Denver mayoral hopefuls survive ‘biggest, baddest, sexiest’ debate of campaign season

The Colorado Statesman

If the crowd at New Era Colorado’s rowdy debate held Wednesday night in a LoDo bar had its say, Doug Linkhart would be Denver’s next mayor. But if the six leading mayoral candidates made the pick — and were forbidden from voting for themselves — then UFO enthusiast Jeff Peckman would be running the city.

During the April 6 debate at Casselman’s Bar, Michael Hancock, holding a bunch of organic carrots, describes how he wants to kick-start a locally grown food initiative in Denver if elected mayor.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman
Chris Romer holds a soccer ball, one of several props given to candidates at the freewheeling debate on April 6 at a LoDo bar.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman
Susan Daggett, wife of U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, and Laurie Romer, whose husband, Chris, is running for mayor, at the forum.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman
Denver mayoral candidates, from left, Carol Boigon, Michael Hancock, Doug Linkhart and James Mejia watch a big screen on stage during the April 6 debate at Casselman’s Bar.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman
Challenged by celebrity judge Eli Stokels of Fox31 News to dance “The Dougie,” mayoral candidates, from left, Carol Boigon, Michael Hancock, Doug Linkhart and James Mejia feel the groove on stage during a debate on April 6 at Casselman’s Bar.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

Jessica Cook Woodrum of One-Colorado, one of the moderators at the “Candidate Survivor” face-off, promised “the biggest, the baddest and the sexiest debate of the year,” and she wasn’t over-selling it. Candidates danced, downed shots, threw candy into the audience, answered questions posed by a young man dressed in a bedbug costume and generally loosened up in front of a crowd of roughly 500 at Casselman’s Bar & Venue.

It was the wildest candidate forum yet in a campaign season chock full of forums — by the May 3 election, every neighborhood, organization and interest group will likely have had the chance to question the hopefuls. The organizers of Wednesday’s debate only invited the top six candidates — the ones who have raised money and register on polling — although another four are also on the ballot.

Taking the stage were City Council members Linkhart, Carol Boigon and Michael Hancock; former state Sen. Chris Romer; former school board member and mayoral appointee James Mejia; and former prosecutor and Judge Magistrate Theresa Spahn. Candidates Ken Simpson, Danny Lopez, Thomas Wolf and Peckman weren’t invited, though Peckman’s name came up several times near the end of the debate.

Asked which candidate they would vote for if they weren’t on the ballot, Hancock, Linkhart, Mejia and Romer all said — maybe a little tongue-in-cheek — that they would vote Peckman. Spahn didn’t play along with the joke, instead saying she grew up with Lopez so she would vote for him. Despite intense pressure from the judges and the audience, Boigon refused to answer. “I’m going to take the B.S. flag, because I am not going to choose,” she said.

At the two-hour debate’s conclusion, the audience had the chance to pick the winner by text-messaging the candidates’ names on their cell phones. In the first round, Hancock dominated, followed by Romer, Mejia and Linkhart. Spahn and Boigon brought up the rear and were eliminated for the final round, which Linkhart won handily.

“We’re here to keep you honest and ask the tough questions,” said Ellen Dumm of the Campaign for a Strong Colorado, one of the debate’s judges — or referees, judging by their striped shirts. She was joined by Fox31 political reporter Eli Stokols and AM760 radio host Mario Solis-Marich. The judges were empowered to flash “B.S.” paddles if candidates started spouting sound bites and to add time to the clock if candidates dodged questions.

The debate started with the candidates revealing little-known facts about themselves. Mejia has run 50 marathons, speed-demon Romer is nicknamed “cannonball” by his mountain-biking friends, a distracted Linkhart recently drove off with the gas nozzle in his car, Hancock was the Broncos mascot during the 1987 Super Bowl season, and Boigon went to college with her mother’s earnings playing from the horses. But Spahn’s revelation was probably the choicest: When she was a deputy district attorney, she had to tell her boss to find a special prosecutor a few times because, she said she told him, “Yes, I dated that felon too.”

Answering a series of rapid-fire questions — by flashing paddles that read “Mos Def” on one side and “Probs Not” on the other — the six candidates agreed on a lot. They all back full marriage equality for same-sex couples, want to see Denver host a Winter Olympics, and support the city’s ban on pit bulls. Mejia was the only one who admitted to an arrest record, though he hastened to add it wasn’t in this country. “It was for an open-liquor violation in Tijuana,” he said and then Stokels quipped that he hadn’t known Tijuana even had open-liquor laws.

When the candidates had the chance to quiz each other, half the questions went to Romer. Boigon wanted to know if Romer would sign her petition against a recent pay raise for Denver elected officials. (He said he opposes the raise.)

Linkhart wanted to know how Romer “got the Wild West under control” by passing strict medical marijuana laws. (Romer said his bills helped get things under control.)

Mejia said the crowd was lucky to see Romer on stage since he’s skipped about half the debates so far in the campaign. “This is exactly what democracy should be,” Romer said. When the audience booed and the judges ordered Romer to answer the question, he pointed out that Mejia left a debate early and said all the candidates have packed schedules.

It was not Boigon’s crowd. The audience booed her repeatedly, including when she refused to say which of the other candidates would get her vote and when she started to say none of the candidates “had an upbringing quite as bad” as hers. (Later, she went into more detail on her childhood in Detroit and her six-year battle with polio, which left her without the use of her right arm.)

But the audience was all over Linkhart, who promised gay marriage and legalized marijuana by 2019 if he serves two terms as mayor. Hancock — the only candidate who wore a tropical shirt on the tiki-torched stage — also had the crowd cheering when he sent shots to the DJ, talked policy over a smooth soundtrack and vowed to bring “swagger” to city hall.

New Era Colorado promoted the event with a video tour of the candidates’ homes posted online. In the “Candidate Cribs” video, viewers learn that the Mejia household still relies on a VHS machine, Spahn keeps Miller Genuine Draft in the fridge and it’s a bad idea to play Boigon in checkers. Organizers said there’s a good chance the groups will sponsor another debate if there’s a run-off in the mayoral election.

Ernest@coloradostatesman.com