Denver Mayoral Candidates on Major Issues Confronting the City

Mayor of Denver. It’s a big job that’s getting bigger every day — just like the Mile High City itself. And with their votes, Denver residents will hire one of the six people you’ll meet below to tackle this task.

Election day is Tuesday, May 7, and if one candidate earns a majority of the vote, the race is over. If not, the two top finishers will compete in a runoff slated for Tuesday, June 4.

Last month, the initial field of ten candidates was winnowed down to the half-dozen who qualified for the 2019 ballot. Mayor Michael Hancock, who’s running for a third term in office, will face off against community organizer and educator Lisa Calderón, Stephan Evans (also known as Chairman Seku), former RiNo Art District president Jamie Giellis, artist/activist/musician Kalyn Heffernan and ex-state senator and city official Penfield Tate.

To help you get to know the hopefuls, Westword asked them to share their take on important matters facing Denver in a Q&A format. We asked the same questions of everyone, and all six responded — but only five answered the questions we provided. Chairman Seku, for his part, provided a statement, using the eccentric capitalization that’s become his personal trademark. "The three primary categories of choices, challenges and images of the CiTy oF DenVeR are rooTed in wHo controls and sustain its Land, PoWer and Organization…PeRioD," he wrote in part. "The answer to our problems is simple: We shall be governed by the SeLf-will anD interest of a few folks or the Masses of tHe PeoPLe…. Our Code-of-Conduct shaLL be determined by ‘how weLL we shall work and play with each other in places and things that make Us HeaLthy, Wealthy and Wise.’ PeRioD. I ReMaiN a TrusTed anD HumbLe SerVanT of tHe MaSSes of tHe PeoPLe!"

The other quintet weighed in on a wide range of issues they’ll face should they emerge victorious. Continue to see highlights from the interviews that focus on five areas: affordable housing, development, homelessness, law enforcement and the reasons that each competitor decided to run to lead Denver forward over the next four years. Their responses start alphabetically but shuffle over the course of the conversation so everyone gets a chance to speak first.

Here’s what they had to say:

Westword: How would you describe yourself and the reasons you decided to run for mayor?

Lisa Calderón: I am a longtime community organizer, a nonprofit director and currently an educator. I grew up in Denver and graduated from North High School, and raised my two children in Denver while obtaining my undergraduate degree at Metro State University, master’s degree at the University of Denver and then my law degree at the University of Colorado. I am co-chair of the Colorado Latino Forum, an organization that seeks to transform Colorado by increasing Latino participation in the electoral process, and in educating and mobilizing the Latino community around issues of importance to the community. …

I am running for mayor because I love my city and because I believe Denver can be a city that is more fair, more just and more equitable for all of its residents. I believe that by working together, we can build a city based on shared power and accountability — one where residents and workers are included in the policy decisions that most affect them.

Jamie Giellis: I have always been a person who is extremely curious and interested in how to find creative solutions to problems. I graduated college with a degree in journalism because I wanted to hear and report on people, their stories and what was happening in their lives. I left journalism out of a desire to dig in and help community, not just report on it. I became involved in working with cities and the neighborhoods within them to find solutions to issues impacting their communities. It was my job to bring all sides together and work to find common ground and solutions that worked for everybody. I have been doing that work across the country and around the world for the past sixteen years and in Denver since 2006.

I decided to run for mayor after extensive work with neighborhoods across the city who were struggling with our vast growth and seeing its consequences to their quality of life and opportunity here.

Michael Hancock: I grew up here in Denver. My family moved from Park Hill to Montbello, back to Park Hill, then to Whittier and Five Points, where we finally secured public housing. I know firsthand how important it is to find stability in your life and your community. From the time I was twelve years old, I wanted to be mayor because I saw how a city could help kids just like me. Like any city, we have big, important issues facing us every day. I’m working on these issues — working with the people of Denver to find innovative and creative solutions — because I have something to give back to a city that gave me so much.

In 2011, the people of Denver granted me the greatest honor in my life, since the birth of my children, by electing me as the 45th mayor of Denver. … I am excited to continue our progress to create more equity and accessibility to all people and to deliver a more welcoming, modern and progressive city for everyone in Denver.

