Denver mayoral candidates offer sunny spin in Sun Valley

The Colorado Statesman

No one disputes that Denver’s Sun Valley neighborhood — notoriously the state’s poorest and, according to some observers, among its most overlooked — faces tremendous challenges. Last weekend, mayoral candidates vied to see who best understood just how extensive those challenges are.

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Two weeks before voters can start returning mail ballots for the May 3 municipal election, eight candidates for mayor — seven of the 10 who will appear on ballots and a write-in hopeful — appeared on stage at the Sun Valley Youth Center on the afternoon of April 3 to address questions specific to the neighborhood.

Second-grader Matthew Deferse, right, poses questions about Denver’s Sun Valley neighborhood to mayoral candidates, from left, Michael Hancock, Doug Linkhart, Jeff Peckman, Carol Boigon, Ken Simpson, Theresa Spahn, James Mejia and Paul Fiorino during a candidate forum on April 2 at the Sun Valley Youth Center.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman
Mayoral candidates raise flash cards in response to a question about neighborhood demographics from Fairview Elementary School student Matthew Deferese, right, at a forum in Denver’s Sun Valley neighborhood on March 31. From left, candidates Ken Simpson, Theresa Spahn, James Mejia and Paul Noel Fiorino.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

Should medical marijuana grow operations be allowed close to residences? How can the city intervene quickly in domestic violence situations? Why does the planned bridge to the light rail station under construction look like a magnet for crime? And the unspoken question beneath all the others: What will you do as mayor to make sure we’re not left behind?

“In this community, the kids look up to the kids that can make it through graduation or the age of 18 without catching a knife,” said forum moderator and longtime resident Phil Kaspar. Instead of the usual community heroes, he continued, the children of Sun Valley have to stretch to find role models “because when the police come into this community, they come in to hunt… When police come into the community, the kids hide.”

Sun Valley residents, Kaspar said, are tired of looking for heroes. They want some answers.

But before pressing the candidates on policy questions, forum organizers opened the debate with their version of “Are You Smarter than a 5th Grader?” Fairview Elementary School second-grader Matthew Deferse posed a series of multiple-choice questions, many of which boiled down to, “Do you know how tough we have it here in Sun Valley?”

“What percentage of Sun Valley residents are people of color,” Deferse asked, and then supplied a lengthy list of ethnicities and nationalities. “You have one minute to answer.” (The correct answer, based on government data, is 92 percent, and about half the candidates got that one right.)

The largely industrial neighborhood of 1,400 residents is sandwiched between the 6th Avenue freeway and West Colfax Avenue, Federal Boulevard and the South Platte River. Fewer than half of Sun Valley’s adult residents have a high school diploma, and the neighborhood houses a large immigrant population, evidenced by the simultaneous translation of the forum proceedings into Spanish, Somali and Vietnamese.

Forum participants included City Council members Carol Boigon, Michael Hancock and Doug Linkhart; former Parks and Recreation director James Mejia; former Judge Magistrate Theresa Spahn; city employee Ken Simpson; UFO activist Jeff Peckman; and write-in candidate Paul Noel Fiorino, a ballet studio owner and promoter of the arts. Former state Sen. Chris Romer, city worker Danny Lopez and businessman Thomas Wolf didn’t attend.

Kaspar first asked why each candidate wants to be mayor, “and what’s in it for us?”

Surveying the crowd of about 80 residents, scattered with plenty of young mothers and children — including a row of Deferse’s Fairview classmates — Boigon said she wants to be mayor “because my work with children and families is not over.” She grew up in Detroit, she said, so she’s no stranger to economic hard times, and a bout of childhood polio left her determined to take unconventional approaches to problems. “I think differently about issues,” she said. “I always start with what do we want to achieve and then ask, how do we get there?”

Peckman said he has spent his lifetime “collecting a wide range of cost-effective solutions” and referred voters to his website for some of them. He also praised Sun Valley for providing the highest margin backing his 2003 city ballot initiative to “increase peacefulness,” though citywide voters shot down the proposal.

Pointing out that he’s long represented Sun Valley on city council and in the Legislature, Linkhart said he’s fought for the neighborhood and plans to continue fighting. “You need a mayor who will partner with you to put Sun Valley on the map — not as a place of poverty or a place of crime, but a place of pride,” he said.

Hancock relayed his childhood growing up in public housing and added that “the mayor should have some understanding, some sympathy, some empathy for everyone who lives in the city.”

Decrying voter apathy, Fiorino said his campaign “is about bringing the arts, bringing the humanities to the forefront,” and said his experience helping turn the nearby Golden Triangle neighborhood into a gallery center could help other parts of Denver.

Mejia told the crowd he was no stranger to Sun Valley. He unveiled his economic development plan just a few blocks from the youth center and last month accepted the endorsement of former Mayor Federico Peña in the neighborhood. Saying he was determined to “develop neighborhoods some people have given up on,” Mejia said Pena’s vision kicking off development in the Central Platte Valley — one of Denver’s hotspots 20 years later — would be a model for other neighborhoods, including Sun Valley.

“Even with the economic downturn, there’s a tremendous opportunity for change,” Spahn said. She said she understood the importance of neighborhoods like Sun Valley because it was North Denver neighbors and community leaders who “pulled me up” when she didn’t finish high school.

Saying he is the candidate “most like you,” Simpson rattled off far-flung area codes and the names of CEOs, vowing to make phone calls on his first day in office to see if Apple Computer, Amazon and Wal-Mart might want to build facilities in Denver.

Asked about allowing medical marijuana stores in neighborhoods, most of the candidates agreed that retail establishments should be highly regulated to keep them away from schools and children.

“The voters of Colorado passed medical marijuana and I support their will,” Boigon said. “They did not vote for legalization, and I think we’ve gone too far. Sick people ought to have medicine, properly regulated, but we don’t need what we have now.”

Kaspar wanted to know what the next mayor is going to do to hold police accountable. “We are the people police profile, here in Sun Valley,” he asked Boigon and Mejia, who were paired to debate his question. “Nobody here is treated with respect.”

“I’m looking around this room,” Boigon said. “I don’t see a room full of criminals.” She added, “We need to know that our police are well trained, they understand the standards, and that our discipline is transparent and fair.”

She didn’t get any disagreement from Mejia. He asked the crowd to imagine what it was like to hear your son being beaten by police on the other end of a cell phone call, as happened to Pueblo resident Anthony DeHerrera in 2009 while his son Michael called from Denver in distress. Last week, the city fired two officers involved in the beating, a two-year delay Mejia called “insufficient.” He added, “If there was any other question of assault in the community, the resolution of that case would be within six months or less. We need to hold our police to the same level of accountability, if not a higher standard.”

Hancock said he liked a Sun Valley resident’s suggestion that Denver adopt a model program to make it easier for domestic violence victims to navigate bureaucracy to safety. Saying that domestic abuse claimed the life of his sister, Hancock said Denver victims face too many hurdles, in some cases being shunted 25 different places to get help.

He vowed to create a family justice center, which would provide a “one-stop shop for victims of domestic violence,” Hancock said. “You should be able to walk through one door, find the protective order you need, find the shelter you need, even have your dog taken care of, make sure your children are taken care of.”

Linkhart decried the current state of city services for people with developmental disabilities — the waiting list can be as long as 10 years — and said it was time for Denver to reorient priorities. “This city has invested billions and billions of dollars in buildings — airports, convention centers, stadiums — it’s time to invest in people.”

Ernest@coloradostatesman.com