Mayor’s race winds down with three bunched at top

The Colorado Statesman

As votes trickle in with less than a week remaining before Denver’s municipal election, mayoral candidates are beating the bushes for ballots in what has turned into a close race for a spot in the anticipated runoff.

By most accounts — based on public polling and the candidates’ own, internal tracking — it’s a tight, three-way race between Michael Hancock, James Mejia and Chris Romer. But the other two major candidates, Doug Linkhart and Theresa Spahn, say it’s premature to count them out. And a last-minute campaign by a radio host meant to “throw a wrench” in the contest could shake things up for one of the four additional candidates who haven’t raised much money or registered in the polls.

Mayoral candidates, from left, Michael Hancock, Doug Linkhart, Danny Lopez, James Mejia, Jeff Peckman, Chris Romer, Theresa Spahn and Thomas Wolf appear at the Latino Community debate on April 22 at the Mile High GI Forum. It was the last of more than 50 forums sponsored by neighborhood, civic and business groups before the May 3 election.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman
Mayoral candidate Theresa Spahn, center, embraces her mother, Joan Mancinelli, right, and her aunt Sandy Mancinelli, who serves as her campaign treasurer, at a fundraiser Tuesday at Cherokee Dining on 12th Avenue, which used to be named the Cherokee Bar & Grill, in Denver’s Golden Triangle neighborhood.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman
Councilman and mayoral candidate Doug Linkhart talks to undecided voters riding the 16th Street Mall shuttle during the noon hour Wednesday.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman
Candidate James Mejia talks to supporters and undecided voters at a campaign event Tuesday at the Blue Bonnet Cafe in Denver.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman
Michael Hancock, left, talks with an undecided voter in Denver’s Park Hill neighborhood. After answering questions about code enforcement, Hancock won the voter’s support.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman
Former state Sen. Chris Romer addresses the RTD board on Wednesday during the public comment period before the board considered whether to ask voters for a tax hike to fund the FasTracks system. “I will be a relentless advocate,” Romer said, though he urged the board to be “cautious and thoughtful” as it considered the timing of an election to increase metro sales tax. Later that night, the board voted against putting the question on this year’s ballot.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

Ballots for the all-mail election are due back to the city by 7 p.m. May 3. If none of the candidates clears 50 percent — no one expects anyone will — the top two finishers face each other in a June 7 runoff. Getting across the finish line could be a matter of prying ballots from voters who don’t seem terribly inclined to cast them on their own this year.

Is it that voters can’t make up their minds between a set of strong candidates? Or has the field of hopefuls for the open seat failed to ignite a spark in the electorate? Predictably, the candidates and their campaigns suggest it’s the former, while observers wonder aloud if it might be the latter.

Regardless, roughly 300,000 Denver residents received mail-in ballots a couple weeks ago and the ones who haven’t returned them yet are being deluged with robocalls, knocks on the door, e-mails and fliers urging them to spring for the 61 cents it’ll cost to post their vote.

“We’re making literally thousands of phone calls, we’re knocking on thousands of doors,” Romer said on Tuesday. “We’re earning this one vote at a time.” He said his message of taking the city “to the next level” and building a world-class school system was resonating with voters but cautioned that his campaign isn’t taking anything for granted. “There’s a lot of good candidates in this race and a lot of other people are doing well. It’s going to be tight.”

Romer said a recent Denver Post poll accurately pegged the race — that it will come down to a neck-and-neck finish between himself, Hancock and Mejia for the pair of runoff slots.

“I think Doug Linkhart is extraordinary, and so is Theresa Spahn, but what we see is a very tight three-way race at the top,” he said.

For his part, Mejia said he’s confident he’s shouldering his way into one of those places.

“We feel great,” he said Monday night. “The quality of our team and the quality of our outreach efforts are really starting to pay off. We’re in contact with a lot of people, we’re knocking on a lot of doors, visiting with a lot of small businesspeople talking about buying locally, supporting the local economy.” His campaign plans to chase every vote. “We’ll push all the way through Tuesday night,” he added.

Hancock sounded a similar note Monday between knocking on doors in Park Hill, where he asked voters for their support and urged them to get their ballots in the mail. (City officials say to mail ballots no later than Friday to ensure delivery by the May 3 deadline, and to drop them off at voter service centers around town after that.)

“I feel good,” Hancock said. “This weekend, my team went out with an army of volunteers knocking on doors. We’ve definitely got the momentum.”

