Mayor race tightens, charges start flying

The Colorado Statesman

As Denver voters began returning ballots this week, the leading candidates for a spot in the June mayoral runoff have kept their heads down and their elbows out.

It’s all about chasing votes in the city’s first all-mail municipal election, aides to the leading campaigns say, and each boasts a turnout machine they say will get their candidates across the finish line. But in the wake of this week’s Denver Post poll showing three candidates — Chris Romer, James Mejia and Michael Hancock — in a statistical dead heat, the front-runners have been peppering their closing arguments with jabs at each other.

Mayoral candidate Michael Hancock, left, confers with supporter John Huggins, former economic development director for the Hickenlooper mayoral administration, during a musical fundraiser for Hancock’s campaign on April 18 at the Soiled Dove Underground in Lowry.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman
R&B singer Mary Louise Lee, wife of mayoral candidate Michael Hancock, belts out a signature tune at a Hancock fundraiser on April 18 at the Soiled Dove Underground.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman
Mayoral candidate James Mejia, left, greets Ellen Hart, whose former husband, Federico Peña, served two terms as Denver’s mayor and has endorsed Mejia, during an April 18 reunion at the Capitol Hill Mansion Bed & Breakfast for families that played host to the candidate when he spent the night in homes throughout the city.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman
Former state Treasurer Cary Kennedy, right, endorses Chris Romer for mayor at a press conference on April 20 at Romer’s campaign headquarters in Denver.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

Voters have until May 3 to return ballots. If none of the candidates surpass 50 percent of the vote, the top two finishers advance to a June 7 runoff, which will also be conducted entirely by mail. Ten candidates are on the ballot, but only nine are still in the race following Councilwoman Carol Boigon’s withdrawal on Monday after poll results showed her trailing the leaders by double digits. She immediately endorsed Hancock but didn’t quit the race early enough to prevent her votes from being counted.

While voters are being deluged with phone calls, brochures, e-mails, television ads and knocks on the door, the campaigns are still finding the time to get in digs at opponents.

“It’s a three-way race and Michael has been continuously gaining momentum,” said Hancock campaign spokeswoman Amber Miller. “The Denver Post poll was a snapshot of what’s been happening. We’ve continued to gain momentum while Romer has stayed where he started.”

A poll conducted a month ago by RBI Strategies & Research for the website ColoradoPols.com showed Romer leading the field with 22 percent support, followed by 10 percent for Mejia and 9 percent for Hancock. This week, in the only other publicly released survey in the mayoral race, a SurveyUSA poll sponsored by The Denver Post and 9News showed Romer’s support unchanged but Mejia had pulled even with Romer and Hancock scored 18 percent, a statistical tie considering the poll’s margin of error.

“Within our own campaign, since the latest poll came out, and ballots were mailed, the increase in inbound calls and volunteers walking in has been significant,” said Mejia campaign manager Berrick Abramson. “It suddenly became very real to the voters that this is going to be decided over this next two-week period. That poll clearly showed that Chris Romer is very beatable, and that James Mejia is best positioned to do it.”

“I think we’re still in the driver’s seat,” said Romer campaign manager Adam Dunstone, whose candidate outpaced competitors by raising more than $1 million through March and has been blanketing the air with TV ads. “I’m really confident in our get-out-the-vote program because of the sheer size and scale of it.”

Dunstone, who was deputy campaign manager for Democrat Michael Bennet’s winning Senate campaign last year, promised a turnout effort beyond anything the city has seen. “It’s bigger than the one I did for Bennet, and that was big,” he said, adding that, “it’s on a scale that’s pretty incredible, and we’re excited about it.”

In nearly the same breath, Dunstone said the Romer campaign would remain positive and got in a dig at Mejia over legislation Romer sponsored when he was in the state Senate.

“We’re just going after this thing and we’re telling Chris’ story,” Dunstone said. “On the tuition equity fight, this has been (Romer’s) life’s work — he’s been in the trenches fighting for vulnerable populations. Mejia hasn’t shown up for those battles on tuition equity, payday lending.”

Last week the state Senate passed the ASSET bill, which would allow undocumented students to get in-state tuition rates at colleges and universities. All the candidates have said they support the legislation, and its fate now rests with the Republican-controlled state House.

“It’s clear from the increase in swings being taken by both of our top opponents in this race that everybody knows how close this is and people are fighting for the littlest pieces of ground,” Abramson said. He quickly added, “It was a bit offensive for Chris Romer to attack James Mejia over what James has done for the Latino community.”

The back-and-forth started with a jab from Mejia over the number of debates Romer has skipped — Romer has attended about 60 percent of the more than four dozen debates thrown by nearly every imaginable group in Denver, saying he needs to spend some time campaigning outside forums — but quickly spiraled into other, bigger topics. Though Mejia had lobbed the attendance jibe before, this week Romer shot back that Mejia was absent when Latino leaders gathered at the Capitol in 2009 to get behind the tuition equity bill, which failed to make it out of the Senate that year.

