Denver mayor candidates clash over homelessness, crime in second debate
State Sen. Chris Hansen defends TV ad featuring footage of unhoused people
Issues of crime and homelessness dominated the Denver mayor debate Thursday. Pictured are community members who gathered on the grass in front of the Denver City and County Building on Oct. 15, 2020, to draw attention to the city’s affordable housing and homelessness crisis. (Moe Clark/Colorado Newsline)
With just over six weeks remaining before voters begin receiving their ballots, state Sen. Chris Hansen this week became the first candidate in the crowded race for Denver mayor to air a TV ad — and promptly got an earful about it from several rivals in a Thursday night debate.
Hansen’s ad touted the candidate’s plans to reduce crime, and opened with video footage of people experiencing homelessness, an apparent fistfight and the theft of a mailbox from a porch, with most of those shown being people of color. It prompted swift criticism from homelessness advocates and others who objected to the footage, including Ean Thomas Tafoya, an environmental activist and mayoral candidate who told Hansen that he was “disgusted” by the ad.
“I cannot believe that he would make this ad,” Tafoya said during the debate, hosted by 9News at Metropolitan State University of Denver. “I am so disappointed in you. We’ve worked on things together. When I saw that ad, I called a lot of people. And guess what? They agree with us.”
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Hansen, who has represented Senate District 31 in central Denver since 2020 and previously served in the state House of Representatives, called the criticism “overwrought.”
“I took actual footage from around town. It is not just people of color that are featured in this ad,” he said. “This is the No. 1 issue on voters’ minds — how do we improve public safety, how do we address the homelessness crisis?”
But Kwame Spearman, the CEO of Denver’s Tattered Cover bookstore chain, noted that among people experiencing homelessness in Denver, white people outnumber people of color, and state Rep. Leslie Herod, Hansen’s Democratic colleague in the statehouse, agreed that the ad was “offensive.”
“You didn’t see what we saw because you’re not us,” said Herod. “You’ve got to put those blinders away. You’ve got to have more people looking at your ads, and in your administration, that look like the communities you’re serving.”
With the 13 mayoral candidates participating in the city’s new Fair Elections Fund on stage, Thursday’s debate featured a more free-flowing, occasionally contentious back-and-forth than previous events, including a 16-candidate debate at Regis University last week.
In all, 17 candidates for mayor have qualified for a spot on the city’s April 4 municipal ballot. It’s widely viewed as all but certain that no candidate will win an outright majority of voters in that round, meaning the two candidates with the most votes will proceed to a runoff election on June 6.
Issues of crime and homelessness dominated the debate. Like many other cities across the country, Denver has struggled with rising numbers of unhoused people and the presence of encampments in downtown areas. Nearly 4,800 people experiencing homelessness were counted within city limits in the Metro Denver Homeless Initiative’s 2022 survey. Rates of certain types of violent crime and property crime have increased in recent years, though most remain well below recent historical highs.
Kelly Brough, the former head of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce and the race’s top fundraiser, defended her plan to aggressively enforce the city’s camping ban, including the arrest of people who refuse to accept housing support or mental health services.
“As mayor, you still have an obligation to keep everyone safe,” Brough said. “If somebody can’t make that decision for themselves, based on mental health or addiction issues, I still think we have an obligation as government to make it for them. So I would still take them in. … I would liken it to how we do drug court today.”
Herod, who bills herself as the race’s top progressive contender, rejected the notion that involuntary commitment could address the root causes of homelessness and addiction.
“They want you to believe that sending people into treatment will be like sending folks off to Betty Ford,” she said. “That is not a place where you can provide good treatment with good outcomes. We know that that’s a triage place.”
‘We didn’t get it right’
Herod, who helped lead an effort in the Legislature to reduce simple possession of small amounts of drugs from a felony to a misdemeanor, said she regretted her vote last year to reverse some of those changes and re-felonize possession of even small amounts of synthetic opioids like fentanyl.
“The War on Drugs is a failed policy,” said Herod. “As I’m looking at the statistics today, and I watch today and yesterday as the Department of Corrections asked for more beds to fill with folks who are addicted, without having enough providers to provide mental health services to those people — we were wrong. We didn’t get it right.”
In a show of hands, no candidate endorsed reducing the 20% of the city’s budget that goes to the Denver Police Departments, and a majority indicated they support increasing DPD’s strength beyond its current authorized level of 1,600 officers.
Brough went further and suggested that a return of “qualified immunity,” a legal principle that bars people from suing law enforcement officers in their individual capacity. Colorado lawmakers, led by Herod, passed a landmark police reform bill that abolished qualified immunity but placed a $25,000 cap on individual liability judgments.
“I don’t think our officers should be at risk, and I think this is hurting our ability to recruit officers,” Brough said.
Former state Sen. Mike Johnston, the former CEO of Gary Community Ventures and onetime candidate for governor and U.S. Senate, touted his plan to hire hundreds more first responders, including paramedics, mental health specialists and police.
“We want to recruit them to a different kind of job,” Johnston said of hiring new cops. “When I talk to people in communities, what they want is officers who are visible, who are walking the streets, who are talking to community members, who are walking into businesses, giving them their cards, talking to neighbors, asking questions. They want real community-based policing.”
Lisa Calderón, a criminal justice professor and progressive activist who placed third in the 2019 mayor’s race, has not advocated for a reduction in the DPD budget but said the “entire institution of policing” is broken.
“We’re past reform. We’re past training,” said Calderón, “It’s interesting that we keep talking about hiring more police officers, and we don’t talk about hiring more social workers, or librarians, or people with expertise in intervention in violence.”
Calderón, who said she experienced homelessness herself as a teen, also touted her campaign’s plan for addressing the issue, which was drafted with direct input from unhoused people in Denver.
“With all due respect, these folks don’t know what they’re talking about,” Calderón said. “We have plenty of data that shows (the camping ban) does not work.
“What does work is what I would do,” she added. “Replace the street enforcement teams with crisis intervention responders, so we aren’t just leaving people out there, we are moving them into homes. … There is an array of things we could do that we have not done, and chosen not to do.”
Ballots for the municipal election, which also features races for 13 City Council seats and several other citywide offices, will be mailed to voters beginning March 13.
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