Ballots hit mailboxes, Denver mayoral campaigns hit home stretch in close race

The Colorado Statesman

As Denver election officials prepared to drop ballots in the mail on Thursday, the leading mayoral campaigns shifted into high gear this week: debuting TV ads, unfurling policy statements, unveiling key endorsements and announcing what can only be described as stunts in the chase for votes.

Despite 10 candidates appearing on the ballot for the May 3 election, by all indications the next two weeks could boil down to a cramped race between five candidates for second place and a spot in the June 7 run-off against front-runner former state Sen. Chris Romer.

Denver mayoral candidates talk city issues at a debate sponsored by the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce on April 8 in downtown Denver. From left, Carol Boigon, Michael Hancock, Doug Linkhart, Danny Lopez, James Mejia, Chris Romer, Theresa Spahn, Thomas Wolf and moderator Eli Stokols of Fox31 News.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman
Mayoral candidates Doug Linkhart, James Mejia, Michael Hancock and Carol Boigon sit on stage in the auditorium at Denver North High School for a candidate debate on April 9, part of the community Spring Fling at the school.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman
Mayoral candidate Doug Linkhart, left, talks politics with Denver Public Schools board member Arturo Jiménez after a forum at North High School in Denver on April 9.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman
Candidate James Mejia’s daughter Riley surveys the audience at a mayoral forum at North High School on April 8 in Denver.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman
Former Gov. Roy Romer and his wife, Bea, visit with voters after an April 8 debate that included their son Chris in downtown Denver.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

Denver voters, when it comes down to it, have a history of embracing the underdog in mayoral contests — just ask the city’s last three bosses, John Hickenlooper, Wellington Webb and Federico Peña, none considered anything but long-shots at the outset — but unlike previous elections without an incumbent, by most accounts the pack of challengers remains tightly bunched.

The other leading candidates, in alphabetical order — because each of their campaigns make a case they’re the one best suited to take on Romer — are City Council members Carol Boigon, Michael Hancock and Doug Linkhart, former school board member James Mejia and former prosecutor Theresa Spahn. (Of the five, Spahn is the only one not on the air, but she’s raised enough money to earn invitations to debates that ignore the four bottom-tier candidates and has snagged a handful of high-profile endorsements.)

If no candidate wins more than 50 percent of the vote in the May 3 election, the top two vote-getters will face each other in the winner-take-all run-off. With 10 candidates — also including city employee Danny Lopez, who won 10,000 votes in what amounted to a token challenge to incumbent Hickenlooper four years ago, UFO and peace activist Jeff Peckman, city employee Ken Simpson and businessman Thomas Wolf — and the unpredictable turnout of the city’s first all-mail election, it’s no wonder pollsters and the campaign’s own internal tracking are finding vast numbers of undecided or uncommitted voters.

By most measurable standards, though, Romer leads the race. With more than $1 million banked through the end of March, he’s raised nearly twice the total of any of the other candidates. The son of former three-term Gov. Roy Romer, unsurprisingly, scores high name identification and had a double-digit lead in the only public poll released so far. He’s also spent the most on TV commercials, flooding screens with two slickly produced ads touting his education background and the travails of a cupcake truck that ran into some city red tape.

Romer also won the endorsement of The Denver Post at the beginning of the month. (Mejia also got high marks from the newspaper, whose publisher, Dean Singleton, said in a radio interview last month that he thinks Mejia will be Denver’s next mayor.) And his campaign regularly rolls out endorsements from members of various communities — business leaders, labor unions, lawmakers and educators — every time one of his challengers appears to take a claim to a voting bloc.

Three candidates released ads this week, but campaign officials promised plenty more as soon as voters have ballots in hand.

Boigon, who has been on the air longer than any of the candidates, released an ad touting her plan to lure light-manufacturing jobs to Denver. But she gets in a jab at Linkhart, her fellow at-large councilmember, with a firm pronouncement about medical marijuana in the ad’s opening.

