It’s a typical setup for a city council forum – the plastic card tables, stackable chairs, lukewarm coffee and trays of supermarket cookies and fruit platters in the back. Only this forum happens to be about criminal justice issues, featuring Denver Council candidates vying for seats in districts 10 and 11 (Capitol Hill and Northeast Park Hill), and Denver’s citywide Council seats.
At 4:30 p.m. on a Thursday, the event isn’t exactly well-attended. Once you’ve counted the eleven candidates on stage, their aides, the A/V technicians, reporters, and the event organizers from the American Civil Liberties Union and Drug Policy Alliance, that leaves maybe a dozen actual residents who’ve shown up. The candidates themselves are answering a long-winded question about police brutality in Denver, and there’s grumbling from a couple audience members when the moderator decides to stop and repeat her question over again, after half the candidates had already answered it.
“Like we’ve forgotten,” quips an older gentleman in the audience.
That’s because everyone has been listening to nearly identical answers from every candidate so far, one after the other. The standard line is about how police are vital to Denver’s communities, but that the city needs to increase oversight, to make officers wear bodycameras, etc… It’s about as exciting as C-SPAN.
None of the candidates are challenging each other. Then the moderator says:
“Mr. Khalatbari, your response?”
A young candidate sporting a buzz cut and a blue-collared cardigan sweater leans into a shared microphone.
“Denver’s police are waging a war against people. We need to rethink the militarization of our police, many who don’t actually live in our communities. I propose a program of volunteer ‘peace officers,’ who are trained in conflict mediation and are from our neighborhoods.”
Kayvan Khalatbari, 31 years old, gets a few strange looks from his competitors. Not only because of his alternative-policing stance, but because this event, on April 9, marks the first time he has spoken at a City Council forum. The candidate says he has purposely avoided most forums to focus on his social-media presence — to attract younger voters.
In any case, Khalatbari has only been running for an at-large seat since February, and initially some observers didn’t take his candidacy all that seriously. Khalatbari is a political outsider, a serial businessman whose companies deal in cannabis, pizza and comedy – the stoner trifecta. He’s a kingpin of the Denver cultural scene, supporting emerging artists through his podcasts, Sexpot Comedy shows, and monthly art magazine Birdy. His most notable mark in the political sphere is his cannabis activism, including a well-publicized stunt following Gov. John Hickenlooper in a chicken suit with a sign reading: “What’s so scary about marijuana?” Running for City Council seemed an unlikely move. Or maybe, could the guy with the Twitter-handle @laughingsheikh be pulling an elaborate joke?
The Incumbents Face Fire
Now with the May 5 election less than two weeks away, Khalatbari has all but erased question marks about his bid for office. At events like the April 9 forum, the candidate has shaken up an otherwise uneventful City Council election by accusing the Council of having a weak track record, kowtowing to developers, and voting to raise members’ salaries by 10.3 percent over the next two years.
He hasn’t shied away from provocation. Khalatbari has deliberately distanced himself from the pay raise by pledging his entire Council salary to the Harm Reduction Action Center and Colorado Youth Symphony Orchestra if he gets elected. He refutes the line that he’s merely the ‘cannabis candidate’ by asserting he has “more business experience than all sitting City Council members and our mayor combined.” (In fact, some Council members have run businesses in the past, but it is true that Khalatbari owns seven companies that collectively employ over 100 people).
Even his campaign slogan seems to suggest how little he thinks of his opponents: “I’m a real person.”
Perhaps what’s most unusual in a city council race is that Khalatbari could actually unseat one of the at-large incumbents – Debbie Ortega and Robin Kniech. Incumbents in Denver City Council elections almost never lose reelection, and both Ortega and Kniech already had sizable campaign war chests by the time Khalatbari joined the race, topping $50,000 and $90,000 respectively in February.
Not only has Khalatbari out-fundraised his opponents during the past two months (partly through a self-inflicted comedy roast at the Oriental Theater), but with no realistic contender vying to unseat Mayor Michael Hancock this election cycle, the at-large City Council race has taken the spotlight, putting incumbents under extra scrutiny.
This isn’t to say that Ortega and Kniech are particularly polarizing. Both have long backgrounds in public policy and have snatched up most of the race’s major endorsements, including nods from union organizers like the Denver Area Labor Federation, as well as The Denver Post. Ortega previously served on City Council from 1987 to 2003 and was a significant force in establishing LoDo as a historic district. Kniech worked for years on public transportation issues for the nonprofit FRESC, before joining the City Council in 2011. She is the first LGBT member of the Council and had success introducing a revision to the city’s Inclusionary Housing Ordinance that encourages developers to build more affordable units.
Where Khalatbari’s scrutiny comes into play is asking whether Ortega and Kniech have done enough on issues facing Denver like rising housing costs and expensive settlements on police-abuse cases. As experienced politicians, do Ortega and Kniech’s ties to unions and city officials made them slow to enact change?
In particular, Khalatbari is forcing discussion about affordable housing. Citing statistics from a story on Colorado Public Radio, Khalatbari has repeatedly put Kniech and Ortega on the defensive by saying they shouldn’t claim success in affordable housing when the Council only added 700 affordable units last year out of the estimated 27,000 units needed for low-income residents. At the Denver Decides forum on April 11th, a visibly flustered Kniech responded to Khalatbari’s attacks by saying “my record stands on its own” and “to suggest otherwise is dishonest.”
