Michael Hancock will seek a third term as Denver’s mayor next year. But growing misgivings about his leadership have prompted a prominent lawyer and former state lawmaker and a high-profile community activist to consider challenging him for the office.
In addition to five others who’ve already filed paperwork to run for mayor, Penfield Tate III and Lisa Calderon both say they’re very seriously eyeing bids of their own for the May 2019 election.
Tate, 62, is an attorney and a former Democratic state lawmaker who ran for mayor in 2003. His father, Penfield Tate II, was Boulder’s first and still only black mayor, serving in the 1970s.
“Over the past several weeks, I’ve received calls and emails from a pretty broad cross section of Denver citizens, a number of whom have asked me to consider running for mayor,” Tate said, adding that he’ll likely hold an event in the near future to announce whether or not he’ll run for mayor.
Calderon, 50, is a longtime educator — her subject areas include women’s studies and gender studies, and she has a doctorate in education — who’s soon to join the sociology and criminal justice faculty at Regis University. She also co-founded and for eight years ran Denver’s Community Reentry Project, which helped Denverites transition out of prison or jail back into the community.
Half black and half Latina, she also serves as executive director of the Colorado Latino Forum, a group that often has criticized Hancock. She believes he has failed in his representation of communities increasingly displaced or thinned out by the city’s rising cost of living. As she tells it, Hancock is less interested in easing some of Denver’s growing pains than in promoting what she calls “development on steroids.”
Though some voter confidence in Hancock was waning because of growth-related problems and a long string of controversies in the city’s Safety Department, his reputation took some abrupt hits over the past year.
He’s been criticized for taking expensive international trips, including a Paris junket for which he and other city officials enjoyed freebie $16,000 airline seats.
In February, news broke that Hancock had sent sexually suggestive text messages to a woman in his security detail who said his advances were unwanted. Hancock admitted to sending the texts and faced no official repercussions. The City Council declined to launch an investigation.
Calderon says it’s time for a woman to lead the city.
“We don’t need the same type of policies that in the past have not gotten us gender equity,” she said. “In the age of #MeToo, the fact that there’s not resources being put behind a woman to run for mayor I think needs to change. That’s a big reason I’m strongly considering running.”
For his part, Tate, should he run, would be the first black candidate besides incumbent Hancock to join the race.
Prior to Wellington Webb in 1991, Denver had never elected a black mayor. It’s elected just one Latino — Federico Peña — and zero women to the position.
In an interview this week, Tate declined to take jabs at the mayor. He said he’s “more interested in what people feel around this city — where they’re concerned, where they’re disillusioned” than in Hancock’s performance.
“I’m not going to go there at this point,” he said, when asked to evaluate Hancock.
“What people have said to me is they have concerns about affordable housing, which I share; concerns about homelessness, which I share; concerns about transportation congestion, which I share; concerns about gentrification and development, which I share,” Tate said. “What people tell me is the feeling that development is happening to them, not for them, and that there doesn’t seem to be a clear plan.”
Tate came in third when he ran for mayor in a 2003 race won by now-Gov. John Hickenlooper. He considered running in 2010, but decided against it. He’s now a partner with the Denver office of Nebraska-based law firm Kutak Rock, where he represents public agencies and underwriters of public improvements projects, and advises governments on matters of administration.
“I’ve spent a career working on making Denver a better home and place for all of us to live and work and to raise a family,” he said, adding, of his current consideration, “I’m listening to people and asking questions.”
Though the city Tate sought to lead in 2003 has changed enormously, he has intimate familiarity with city government, having served as an aide to Peña in 1990 and 1991. He also has experience in state government from his years as a state representative from 1997 to 2000, a state senator from 2000 to 2003, and Gov. Roy Romer’s appointee to run the Department of Administration, which is responsible for statewide human resources and for aiding in other administrative functions of state agencies.
Tate’s politics aren’t viewed as wildly divergent from Hancock’s. He’s long been a member of the same Colorado Democratic establishment of which Hancock is now a face. Tate served as vice chairman of the state party in the mid-90s.
Calderon, in contrast, differs starkly from Hancock in both ideology and style. If she runs, she’ll be among a handful of progressives challenging Hancock from the left. And, as one of the city’s most outspoken critics of his administration, she undoubtedly won’t pull punches.
