Mayoral election in Denver, Colorado (2023)
The 2023 mayoral election in Denver, Colorado is shaping up to be a pivotal moment for the city. With incumbent Mayor Michael Hancock termed out after 12 years in office, the open seat has attracted a crowded field of candidates aiming to set Denver’s course for the next decade.
Denver’s mayoral office holds significant power over city affairs. Described as the strongest elected position in Colorado, the mayor serves as chief executive with authority over the budget, appointments, police and other key departments. With Denver facing major challenges around housing affordability, homelessness, crime and transportation, voters have a lot riding on their choice for mayor.
Long seen as a frontrunner, Kelly Brough has spent decades immersed in Denver civic life. Brough served as chief of staff under prominent former Mayor John Hickenlooper from 2003 to 2009. She then led the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce as president and CEO from 2009 until 2021.
Brough emphasizes her experience bringing diverse groups together to drive progress on difficult issues. She wants to speed up housing development to increase affordability, continue criminal justice reforms, and take a compassionate approach to homelessness with creative solutions. Brough has criticized the city’s unauthorized camping ban as ineffective.
Key endorsements for Brough include former Mayors Wellington Webb and Federico Peña along with the Denver firefighters union. However, some progressive activists argue she is too aligned with development interests.
Former state legislator Mike Johnston is positioning himself as an energetic progressive voice focused on tackling inequality. Johnston represented northeast Denver in the state Senate from 2009 to 2019, earning a reputation as a rising political star. He ran for Colorado governor in 2018 but finished third in the Democratic primary.
Johnston calls for major investments in affordable housing, major reforms to policing practices, and compassionate but assertive policies to address homelessness. He wants to redirect funding from police to mental health first-responders. Johnston also aims to expand public transit as a key part of Denver’s climate strategy.
Johnston has earned endorsements from current and former state legislators along with progressive groups like the Colorado Working Families Party. Critics contend some of his proposals are unrealistic.
Other Notable Candidates
A current state representative, Leslie Herod has built a reputation as an influential voice on justice reform issues. She has called for innovative solutions to homelessness like converting hotels into housing. Herod has clashed with Mayor Hancock over issues like the camping ban.
Community activist Terrance Roberts, who co-founded the Prodigal Son Initiative, provides a more radical perspective. Roberts wants to overhaul policing in Denver by eliminating some specialized units and reinvesting significantly in mental health services.
Businessman Thomas Wolf, founder of the Collegiate Peaks Bank, offers a more moderate approach focused on public-private partnerships to spur housing development. Wolf wants to reform but still vigorously enforce the camping ban.
With Denver median home prices soaring over $600,000 in 2022, housing affordability is a urgent concern for local residents. Nearly half of all renters in Denver are cost-burdened, spending over 30% of income on housing. Homelessness has also been rising, with over 6000 individuals unhoused across the metro region.
To increase affordable housing supply, Brough calls for speeding up new development by modernizing Denver’s permitting and land use processes. She wants to engage major employers to help fund affordable housing projects. Johnston proposes using public land to build new mixed-income communities with units dedicated for lower-income residents. He also wants to strengthen eviction protections.
Crime rates have been rising in Denver over the past two years, including concerning increases in homicides and shootings. Controversial police encounters, like the killing of a man experiencing homelessness in LoDo in 2021, have also sparked community tensions.
Johnston and Roberts have made overhauling policing a centerpiece of their campaigns. They want to eliminate the Gang Task Force and Gun Violence Suppression Division to divert funding toward unarmed mental health first-responders. Brough and Wolf call for more targeted reforms focused on increasing crisis intervention and de-escalation training.
All candidates voice support for continuing civilian oversight of policing through the Office of the Independent Monitor. But they differ on exactly how disciplinary processes should work.
As Denver has boomed in population over the past decade, traffic congestion has become an increasing headache. The city also faces challenges around transit access and mobility, with many residents lacking convenient public transportation options.
Johnston has unveiled an ambitious plan to build a 100-mile bus rapid transit system within ten years. Brough wants to invest heavily in expanding transit and bicycle infrastructure as well, while ensuring road maintenance needs are met. Wolf cautions against defunding roads, arguing for balance across modes.
