Candidates for Denver mayor get down to business

The Colorado Statesman

If you ask Denver mayoral candidate Jeff Peckman how to fix what ails the city, he’ll tell you: All you need is love. The other candidates at a downtown forum on Wednesday afternoon — while not expressly rejecting love — had some different ideas.

“One of these people is going to be the next mayor,” said political analyst Floyd Ciruli, who grilled a dozen candidates with a focus on economic development at the two-hour forum sponsored by the Denver Petroleum Club in a ballroom at the Denver Athletic Club.

Asked how the candidates might persuade a CEO to move her company to Denver, after a few assertions that the Mile High City’s abundant sunshine, mountain parks and bike paths would do the trick, candidates began delving into more difficult questions about the school system, police force and a structural budget deficit.

Denver mayoral candidate Paul Fiorino answers a question at a forum sponsored by the Denver Petroleum Club on March 2 at the Denver Athletic Club. The other candidates in attendance, from left, are Councilwoman Carol Boigon, Councilman Michael Hancock, Dwight Henson, Councilman Doug Linkhart, past mayoral candidate Danny Lopez, James Mejia, Jeff Peckman, former state Sen. Chris Romer, Kenneth Simpson, Theresa Spahn and Eric Zinn. Petitions are due March 9 and the field could shrink after that.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

Councilman Doug Linkhart took the question first. “I would say we have great schools, we have good neighborhoods,” he said. Traditional methods of “dangling incentives” in front of larger companies fall short, he said, because those businesses are as likely to move on chasing even better incentives. The city needs to mind the details, Linkhart said, because it’s “little steps that can get you big results, not just going for the home run”

Theresa Spahn said her hypothetical conversation with the CEO — supposedly taking place in an airplane bound for DIA — would stress the top-ranked airport, the city’s “great educated workforce” and quality-of-life amenities. In addition, she said, “we are tax-friendly when it comes to corporations.”

Danny Lopez — who bills himself as the working-man’s candidate and points to the 10,000 votes he won four years ago challenging then-Mayor John Hickenlooper — said he “cannot understand why any corporation wouldn’t come here” and finally allowed that he “would be more enthusiastic about promoting our city.”

Councilwoman Carol Boigon said she would tell the CEO that her administration will help cut through regulatory red tape, admitting, “We know we’re not easy.” With DIA, two interstate highways and freight rail, she said any business should consider the city’s value as a distribution hub. In addition, she added, “For good or for ill, we have one of the lowest tax structures in the country, and that makes us a haven for many companies.”

Then she turned her attention to Denver’s tax system, which experts say could lead to enormous built-in deficits as far as the eye can see. The problem is relying too much on retail sales tax, “taxing goods when we are a service-oriented economy.” The city can close about half of its anticipated $100 million budget gap by “stretching,” Boigon said, “And then we’re going to have to move into this world of new economic development.”

“We’re going to have to have some tough conversations” when it comes to Denver’s structural deficit, former state Sen. Chris Romer said repeatedly. He said the city can probably grow out of about $50 million of the deficit it’s been facing since the recession hit but fixing the remainder will require fundamental fixes to the way the city does business. Those changes could include yielding greater efficiencies out of departments and perhaps merging some. “We need to expect more out of city hall, which means we’re going to have to do more with less,” he said.

Councilman Michael Hancock took credit for initiating a fiscal policy task force recently impaneled by Mayor Bill Vidal. “We’ve got to stop kicking the can down the road,” he said, painting a more dire picture than some of the other candidates. If the city doesn’t figure out how to reorder its revenue structure, he said some have warned Denver will be facing $500 million imbalances in another five years.

James Mejia said his budget-cutting proposals are “not theoretical” and pointed to efficiencies he won from the city’s parks department when he ran it. When Denver tried to bring Boeing’s corporate headquarters to town and he helped lead that effort, Mejia said, what attracted the company “wasn’t incentives, it was quality of life.” But the reason the company instead picked its other finalist, Chicago, Mejia said, was a sub-par school system — “We’ve got a lot of work to do there,” Mejia noted — and a lack of direct international flights out of DIA. “Comparing Denver to Chicago, we fell short,” he said.

