Millennials — wild card in Denver’s Tuesday mayoral, council runoff?

Residents between 23 and 38 years old make up half the city’s 471,403 registered voters

Diners enjoy spring weather at a restaurant in Capitol Hill, a popular Denver neighborhood among millennials. (Photo by Austin Fleskes,
Diners enjoy spring weather at a restaurant in Capitol Hill, a popular Denver neighborhood among millennials. (Photo by Austin Fleskes, Colorado Independent)

Danielle Roth Serban is a 30-year-old business development director for a Denver recruitment agency, and if you ask her who she is going to vote in the city’s heated mayoral election, she’ll tell you she’s not thrilled by either Mayor Michael Hancock or challenger Jamie Giellis.

“I don’t think either of them are particularly people that I would respect on a personal level,” she told The Colorado Independent Friday while taking a break with her husband at a Capitol Hill Starbucks.

“Honestly, I am not excited about either of them, but I realize I have to choose. I think Denver has flourished, for the most part, under Hancock. I don’t love the sexual harassment stuff that is coming out. But I also don’t love Jamie Giellis’ racial insensitivity and her general ignorance around everything it takes to run a city beyond city planning, which seems to be her big thing.”

As a millennial – the generation that includes people aged 23 to 38 – Roth Serban and her cohorts are expected to have a major influence on who becomes Denver’s next mayor. They make up half the city’s 471,403 registered voters. By age, 29-year-olds are the largest group of registered voters in Denver (15,746), outnumbering 50-year-old registered voters two-to-one, Denver Elections Division numbers show.

Denver Voter Registration By Age

Chart courtesy of Denver Elections Division

Young adults are notoriously unreliable voters. But in the 2018 midterms, millennials showed up in record numbers nationally and in Colorado, where they elected two of their own, Secretary of State Jena Griswold and Rep. Joe Neguse, then both 34.

They helped boost turnout in Denver’s May 7 municipal election to 39.6%, a fairly high showing by historical standards, according to the Denver Elections Division. Veteran Denver political pollster Floyd Ciruli predicts millennials will show up in big numbers again for Tuesday’s runoff, which will also determine five city council seats and the city clerk and recorder, and whether voters should get to decide if public money should be spent to host future Olympics.

Ciruli won’t venture a guess as to which candidate millennials will favor. “We know they are not party loyal. And that’s what’s exciting, interesting. Millennials could be a deciding factor” in this race, he said.

Affordable housing and renters’ rights

The thousands of millennials who’ve swelled Denver’s and Colorado’s populations in the past five years are generally well-educated and tend to lean left politically. They’re less likely to drive cars than their parents and are far more likely to smoke pot and believe that government “should do more to solve problems.” They see “increasing racial/ethnic diversity” as a good thing.” Those with a bachelor’s degree and  full-time job reported median earnings of $56,000 in 2018, nationally, while those without a degree made $36,000.

That makes it hard to afford housing in Denver, where median rent is $1,602, and the median home price is $424,700.

In recent city elections, “The things I have looked at are affordable housing and renters’ rights,” said Brian Bunton, 27, a Giellis backer who said he plans to become a marijuana budtender.  Transportation, including safe sidewalks and pedestrian rights, are also important “since I walk around a lot,” said Bunton, who spoke to a reporter at Pablo’s Coffee on 6th Avenue on Friday.

Roth Serban, the 30-year-old business development director, echoed that. Denver should do more for its poor and homeless, but “I can’t say that I think heavily about ‘how are we going to stop homelessness.’ I think affordable housing is probably more top of mind.”

She said she will vote for Hancock, who won 39% of the total vote in May, forcing him into a runoff with Giellis, who came in second with 26%.

The millennial vote in the past election

Maps from the Denver Elections Division show the greatest concentrations of millennial-aged voters, by precinct. How they voted in the May 7 election might suggest how they’ll vote Tuesday, although it’s only a guess because the maps don’t take into account the non-millennial vote in those precincts.

In Zip Code 80203, the Capitol Hill-Golden Triangle area, home to one of Denver’s largest millennial populations, Hancock prevailed over Giellis. In several other millennial rich precincts, Hancock bested Giellis by varying margins, with his strongest showings in Gateway/Green Valley precincts, where he grew up, winning 58% of the vote to Giellis’s 15%, and in Lowry, where he won 44% to Giellis’s 24%.

In the Curtis Park-Five Points precincts, the spread was about 10% in his favor, as it was in two precincts in the University of Denver neighborhood. In the Baker neighborhood, Hancock won 29% to Giellis’s 24%, the smallest margin of the precincts.

Top issues in the runoff

Ciruli says there are a few universal concerns in this election. “Polls I have conducted in the past three to four years indicate growth is the No. 1 issue. There’s consistently a cluster around affordable housing, transportation, congestion, homelessness and gentrification and, in the most sensitive communities, the preservation of community,” he said.  

Some who have followed the election argue the rapid development in Denver has split voters into essentially two camps, NIMBYs and YIMBYs (Not-in-my-back-yarders vs. Yes-in-my-back-yarders.) NIMBYs, who oppose large-scale development and infill projects that often clash with a neighborhood’s existing architecture, are presumably older, more established residents seeking to protect Denver’s unique neighborhoods. Many of those voters say Mayor Hancock has allowed developers to destroy charming blocks by slapping up poorly designed, big-box developments that increase congestion, displace lower-income families, reduce the city’s public spaces and tree canopy, and lower its quality of life.

On the other hand, the YIMBY camp might not find Denver’s boom all that bad. YIMBYs include millennials, many of whom struggle to find affordable housing or feel Denver’s elected leaders are morally obligated to help those who do. They also include business owners who see development, including high-density housing, as a necessary byproduct of a prosperous, dynamic city.  

YIMBYs argue the best way to lower housing costs is to increase supply. They say there is plenty of room for more people in Denver and that well-designed high-density housing is the best answer to the city’s affordability crisis, gentrification, traffic congestion and environmental challenges. A smart mix of retail and residential also serves people’s need for human connectivity, they add.

No matter what their age, Denver voters will be delivering a referendum on the city’s management over the past eight years, says pollster Ciruli.

“Hancock and the council recognized they had a development problem,” but they didn’t put the brakes on big development fast enough, Ciruli says.  “The public didn’t see enough ‘no’ – nothing dramatic enough. It’s development and growth – the issue is really framed by this election.”

“Millennials changed the environment 100%, and we’ve had a hard time catching up to the growth.”


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