According to the Denver Post/9News poll conducted by SurveyUSA and released earlier this month, Hancock and Mejia doubled their level of support compared to a March poll conducted by local consulting firm RBI Strategies and Research for the ColoradoPols.com website. In the Post poll, Mejia and Hancock found themselves in a statistical tie with Romer, whose 22 percent support had remained unchanged since the earlier poll.

Noting that he’s “looking at the numbers every single day,” Hancock campaign manager Evan Dreyer said his candidate and Mejia are moving up, while their better-funded opponent isn’t. “It’s a tight, three-way race, and Chris Romer has stalled out.” Citing surveys that haven’t all been released to the public, he added, “If you look at polling from January to April, Chris’ numbers haven’t moved.”

The son of popular former three-term Gov. Roy Romer and the fundraising champion in the mayor’s race — Romer raised more than $1 million through the last reporting deadline — was widely seen as the clear frontrunner until the Post poll suggested otherwise. He acknowledged that he’s got a fight on his hands.

“I wake up every morning believing I’m the one 10 points down, so I’m the one that believes I’ve got to jump up over and get to that front position, that pole position,” Romer said. “I think, with hard work, we will be in that pole position, but it’s not there yet, and we are going to push very hard over the next seven days to get in that pole position. And then it will be a very clear contrast between myself and one of the other two candidates.”

Spahn, who had the backing of 4 percent of likely voters in the April polling results — within the survey’s margin of error, meaning she theoretically could have negative support — took issue with the automated survey, noting that it missed cell phones.

“I think we’re going to surprise folks,” she said outside a fundraiser on Monday.

She pointed to strong support from Councilwoman Marcia Johnson, who has been “aggressively working her district,” which historically has the highest voter turnout in the city.

“We’re feeling really confident and really good,” Spahn said. “I think we have now touched over 11,000 doors canvassing. We’re going to work right up until Tuesday.”

Linkhart expressed similar optimism. Since last week’s withdrawal from the race by his fellow at-large city council member Carol Boigon, Linkhart is the only mayoral candidate to have won election citywide. If the two-term councilman can tap the same voters, it would be enough to guarantee him a spot in the runoff.

“A lot of people are undecided and we’re turning them our way,” he said during a campaign swing on the 16th Street Mall over the lunch hour on Tuesday. “We’re getting a lot of people in the office saying they’re going to vote for me.”

He agreed with pundits that the race could be baffling voters and making the decision difficult. “People see so many candidates, they get a deer-in-the-headlights look about what to do. It’s a little frustrating because I don’t know anything’s going to turn their mind between now and the election other than our contacting them, which we’re doing.”

Radio talk show host Peter Boyles threw a curve — or a wrench, as he put it — into the race on his morning KHOW AM-630 show on Tuesday when he endorsed UFO aficionado and mayoral candidate Jeff Peckman on the air. He said the uninspiring cast of candidates encouraged him to look beyond the ones who register in polls and have conducted more conventional campaigns.

“It was Tweedle Dee Dee, Tweedle Dee Dum and some other idiot,” Boyles said on the air before unveiling Peckman to his audience. Peckman, who placed an initiative to create an extraterrestrial council on last year’s Denver ballot — it didn’t win approval from the voters — touted his unorthodox solutions to civic problems and agreed to appear on the morning show with Boyles every day until the election.

What Peckman didn’t mention, however, is that he all but endorsed Mejia at the conclusion of the final candidate forum on Friday night. At the Latino Community debate at the Mile High GI Forum in West Denver — capping more than 50 such gatherings held in every nook and cranny of the city since January — Peckman lamented that his name has been left off polling and that he has been among four candidates regularly excluded from some forums. (The other candidates who made the ballot are Danny Lopez, Ken Simpson and Thomas Wolf.)

Then, after referencing a plethora of proposals that can be found on his website, and sounding a bit wistful, Peckman told the crowd, “I believe I am that leader to introduce those solutions and greatly improve Denver. But throughout this campaign, from the beginning, when asked who I would support, other than myself, I consistently said James Mejia.” He added that he believes Mejia has an open mind to the kind of ideas Peckman has formulated.

