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March 16, 2023 11:02 AM UTC

Here's What Happened in the 2023 Denver Mayoral Race

  • 20 Comments
  • by: Colorado Pols
The Denver Mayoral race is kinda like this.

Who do you think will make it through to the runoff election in the race for Denver Mayor?

That’s the hot question right now in Colorado politics, for a couple of reasons: 

For one thing, the Denver Mayor’s office is only open (without an incumbent seeking re-election) about once a decade; the ultimate winner of this race will likely be calling the shots in Denver for the next eight years — and perhaps even 12 years, should they seek a third term. 

The second reason that this race is such a hot topic is that nobody really knows anything. The limited polling that has been available in this race is virtually worthless because none of the candidates boast much in the way of name recognition. The ridiculous number of candidates also makes it hard to discern useful information from candidate forums or other similar events; at most events, you’ve got at least a dozen candidates all talking about the same basic issues (homelessness, crime, and affordability), which makes it difficult to remember the policy nuances of the candidates. 

And, finally, this is the first time that Denver has run a municipal election with a public financing system in place. It’s difficult to compare this race with past battles for Denver Mayor because this one is just so different. 

Nevertheless, we’re going to do our best to help you make sense of this bloated field of candidates. To do that, we looked into the future to see just what in the hell happened on April 4 (ballots were mailed out to Denver voters this week, but Election Day isn’t until April 4).

These two questions will be heavily-discussed in early April as two candidates prepare for the June 6 runoff election:

  1. Why Candidate X made it to the runoff election;
  2. Why Candidate X came up short.

To make this easier to digest, we’re also going to break it into tiers. There are 17 candidates — and another 5 “write-in” hopefuls — running for the first open Mayoral seat in Denver since 2011. While there are certainly more questions than answers at this point, some candidates face longer odds than others because of experience, name ID, fundraising, etc. We’re not going to analyze every candidate, because there’s no sensible way to predict what might happen with the bottom half of this field; if Renate A. Behrens gets into the runoff, for example, then things really went off the rails. 

 

TOP TIER

Mike Johnston

♦ Kelly Brough

♦ Leslie Herod

♦ Debbie Ortega

♦ Chris Hansen

These are the candidates who possess similar advantages over the rest of the field: They have more experience in the public eye and an easier road to raising their name ID; prominent endorsements; strong fundraising; and a more robust and strategic paid advertising plan than the other hopefuls. These candidates also have relatively-mainstream policy ideas that would be more attractive to a broader group of voters.

Let’s go through our two-part exercise with each candidate:

 

Mike Johnston

WHY HE MADE THE RUNOFF: Johnston picked up the endorsement of The Denver Post editorial board, which proved to be more important than in prior elections because of the wide-open nature of this race. Voters were looking for ANY sort of third-party validation to help them make decisions, and the Post endorsement served that purpose well.

Johnston also had the resources to dominate the airwaves and digital advertising, both through his own fundraising and from an Independent Expenditure Committee (IEC) supporting his candidacy.

And his first television ad was really, really good:

Being memorable is critical in a crowded field of candidates. This was the sort of ad that made voters say, “I kinda like this guy.” When other candidates started attacking Johnston in a mid-March debate, it was a clear sign that he was being considered a frontrunner.

 

WHY HE CAME UP SHORT: Informed voters, particularly Democrats, remembered that Johnston ran unsuccessfully for Governor (2018) and U.S. Senate (2020). To those voters, Johnston came across as a guy who just wanted to be elected to SOMETHING. 

Johnston also had the same potential (unavoidable) problem as Chris Hansen: They are financially-comfortable middle age white dudes. With the exception of John Hickenlooper, Denver Mayors in the last three decades have been Black or Latino. Denver has also never elected a female Mayor. More progressive voters ultimately had a tough time convincing themselves to vote for a white dude in 2023.

 

Leslie Herod

WHY SHE MADE THE RUNOFF: Herod is a tireless self-promoter who has been planning for this race for a long time. She entered the race with the gravitas of a potential front runner and largely maintained that status to the end. Herod’s solid record of accomplishments and progressive bonafides at the state legislature appealed to voters, and being a Black LGBT candidate certainly helped her stand out from the crowd. 