Kalyn Heffernan: My name is Kalyn Rose Heffernan, and I am rolling for mayor by leading Denver’s first disabled artist/activist campaign for the mayor seat in 2019. I was born and raised in the Denver metro area, where I have been advocating for myself and other marginalized, vulnerable communities most of my tiny life. I front the internationally acclaimed band Wheelchair Sports Camp and represent the DIY arts scene in the city and across the country. …

We’ve been rolling out a poor people’s campaign focused on accessibility. Not just physical access to spaces, but access to politics, access to income/wealth, access to housing, education, public transportation, safety, health care and human rights. This campaign is highlighting the organizations, artists and organizers who already work to make this city more equitable every day while building relationships with working-class people and marginalized communities left out of the democratic process.

Penfield Tate: I am a longtime Colorado resident, raised my family in Denver and have been a community activist in Denver for decades. I worked in Mayor Peña’s administration, served on Governor Romer’s cabinet and served the State of Colorado as a state representative and state senator. I’ve also been a small-business owner, operating as an attorney in a private practice. I’m running for mayor to lead Denver’s future. The time for real change is now.

Like many of us in Denver, I recognize that we will continue to grow and become more dense in our development as a result of the continued influx of people. But I believe the city has a responsibility to the people to make sure that we grow in a fair and equitable manner and in a way that is compatible and harmonious with our vibrant and diverse Denver neighborhoods. To accomplish that, growth has to be designed, planned, directed and managed in a way that works for and with our neighborhoods, and not just done to us.

How would you tackle Denver’s affordable-housing issues?

Jamie Giellis: The lack of attainable housing has become a crisis, and the City of Denver has done little to actually solve the problem. If we are to be a city for every generation, it’s critical that we elevate attainable housing oversight and action to the highest level within the City of Denver and hold our leadership accountable to turn allocated funding into actual housing.

I am committed to: 1. Ending the attainable-housing crisis in a generation, investing $1 billion in attainable housing over the next ten years; 2. Elevate the City’s oversight of attainable housing to a cabinet-level position; 3. Stop affordable foreclosures and buy back existing affordable units; 4. Create streamlined city processes to expedite the delivery of attainable housing: 5. Open up City of Denver-owned assets and land for attainable housing; 6. Build the coalition.

Michael Hancock: If I have the honor of being re-elected, I will maintain the city’s laser focus on delivering more and better housing solutions for Denver’s families. We will continue to provide funding to develop and redevelop affordable-housing units. Working with numerous partners, right now we are examining how Denver can utilize even more affordable-housing tools, such as land trusts, property acquisition, city-owned real estate, accessory dwelling units, and resident-preference and income non-discrimination policies.

To address Denver’s overall affordability challenges and keep our city accessible to all our neighbors, we must also keep a keen focus on improving access to our most basic needs: a good job, a home and a community with quality, healthy foods, transportation and education.

Kalyn Heffernan: Denver must first declare housing as a human right. We then must prioritize our housing needs by offering more funds and setting better standards when accepting development contracts. I support guidelines that incentivize union labor, strong and safe environmental impacts, equitable hiring practices and beneficial community impacts.

Even the affordable housing is not always affordable, especially here in Denver, where the median income is over $70,000 a year. When rent is fixed on the median income, us marginalized folks move farther down the ladder. People living on disability benefits receive less than $800 per month, which isn’t even enough to cover rent ten years ago! Unfortunately, the process to qualify for many low-income benefits corners many of us further into poverty. Affordable housing should be based on people’s incomes individually.

Penfield Tate: Given our affordable-housing crisis, we need to be creative in our solutions. Our efforts must be focused on both the rental market and homebuyers. As mayor, I will expand the ability of more people to qualify for existing programs for affordable housing. I also will explore buying closed school buildings to develop them as affordable and transitional housing units, as well as approving tiny home villages. I’ll work with both affordable-housing and traditional developers to ensure they incorporate affordable units in all their developments.

City waivers, variances and incentives will be reserved for projects incorporating affordable and attainable housing. Just as important as promoting affordable housing is ensuring that the housing that is developed is dispersed throughout our city. It is not enough to build affordable units in only one area of the city. We must preserve the ability for people of different incomes to locate and live in all of Denver’s neighborhoods.

