Brough, Johnston find little to disagree on in first head-to-head Denver mayoral debate
Moderate candidates qualified for June 6 runoff election with combined 44% of the vote
Denver mayoral candidates Kelly Brough, left, and Mike Johnston participate in a forum hosted by the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce at the University of Denver on April 12, 2023. (Chase Woodruff/Colorado Newsline)
After months of crowding onto stages by the dozen, the two remaining candidates for Denver mayor on Wednesday faced each other across an auditorium floor that seemed almost empty by comparison.
Kelly Brough and Mike Johnston, who emerged from a field of 16 mayoral hopefuls in last week’s municipal elections, appeared at the University of Denver for their first debate since qualifying for the head-to-head June 6 runoff.
The atmosphere was cordial and even light-hearted at times throughout the 90-minute forum, which was hosted by the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce, the conservative-leaning business organization that Brough led for 12 years until stepping down in 2021. She and Johnston were by far the best-funded candidates in the crowded first round of the mayor’s race, collecting hundreds of thousands of dollars in contributions from affluent donors and benefiting from millions more in outside spending by real-estate interests and billionaires.
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Johnston, the beneficiary of more than $2.2 million in super PAC spending in the run-up to the April 4 election, received 24.4% of the vote, according to unofficial results from the Denver Elections Division. Brough placed second with 20%, claiming a spot in the runoff just ahead of progressive activist Lisa Calderón, who finished with 18.2%.
The election, Denver’s first in four years, was marked by low turnout and has spurred calls for reforms like ranked-choice voting. But the results of the mayor’s race brought relief to the city’s business and political establishment, including many of those gathered at DU’s Davis Auditorium for Wednesday’s forum. Visit Denver and the Downtown Denver Partnership also cosponsored the event.
“Every single organization here today plays a role in helping us make sure we revitalize our downtown,” Brough said. “I took my job at the Chamber in 2009, in response to the Great Recession, and I learned a lot about how you attract business and grow an economy.”
Neither Brough nor Johnston sought to draw a stark contrast with the other, and expressed broad agreement on most of the major issues facing the city, in a forum dominated by questions about homelessness and public safety.
Both called for the “will of the voters” to be respected on the former Park Hill Golf Course, preserving the land, which was the subject of Referred Question 2o last week, as open space and developing it as a new city park. Both called for the hiring of more police officers and sheriff’s deputies, and faulted moves by Colorado lawmakers to decriminalize possession of small amounts of illegal drugs. Both opposed the opening of overdose prevention centers where people with substance use disorders can safely use drugs.
“I don’t think that’s the right next step for Denver right now,” Johnston said. “If you’re trying to stop overdose deaths, this can be a strategy. If you’re trying to get people clean and back up on their feet, I think there’s not evidence it’s a strategy.”
Plans to address homelessness
Among the afternoon’s few mild notes of disagreement came over Brough’s plan to subject some unhoused people to involuntary mental-health holds, a tactic she has described as a “last resort” for people who refuse services.
“If we needed to take them in, I would take them in to our system with an arrest,” she said Wednesday.
Johnston said the legal bar for such involuntary commitments is too high, and their duration of up to 72 hours isn’t long enough to effectively steer people towards mental-health and addiction treatment services. Instead, his plan to reduce homelessness — a plan that he says will end it in his first term as mayor — involves the construction of tiny-home communities throughout the city and continued enforcement of Denver’s urban camping ban.
“I don’t think you can arrest people for being homeless,” he said. “I do not think that is a viable strategy.”
Neither candidate offered a ringing endorsement of Senate Bill 23-213, the sweeping land-use bill backed by Gov. Jared Polis and Democrats in the General Assembly, which would require cities like Denver to allow more housing density in residential areas. Current Denver Mayor Michael Hancock, who is term-limited after 12 years in office, announced his opposition to the bill earlier on Wednesday.
Brough declined to take a position on the bill until she consulted with Denver’s new City Council, but said “it alone, I don’t think solves our problem.”
Johnston said the bill provides “tools I think the city is already using,” including encouraging “density in neighborhoods where we want it,” but pivoted instead to his role in championing last year’s Proposition 123, which created statewide affordable housing program.
When asked what distinguished her from Johnston, Brough pointed to her experience helping run the city as then-Mayor John Hickenlooper’s chief of staff from 2006 to 2009 — but also committed again not to seek any higher office in the future. Johnston, a former state senator, launched unsuccessful campaigns for governor and U.S. Senate in 2018 and 2020, respectively.
“I think the next mayor has some tough decisions to make,” Brough said. “And I think what I bring is a confidence that every one of my decisions will be about this city and what’s best for it — not about what my political future might look like.”
Johnston, meanwhile, said that he offered “clear, detailed plans about how we’re going to execute” on a shared vision for the city, and wanted to offer Denverites reasons for hope.
“We know that these problems are solvable,” he said. “I want us to write a different next chapter, which is about a city that’s going to be vibrant, that’s going to be affordable, that’s going to be safe.”
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