recalled Susan Barnes-Gelt, who worked as the business-community liaison to Peña.

She, too, eventually became an outspoken council member from 1995 to 2003.

Under Webb, however, the relationship was “optimal,” said Barnes-Gelt, who was not known to be his political ally. She and others attribute the relationship between the third and fourth floors of City Hall not just to Webb’s mighty leadership and that of his staff, but also to the leadership on council.

The late Cathy Reynolds, the first woman elected to the Denver City Council in 1976, was someone everyone looked to for guidance — across both branches.

“The minute Councilwoman Reynolds took the mic, everybody stopped and listened, including the mayor,” said Briggs Gamblin, who worked for 10 years under Webb as his press secretary and council liaison. “If she was upset about an aspect of a project … we would slow it down.”

It wasn’t that Reynolds had a special set of political skills, he said, but rather she had a “brain” for major development projects. And that was often the case for other council members, too: They each had their specialities and tended to develop policy expertise in certain areas.

“Somewhere along the line, and I think it was in the early 2000s, Council kind of lost that,” Gamblin recounted.

When Hickenlooper took office in 2003, the council had just lost 10 of 13 members because of the newly imposed term limits.

“It was amazing how little they knew about how city government worked after having campaigned for six months,” Bennett, who was the council executive director at the time, remembered.

“So much institutional knowledge just walked out the door when we all left,” said current Councilwoman At-Large Debbie Ortega, who was a district councilwoman at the time.

Hickenlooper and his chief of staff, now-U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, were also new to city government, meaning the institutional knowledge of city staff became critical in showing both branches the ropes and establishing how they worked together.

Much of that grunt work was done by the council’s executive director.

“He was superb,” Faatz recalled of Bennett, “somebody with strong analytical skills and knowledge of the city government.”

Since Bennett left, the position has devolved into a “revolving door.” The council has not had a long-term executive director, which many former and current officials say has led to disorganization on the council. The most recent director, Linda Jamison, started in January and had left by late August. Her predecessor, Leon Mason, stayed in the position for less than 2½ years.

“They were lost,” Bennett says of his successors. “They came in and they didn't know what to do, and Council never defined a job. They didn't run downstairs and meet with the mayor or the mayor's chief of staff to iron out problems. They just didn't know that that's what they should be doing.”

The position now sits vacant, its roles “temporarily divided” among two council staff members, Zach Rothmier and Stacy Simonet.

Another major peacemaker was the mayor’s council liaison, called the legislative director.

Gamblin had “terrific relationships with the council people,” Hudson said. “He could talk us off the cliff if somebody was going after us for one thing or another, and he’d be the one that would be out at the Cherokee (Bar & Grill) after the council meetings, drinking with the council members until 2 in the morning.”

Politics of power

All told, city officials agree, politics comes down to people.

“We all know that everything we do is relational and that cultivating relationships and bridges is such a critical part of being successful,” said Ortega, who will have served as a council person for 28 years at the end of her term in 2023. “You learn that if you want to be successful in getting something done, you’ve got to work with your colleagues and you’ve got to work with the administration because they control the purse strings.”

Hancock is the only mayor who has ever served on the City Council, including as the council president. Yet he appears to be receiving the most resistance from the same body he was once a part of.

It’s only been within the last two years that he has run into such a rocky relationship with the council.

“He understands what it feels like to sit in that legislative seat,” said Janice Sinden, who served as Hancock’s chief of staff in his first term. “I think the mayor works really hard … at listening and being cooperative.”

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Denver City Council President Michael Hancock makes closing remarks at the council meeting held in the City Council Chamber at the City and County Building in Denver on Aug. 27, 2007.

The changing relationship between the Hancock administration and the council, most say, is reflective of those sitting on the dais now.

“Every council body is unique in their own way,” said Skye Stuart, who has served as Hancock’s legislative director since the start of his first term in 2011. “I think what’s changed in recent years — and this is neither good nor bad — is that there was a history for a long time of the people who ran for council being people who had some kind of background or experience with the city,” such as being a former council aide.

“This particular group has changed in the way that it’s a little more people who have not come through an internal process where they spent a lot of time understanding the city in a particular way first,” she observed.

Hancock’s right-hand man agreed.

“I do think this new city council is different,” Salazar said. “When you have members of city council who see their view as going in and disrupting the power structure and rocking things, then that's a different kind of view of public service than somebody who views their role as going to collaborate and work with, you know, 12 other people and the administration.”

Battles ahead

Former city officials are worried about what the future of city governance will look like if this council continues on its current trajectory, and with the passage of the latest bundle of ballot initiatives.

“What’s really concerning to me is that Denver has always been a city that works well,” said Cole Finegan, who served as former city attorney under Hickenlooper, as well as his chief of staff. “The elections are nonpartisan, and it’s been a place where people have rolled up their sleeves and figured out ways to work together and to make our city a great city.

“I think all of us are concerned that we seem to be stalemated here,” he said. “People want their streets fixed each month and trash picked up and to feel safe in their homes and as they move about the city. They want to know that things work. Period.”

But others see hope.

In a surprise to both council members and the Hancock administration, the two branches recently came together to pass a 2021 budget that not only closes a $190 million revenue gap caused by the pandemic, but also incorporates $5.2 million in council amendments — the most mayoral concessions that have ever been given to the city’s legislative branch.

“We really rallied together,” said newly elected City Council President Stacie Gilmore. “I’m elated that we were able to come together to do council’s work and, in partnership with the administration and Mayor Hancock, are able to present to the citizens of Denver a budget for 2021 that I believe reflects both the mayor’s values right alongside City Council’s values, especially from an equity lens.” 

“There was all this anxiety about whether the mayor was going to get his budget through without a lot of fireworks and unhappiness and, frankly, it was a pretty collaborative process,” Salazar said.

“The final days of the budget was a great example of a culture of collaboration that set aside positions of power and tried to figure out a way to move forward,” Kniech said.

“We get a lot done every week when you look at the grand scheme of things,” Stuart highlighted. “People like to focus on the point where there might be a disagreement about how to do things. But generally speaking, I truly believe that the relationship is based on the fact that we all want to do what's best for the citizens of Denver. 

“Trying to figure out how to move forward with that,” she said, “is the crux of working between the two branches.”

Yet, what happens next between the third and fourth floors of City Hall remains unclear, those watching closely agree.

“I hope that really what they focus on is the public service of serving others, because the reward is not in social media, or whatever,” Wedgeworth said. “It’s in the work — it’s in accomplishing something for people who are counting on you and who you’re serving — and I think all of that is being missed by some of these council members.”

Editor's note: This story has been corrected to reflect that Stacie Gilmore was not the first Latina to be elected president of the council. 

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