Lisa Calderón: Building attainable and affordable housing to meet the needs of individuals and families today and in the next few years will require a fundamental restructuring of the city’s engagement in housing.

After eight years of lost initiatives, low expertise and limited experience in dealing with the complexities of expanding and preserving housing affordability, I will call for the following changes: a cabinet-level Housing Department administered by housing experts with deep experience; a fully supported, accountable and transparent Comprehensive Fund to fully finance initiatives across the spectrum of our housing crisis; and implementing participant-public-private partnerships, or P4 initiatives, which require the involvement of community members (participants), the government (public) and developers (private) in all decision-making.

How would you address homelessness in Denver?

Michael Hancock: There are myriad reasons for homelessness, foremost among them escalating housing costs and a shortage of attainable housing, substance misuse, mental health concerns and disconnection from family. I will continue to implement creative policy solutions that help people transition to a healthy, safe and thriving life. We have launched innovative programs to better assist people experiencing homelessness, including peer navigator programs at the Denver Central Library, which connects people with resources to get off the street, and the Denver Day Works program, which employs people experiencing homelessness to work in city facilities and parks. We’ve also added tiny homes as an innovative approach to providing more shelter with fewer resources.

Kalyn Heffernan: This is the most important issue facing our city, and it would be my top priority. We won’t solve anything if we don’t see homeless people as humans with rights first. I am in full support of the Right to Survive initiative. I believe all humans have the right to shelter and that no human existing in a public space is "illegal." There are many creative ways to solve the crisis, but only if it is our top priority. The city is sitting on many vacant properties that could be used to house people affordably. Groups like Interfaith Alliance, who are working with faith-based communities to turn their properties into affordable housing, will have my support. I will continue to work with the Denver Housing Authority on their housing plan and will insist that the permanent affordable-housing fund be increased to meet the needs of our community.

Penfield Tate: As I have stated publicly many times, as mayor I am committed to helping all homeless Denver residents to get off the streets in my first 100 days in office. We need a leader with the political will to tackle this issue head on. Through my conversations with advocates and service providers, it’s clear that Denver needs to be creative in finding solutions for those who are living on the streets, and all options need to be on the table. As mayor, I will explore buying and redeveloping empty school buildings from DPS to create transitional housing, approving and expanding the tiny homes program and setting up safe, covered encampments with access to restrooms, showers, laundry facilities and medical and human services to help our homeless out of being forced to live on the streets.

Lisa Calderón: We will not end homelessness by criminalizing our un-housed neighbors or by sweeping people from one end of the city to the other. We also must take a regional approach to addressing the homelessness crisis since these populations are fluid across city boundaries, and no single municipality can end homelessness alone. … Meeting people where they are at, stabilizing them through rapid housing, and then incorporating wrap-around services is a better use of taxpayer dollars than the more expensive criminalization approach involving law enforcement in situations that are better handled by other supportive organizations. By working together, Denver can be a model for how residents, service providers, business owners and city leaders can create housing for all and improve community well-being. A great city isn’t just measured by its wealth, but how it cares for those in need.

Jamie Giellis: As mayor, I will: work with communities to find innovative solutions for temporary…and permanent housing options, and ensure the housing comes with wrap-around support services; coordinate service providers and delivery of services to the homeless community, including mental health support, addiction support and pathways to employment; develop a mobile social worker network that solicits the homeless daily to understand their needs and works with them to access the appropriate agencies…; discourage community groups from feeding the homeless in public spaces such as Civic Center Park, instead partnering with them to help transport people to centers for food where they then have access to other services; expand Denver’s day work program for the homeless; increase trash receptacles and traveling bathrooms, showers and laundry facilities…; be a leader in building a regional coalition with surrounding cities to find solutions that are long-term.

Is development in Denver being done responsibly?

Kalyn Heffernan: Development in Denver is blatantly for the middle and upper class. When a new development in Denver says it will provide 10 percent affordable units, that says to the community that the upper class is 90 percent more welcome. This is the repeated history of colonization. Our politicians are accepting campaign contributions from these same developers to keep the poor out.

Penfield Tate: No, it is not. I do not believe that all the blame for irresponsible development should be placed on developers. Our current administration in Denver has intentionally let development run rampant in our city without any meaningful input from those who live in the neighborhoods where these developments are being built.