 

WHY SHE CAME UP SHORT: Herod is a tireless self-promoter who has been planning for this race for a long time. Yes, you read that same sentence earlier, but it cuts both ways. In this case, voters grew tired of Herod’s “look at me” persona; her thirst for attention intensified in March with a strange appearance at SXSW in Austin, Texas that resulted in this awkward photo with Nick Jonas.

 

No other candidate in this field was damaged more than Herod in the last month or two. Accusations of a hostile work environment portrayed Herod as a ruthless and unkind leader, which gave voters more than enough reason to look elsewhere when they had plenty of other options; Herod also misplayed the response to these accusations, which had the effect of giving more credence to the “bad boss” claims.

Herod also made voters nervous by changing her position on important issues out of an obvious concern that those positions wouldn’t be popular in a municipal election. Her sudden reversal on a much-discussed fentanyl bill — which was only in the early stages of being implemented after passing the legislature in 2022 — provided a jarring contrast with other candidates (see below).

And finally, Herod’s decision to NOT release her tax returns — even though she is theoretically only working as a state lawmaker — raised a lot of eyebrows. Herod was the only top tier candidate who didn’t open up her tax returns for The Denver Post.

In short, voters saw Herod as a candidate who is thirsty for the minor fame of being Denver Mayor and willing to do or say just about anything in order to get there. 

 

 

Kelly Brough

WHY SHE MADE THE RUNOFF: Brough had the resources to compete with anyone and benefitted from an early consensus of Denver influentials that she was next in line; her paid advertising campaign appeared to be the most robust of any of the other candidates. She also presented a relevant background in those ads that included serving as Chief of Staff under Mayor Hickenlooper and later working for more than a decade as the CEO of the Denver Chamber of Commerce. Brough came across as a serious, no-nonsense candidate with the experience to hit the ground running.

 

WHY SHE CAME UP SHORT: Brough, in a word, was boring. Her resume would have been a hit if this were a regular job interview – she was better suited for a different election in a different time – but a successful politician needs to also possess a charisma that can attract uninformed voters. Brough instead came off as dour and perhaps a little too serious through a cookie-cutter paid media strategy. Brough’s narrative at times seemed tin-eared and borrowed from 2022 Republican gubernatorial candidate Heidi Ganahl, who packaged personal tragedy and business success and tried to shoehorn it into a rationale for electing her as governor. 

Brough’s biggest anchor, however, proved to be the 12 years she spent directing the Denver Chamber of Commerce. Fair or not, the Chamber of Commerce has a reputation as an organization that works for big corporations at the expense of the little guy. On a national level, the Chamber of Commerce no longer even pretends that it isn’t just a subsidiary of the Republican Party. 

Brough couldn’t find a way through a tough catch-22 in the race for Mayor. She was relatively unknown by voters, which is why her television ads repeated her name every 3 seconds. But the more that progressive-minded Denver voters learned about Brough, the less interested they were in electing her as Mayor. 

 

Chris Hansen

WHY HE MADE THE RUNOFF: From the very beginning, Hansen leaned in HARD on the idea that Denver was a crime-ridden, drug-infested hellhole that needed his strong leadership to fix. This hardline position got him attention in a crowded field, and there were apparently enough Denver voters who quietly agreed and were willing to give him a shot in a runoff election.

 

WHY HE CAME UP SHORT: Colorado Republicans tried Hansen’s “Denver in decay” narrative in 2022, and they were absolutely crushed at the ballot box. It’s generally not a good idea in politics to tell voters so bluntly that their home city is a terrible place; you’re basically telling people that their decision to live in Denver is wrong.

Some of Hansen’s other messaging was a bit odd. He kept saying in his commercials that he would “audit Denver’s homelessness programs.” Is this something that probably needs to be done? Yes. Is this a message that appeals to people who don’t spend their days looking at spreadsheets? Nope. 

Hansen also gave off a very strong vibe of a wealthy and well-educated white guy who is smarter than you and not unwilling to remind you of that fact. If more voters believed that Denver is burning to the ground, perhaps this persona would have worked. Instead, Hansen created a fairly unlikable image that didn’t work outside of his “scary Denver” wheelhouse.

