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The City and County Building of Denver is seen on May 11, 2022. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

More than 70 candidates are jockeying to be Denver’s next mayor or to fill one of 13 City Council seats in the Mile High City’s 2023 municipal election. 

Winners of the April 4 contests in Colorado’s largest city will be among the highest-paid elected officials in the state. They’ll also be among the most powerful, making decisions about everything from Denver International Airport, which drives the state economy, to professional sports teams. 

Denver isn’t the only city holding an election in 2023. Some 70 cities and towns will ask voters to approve new or returning officials, according to the Colorado Municipal League, and those officials will oversee zoning, permitting, water utilities, law enforcement, and road building and maintenance.

“Municipalities touch every part of our lives, a lot of it in ways that people may not think about all the time or may think are kind of boring,” said Kevin Bommer, executive director of the Colorado Municipal League. “But it’s really important when it comes to life safety, quality of life.” 

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But Denver’s election, in which an $8 million public campaign finance system is being implemented for the first time, is likely the highest profile.

Here’s what to watch as Denver’s municipal election, which is nonpartisan, kicks into high gear — and what other local elections to keep tabs on:

Well-paid officials

This year, term-limited Denver Mayor Michael Hancock is making $188,429, compared with the $123,193 salary for Democratic Gov. Jared Polis. 

Serving on Denver City Council is a full-time job, and council members make $96,557 each year. The council president makes $108,126. 

State lawmakers, by comparison, make a maximum of $44,000 a year, depending on when they were elected. Serving in the Colorado legislature is supposed to be a part-time job, though many legislators work year round. 

The salaries for Denver’s mayor and City Council members could go up in July if the current council decides to raise them. Polis and other elected state office holders will receive raises in January, but they’ll all still be paid less than Denver’s mayor.

Four state lawmakers are running for municipal office in Denver

Denver holds elections every four years, with all 13 council seats, mayor, auditor and clerk on the ballot. Elected officials in the city are limited to three four-year terms.

Denver is one of three cities — Colorado Springs and Pueblo are the others — with a strong-mayor form of government where the mayor is the chief executive, managing day-to-day operations with a staff.

 

In other Colorado municipalities, an unelected city manager runs the day-to-day show.

Denver, like Broomfield, is a combined city-county government. And it’s the only city in Colorado where a council seat is a full-time job.

Three state lawmakers are among the 23 candidates (so far) for Denver mayor, while a fourth state lawmaker is running for one of two at-large City Council seats.

The Colorado Sun reached out to the four Denver Democrats, none of whom immediately plans to resign as they run for municipal office, to ask how they will handle their legislative work while also campaigning.

  • State Rep. Leslie Herod will continue to serve on the House Appropriations Committee while running for mayor, but is no longer serving on the Joint Budget Committee. “She expects to fulfill her duties as a legislator, along with running for mayor,” campaign spokeswoman Holly Shrewsbury said. “She’s not the first legislator to run for higher office while still holding on to their seat.”
  • State Sen. Chris Hansen also stepped down from the Joint Budget Committee to run for mayor. “I’ve got my bills ready to go, I’ve got a great staff at the Capitol that are assisting me and I feel I can do a good job,” Hansen said.
  • State Rep. Alex Valdez said he’s waiting to see how things shake out in the crowded mayoral contest before deciding whether to continue serving at the Capitol. “My plan is to get started and if the campaign takes over, I’ll reevaluate,” he told The Sun. “With as many new folks coming into the legislature it’s good to have people who help get off on the right foot.” 
  • State Rep. Serena Gonzales-Gutierrez is running for an at-large council seat. She is one of 10 candidates to jump into the race thus far. She does not plan to resign while running for council and said she is accustomed to balancing multiple roles. “I feel a duty to continue to serve my constituents,” she said. “All the things I have done over the years, while having another job, while having a family with young children, I’ve been able to deliver for our state.”

State law prohibits lobbyists from donating to candidates during the legislative session, even if they’re running for a city office.

If any of the candidates win their races, they’ll have to resign from the legislature. The legislature ends May 8, 2023, about a month before a likely June 6 runoff election if no candidate wins 50% in one or more contests.

Bommer said the number of lawmakers running this year is unusual. 

“You do see municipal elected officials running for state elected office,” he said. “You don’t always see sitting legislators turning around trying to be the mayor of the city that they’re from.”

But it has happened before. Federico Peña served in the Colorado House from 1979-82 before running for Denver mayor and winning in 1983.  

And state Sen. Doug Linkhart ran successfully for an at-large Denver City Council seat in 2003 and resigned his Senate seat after his election.

Who else is running for mayor?

Other candidates running for mayor, in the order they filed:

Denver offers public financing of campaigns for first time

One factor that may be prompting so many candidates to run to be Denver’s next mayor is an $8 million pot of public money to supplement money raised by campaigns.

The Fair Elections Fund, approved by the city’s voters in 2018, comes with strings attached:

  • It reduced the individual donor contribution limits to $1,000 from $3,000 for mayoral candidates; to $700 from $2,000 for at-large council candidates; and to $400 from $1,000 for other council candidates.
  • Candidates who want to participate in the matching fund have even lower individual donor contribution limits: $500 for mayor; $350 for at-large candidates; and $200 for council candidates.
  • The fund matches donations of $50 or less at a 9-to-1 ratio.
  • Candidates who accept matching funds are required to participate in at least two public debates.

Sixteen of 23 mayoral candidates and nine of 10 at-large council candidates are participating in the matching program. And 27 of the 34 candidates running for the other 11 council seats are participating.

Nearly $2.6 million of the money set aside for matching funds had been spent through mid-November. The next campaign finance filing date is in January.

No candidate is on the ballot yet

Five candidates who filed to run for mayor or council in Denver have already withdrawn from the race.

The candidates who are still running will have to submit 300 petition signatures to make the ballot if they are running for mayor and an at-large council seat, and 100 signatures if they are running for any other council seat. The petitions may be circulated starting Dec. 14 and will be due Jan. 19.

Other cities holding key elections in 2023

Denver isn’t the only city holding municipal elections next year. 

Seven other cities also hold elections April 4, including Colorado Springs, the second most populous city in the state, which also has an open mayoral seat in a strong-mayor government.

Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers, the former Republican attorney general, is term-limited in a job that pays $114,159. Seven candidates are vying to replace him thus far, including City Councilman Wayne Williams, the Republican former Colorado secretary of state.

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The other candidates for Colorado Springs mayor thus far are:

  • Former El Paso County Commissioner Darryl Glenn, who ran unsuccessfully for U.S. Senate as a Republican in 2016
  • Businessman Andrew Dalby
  • Blessing Yemi Mobolade, a West African immigrant and entrepreneur
  • El Paso County Commissioner Longinos Gonzalez Jr.
  • Former El Paso County Commissioner Sallie Clark
  • City Council President Tom Strand

About 60 municipal governments will hold elections Nov. 7, including Aurora, Colorado’s third most populous largest city, and Fort Collins, the fourth most populous city. 

Bommer noted that most cities hold elections in April of even-numbered years. 

Sandra Fish

Special to The Colorado Sun Twitter: @fishnette