When 9News released a poll it had commissioned on the Denver mayoral race, the results, like other surveys, showed that the race was wide open. No candidate had garnered more than 5 percent support, and a whopping 58 percent of likely voters said they were undecided. But that survey data was still used to winnow down the debate field from the seventeen candidates on the mayoral ballot to just eleven participants.
Kwame Spearman was one of those candidates who will be left out of a 9News debate today, March 14.
"My main beef is — this is sort of my critique of leadership right now, just broadly speaking — you've got people who are steadfast in their views, and they're not looking at what the data is or what the situation is on the ground. The poll said 60 percent of Denver is undecided," says Spearman, who has about 1 percent support according to that poll. But he also questions whether that's a number the pollsters got to by rounding up or rounding down.
In an article previewing the debate, which is set for 7 p.m. tonight at McAuliffe International School and will be aired live on KTVD and 9NEWS+, the news agency noted that it "selected the three highest-polling candidates, plus any others polling within the margin of error of second place and at above two percent...Those 11 candidates are Lisa Calderón, Mike Johnston, Kelly Brough, Chris Hansen, Deborah 'Debbie' Ortega, Leslie Herod, Al Gardner, Thomas Wolf, Trinidad Rodriguez, Terrance Roberts and Andy Rougeot."
The purpose of narrowing the field was to "produce a more focused conversation among the candidates who have the most voter support at this time," according to an email that 9News sent to campaigns on February 20.
Calderón, Johnston and Brough are at the top of the poll commissioned by 9News, in partnership with the Denver Gazette/Colorado Politics and Metropolitan State University of Denver, polling at 5 percent each. The survey polled 594 likely voters at the end of February.
Along with Spearman, 9News also eliminated Ean Tafoya, Renate Behrens, Aurelio Martinez, Jim Walsh and Robert Treta from the debate, since all polled under 2 percent in the survey.
"I think they just need to give more people access," says Spearman. "If I was objectively looking at it, me and Ean...to exclude those voices is just kind of silly."
According to the latest campaign finance data, Spearman has filled the seventh-largest campaign chest. Tafoya comes in at ninth.
Tafoya and his team are also upset about being left out of the debate.
"He has gotten more progressive initiatives and legislative measures passed than the elected officials in the race. Yet 9News wants us to settle for their flawed poll with 58 percent undecided and no one in double digits with a minimal 500-person sample. They are trying to silence the voice of the chosen: the young man on the e-bike riding in neighborhoods he canvasses," says Sharron Pettiford, political director for Tafoya for Mayor. "As a movement organizer, we would hate to have to march, but it might be necessary."
Spearman also suspects flaws in that poll. "The data shows that Lisa Calderón is doing better than [me] with conservative voters, which is pretty wild," he says. Calderón is running a progressive campaign, while Spearman is running a more conservative campaign relative to Denver politics.
"There are people like Al Gardner, who has not raised any cash, who's on the stage," Spearman adds. "I love Al. But if you look at the eleven, it underscores that this survey was a little wacky." Gardner has generated $13,505 in donations, which is ten times less than what Tafoya has pulled in.
But 9News is standing by its decision. News director Megan Jurgemeyer points out that the criteria for inclusion in the debate was sent to all candidates in February, and no campaigns objected then. "Because we clearly communicated our parameters well in advance of the survey results, we do not plan to make any changes," Jurgemeyer says. She notes that 9News has also conducted one-on-one interviews with all seventeen mayoral candidates.
This is not the first time that candidates are getting left off a 9News debate stage. On February 16, 9News held a debate for mayoral candidates participating in the Fair Elections Fund, the new public campaign financing mechanism that matches contributions of $5 to $50 at a nine-to-one ratio. Under Fair Elections Fund requirements, any candidate in a contested race who's participating in the fund must be in at least one debate.
That left Rougeot, the lone registered Republican in the mayor race, on the sidelines of that debate, since he's not participating in the fund and is instead largely self-funding his own campaign.
But Rougeot was able to use being left out of the debate as a campaign talking point, and his team sent out four emails referencing it.
"I believe taxpayer dollars should be used to enforce Denver’s camping ban and to hire 400 more police officers – not to pay for the political campaigns of corrupt politicians,” Rougeot wrote in a February 16 email. "9News and my opponents in this race may believe that taxpayer dollars are better spent on political consultants than on cleaning up our streets, but that doesn’t mean they should be able to silence the voices of those who disagree with their corrupt beliefs."
Other mayoral events, panels and town halls have used different criteria to keep the numbers to a more manageable level, with some having as few as five candidates on the stage.
A February 24 event hosted by PBS12, in partnership with the Colorado Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and Denver labor unions, featured ten candidates on stage. To select which candidates made the cut, PBS12 used fundraising data outside of Fair Elections Fund matches. That station, too, sent an advisory in advance to candidates to explain the guidelines for choosing which members of the crowded field would be included in the forum.
"The only candidate who voiced concern was Jim Walsh, who attended the event as an audience member," says Sarah Young, the director of marketing for PBS12. "The event was invite-only, so while candidates who were below the top-ten threshold were not formally invited to attend, Mr. Walsh walked up to the event and was permitted entrance."