 

 

Debbie Ortega

WHY SHE MADE THE RUNOFF: Voters have been electing Ortega to municipal office in Denver for more than 30 years. On a ballot full of unfamiliar names, Ortega had a HUGE potential advantage as a result. Ortega was also helped by a strong endorsement list of grassroots organizations and labor unions, as well as familiar names such as Paula Sandoval and Lucia Guzman.

For voters who were still undecided when filling out their ballot, Ortega was a “safe” name to mark.

 

WHY SHE CAME UP SHORT: Ortega is not particularly memorable in person, in interviews, or on a debate stage. Some politicians have that undefinable “it” factor that can overcome other potential weaknesses; Ortega is not one of those politicians. In the end, voters didn’t know enough about Ortega beyond just recognizing her name.

 

 

NOT QUITE TOP TIER

Lisa Calderón

You could argue that Calderón should be in the Top Tier, but she seems a little behind the leading five in our opinion. Both Calderón and Herod have been making a hard play for the progressive lane, but Calderón by comparison seems less likely to break out to a broader group of voters. Much of this is by design and reflects Calderón’s personal views and her approach to the campaign.

 

WHY SHE MADE THE RUNOFF: Calderón appealed mostly to the far left-wing of Denver voters. She had enough residual support from activist groups such as the Denver Socialists, and turnout among that group was enough to get her into a runoff election in a very crowded field. 

 

WHY SHE CAME UP SHORT: Calderon’s lefty base didn’t show up, and her abrasive personality and public persona proved problematic. Some of her viewpoints also puzzled voters; Calderón often made it a point to bring up left-wing ideals that aren’t likely prioritized by average voters (for example, Calderón talked often about how we are all living on “stolen land” taken from indigenous peoples). Even voters who might be inclined to agree with Calderón on an issue like this preferred that she prioritize other issues instead. 

Ultimately, Calderón never found a viable path toward the runoff election. She stood out in ways that appealed to a more narrow group of voters, which gave her no margin for error on turnout. Voters decided they could find a candidate with similar positions on other top issues who was less disagreeable as a personality.

 

TIER THANOS

♦ Al Gardner

♦ Thomas Wolf

♦ Terrance Roberts

♦ Kwame Spearman

Should the first tiers of candidates get snapped out of existence a la Thanos in the “Avengers” movies, these four candidates would be up next – with Spearman likely at the top of the bunch. 

 

TIER GOP

♦ Andy Rougeot

Rougeot is the only official Republican candidate in the race, and he’s the biggest self-funder by a wide margin. With such a crowded field, it’s possible that Rougeot could consolidate enough GOP support in order to hit 15-18% and a spot in the runoff election, but that’s his ceiling. 

 

TIER WTF?

♦ Trinidad Rodriguez

Rodriguez’s entire campaign cratered after he proposed a “solution” to Denver’s homeless problem that centered around plans to hold INVOLUNTARILY homeless people in drug and mental health treatment facilities. That’s creepy. 

 

TIER NOPE

♦ Renate A. Behrens

♦ Ean Thomas Tafoya

♦ Jim Walsh

♦ Aurelio Martinez

♦ Robert Treta 

This is such a wide-open race that any one of the 17 candidates could conceivably sneak into a runoff election with 17-20% of the vote. But “could” is different than “will” or even “might.” Frankly, it would be a shock even to these candidates if one of them were to sneak into the runoff election. Most of the names in this tier are not operating anything resembling a serious, strategic campaign — either because they aren’t sure HOW to do that, or they aren’t really interested in giving it their full effort. We understand: It’s fun to tell people that you are a candidate for Mayor. And with Denver’s new campaign financing system, longshot campaigns are suddenly more viable than ever before.

There are also five people running as “write-in” candidates: Matt Brady; Paul Fiorino; Marcus Giavanni; Jesse Parris; and Abass Yaya Bamba. There’s a chance that “Mickey Mouse” will receive more write-in votes than any of these five.

 

Now you know everything that happened (or didn’t happen) in the first round of voting for the next Mayor of Denver. You can hibernate until April 5 so long as you’ve already cast your ballot.

Comments

20 thoughts on “Here’s What Happened in the 2023 Denver Mayoral Race

  1. Why is it awkward she’s standing next to Nick Jonas at a diabetes / insulin forum?  African American adults are  60 percent more likely than non-Hispanic white adults to be diagnosed with diabetes by a physician. Non-Hispanic blacks were 2.5 times more likely to be hospitalized with diabetes and associated long-term complications than non-Hispanic whites. 
     