She hasn’t said when she plans to announce if she’ll run, but she made clear she’s given it much thought and has held serious talks with community leaders who might support her.
A longtime watchdog of mismanagement, racial inequities and SNAFUs in Denver’s Safety Department, Calderon upped her jabs at Hancock when his administration ended the city’s contract with her reentry project late last year. She filed a lawsuit against Hancock and three others in April, alleging that the city retaliated against her after she criticized Hancock and Sheriff Patrick Firman for unjust treatment of black citizens and sheriff’s staff.
The administration has filed a motion to dismiss that suit, but the flap, Calderon said, is what motivated her consideration of a mayoral bid.
“There just does not seem to be any way to hold this mayor accountable, whether it’s from how contracts are handled in the city to his sexual harassment scandal, the only way to hold him accountable is to vote him out of office,” Calderon said.
Hancock, 49, was barely made to sweat when he sought a second term in 2015; he claimed 80 percent of the vote that year. His three opponents, Marcus Giavanni, Paul Noël Fiorino, and Chairman Sekú, received 9, 6 and 3 percent of the vote, respectively.
The crew of challengers for 2019 is already bigger than what Hancock faced last time, and it looks far more organized, even nine months before the election, when most voters aren’t aware of next May’s city election.
“The fact that there are more viable candidates and more viable potential candidates speaks to (Hancock’s) vulnerability, or at least the sense of it,” said Eric Sondermann, an independent political analyst. “There’s some sharks circling. All that said, … anyone who takes this on is in for a major uphill climb, but this will not be the cake-walk that his first re-election in 2015 was. I can imagine a scenario where this town is ready to made a change, but it would take all the stars lining up correctly and somebody running an almost flawless campaign.”
Denver has not voted out an incumbent mayor since 1983.
Among those who’ve formally filed their candidacies so far are Kayvan Khalatbari, who’s made his name largely in the businesses of pizza and cannabis, and who ran unsuccessfully for a council seat in 2015. He criticizes Hancock for a “deference to developers and international interests” and says he’s a more progressive choice for the city. Khalatbari has been running for mayor for the past year and a half.
The others are Giavanni and Sekú, again, plus Ken Simpson, who was the last-place vote-getter when he ran for mayor in 2011, and Kalyn Rose Heffernan, a first-time candidate and so far the only woman officially in the race.
Heffernan, a musician, music teacher and activist, said, “I think Denver has a lot at stake and the current mayor has not served his constituents, or at least the communities I’m most connected to.”
Those communities, she said, include disabled people (she uses a wheelchair and plays in the band Wheelchair Sports Camp) and “underserved, marginalized communities — the communities that don’t have a say or stake with the redevelopment and cultural eradication and recolonization of this city that we see every block.”
Candidates won’t even be able to start gathering signatures to qualify for the ballot until late in the winter, so there’s plenty of time for more people beyond the five who’ve already filed paperwork to throw in their names.
Hancock himself hasn’t even filed yet, even though he’s been organizing fundraisers. He’ll file in the coming weeks, said his campaign manager, Jake Martin.
“No reason why he hasn’t filed yet,” Martin emailed. “He’s focused on governing and addressing Denver’s biggest challenges, like affordable housing and traffic congestion. Filing the candidate affidavit is a necessary but small step toward running.”
For now, it appears there are no City Council members who are seeking to unseat Hancock in Denver’s strong-mayor form of government. In fact, a few members whose names have been floated as possible mayoral candidates have already filed to run for re-election to their seats, including Robin Kniech and Rafael Espinoza. Councilwoman Debbie Ortega, who some have pressed to seek the mayor’s office, plans to seek re-election to her at-large council seat, she said this week.
Beyond city hall, some members of Denver’s business community have eyed running for mayor.
Kelly Brough, CEO of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce, has explored a run, though several sources said this week that they believe she is leaning against it. Brough could not be reached for comment, as she is traveling internationally, colleagues said.
Developer Paul Tamburello, an influential player in Denver real estate, has held conversations about running to unseat Hancock. Tamburello owns Little Man Ice Cream and helped pioneer and personally coined the nickname for Denver’s LoHi neighborhood.
He declined to be interviewed for this story, but his assistant, Nancy Olsen, said a possible mayoral bid is “something he’s strongly considering, but it’s not anything that’s reportable. He’s privately thinking about it, but he’s not ready to talk about it.”