“Whether you support medical marijuana or not, putting dispensaries everywhere is not a jobs plan,” she says. Linkhart, who backs full legalization of marijuana, held a fundraiser last week at a medical marijuana dispensary, and his supporters point to recent citywide votes to decriminalize the drug as evidence his position is hardly radical.

In his first ad, released mid-week, Linkhart features former state Sen. Pat Pascoe, former Manager of Safety J.D. MacFarlane, and anti-gang icon Rev. Leon Kelly, among others, delivering the message that the longtime elected official understands Denver and can get things done.

The Linkhart campaign said the 30-second ad would air early mornings on CBS4 because, according to spokeswoman Amanda Snipes, that’s the most cost-effective way to reach older voters. And the ad’s run will have to be cost-effective — with an initial $11,000 buy, the Linkhart campaign is spending less on TV advertising than the Romer campaign spends on a typical afternoon.

Mejia followed up an earlier introductory ad with a 15-second spot touting his experience as an experienced city cabinet member who can get things done. His campaign said it’s the first in a series delivering brief, punchy messages about his experience and his plans.

On Thursday, Mejia won the endorsement of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, a day after posting a down-the-middle column crediting both sides in a vicious battle over Denver Public Schools reforms. He also appeared this week with a group of small business owners to unveil his “Denver Made: Buy Denver, Hire Denver” logo and talk about his proposal to encourage city purchases within city limits, a plan some of his opponents said could undermine metro-area cooperation and wall off city businesses from big potential customers around the country.

Romer hauled out legendary concert promoter Barry Fey — whose name was synonymous with Denver’s music scene for decades — to back his vision for supporting the arts and culture in the city, which involves public-private partnerships and treating artists like businesses.

On Equal Pay Day — this year it was April 12 — designed to mark that women only earn 77 cents for every dollar earned by men, Boigon released a position paper on her plans to further women’s rights. She said she intends to promote equal pay for equal work and make sure women have access to prenatal care.

The same day the state’s congressional delegation released a plea for General Electric to pick Colorado as the site of the nation’s largest solar panel manufacturing plant, Hancock announced that he was also working to lure the project — and a projected 1,000 jobs — to the area. “Our city needs a Marketer-in-Chief to elevate Denver’s brand as a business-friendly city with the highest quality of life by personally and aggressively pursuing these companies,” he said in a release detailing a letter he sent to GE.

In the week before ballots went out, candidates participated in what has become a trademark of this election — a seemingly endless series of debates, sometimes as many as three in a single day. This week’s crop included forums sponsored by the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, Denver Near Northeast Neighborhoods, the North High School Spring Fling, Denver Urban Spectrum and El Semanario, Colorado Public Television, The Denver Post and 9News, Denver city employees, Northwest and West neighborhood groups, Stapleton Front Porch and the League of Women Voters.

Starting late this week, campaign watchers are likely to be hitting the “refresh” button with some frequency on the Denver Post and 9News websites to learn the results of a Survey USA poll conducted early this week and sponsored by the two news organizations. While the results might not tell the campaigns anything they’re not finding out in daily tracking polls, a strong showing by any of the second-tier candidates could be a powerful fundraising tool and a jolt for get-out-the-vote efforts. Likewise, expect trailing candidates to call into question the poll’s sample size and methodology as they reassure supporters they’ve got votes the robocalls didn’t find.

Over the next couple weeks, candidates will have to disclose fundraising details as the election nears. Beginning April 27, reports are due within 24 hours of receiving large donations, and the final campaign finance report covering April fundraising is due the next day.

But it wouldn’t be campaign season without at least a few stunts — no doubt heartfelt and symbolic — and the mayoral candidates didn’t let the city down this week. To mark the delivery of mail ballots, Romer announced he intended to take the No. 15 bus from Colfax and Broadway to his office on Fillmore Street on Friday morning. Linkhart planned a concert featuring a John Denver impersonator to kick off the push for ballots. And Hancock scheduled a symbolic passing of the sneakers from Webb on Saturday, invoking the former mayor’s come-from-behind victory in the 1991 race when he famously logged hundreds of miles walking across the city.

Ernest@coloradostatesman.com