Lisa Calderón: No, and it must change. … If elected, I will treat gentrification as a civil-rights issue and enact anti-displacement policies to identify neighborhoods most at risk in order to prevent or mitigate the most harmful effects. I will appoint experts in city planning with deep experience who are also fully committed to participatory development and design. This means that at every juncture and at every level, city government operations and the community planning administration will become decentralized and redistributed evenly in the neighborhoods. I will make administrative barriers and zoning ordinances more user-friendly, with authentic engagement processes.

Jamie Giellis: There is some development in Denver that is being done responsibly, but certainly not the majority. Quick construction, bad design and maximization of the lot, however, are to a large extent the outcome of a zoning code that needs improving. And when the city makes moves to undo voter-passed legislation such as green roofs, we give developers the louder voice in how development is done. These things, and a stronger process for community engagement, need to be our immediate focus in a new administration.

Michael Hancock: With 200,000 more people expected over the next two decades, we must continue to strategically manage the growth so it reflects all that we love about our home. By continuing to have diverse voices at the table, we will be able to smartly manage Denver’s future growth. We must stay true to our specific plans — created side by side with thousands of Denverites — to better preserve our historic, lively and culturally diverse neighborhoods and create a more inclusive, connected and healthy city for everyone.

What can and should be done to improve law enforcement in Denver?

Penfield Tate: Community policing is a critical piece to solving the breakdowns in trust and communication between law enforcement and residents. Through mounted horse patrols in our larger parks, enhanced foot and bicycle law enforcement presence, neighborhood events to get to know the law enforcement working in their communities, and facilitating open and honest dialogue between residents and law enforcement about their needs, concerns and fears, Denver can become safer both for residents and law enforcement. … As mayor, I will work with law enforcement and with our neighborhoods to build bridges to facilitate that trust. I will increase recruitment efforts of officers from communities of color. Strengthening the role of the Independent Monitor is also an important component of building greater trust between communities and law enforcement.

Lisa Calderón: I will reorganize and hire staff to run the city’s public-safety system who use research and evidence-based policies and programs to reduce incarceration, and who have track records in effective jail management practices and recidivism reduction. I will also use evidence-based practices to improve the training of officers and reduce implicit bias. … Finally, we must address the underlying causes that contribute to recidivism (e.g., affordable housing, reducing barriers to employment) and shift resources from punishment for nonviolent drug offenses to treatment and services that will reduce recidivism and incarceration costs. I will appoint an experienced, diverse leadership team invested in the co-production of public safety, where community members partner with law enforcement to develop holistic approaches for improved safety outcomes.

Jamie Giellis: World-class cities have strong police forces that are highly trained, compassionate and supported by the city. It is critical that we use innovative technology to ensure their safety and the safety of our citizens, but as critical is continued education on mental health symptoms and tools, cultural acceptance and understanding, racial profiling and positive community engagement. As mayor, I will support increased officers on the street; support more community policing; support use of body cams during all interactions with people; increase officer engagement on police department policy; create an open dialogue between the city, the police union and DPD personnel to ensure the needs of the department are heard.

Michael Hancock: We must continue to create stronger, safer neighborhoods where neighbors can trust the people serving them. Seven years ago, after a tumultuous decade rocked by high-profile excessive-force incidents and community outrage, we knew the old way of policing wasn’t acceptable. Denver embarked on its journey to spur criminal justice reform — by improving policing practices, restructuring drug laws, increasing social programs and enhancing community re-entry opportunities. In many ways, we have moved the needle on these goals, making major changes to the Department of Safety during my administration. We have more work to do.

Kalyn Heffernan: I am very interested in finding ways to help people get the services and support they need in crisis instead of criminalizing them. I am inspired by Eugene, Oregon’s CAHOOTS program, which offers 24/7 emergency responders that include a medic (either a nurse or an EMT) and a crisis worker (who has at least several years’ experience in the mental health field). Denver would most certainly benefit from better crisis-response services. I will continue to collaborate and be led by groups like Denver Justice Project, Colorado Freedom Fund and other abolitionist leaders to dismantle this complex system of incarceration rates and police-violence rates that we know disproportionately affect marginalized communities the most.

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