    Seems like she wants to be informed of the health challenges faced by a good number of her potential constituents. 

      1. Hardly an indictment. It’s not like Leslie is a stranger to Denver and needs to commit every waking hour in Denver. SXSW is a treasure trove of great ideas.  I think politicians attending such events should be commended. I want them out of their bubble from time-to-time. 

  2. I saw Debbie Ortega's interview with Kyle Clark. He asked her five different times if she would have people arrested if they violated the camping ban, and she still would not answer the question. She was awful.

    1. My biggest reason not to vote for Ortega is because she’s been in city government seemingly since the earth was cooling. After a while, it seems like such a person doesn’t think they could make it in a “civilian” job. 

  3. If only 2 mayoral candidates can make the runoff, Pols' logic about Rougeot having enough of a base to beat 15 scattered candidates without coming remotely close to a majority might apply to a few other candidates. Of course, said base has to show up and vote.

    For one, I think Brough might be able to mobilize business interests, and they tend to be likely voters who could prevail if it's a low-turnout election.

    1. Brough is the moderate-Democrat/moderate-Republican candidate.

      My prediction:  she faces off against Leslie Herod as the hard left-Democratic candidate.

      1. A plausible prediction. Herod has run for the House within Denver several times recently, so she's probably fresh in mind for a lot of voters. Johnston's been out of the legislature for a while, I'm not as certain the Post endorsement is as powerful as some think, and I do think a lot of voters will want a candidate of color. The news stories about Herod's treatment of staff might be too insider baseball to make much of a difference in raw numbers, except with so many candidates and only 2 slots a small dent might really hurt.

  4. My prediction is that we’ll see Kelly Brough and Michael Johnston in the runoff. They have both generated (mostly) good buzz around their campaigns and have decent name recognition.

    To be clear, I’m not voting for either in this round. If it comes to those 2, then I’m going for Brough. The world has plenty of well to do white guys running things.

  5. WRITE-IN FIORINO for Mayor of Denver 

    Paul Noel Fiorino is the write in Candidate that Denver knows; as does COPOLS.

    FIORINO has a resume and experiences that by far has every other candidate looking forward to possibly serving the two term FIORINO Administration. 

    Candidate suppression thrives with name recognition or diminishing (Paul Fiorino vs. PAUL NOEL FIORINO) war chest of dollars for votes, or debate placements, endorsements by newspapers ( who should leave that up to their subscribers, instead of naming anyone). VOTEFIORINO

    Front runner FIORINO is the choice and name that can bring creativity, empathy and prudence to the Mayor's Office. Or a run off with "the mouse " would do, too.

    FIORINOFORDENVER.COM

  6. News today … Spearman dropped out, endorsed Brough. 

    As of mid-afternoon, he'd made rounds of a variety of media outlets and gotten a press release out (also on his web site) … but had not turned in the paperwork at Denver Elections.  if you go to https://www.kwamefordenver.com/ and wait for a few moments, the press release will come into view.

  7. I wish the progressive left-side of the candidate field (Tafoya, Walsh, Roberts, and Herod) would consolidate around Calderon. I had Herod in my top-5 after her newfound belief that her fentanyl vote last year was a grievous mistake, but the credible allegations of staff bullying, an unfriendly work environment, and even credible allegations of sexual harassment tell me she's not the solid choice here.

    1. Funny how it is always women politicians getting busted for not being nice enough (for example, Hillary Clinton, Amy Klobuchar, Leslie Herod).

      Here's a thought: let's judge them on the same standard we judge male politicians.

      1. I wouldn't care nearly as much about the overwork allegations, although I suspect they're true, given I know a lot of Capitol staffers who I trust. It's the allegations of sexual harassment that seem discrediting (and I do trust the source)…just as I urged us to push out Lebsock, Rosenthal, and others, which we did not do nearly quickly enough.

  8. I know some don’t want to believe that any woman can behave as a bully to others. But bullies come in many forms and bullying should never be excused. 

    In the case of Leslie Herod, it is true, I witnessed it first hand. And I know many others who were subjected to her bullying but will never say anything for fear of retaliation. I shudder to think of her as Mayor and the city employees who would be subjected to her toxic behavior.

     

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