Khalatbari has dominated the race in his use of social media, using unorthodox web videos like his “What the fuck?” spot. His strategies could prove effective when compared to more traditional door-knocking and endorsement-seeking tactics. Khalatbari is betting that social media will influence more young voters to participate in the election, which typically have been decided by older voters. He points toward the fact that this is Denver’s first municipal election with mail-in ballots sent to all registered voters. So rather than rely on young people to show up and vote at the polls (which they don’t) he has been continually reminding them to mail in their ballots through posts online, flyers on pizza boxes and at comedy events throughout the city.
In a field of five, including Kniech, Ortega, and non-incumbent challengers Jose Silva and Jeffery Washington, Khalatbari needs only to receive the second most votes to snag a seat on the 13 member Council. Even without any pre-election polling data that would help predict the race’s outcome, momentum seems to be swaying in his favor. At least, no one denies that Khalatbari has been the most vocal candidate.
Ambitions vs. Political Reality
The salient question is what kind of role Khatalbari would play on the Council if elected, and whether his political views can translate into policies.
Affordable housing aside, some points of Khalatbari’s campaign platform such as curbing the taxpayer money that CDOT is spending on I-70 expansion and easing non-violent-crime sentencing largely fall outside the jurisdiction of the City Council. The freeway expansion, for example, is a state decision, and criminal justice issues are ultimately decided by the District Attorney’s and Mayor’s offices (although the City Council does approve Police program funding).
“I’m not sure how realistic he is,” says Ortega. “To make major changes requires working among a broad coalition of colleagues and the administration.”
By administration, Ortega is referring to the Mayor.
The reality is that Denver City Council is quite weak. The city has what’s known as a “strong-mayor” system in which the mayor appoints nearly all administrative positions and city department heads and can veto any of the City Council’s decisions (unless the Council musters together a nine-vote veto override, which rarely happens). And with Hancock running unopposed this election, it seems unlikely we’ll see any dramatic policy shifts after the new Council is seated in July, no matter how much Khalatbari claims he’d rally against the establishment.
Kniech also suggests that a me-versus-everyone approach would not prove effective on the City Council. She cites her own experience building consensus as a counterpoint.
“Whoever’s going to make progress needs to bring a whole bunch of people together. You can’t fight City Council on your own,” Kniech says.
Yet Khalatbari argues that having unspoken rules about consensus is the reason why City Council hasn’t properly represented Denver. He cites the urban-camping ban as one of the ways the Council is taking the city in the wrong direction. “Someone’s got to stop these trends,” he says. And Khatlatbari maintains that the prospect of being a lone wolf on the Council doesn’t bother him. “If they want to alienate me because I’m not playing by their bullshit rules, so be it.”
Having an outspoken member on the City Council would not be without precedent. For instance, former Councilman Ed Thomas was a blunt pro-development voice during the 90’s, and now retiring Councilman Charlie Brown’s own bio admits that “he gave up on political correctness a long time ago.”
Khalatbari could perform a similar role. Even if he receives a dose of political reality on issues such as the I-70 expansion, he’s said his main goal in office would be forcing debate – and that’s why he got involved in the election to begin with.
How the Candidacy Began
The reason some might have thought his candidacy was a joke is because it kind of started out that way – not as run for City Council, but for mayor.
In October, Khalatbari, along with comedian Andy Juett and Denver-Relief co-founder Ean Seeb, announced via their private Facebook accounts that each was running against Hancock for Mayor. At first the posts were only half-serious, but became something substantial once a reporter from the Durango Herald, Peter Marcus, saw the announcements and wrote an article about them. Days later, Marcus told Khalatbari that there was a memo circulating around Hancock’s office warning about three challengers to the Mayor’s reelection bid.
“That sparked a light bulb in my head. Here was a way I could increase my advocacy,” Khalatbari recalls.
Khalatbari says that he’s always been deeply invested in the city. When asked to explain his underlying motivation to enter politics, Khalatbari said it boils down to a desire to maintain strong and collaborative communities in Denver, not cater the city toward tourists and developers. He’s from Lincoln, Nebraska himself, but says it was the tight-knit art and cannabis communities in Denver which helped him transition from a past dealing pot in Nebraska and starting out penniless in Denver, to building an empire of successful businesses.
With most of those businesses running themselves at this point, he says that competing in the mayoral race was a way he could raise discussion about the city losing its identity as wealthy outsiders move into Denver’s core neighborhoods. But he quickly gave up on actually pursuing Hancock when he realized the Mayor had half a million in campaign funds at his disposal. Instead, he turned his attention to the at-large City Council race, “when I saw what I consider to be weak incumbents.”
Khalatbari’s opponents have been largely silent about his past or his campaign, save for a few questions about his time-commitment and potential conflicts of interest with his businesses, such as Khalatbari’s desire to expand dispensaries’ business hours past 7 p.m., which would bring in more profit for his Denver Relief pot shops.
When asked whether she’s worried about Khalatbari’s campaign, Kniech was noncommittal saying, “I focus on my voters, not my opponents.”
Ortega likewise said that she has not been on Khalatbari’s Facebook page or seen any of his videos.
Khalatbari doubts that’s true, instead positing, “They don’t know what to think about me.”
He invites challenges to his candidacy. But more than anything, he says he wants to look beyond the election. He’s tired of watching Denver change for the worse, selling itself to developers without any significant debate between the city’s politicians.
“If I don’t accomplish one thing while on the Council, at least I will have raised hell,” he promises.
Photos courtesy of Kayvan Khalatbari.