While they stress they aren’t taking their eyes off the prize — a strong enough finish to make the runoff — managers of the Mejia and Hancock campaigns acknowledged they’re also preparing for the race that begins on May 4. They’re taking a page from past mayoral winners Federico Peña, who has endorsed Mejia, and Wellington Webb, who backs Hancock. There’s a brief window — this year it’s six days, until May 9 — when candidates bound for the runoff can register supporters to vote before the deadline to cast ballots in the June 7 election, and both campaigns say they plan to go all out. (Peña famously turned Denver politics on its head in 1983 after he made it into the runoff when his army of 4,000 volunteers registered thousands of new voters in a matter of days, providing the margin that won the runoff a month later. Webb made a similar, though less surprising, effort when he won the first of his three terms in 1991.)

“It’s something we’ve been gearing up for and planning for some time,” said Mejia campaign manager Berrick Abramson. “I think it will play a piece in the overall election and it will certainly be a key element of our operation during the runoff. It’s a short window to get new people registered — when we’re looking at whether it’s in the Latino community, or younger voters, or average, working families, you’ve got voters who do tend to move around more and can drop off the rolls. There are a lot of Denverites out there we believe still need to be fully engaged, and we’ll be reaching out to them to make sure they exercise their right to vote.”

Even though earlier in the day Hancock had unveiled his plan for his first 100 days in office, Dreyer was more reluctant than Abramson to talk about the campaign’s plans beyond May 3.

“Our primary focus, our No. 1 objective, and all of our energy right now is focused on the next week and making sure that Michael gets in the runoff,” he said. When pressed, he allowed: “Are we mindful of the fact that people will have, and do have the opportunity to continue to register to vote for the June 7 runoff — is it part of our thinking? Yes. That May 9 date is very important, and we’ll work as hard as we need to. But our razor-like focus is on getting Michael into the runoff. This is a very, very tight race.”

According to voter returns posted daily by the Denver Elections Division, however, the tight race is getting off to a slow start.

Typically, in all-mail elections, voters return about 1/3 of their ballots right away, 1/3 over the next couple weeks, and the final 1/3 at the last minute. But the recent mail-ballot municipal election in Colorado Springs ran contrary to expectations, with very slow turnout for nearly two weeks until a big surge right before Election Day. Campaign aides said they expect that’s how Denver’s vote will materialize, because otherwise turnout could wind up at a historic low for an open mayor’s race.

A week before votes will be counted, only 9.3 percent of ballots had been returned — accounting for only about 1/4 of the turnout projected by some of the campaigns. Through the end of business on Monday, 27,743 voted ballots had been received by the Denver Elections Division, including about 1,500 dropped off at the division offices and at a dozen remote service centers open around town this week. (Officials ruled roughly 675 of those ballots invalid — most often because they lacked appropriate signatures — but division spokesman Alton Dillard said voters will be contacted and have the chance to fix their ballots to make their votes count.)

The last time there was an opening for Denver’s mayor — in 2003, when brewmaster John Hickenlooper rode a scooter into a resounding win over early front-runners Ari Zavaris and Denver Auditor Don Mares — about 115,000 Denver voters cast ballots. When Webb first won election in 1991 — he emerged from long-shot status to beat District Attorney Norm Early and Don Bain — a full 125,000 votes were cast in the first round. And in the original come-from-behind Denver mayor’s race, Peña ousted incumbent Mayor Bill McNichols and defeated District Attorney Dale Tooley in an election that logged 130,000 votes in the initial round.

Those are the numbers this year’s campaigns have been eyeing for turnout projections, but they’ve been revising downward some early guesses that there might be as many as 140,000 votes cast. This week, campaign aides said they expect between 100,000 and 120,000 ballots will be turned in by May 3. Voters are just taking their time to decide.

In a Denver Post column on Tuesday, Mike Littwin contended that a combination of voter fatigue — after a bruising election last year — and a lack of compelling issues has turned this year’s mayoral race into a “buzz-free” election, leaving voters unimpressed. Add to that the shadow cast across Civic Center by now-Gov. Hickenlooper — plenty of voters still think he’s mayor, campaign aides say, and see no reason to replace him — and you’ve got an electorate that just can’t get excited, Littwin suggested.

If voters do turn out in customary numbers, it will have to be shoe leather, doorbells and nagging phone calls that make it happen, because none of the candidates say to look for any game-changers in the waning days before the election.

“I don’t expect a lot of surprises between now and Election Day,” Linkhart said Tuesday before making his way through the lower downtown Tattered Cover to talk to potential voters. “It’s just a matter of getting people to vote, and I think we’re all after them.”

Ernest@coloradostatesman.com