My ballot arrived last week, so I have to face it, the Denver mayoral runoff is getting real. 

I’m listening carefully to debates between the candidates — and among my friends — and it’s a tough call for a lot of us. Sure, the candidates both are smart and well-spoken, but still ….

Kelly Brough has been slammed for positions endorsed by the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce when she was the organization’s CEO. 

It’s entirely fair. After all, she did the job for 12 years.

The chamber opposed a state minimum wage measure, paid family leave and oil and gas drilling setbacks, positions that Brough says didn’t represent her personal views then and certainly don’t now that she’s a candidate. 

Her comeback to her critics: “The chamber isn’t running for mayor. I am.”

While Mike Johnston never worked for the chamber, his financial supporters look like a who’s who from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, so there is that.

Meanwhile, Johnston has been criticized for claiming that he can end homelessness in Denver in four years, a promise he says he can keep by 3-D printing tiny houses in less than a week. He says he can quickly find sites for 1,400 of them, all in welcoming neighborhoods.

And he says he can clear the city’s homeless encampments without resorting to arrests. 

He admits it’s never been done in any city anywhere ever. 

For him, the secret sauce is the tiny houses. And faith in his leadership skills.

Both candidates talk of pressuring the federal government to ease the stress of the migrant influx on Denver. They both want to find ways to enable asylum-seekers to work legally to support themselves while they wait months and years to complete the asylum process. 

Both want to figure out how to move migrants out of Denver quickly if they find themselves stranded here on their way to another destination.

They both want to see changes in the Denver Public Schools Board of Education and would provide city funds to schools that choose to have resource officers on school grounds.

They want the city to be more affordable, police to be accountable, the air to be cleaner, the streets safer and city government to be more, well, everything.

Their policy differences are nuanced to say the least, so it really comes down to who they are. Or who they appear to be.

Johnston has worked hard to build a resume as a (mostly) progressive candidate with inarguable ambition. 

He grew up in Vail where he attended Vail Mountain School and went on to earn a BA from Yale and an MA from Harvard. A former teacher through Teach for America, a school principal, state legislator and head of a philanthropic organization, he has kept clear of professional conflicts of interest.

Then again, he alienated educators across the state with his full-throated and successful campaign to tie teachers’ compensation to their students’ performance on standardized tests. Thirteen years later, it’s hard to find a teacher in Colorado who remembers anything else about his record.

He ran unsuccessfully for the Democratic nomination for governor in 2018 and U.S. senator in 2020. 

In sharp contrast to her fat-cat chamber of commerce image and Johnston’s privileged background, Brough leans into the story of her genuine hard-knock childhood in Montana. 

Her father was murdered when she was an infant and her family was on public assistance for a time. She worked her way through college and married her high-school sweetheart. 

Then, she lost her husband to addiction and suicide, and reared her two children as a single mom. She’s clearly not afraid of hard work and hard choices.

She also takes every opportunity to cite her experience, especially her work as chief of staff for then-Mayor John Hickenlooper, who, as other candidates have noted, launched a failed plan to end homelessness in 10 years.

So, who’s the one best equipped to do the job? 

Beats me.

I know we need someone who can keep Denver from sliding further down the path to becoming another San Francisco, where crime drove Whole Foods out of downtown and just about the only people left there are either living in multimillion-dollar homes or in tents on the sidewalks.

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Or another Phoenix, where business owners sued the city to get it to address the encampments for unhoused people at the same time the ACLU was suing it for criminalizing homelessness.

Or another Houston, where even though thousands of unhoused people have been given shelter, the office vacancy rate is 25% and downtown still sucks.

There are no easy answers. And in the mayor’s race, there are no unicorns. We’re stuck with a choice between mere mortals. 

Pick one and, as always, brace yourself to be pleasantly surprised if even just a few of the wild-eyed promises actually come true.

Diane Carman is a Denver communications consultant.

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Diane Carman

Special to The Colorado Sun Twitter: @dccarman