The Ten Biggest Denver Political Stories of 2019

Denver decriminalized psychedelic mushrooms in May.
Denver decriminalized psychedelic mushrooms in May. Conor McCormick-Cavanagh
Election season defined Denver politics in 2019. Mayor Michael Hancock won a third and final term, while three city council incumbents lost to first-time candidates. And the new-look council has shown that it's not afraid to challenge the mayor’s agenda.

Continue reading for the top Denver political stories of 2019, including a very messy teachers' strike and more public-relations disasters for the Hancock administration.

Fungus Now Among Us
It’s only fitting that Denver did it first. Years after leading the way on marijuana decriminalization and legalization, Denver residents voted in May to decriminalize psychedelic mushrooms, becoming the first city in the U.S. to do so.

Low-level mushroom offenses are no longer criminalized in the City and County of Denver. That means that Denver police and prosecutors are largely looking the other way if they find someone growing or possessing mushrooms for personal use. The feds, however, are still watching...

The Mayor's Race Got Down and Dirty
The runoff between Michael Hancock and Jamie Giellis ended in a landslide victory for Hancock. But in the run-up to election day, Hancock and Giellis couldn't stop slinging mud at each other. Giellis called Hancock a sexual harasser. Hancock’s campaign emphasized a Giellis gaffe in which she was unable to recount what the acronym NAACP stood for during a live interview.

There were other nasty moments, which ended up obscuring the merits of each candidate and where they differed from each other. Hancock lived to see another term, and Giellis returned to civilian life.

...and City Council Added New Faces
While Hancock cruised to victory in the June runoff, three incumbent members of Denver City Council lost in their runoffs to first-time candidates. Political observers saw the shakeup as a reaction to general discontent over development in Denver.

Since the elections, city council meetings have been especially lively. Candi CdeBaca, who ousted Hancock’s friend Albus Brooks, has brought a new dynamic to meetings, frequently — and very vocally — opposing many of the initiatives that come from the mayor’s office. The most prominent example came in August, when CdeBaca successfully led the opposition to renewing contracts with two private prison companies involved in immigrant detention that operate halfway houses in Denver.

click to enlarge Denver's new-look city council sometimes gives the mayor a tough time. - DENVER CITY COUNCIL
Denver's new-look city council sometimes gives the mayor a tough time.
Denver City Council
Halfway House Shakeup
The City of Denver has been trying to figure out its halfway house conundrum ever since the August vote. The Hancock administration has formed an advisory board to determine how Denver can ensure that hundreds of people who had been residents of the halfway houses run by private prison companies CoreCivic and GEO Group don’t end up going back to jail or prison.

So far, the city has decided to buy Tooley Hall, a GEO Group halfway house, from the private company for $1.3 million; city officials will then find another company to run the facility. And Hancock's administration is in the process of extending its halfway house contract with CoreCivic for another year, to summer 2021.

The city won’t be divesting from private prison companies anytime soon, but the conversation about doing so has certainly begun.

Bad Education
Superintendent Susana Cordova had been in office for only a few months when she had to confront one of the biggest problems Denver Public Schools has faced in recent years: Teachers were threatening to strike for the first time since 1994. The conflict arose over disputes between teachers and the administration regarding compensation and whether teachers should be paid mainly through base salary or through incentives.

Teachers eventually launched the strike, which ended after three days of picketing in the streets. Ultimately, they got some of what they wanted, and the administration was able to put an end to what was quickly becoming a nightmare.

click to enlarge Denver teachers Becky Carlson, left, and DJ Bruen demonstrated outside the Colorado State Capitol on Monday, February 11, during a three-day strike. - AMANDA PAMPURO
Denver teachers Becky Carlson, left, and DJ Bruen demonstrated outside the Colorado State Capitol on Monday, February 11, during a three-day strike.
Amanda Pampuro
DIA Development Crashes and Burns
The biggest public-relations disaster of the year for the Hancock administration began in August, when the city cut ties with Great Hall Partners, a development consortium that was handling the $1.8 billion Great Hall remodeling at Denver International Airport. The city said it would instead be handling the project, which has seen cost overruns and delays, rather than continue to rely on a public-private partnership. It was an embarrassing admission that things hadn’t been working for years.

Then in October, news broke that the Denver City Attorney’s Office was asking for a handful of city employees to turn over their personal phone records for August 12. It was on that summer day that an insider leaked to the media the fact that the city would be announcing the end of its contract with Great Hall Partners. Regardless of the city’s motivations, the move had major witch-hunt vibes.

Firman Leaves the Fuzz
When Hancock appointed Patrick Firman as sheriff in 2015, the administration hailed him as a reformer who would make a broken department whole again. But Firman was never able to accomplish all that Hancock expected of him, and the sheriff announced he was leaving in September following years of costly lawsuit settlements for incidents that took place in jails. But Firman wasn't done with Denver: He was hired to analyze data in the mayor's office.

Just after the resignation announcement, Candi CdeBaca unveiled her plan to make the sheriff an elected official instead of an appointed one, arguing that he or she needs more independence from the mayor. If the initiative gains enough support from other members of council, it will appear on the 2020 citywide ballot.

The Right to Survive Dies
In the same election that saw voters decriminalize mushrooms, a majority voted against an initiative that would have overturned the city’s urban camping ban. The Right to Survive initiative would have also carved a path for the homeless to sue city officials if they unlawfully disturbed or attempted to remove them.

Millions of dollars were poured into the campaign opposing the initiative, but its proponents got the last laugh. This fall, a class-action lawsuit over Denver's homeless sweeps resulted in a settlement and stipulations the city must follow before sweeping a homeless encampment. Officials must notify encampment dwellers before a large-scale cleanup and will place notices on things like tents and blankets two days before a sweep.

Burning Down the House
In March, city officials began mailing affidavits to short-term rental applicants and operators to get them to testify, under penalty of perjury, that their rentals are also their primary residence. So far, four short-term rental operators have been charged with a felony for allegedly signing the affidavit under false pretenses.

While three of the defendants are still navigating the legal process, the Denver District Attorney’s Office dismissed charges against Aaron Elinoff after prosecutors couldn’t prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Elinoff hadn’t been using his short-term rental as his primary residence.

Enjoy Retirement, Tom!
Tom Messina saw the end in sight. After decades of running Tom's Diner at 601 East Colfax Avenue, he was ready to sell his circa 1967 Googie-style building and the surrounding property to a developer, cash in and retire; an application was filed to have Tom's declared non-historic, a status that would have allowed it to be wiped off the map. But a handful of residents objected, and the Landmark Preservation Commission unanimously recommended that Tom's be declared a landmark, which would have prevented its destruction and potentially blocked Messina's deal.

Before Denver City Council could vote on the landmark designation, though, the applicants withdrew their proposal. All was not lost, however: Historic Denver was busy behind the scenes, and at the end of December, the announcement came that the current owner has reached a deal with GBX Group to keep the building, which is now officially listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and make it part of the development on that key block of Colfax.
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Conor McCormick-Cavanagh is a staff writer at Westword, where he covers a range of beats, including local politics, immigration and homelessness. He previously worked as a journalist in Tunisia and loves to talk New York sports.