Denver’s mayoral run-off shows the influence of big money and in-state endorsements
The once-crowded Denver mayoral race is down to a run-off between centrist Democrats Kelly Brough and Mike Johnston, with no clear frontrunner. A lot of Denver voices are weighing in, with much of the candidates’ support divided along ideological lines.
Brough was the head of the Denver Chamber of Commerce and chief of staff to former mayor John Hickenlooper, while Johnston is a former state senator and school principal. They’re both focused on similar issues that are top of mind for Denver voters - issues like housing affordability, homelessness and public safety.
They also raised the most money out of the original sixteen mayoral candidates. Despite efforts to keep big money out of the race, including a new program called the Fair Elections Fund meant to uplift local donors, millions of dollars have come in from outside the Denver area.
“We had the hope that the public financing would really empower small donors in the city. I think the opposite has happened,” state Sen. Chris Hansen, also a former mayoral candidate, said.
Throughout the race, Advancing Denver, a super PAC supporting Johnston, has spent almost $5 million from donors like former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman. A Better Denver, which supports Brough, has spent more than $1.5 million, with donors like the National Association of Realtors and Pete Coors of the famous Golden-based beer company who was once a Republican candidate for US Senate.
Both candidates have attacked each other in recent days for their connections to out-of-state donors and corporate interests.
Brough and Johnston's endorsements from within Denver, however, demonstrate some key differences. Conservative-leaning voices generally support Brough, while progressives have lined up behind Johnston. The progressive voices include COLOR Action Fund, which focuses on issues important to the Latino community, and YIMBY Denver, which advocates for more accessible and affordable housing.
YIMBY president Ryan Keeney specifically references Johnston’s leadership on Proposition 123. The ballot measure, which passed in the fall, directs about three hundred million dollars a year in tax revenue to affordable housing programs. Keeney says that reflects Johnston’s commitment to addressing the housing crisis.
“Proposition 123 is a really big deal,” Keeney said. “I think that alone shows that he's devoted more energy to solving this problem than any other candidate has.”
A number of labor unions are also endorsing Johnston, including UFCW Local 7, the largest private sector union in Colorado. Its members work in supermarkets, healthcare facilities, hair salons and food processing plants.
“We represent a whole host of the frontline workforce in Denver,” the union’s president, Kim Cordova, said. “It’s really important that we have somebody that takes the time to listen to workers, their issues, [and] listen to the workers perspective.”
Cordova says Johnston is more willing to collaborate with workers and that his past support for raising the minimum wage and paid family leave helped get her organization on board.
Not all unions are supporting Johnston, though.
Public safety employees have largely endorsed Brough, including police officers and firefighters. Mike Jackson, head of the Denver sheriff’s union, points out that Brough served as chief of staff to former Mayor Hickenlooper.
“Getting Brough up to speed is not going to be very hard. Getting Johnston up to speed is going to be very hard,” Jackson said. “Brough already knows how the city works. She’s already worked with us. She’ll understand our complaints and she’ll be able to review those things much quicker.”
Brough also has significant support from the business community, including the Denver Metro Association of Realtors and the Marijuana Industry Group, or MIG. MIG’s executive director, Truman Bradley, says his group’s endorsement is the result of conversations with Brough about her approach to the cannabis industry in Denver.
“She brought an open mind and a willingness to listen,” Bradley said. “She really stood out as somebody that can run the city the way it needs to be run; not as a politician, but as a business executive.”
Brough also has endorsements from Denver’s Republican Party and the Greater Metro Denver Ministerial Alliance, which has represented African American clergy members in Denver for more than 80 years.
Current and former elected officials are split between the two candidates. Centrist Democrats are backing Brough, state Sen. Chris Hansen and Former Gov. Bill Ritter. Progressive politicians are supporting Johnston, including state Rep. Leslie Herod, also a former mayoral candidate, state Sen. Julie Gonzales and former Denver mayor Federico Peña.
At the end of the day, though, neither candidate is truly a conservative or a progressive. They’re mostly centrists themselves. Most of the groups and individuals endorsing them say they will hold whoever wins accountable to their campaign promises.
Voters must submit their ballots using an official dropbox or cast their votes in-person at a polling location by 7:00 PM tomorrow, June 6. Detailed voting instructions and resources are available on the city’s website.
Still undecided? Nonpartisan community initiative Denver Decides provides videos with information on the candidates' policies, including candidate introductions and forums.
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