You’d have to be naive to think that the Denver mayor’s race wouldn’t get at least a little ugly eventually. It’s a high-stakes office, of course, with no incumbent in the race. And if history is a guide, the winner will probably keep the job for the next eight to 12 years.

So, as we near the end, it’s not a surprise that Kelly Brough and her team have come out swinging.

What’s a little surprising is who’s getting punched.

One issue in the runoff election between Brough and Mike Johnston — aside from the truly important ones, like homelessness and affordable housing and crime — is that the two candidates, both moderate-leaning liberals, seem to have trouble differentiating themselves to voters. Or at least that’s what I read in the papers.

Of course, if you do a little studying of the candidates’ platforms, you can see differences on a lot of issues. But the differences are mainly in the details, and most of the details are not exactly headline material. 

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So, what to do? It was pretty clear that the winner would be the one who was more successful in securing the progressive vote in bright-blue Denver and/or the one, as both candidates happen to be white, who could win over the minority vote in a city that has elected mayors of color for 32 of the past 40 years.

And while endorsements are probably the most overrated factor in determining the winner of any election, people in the progressive wing of the Democratic party in Denver— particularly those in the progressive wing of mayoral candidates who fell short this year — have lately been endorsing Johnston left and, well, left.

And Brough, in a recent debate with Johnston, went after two of his primary progressive endorsers, both of them women of color — Lisa Calderón and Leslie Herod, who finished third and fifth, respectively, in the first round of the mayor’s race. As Herod put it, “Kelly threw us under the bus, and I don’t know why.”

And in a Denver Post story Friday, Brough accused Herod, a state representative, of attempting to trade her endorsement for the promise of a position in a Brough administration. Brough alleged that Herod “wanted a guarantee of a position and one of importance.” The implication, of course, is that Johnston must have offered Herod some kind of guarantee for endorsing him.

Not surprisingly, Herod vehemently denied the charge and wondered how it could account for other progressives supporting Johnston. As she told me, “I would have bet anything that Lisa Calderón wouldn’t endorse anyone. You can be sure there was no coercion in that.”

So I asked Herod why she did endorse Johnston.

She said it was a tough choice, but that it came down to the candidates’ positions on homelessness. And in discussing the issue, Brough had said early in the race, probably to her eventual regret, that she would favor arresting people for violating the city’s camping ban, but only as a “last resort” if they refused to leave a camp. That is a headline difference. 

“Someone who has committed no other crime, other than being homeless, simply should not be in jail,” Herod said. “I’m not talking about people who are menacing or breaking windows or selling drugs. I’m talking about the people who have fallen on hard times and who need our help.”


Herod went on to say that, in the end, her endorsement was a “gut” decision. “Kelly ran a liberal-leaning campaign, but my gut kept reminding me of her time leading the Chamber,” Herod said.

That’s not the Star Chamber. It’s the Denver Chamber of Commerce.

Brough brings real executive management experience to the race. As you must know by now, she was John Hickenlooper’s chief of staff  when he was mayor. She knows how the city works. As she says, she doesn’t require a learning curve. And, not incidentally, she would be the first woman ever elected mayor of Denver. 

But her other executive experience — as the longtime (and first female) CEO of the Denver Chamber of Commerce — is a little more problematic. That’s not exactly what you want near the top of your résumé when running for office in bright-blue Denver. As Johnston has pointed out repeatedly, Brough was quiet on many of the critical issues before the city and state — like on guns and on green energy and a minimum wage, because, well, she was the relatively progressive CEO of the not-so-progressive Denver Chamber of Commerce.

“When it counted, when those issues were being debated, Kelly was nowhere to be found,” Johnston told me.

Johnston is a policy junkie, who can talk forever, and on as many issues as you can list. He has spent most of his career working, and pretty effectively, on one issue or another. Most recently, Johnston worked to pass Proposition 123, which will provide hundreds of millions of dollars for affordable housing in Colorado.

He is also, let’s say, ambitious. The former state senator is now running for his third high-profile office in the past few years, having entered races for governor, senator and now mayor, which puts him in Andrew Romanoff territory. If he loses this race, that would probably mean the end of his political career.

Meanwhile, an independent committee supporting Brough — calling itself A Better Denver — went beyond calling Johnston ambitious. The ad began this way: “Mike Johnston is lying about his leadership.” It noted that Johnston has called himself a leader in providing COVID testing and in “taking on the NRA” when he was a state senator.

You could reasonably say that Johnston may have exaggerated his role, although he did play a significant part — if not the leading one — in both cases. But it’s absurd to say he lied, and the ad was trashed in every fact check I’ve seen.

When I talked to Brough, she didn’t call Johnston a liar. She did say, “What bothered me was watching a woman (Sarah Tuneberg, who led the state’s  COVID-19 Innovation Response Team) on TV saying Mike had taken credit for something she had done. It was just hard for me to see.”

“That management style is a red flag for me. Here’s how I look at being mayor. Team, for me, is first, second and third. I think it’s a ‘we’ game all day long.”

When 9News’ Marshall Zelinger asked Tuneberg if she thought Johnston was taking credit for something she should get credit for, she said, “I think Mike Johnston is taking credit for a thing that my team should be taking credit for.” 

In a Facebook post, Tuneberg laid it all out, explaining her unhappiness. But she was also unhappy to have found herself, without anyone asking, in an attack ad.

How did we get to this point?

Because we always get to this point, and, in most races, way past this point. Because that’s how the game has always been played, particularly if one candidate starts to worry about the state of the race. 

I mean, if you want a more perfect game, you could always watch the Nuggets.

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. Sign up for Mike’s newsletter.

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