It’s fair to say, as Donald Trump was preparing to walk into a courtroom to face charges that could someday put the former-and-possibly-future president in prison, that the eyes of the world were not exactly focused on Denver’s mayoral race Tuesday.
That’s hardly surprising, of course, especially since the eyes of a solid majority of Denverites are not exactly focused on the mayor’s race either. As of Friday, voter turnout was running at, um, 13%.
It’s worth asking why, even if most of the answers I’ve heard run from the obvious — there are just too damn many candidates, 16 when the polls closed, and the resulting cacophony made it hard for any one candidate to stand out — to the more serious, that the difficult issues facing the city, many of which range from significant to critical, just don’t lend themselves to easy or quick solutions that potential voters could rally around.
By the time the early results were in, it seemed clear that two candidates were pulling away, and in the old-fashioned way, with better fundraising and more TV ads — I can’t wait for more snow plow ads — and more outside money and maybe more name recognition. And so, a pair of relative Democratic moderates, Mike Johnston and Kelly Brough, seem headed for the June 6 runoff.
Between them, as I write this, they were just under 50% of a fragmented vote, but at least it was better than any showing they had made in the few polls, in which no candidate ever hit double figures.
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The issues, though, are still the same and still difficult to handle. For example, I remember when former Mayor John Hickenlooper was putting in place a 10-year plan to end homelessness in Denver. I think we know how that’s worked out. I’m not blaming Hick particularly, other than for, let’s say, his practiced over-optimism, but Hick and Michael Hancock tried many variations on addressing homelessness, all to little or no effect.
This is a national problem as much as it is a local problem, although some cities have clearly had more success than others. The Wall Street Journal had a good piece the other day focusing on the idea that the homelessness issue is shaping the mayoral race here.
Every Denver mayoral candidate had at least one proposal for addressing homelessness. I have to confess that while some of the proposed solutions seem interesting and even possibly workable, I’m not sold on any in particular.
And I’m not sure which candidate has the ability to bring Denverites together on such a difficult issue. It is interesting that the most progressive candidates, say Lisa Calderón and Leslie Herod, couldn’t break through on the issues in a city so overwhelmingly Democratic.
What we do know about the homelessness crisis is that it’s easy to demonize the homeless — with much of the blame going to mental illness or addiction, both of which are serious contributors to the problem. But the most critical issue seems to be a lack of affordable housing stock, which has led to the national “housing first’ movement. Many point to Houston for its success on the homelessness front, but there’s a lot of empty land in Houston to build affordable housing and very little in Denver, although I hear there’s a former golf course that might be available.
OK, that’s just one issue, and I might add I do like Johnston’s idea — used in other cities — of building tiny houses to increase the housing stock. They’re definitely better than tent cities, which have led to controversial camping bans and homeless sweeps.
We can add the rise in crime, which is up in most cities, and, of course, the corresponding question of how to best reform the criminal justice system.
We can also add the pandemic-produced, work-at-home dynamic that has resulted in many business vacancies downtown. The idea to convert underused office buildings to residences — to help with both the amount of affordable housing and the rate of homelessness and also with a much-needed downtown revitalization — is a good one, but apparently more complicated, and expensive, than you’d think.
Which isn’t to say that downtowns across America, including in Denver, are on some kind of what some people are calling an urban doom loop, especially when housing prices remain quite high. I might add that the homelessness situation downtown looks a lot worse than it would otherwise when the city streets aren’t as, well, vibrant as they were in the pre-COVID times.
There are other issues, of course. But the big-field issue — which is born of at least two factors: no incumbent in the race and Denver’s Fair Elections Fund, which contributed 58% of the funding for the dozen candidates who qualified — does lend itself to a very possible solution. There is much talk about ranked-choice voting, which solves the problem of conducting a run-off election when no candidate reaches 50% of the vote. There was fear that a candidate might make the runoff with as little as little as 15% of the vote.
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There’s nothing wrong with runoffs per se — other than the time and money spent, and the dark money, an issue in any election, that inevitably comes in at a much faster clip — but ranked choice would definitely preclude the chance that the two remaining candidates might proceed to a runoff with as little as, say, 35% of the vote combined.
You may know how ranked-choice voting works, whereby voters can rank the candidates in some order — say a first choice candidate, a second choice and a third. If no one gets 50% of the vote, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated and that candidate’s votes are reallocated. You keep going, eliminating the bottom-ranking candidate after each round, until someone gets 50% of the vote.
I kind of like it, and not just because ranked-choice voting was used in Sarah Palin’s failed bid to win Alaska’s single U.S. House seat.
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For one thing, if Denver voters decide they need to do something about such a crowded field and adopt ranked voting, as a few other Colorado cities already have, the reallocation of votes could be exciting to watch.
But even if we were looking at the excitement of ranked voting, it still wouldn’t be nearly as dramatic — or as stunning, or as remarkable, or as historically significant — as Trump surrendering to New York authorities and facing 34 felony charges and ending his night giving his angry Mar-a-Lago speech slamming the Manhattan district attorney, the New York judge and even the judge’s family. Of course, what mere election could?
Mike Littwin has been a columnist for too many years to count. He has covered Dr. J, four presidential inaugurations, six national conventions and countless brain-numbing speeches in the New Hampshire and Iowa snow.
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