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Denver mayoral candidates clash in latest debate as April 4 election nears

DENVER, CO – MARCH 14: Candidates sit on stage on Tuesday, March 14, 2023 during a City of Denver mayoral debate at McAauliffe International School. (Photo by AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post)

With ballots in the hands of some Denver voters, 11 leading mayoral candidates gathered Tuesday at a northeast Denver school for a televised debate that was noticeably more awkward than previous gatherings, as the group of people in the running tried to force a split.

Lisa Calderón, Mike Johnston, Kelly Brough, Chris Hansen, Debbie Ortega, Leslie Herod, Al Gardner, Thomas Wolf, Trinidad Rodriguez, Terrance Roberts and Andy Rougeot were the 11 of the 17 candidates standing in the polls on 4 Showdown, hosted by 9News and aired on sister station KTVD.

That list was established in late February in a poll commissioned by 9News, Colorado Politics, the Denver Gazette and Metro State University. Taking into account the temperatures of 594 likely Denver voters, this poll found that Calderón, Johnston and Brough had the most support. They were in a poll with a margin of error of 4.9 percentage points with just 5% support in a three-way tie. Any candidate who scored at least 2% in a poll was invited on Tuesday.

With 58% of voters in the poll saying they were undecided, the urgency of making an impression was evident on the debate stage.

Here were three big takeaways from the debate:

Calderón follows Brough on paid family leave

The presenters challenged Brough to defend her opposition to legislature efforts to enact a paid family leave program for workers in 2020 when she was head of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce. Voters in the state eventually voted to authorize this program themselves. She was asked how she would either support or oppose the implementation of this law if elected mayor.

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Brough said she strongly supports paid leave and offers it to her staff in the chamber. But she still thinks the state program doesn’t go far enough to make workers financially healthy when they take time off. She said she will continue on the path the city has already taken to exit the state program to offer a more robust internal leave option.

Calling Brough’s account “revisionist history,” Calderón followed up on her record as a member of the city leadership under then-Mayor John Hickenlooper.

“She led opposition to family leave, as she did to cutting workers’ wages,” Calderón said. “So to make sure you’re a good steward of taxpayers’ money, you have to look after our workers. They don’t pass policies that cut their wages, let them retire longer (and) stop automatic pay rises.”

Brough said the policy changes she was involved in in the Hickenlooper administration only stopped automatic raises for workers who didn’t meet expectations, proof she was a good steward of public funds.

Rodriguez’ plan to involuntarily detain the homeless is blown up

Seven of the 11 contestants on stage are campaigning to further enforce the city’s camping ban to at least move people living on the city’s streets without shelter to new places. However, Rodriguez has been widely criticized for his plan to use involuntary mental health bans to force people who refuse services into drug and mental illness treatment programs against their will. Some have compared the idea to the establishment of city detention centers.

When asked if his plan was moral and ethical, Rodriguez said it was the right thing to do for public health and to save the lives of people struggling with addiction.

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“This is not a detention center, this is a place where we can provide a standard of care for people who are suffering and dying on our streets today,” he said, citing the city’s overdose crisis.

Again, it was Calderón – a vocal opponent of the Sweeps who has a law degree – who was at the forefront against this plan. She said the executive branch did not have the power to unilaterally place anyone on a psychiatric hold and that a judge and trial had to be involved.

“A mayor is not an emperor,” she told Rodriguez during a back-and-forth between the two.

Rodriguez claimed his plan was backed by state law.

Later in the debate, Gardner likened the plan to the internment of Japanese during World War II, a comparison Rodriguez called offensive.

Rodriguez also said he was considering deploying National Guard personnel to help care for homeless people who are being treated involuntarily.

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