Denver mayoral runoff between Kelly Brough, Mike Johnston gets underway

The results of the April 4 municipal election aren’t certified yet, but the runoff race for the Denver mayor’s office between Kelly Brough and Mike Johnston marched forward Wednesday with a forum where the two candidates agreed with each other plenty but also sought to create some separation.

Brough and Johnston met on the University of Denver campus for the event, which was hosted by the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce, Downtown Denver Partnership and the city’s visitors and tourism bureau, Visit Denver.

None of the 16 people who ran for Denver mayor earned more than 50% of the vote in the first round of voting. That triggered an instant runoff between the top two vote-getters, Johnston with 24.4% and Brough with 20%, according to unofficial results. The two are seeking to persuade most of the city’s electorate to vote for them in a race that will conclude June 6 and name the city’s first new mayor in more than a decade.

Brough appeared to be comfortable Wednesday. She was the president and CEO of the Denver chamber for 12 years. Her successor, J.J. Ament, led off the program by introducing a marketing video for the city. Johnston meanwhile highlighted his experience as the president and CEO of Gary Community Ventures, the highest-profile philanthropic organization in the state, as he sought to reach a business-focused audience. Both cracked jokes throughout the event and largely avoided attacking their opponent.

Here are three takeaways from the unofficial kickoff of the runoff race:

Homelessness will remain a central issue

The city’s business community submitted most of the questions asked during the event. Some of those questions took the candidates into territory that wasn’t covered extensively in the first round. (The two were asked where they would go on their first international business development trip if elected mayor and seek to create a new destination from Denver International Airport. Johnston replied Africa. Brough said she would rely on data but referenced the Middle East and Africa.)

But it was clear Wednesday that the city’s homelessness crisis will remain the focal point of the runoff race as it was in the first round.

Asked what they would do to “stop the bleeding” of business closures and departures, especially downtown, and to prevent more people from looking to move out of the city, Brough and Johnston mentioned their homelessness plans.

“I’ve made it a top priority to be able to address our challenges with folks that are unhoused. We know the reason why the camping ban hasn’t worked is because we just move people from one block to another. We don’t have any place for them to go,” Johnston said.

He outlined his plan to create “micro-communities” of 40 to 50 tiny homes on half-acre lots around the city where people living in encampments can be moved so they have shelter and access to on-site services. He referenced a past effort to stand up a similar type of emergency housing that he said generated strong demand and proved to be effective in keeping people from slipping back into homelessness.

“That’s what we need to do really quickly is make sure we can get people access to housing and get streets and public parks back for everybody to use,” he said.

The key to stopping the flow of business out of downtown — and convincing others to come in — is reassurances from leadership, Brough said.

“We have to promise them we are going to turn around their experience there and their investment is going to pay off with us again,” she said. “I think part of that, that commitment as we talk to businesses about why they should stay in our downtown core, is my commitment to end unsanctioned camping.”

She also said the city’s practice of sweeping encampments is ineffective, referencing research released this week that linked sweeps to decreased life expectancy among unhoused people.

“I have committed to getting people to safer locations within my first year in office because it’s critical both for their safety and for the opportunity for our community to grow and revitalize,” she said.

Brough’s plan for sanctioned camping spaces and extensive drug treatment and other service outreach is similar to Johnston’s except that she had not talked about the use of tiny homes. Previously criticized for being evasive about what she would do for those who refuse to move to sanctioned sites, Brough on Wednesday was explicit that under her administration people may be arrested and held on short-term mental health holds.

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Pressed about what he would do if confronted with people who refuse to be moved, Johnston said he would not use arrests, but his ultimate solution to those situations was unclear.

“You can just move people in the same way you evict someone from a house and they can’t live there anymore,” Johnston said. “It doesn’t mean that they can stay there. There is a possibility to say you can move someone from a site where they are not allowed to live without either arresting them or putting them on a mental health hold.”

Both oppose safe drug-use sites

Neither candidate is in favor of the city opening a supervised drug-use site, something the Demoncratically-controlled state legislature is moving to make possible via a bill in its current session.

Brough referenced her husband, who died by suicide after a long struggle with addiction. Her focus in loving someone with addiction was on trying to be supportive without enabling their drug use.

“For me, a safe injection site crosses that line of enabling a behavior that in my experience is destroying a life, so I don’t support it,” she said.

Johnston said that a safe-use site is not the city’s most urgent need when it comes to drug use response.

“I do not think there is real evidence to show that it is effective at getting people access to treatment or getting them clean,” he said.

His focus would be on providing for people’s basic needs, especially safe, stable housing, that will make them more likely to pursue treatment.

Both acknowledged the definition of success for a safe-use site varies based on point of view. For advocates, the main purpose of the sites is preventing overdose deaths, Johnston noted.

If she is elected and a safe-use site is already established in Denver — a real possibility given the timing of the runoff — Brough said her focus would be on establishing shared objectives and metrics to determine if the site is working.

Working with a progressive council

Brough and Johnston along with the more moderate wing of Denver’s liberal political leadership. But three City Council races also in the runoff stage all feature candidates that are backed by the Denver chapter of the Democratic Socialist of America. One at-large seat was won by a DSA-backed candidate, Sarah Parady.

Asked how they might work with a City Council that could be far to their left on some issues, the two candidates’ approaches differed.

Johnston focused on his track record of building coalitions to get big priorities passed, including working with Republican legislators when he served in the state Senate to get a bill passed that allowed undocumented students to qualify for in-state tuition to Colorado universities.

“For me, it’s a matter of building those relationships from the start but then setting clear, inspiring visions for what you want to get done and figuring out what it takes to get people on board,” he said.

Brough said she would start by trying to build consensus and have larger conversations about goals and objectives. But she wouldn’t hesitate to use the power of the mayor’s office if needed.

“I think the next mayor needs to be prepared to stand her ground, to veto legislation that we don’t think serves our residents and be very clear about why we are doing it,” she said.

CBS4 will stream the debate online at 7 p.m. on Friday. Visit cbsnews.com/colorado for more information.

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