BY FREDA MIKLIN
On February 16, the 13 candidates who are participating in the Denver Fair Elections Fund, created after a 2018 ballot measure was approved by the city’s voters, participated in their first televised debate. Those candidates who opt into the Fair Elections Fund agree not to accept donations over $500 from any individual. They are rewarded by getting a 9 to 1 match from the city of every donation they receive for $50 or less, e.g., they receive $225 in city funds for a $25 donation.
Asking the questions were 9News reporters Kyle Clark, Marshall Zelinger, and Anusha Ray.
In her opening statement, State Rep. Leslie Herod said that, “Denver has been run for far too long by special interests that don’t put people first.”
Aurelio Martinez said, “Denver is broken,” and he would “tackle homelessness and housing.”
Thomas Wolfe said he will “end encampments that make our city unsafe and filthy,” acknowledging that the problem “is a full-blown humanitarian crisis.”
Kelly Brough touted her experience as CEO of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce and as chief of staff for John Hickenlooper when he was Denver’s mayor.
Terrence Roberts said that, “Housing should be declared a crisis in this city” and that poverty is the precursor to both domestic violence and youth and gang violence.
Kwame Spearman said he wasn’t “convinced that our neighborhoods are living up to their full potential,” and as mayor, he will focus on homelessness, safety, and affordability. Spearman ran into trouble later on by citing statistics from a study by Denver Homeless Out Loud that he said indicated more than half of homeless people preferred living in tents to a home or shelter. The next day he acknowledged he had mistaken the statistics of the study. The organization that published it also took responsibility for publishing graphics that may have been unclear.
Mike Johnston said he was running to end the problem of homelessness in Denver.
State Rep. Chris Hansen said, “We need to build a safer, more affordable, and greener Denver,” touting his success in bringing funding to Denver through his position as a state legislator. Later, the other candidates in the debate criticized him for a television ad he was running that they said depicted criminals as being people of color. Hansen denied the accusation.
Ean Thomas Tafoya touted his role as Colorado state director for “an environmental justice organization that’s taken on the biggest polluters,” and noted that he has experience working in all levels of local government.
Trinidad Rodriguez said he has helped secure funding for affordable housing communities, schools, clinics, and hospitals during the 25 years he has been in finance.
Jim Walsh talked about teaching political science at CU Denver for 25 years.
Debbie Ortega cited her “long years working on large and small projects from housing affordability to addressing the needs of our unhoused population as the executive director of our Homeless Commission.”
Lisa Calderón said she has been a nonprofit executive for 20 years, running the city’s re-entry program, domestic violence programs, and Emerge Colorado.
When Kyle Clark asked the candidates if, as mayor, they would forcibly clear encampments that are in violation of Denver’s urban camping ban, Trinidad Rodriguez said that Denver is not providing sufficient health care services, including mental health and addiction care “to those people who have these conditions,” that he believes get in the way of the homeless “accepting treatment and help.” He supports “taking people into treatment on an involuntary basis” if necessary.
Debbie Ortega said she would increase the focus on helping the homeless get back to work and self-sufficiency through “programs like Denver Day Works…which has gotten people off the streets and into full-time jobs.” She also noted the importance of matching employers’ needs to potential workers skills.
Lisa Calderón pointed to the fact that many homeless individuals have been victims of domestic violence or recently released from incarceration, and often shun shelters due to concerns about COVID, not because they prefer to live in a tent.
Thomas Wolfe described the homeless population as, “chemically dependent, mental and criminal, and sometimes all three.” He would like to see appropriate health services provided to the first two groups. For the third, he said, “We need to enforce law and order. We’ve been lax about that.”
Chris Hansen would rely more on the nonprofit organizations of the city, like the Salvation Army, to help the homeless.
Leslie Herod noted that, “People on the streets are real human beings…We can’t incarcerate ourselves out of homelessness…I don’t know how many Denverites want to build more prisons just to house people.” She pointed to that fact that, “Denver, DPS (Denver Public Schools), and RTD own the majority of vacant lots in this city,” and those could be used to build more permanent housing.
Kelly Brough said, “My family received government assistance to keep food on our table. I have executive and relevant experience. I’ve even served as a legislative analyst for all 13 members of the Denver City Council.
Terrence Roberts responded “Housing should be declared a crisis. I don’t agree with just destroying encampments without a place for people to go. Youth and gang violence, and domestic violence are related to poverty. We need a housing budget that is more than 2% of our public safety budget.”
Kwame Spearman answered, “I’m the CEO of Tattered Cover. Think about what you love about your city. Think about your neighborhood. Is it headed in the right or wrong direction? I plan to make the tough choices on homelessness, safety and affordability.”
Mike Johnston said, “No one should be homeless in Denver. We have a moral obligation to get people into housing. We can do that.”
Chris Hansen responded, “I believe we need to build a city that works. I’m frustrated because it doesn’t feel like Denver is living up to its potential …We have an opportunity with federal dollars to make generational change in Denver to address housing, transit and the homelessness crisis.
Ean Thomas Tafoya shared, “I started at MSU to organize for composting and this year we passed a law that will help 31 million people compost and recycle.
Trinidad Rodriguez responded, “We need a solution that serves this group of people who need mental health services. Living on the street is inhumane.”
You can watch the entire two-hour debate at: https: //www.msudenver.edu/university-events/denver-mayoral-debate
Candidates who are on the ballot but were not permitted to participate in this debate because they did not opt in to the Denver Fair Elections Fund are Renate Behrens, Al Gardner Andy Rougeot, and Robert Treta.