The Mejia campaign was having none of it. “Chris is talking about the push for the tuition equity bill, and asking where James was,” Abramson said, barely keeping the anger in his voice in check. “James was expecting his elected leaders to lead and do their jobs and get that bill passed. At that time, James was doing his job, ensuring that more than 15,000 children across Denver got access to early childhood education.” Mejia was the founding CEO of the Denver Preschool Program, an organization that funds preschool for city youth.

Picking up an attack launched by Boigon before she dropped out, Romer took a swing at Hancock, without naming him, at a debate Wednesday night at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law. Asked whether he would accept a pay raise city council recently approved — with Hancock’s support — if he’s elected mayor, Romer said, “No. It was a horrible vote and it lacked leadership.”

For his part, Hancock repeated the explanation he’s given since casting the vote a month ago: elected officials should be able to support a family, and were due a raise after it’s been postponed several years.

The campaigns have only turned mildly negative — or started to draw sharper distinctions, as they would say — in recent weeks, in part because the field was so crowded. If candidate A goes on the attack against Candidate B, there’s no guarantee it won’t, instead, benefit Candidate C, political analysts say, encouraging everybody to keep their powder dry.

Up until the weekend’s poll was released, Romer — who proudly declares his fellow mountain bikers nicknamed him “Cannonball,” for the speed his extra weight helps generate on a downhill run — was barreling toward the runoff, seemingly with ease. But since the survey showed the race had tightened, the one-time clear front-runner has been sharpening his attacks.

Before she withdrew from the race, Boigon had been the only candidate to take swipes at rivals on the air, blistering fellow city Council members Hancock and Doug Linkhart for supporting the city hall pay raise she opposed and slapping Linkhart with an oblique reference to his support from the city’s medical marijuana community in television ads.

Romer, Mejia and Boigon have each spent tens of thousands of dollars on opposition research — Boigon paid a Washington, D.C., firm nearly $24,000 for material she’ll have to keep to herself, since sharing it with another campaign would violate in-kind campaign contribution limits, Denver election officials said — but Hancock’s campaign says he hasn’t spent a dime on opposition research and last month challenged Romer to run a “clean campaign.”

“We’re not going negative,” Miller said. “We’re going to run a positive campaign.”

Still, Hancock got in a sideways jab at Mejia — later echoed by Romer — during a televised debate on Tuesday when asked to state what differentiates himself from other candidates.

“I’ve taken a very strong position on reforming schools,” Hancock said. Referencing Denver Public Schools’ divisive Northeast Turnaround Plan, which spurred a recent failed attempt to recall a school board member, he added, “Some of my opponents have waffled and waved on that issue — saying they would have voted for it, they wouldn’t have voted for it. As a leader, you don’t have time to make that decision or to play games with that decision.”

Romer picked up the attack at a debate on Wednesday, again without naming Mejia, who sat on the DPS board during the first half of last decade. Asked about the school reform plan, Romer answered, “I’d also like to point out one of my colleagues up here has had three answers on this question: Yes, no and maybe.”

Hogwash, said a Mejia spokesman. “James has been very clear that he supports efforts to reform and improve underperforming schools but supporting the intent does not mean he has agreed with the process,” Abramson said. He continued: “His concerns are rooted in the process which he believes has significant room for improvement in its outreach efforts, the tone of the dialogue involved and the time it takes to bring about the needed changes. In many cases, the process needs to be faster and in all cases, the community must be better engaged.”

The other two major candidates — Linkhart and former Judge Magistrate Theresa Spahn — have remained mostly on the sidelines as the top three candidates go after each other, instead sticking to the messages they’ve honed through the campaign.

The unabashedly liberal Linkhart makes the case that Denver needs to spend more on preventing problems than on cleaning them up later. This week, he blasted the city for planning to shutter as many as a dozen library branches in the face of a $100 million budget shortfall.

“As mayor, I will invest in our community by allocating our scarce resources to our most important services,” Linkhart said in a statement. “Denver Public Library has proven its value. For every $1 we invest, we get back $5 in value added to our community. Basically, we can’t afford not to fund libraries.”

Spahn — who was excluded from a televised debate that featured Romer, Mejia, Hancock and Linkhart on Tuesday because, sponsor Aaron Harber said, she wasn’t polling above the margin of error — continues to argue that an outsider’s perspective is what Denver needs. She points to her record founding and managing a statewide agency charged with protecting children.

“The tweets of my campaign’s demise have been highly exaggerated,” Spahn declared on her Twitter account as Tuesday’s debate got under way without her. Rather than take the night off, Spahn launched a telephone town hall with supporter Councilwoman Marcia Johnson.

Four other candidates are on the ballot but they aren’t spending much money — one boasts he hasn’t “taken a dime” to run his campaign. Danny Lopez, Ken Simpson, Thomas Wolf and Jeff Peckman dutifully attend forums when they’re invited but, collectively, haven’t registered above the low single digits in polling. That’s because pollsters lump them together as “Other,” Peckman charged at a debate Wednesday night. “The polls haven’t included the names of all the candidates, so we don’t know how it really looks,” he said.

Ernest@coloradostatesman.com