When the conversation turned to Denver’s schools, Mejia sounded the alarm.

Noting that he doesn’t think the mayor should have direct control over Denver Public Schools — by law, the school board runs things — Mejia nonetheless said it was the mayor’s job to help fix the schools. “Every world-class city has a world-class education system, and, folks, we’ve got a lot of work to do in that regard,” he said. The situation was grim, he said. “When 7 percent — 7 percent! — of kids are graduating from our high schools ready to go to college, we are not doing a good enough job.”

Hancock batted back suggestions he’s called for a mayoral take-over of Denver schools — his staff said remarks at an earlier forum have grown in the telling, mischaracterizing his point — but reiterated his belief that the mayor will play a key role in education.

“I hope you hear me very clearly,” Hancock said. “The most important election to Denver Public Schools will be the mayoral election in May.” He continued: “The mayor doesn’t have to control schools, but the mayor should be a pure and unadulterated partner of Denver Public Schools.”

Asked by Ciruli to articulate a vision for transit in Denver, Linkhart said he supports taking a proposed 0.4-percent tax increase to voters this fall to finish the FasTracks project. But he allowed that officials should consider waiting a year or only asking for half as much if polling shows voters won’t approve the bigger package. Equally important, he said, is making sure everyone can easily get to light rail stations, but he didn’t understate the importance of finishing RTD’s plan. “It’s the economic engine for this decade,” he said.

When the discussion turned to problems Denver has had with police brutality lawsuits and other allegations Denver cops mistreat citizens, several candidates used the term “a few bad apples,” but had differing suggestions on how to fix things.

“We have a problem,” Spahn said. “Our citizens have a right to not fear the police department.” She said she would launch a national search for a new chief of police, noting the city has never hired a boss from outside its own ranks. “We need to fix that problem,” she said.

Candidate Kenneth Simpson said he would make it a priority to move all the cops currently at DIA back to the inner city to patrol “crime-infested areas.”

Dwight Henson, who opened by telling the crowd, “I’m the extreme one up here,” proposed opening casinos in Denver so all the money doesn’t drive its way up into the foothills.

Paul Fiorino said promoting tourism is the best economic development strategy because once business leaders see Colorado they’ll want to move here.

Eric Zinn stressed the importance of paying use taxes — a substitute for sales tax for purchases made out of state. After asking for a show of hands to indicate who has bought something online, he said he bet no one paid what they legally owed the city. “Nobody pays their use taxes — I pay my use taxes,” he said. “It might not solve the budget problem, but it certainly might move it in the right step and it’s something we all should do.”

Peckman was full of unconventional ideas, at one point acknowledging that the extraterrestrial commission he placed on last year’s ballot “might sound like a weird thing,” even though the Vatican and Saudi Arabia later held conferences on the topic. He also proposed that Denver print its own currency. The others didn’t say what they thought of this plan.

Hours before the forum, the Romer campaign trumpeted a February fundraising take of more than $250,000 — bringing his total haul to about $730,000 — noting that the short month is traditionally a challenging one for municipal candidates. Boigon and Mejia’s campaign managers said they would release their February fundraising totals on Monday and spokespeople for other campaigns said to expect results by then.

The contest could narrow considerably next week after the March 9 petition deadline. At press time, six candidates — Mejia, Hancock, Romer, Spahn, Boigon and Lopez — had turned in petitions and the Denver Elections Division had certified Mejia for the ballot. In total, 17 candidates have pulled petitions for mayor. (Denver statutes require 300 valid signatures for citywide office — also including auditor, city clerk and the two at-large council seats — and 100 valid signatures for district City Council seats.)

Denver’s municipal election will be conducted entirely by mail; ballots go out April 15. There will also be voting centers set up around the city in late April. If no candidate gets a clear majority in the May 3 election, there will be a run-off between the top two finishers on June 7. Mail ballots for that election go out May 20.