Spoiler alert: I’m not going to tell you how to vote in Denver’s elections. 

I will say, though, that this is a big freakin’ deal, to mildly misquote our president, so don’t blow it. A lot has changed since the last Denver mayoral election in 2019, much of it for the worse.

So, for one quick moment, let’s flash back to that race when the biggest issues were traffic, housing costs, protecting neighborhoods and busting up encampments of people experiencing homelessness.

Developer was a dirty word; Michael Hancock’s sex life was center stage; and voters were in a lather over a measure to lift the city’s camping ban (which went down in flames).

The city was surfing a wave of explosive growth that naively appeared to be never-ending; downtown still hummed with office workers who packed the bars, restaurants and coffeeshops; and RTD, with strong ridership numbers, appeared poised for growth.

Then COVID hit and cops in Minnesota murdered George Floyd, and everything changed. 

The downtown office vacancy rate has leaped from 12.3% in 2019 to 21.6% and the impact on the city’s core is devastating. Restaurants and retail shops on the 16th Street Mall, in Larimer Square and throughout the downtown are closing, leaving ghostly vacant storefronts where businesses used to thrive.

And as if that wasn’t enough, the plague of scofflaw electric scooter riders on the city’s sidewalks is sending even the most intrepid urbanites screaming to the ’burbs to spend their money.

The homeless population has grown dramatically; rent and housing prices have increased;  and city budgets to address the problem have doubled to seemingly no effect. Meanwhile, the inventory of luxury homes, apartments and condominiums just keeps expanding willy-nilly while affordable housing vanishes.

RTD ridership has plummeted, so even though fewer people are commuting, the city’s traffic problems still rank high among voters’ concerns.

Increased anxiety about both crime and police accountability and the racial animosities that underlie those issues deepen the city’s dividing lines.

The ravages of fentanyl and shocking gun violence — especially in our schools — are also top of mind.

And, as with many major cities across the country, population growth is just a memory. Since 2019, Denver’s population has declined through outmigration, lower birth rates and a higher death rate.

It’s like watching a slow-motion train wreck.

According to the Secretary of State’s office, despite population declines, the number of active voters in Denver has increased in the past four years, signaling keen voter interest.

About the same number of Democrats are registered in the county. Republican registration has dropped, and the numbers of unaffiliated voters have increased significantly. 

None of that is supposed to matter since the city council and mayor’s races are nonpartisan. But it’s a window into political sentiments in the moment and says a lot about how candidates telegraph their partisan leanings.

While the candidates for mayor often talk about what they will do on Day One (as if that really makes any difference at all), the biggest job will require their best efforts every day for at least four years.

It is to mobilize the people to accept that the problems of the city are complex and any policies designed to address them most likely will miss the mark.  

That’s life in the real world, so don’t let anybody trick you into believing there’s a simple solution to any of this.

And just as in 2019, the future is unpredictable. If it’s not a global pandemic or a racial reckoning just around the corner, we can be sure something will come out of nowhere to disrupt even the best-laid plans. 

The next mayor will have to be willing to discard the playbook in a heartbeat and lead the city through whatever unimaginable fate comes our way with intelligence, compassion and grit.

It’s not an impossible challenge, but obviously not everybody is up to it. I mean, really, all it takes is a snowstorm to bury many a mayor’s career.

Still, right now the opportunities are enormous. 

If we can elect a mayor with the talent to inspire people to coalesce around new initiatives and believe in the potential for a vibrant, safe and welcoming Denver, the path forward is exciting.

The problems are so glaring now, any hint of progress in solving them will be celebrated.

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None of the candidates seems to get that. They’re all just grinding away at wonky policy statements and leaving the voters to try to sort it all out. 

It’s ridiculous to think any candidate will get a majority of the votes in this round, so we can expect a runoff in June. But the decision now on who will advance is critical.

I keep waiting for somebody to provide a clear vision for a Denver with a generous spirit, a good heart, a willingness to innovate to solve problems and to make adjustments to strategies as more information emerges along the way. 

I keep hoping for Imagine a Great City 2.0. Or maybe even just the tiniest bit of optimism.

There are just a couple days left in this campaign. It’s almost too late, but not quite.

Diane Carman is a Denver communications consultant.

The Colorado Sun is a nonpartisan news organization, and the opinions of columnists and editorial writers do not reflect the opinions of the newsroom. Read our ethics policy for more on The Sun’s opinion policy and submit columns, suggested writers and more to opinion@coloradosun.com. (Learn more about how to submit a column.)

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