Homelessness has sharply increased across metro Denver in recent years. The highly visible camps along streets have become a politically charged issue. In 2022, Mayor Hancock spearheaded a controversial new camping ban targeting public space encampments.
Brough and Johnston have both criticized the unauthorized camping ban as inhumane and ineffective. They call for more outreach, services and housing options instead of sweeps. Wolf argues that compassion must be balanced with enforcement of basic public space laws. Herod wants major investments in converting unused hotels and motels into supportive housing options.
Growth and Development
Managing Denver’s rapid growth and development has become an increasingly heated debate. How can the city retain its character and livability while welcoming new residents and businesses?
Wolf argues Denver needs more intentional, citywide planning to guide development rather than ad hoc neighborhood battles over every project. Brough calls for community benefits agreements to ensure development yields affordable housing, environmental features and neighborhood improvements.
Johnston proposes strong density requirements and design standards so development matches infrastructure capacity. He also wants to modernize zoning to expand housing diversity and affordability.
Fundraising and spending are on pace to shatter past Denver mayoral election records. By early 2023, Johnston had raised over $2 million while Brough raised $1.7 million. Significant outside spending from independent groups is also pouring into the race, with business interests lining up behind Brough and union and progressive groups supporting Johnston.
This election may determine the future of the Fair Elections Fund, Denver’s public financing program approved by voters in 2018. Johnston and some other candidates are utilizing public funds while Brough is not. The program’s viability has been questioned after much lower than expected enrollment.
Denver’s racial diversity has been increasing significantly, with the Latino population now accounting for more than 30% of residents while the white, non-Hispanic population has fallen under 60%. Political analysts see this diversity fueling rising progressive engagement around issues like criminal justice reform, housing affordability, and climate action.
Younger millennial and Gen Z voters are also an increasingly dominant bloc. However, some residents feel left behind amid Denver’s growth and change, fueling pushback against liberal policies. Turnout across neighborhoods and demographics will be critical in determining the next mayor.
With such a crowded field, a runoff between the top two finishers in the April 4 general election is considered very likely. A Brough vs. Johnston matchup would give voters a clear contrast in styles and visions for Denver’s future.
Brough would likely consolidate support from the business community and more moderate voters looking for steady, experienced leadership. Johnston aims to rally progressive backers seeking bolder reforms around housing, transit and policing. With Denver at a political crossroads, the runoff will provide a referendum on the type of change city residents truly desire.
After 12 years under Mayor Michael Hancock, Denver is bracing for big changes under new leadership. With housing costs and homelessness surging, crime rates unsettled, and inequality widening, the next mayor will face massive challenges. But this pivotal moment also offers immense opportunity to shape Denver’s direction for the better.
From bold progressive reformers to pragmatic centrists promising steady progress, voters have an array of options in the crowded 2023 mayoral field. The race offers a microcosm of the debates occurring within the modern Democratic Party across the nation. After months of vigorous debate and grassroots campaigning, Denver residents will make their voices heard at the ballot box. Their choice for mayor will have immense implications for the city’s communities and future trajectory.
Q: Who are the top candidates running for Denver mayor in 2023?
A: The major candidates include Kelly Brough, Mike Johnston, Leslie Herod, and Terrance Roberts. Brough and Johnston are considered the current frontrunners.
Q: What are the big issues in this election?
A: Key issues include housing affordability, homelessness, crime and policing reform, transportation, and growth management.
Q: How long can Denver’s mayor serve in office?
A: Denver mayors are term-limited to three 4-year terms, meaning 12 years maximum. Mayor Hancock has served the maximum and is ineligible to run again.
Q: Does Denver have partisan elections for mayor?
A: No, the elections are officially nonpartisan. However, most candidates are affiliated with and identify broadly with the Democratic Party.
Q: How competitive is the race expected to be?
A: With an open seat and many candidates, the race is highly competitive. A runoff between the top two finishers is considered very likely given the crowded field.