Denver Government

The Contenders: Lisa Calderón Pushes a Progressive Future for Denver

Lisa Calderón believes the second time to be the charm.
Lisa Calderón believes the second time to be the charm. Evan Semón Photography
This is the third in our series on the Denver mayoral candidates, based on their responses to a Westword questionnaire sent to every contender on the ballot last month; see PBS12's "Humanizing" piece on Lisa Calderón below.

A lifelong Denverite and a prominent progressive advocate and activist, Lisa Calderón says that now is the time for major changes in how the Mile High City moves forward.

The former head of a community re-entry program for people newly released from jail, she's a college professor and also the executive director of Emerge Colorado, an organization that helps Democratic women run for office.

Calderón ran for mayor in 2019, placing third in that race, which saw Mayor Michael Hancock win a third and final term. She ran that effort on a shoestring budget; now, with help from the Fair Elections Fund, Calderón has been able to put on a more polished campaign with more staffers.

Despite losing the 2019 mayoral race, Calderón picked up right where she left off once it was over: criticizing Hancock. As a staunch critic of the mayor, Calderón fit in well as chief of staff for Denver City Council rep Candi CdeBaca, another Hancock foe.

Calderón loves dogs and the outdoors; she's also a huge fan of dark chocolate and "won't eat the cheap stuff," she says.

While Calderón has the backing of plenty of progressives, how well she does in the April race will be a reflection of how far Denver is ready to move to the left. She's hopeful that with her experience from that first run, a well-organized campaign and a city ostensibly longing for change, she'll be elected the next mayor of Denver.

Why are you running for mayor?

I am running for mayor because, for the first time in its history, Denver deserves a mayor who will lead from a seat of progressive power. We have a rare opportunity to create an equitable city; not because of what we build, but because of the people who build community together. The people of Denver deserve more than false binary choices that limit our options. It’s time to reimagine Denver — to reimagine what’s possible with progressive political will, grassroots action and coalitions to build it. It’s time for fresh ideas and a new era of leadership in Denver. As an experienced leader in the nonprofit, city government and education sectors, I have been fighting for working families, affordable housing, safer communities, civil rights and reproductive freedom long before the pandemic or current threats to our democracy. As an educator, I see the challenges facing future generations, but also their aspirations for a fairer, equitable and sustainable world.

What is your plan to tackle homelessness?

Homelessness is one of the most pressing issues facing Denver today. It represents the cascading effects of our affordability crisis, weak tenant protections, lack of livable wages and lack of affordable-housing problems. The complex factors contributing to homelessness make it so it cannot be solved with top-down policies that do not involve the unhoused community, who are experts in their own needs. I reject 'quick fix,' one-size-fits-all solutions to homelessness that flatten the diverse and unique needs of unhoused individuals. At the same time, I am committed to working toward a city where housing is attainable for all.

In my first thirty days as mayor, I will stop the ineffective, wasteful sweeps that make it harder to connect people with services, and stop the ‘compassionate crackdown’ on unhoused people that further destabilize people and obstruct access to permanent housing. Instead, we will activate crisis response workers, including after hours, to support people on the streets in crisis with coordinated resources. Recognizing that every person has different needs as they wait for housing to come available, we will expand Safe Outdoor Spaces and shelters across the city while also creating an apartment master leasing program. This represents a fundamental shift from shelter-first to housing-first, as the leasing program will ultimately be less expensive than maintaining more Safe Outdoor Spaces or shelters.

Would you end homeless encampment sweeps?

I would end the sweeps and replace them with crisis intervention responders and immediate housing. Sweeps and 'crackdowns' destabilize people further and disconnect individuals from services, their support networks and the pathway to permanent housing. I vehemently support housing-first solutions, that recognize that unhoused people require a variety of different interim solutions while they await permanent housing, including the option to remain in tents, utilize shelters and join Safe Outdoor Spaces.

We will activate crisis response workers, including after hours, to support people on the streets in crisis with coordinated resources. This approach is a shift from downtown business lobbyists making safety policies to public health experts, service providers and unhoused people themselves working in tandem with expanded STAR, 311, mental health, and other appropriate resources. We will reinvest cost savings by reducing arrests, incarceration, judicial resources, emergency room visits and other more costly responses.

We will also establish sanitation stations. Unhoused people deserve the basic human dignity of places to relieve and wash, and dispose of trash. In addition to helping people to care for themselves, this will reduce the interactions between unhoused people and law enforcement, and will also benefit tourists and residents who are also in need of accessing public restrooms and trash receptacles.

What is your plan to improve public safety in Denver?

The multiple crises we face in Denver share a similar root: economic and racial inequality. Having faced poverty, hunger, inadequate health care options for a child with a chronic condition, and even threats of foreclosure from a predatory lender, I know the fear and anxiety when facing health and housing security crises. The pandemic has laid bare the intrinsic inequalities baked into our systems, and as mayor, one of my core values is to address inequalities at the root rather than pursuing band-aid solutions.

My academic, nonprofit, and community activism has focused in large part on criminal justice reform. For eight years, I oversaw the city’s re-entry program, which included education, vocational training, and treatment services to help formerly incarcerated people successfully transition back into their communities. For the past 20 years, I have worked on reducing mass incarceration that is rooted in the legacy of slavery. That work is intersectional in public safety, affordability, access to comprehensive physical and mental healthcare, environmental work, and much more.

In any crisis, whether it be economic, social, or public health, we must prioritize the needs of our most vulnerable communities. Plus the over-reliance on jails as a criminal justice response to more significant social, economic and public health issues has pushed jail populations throughout the country to unprecedented levels. In a startling report, the Vera Institute of Justice identified the “misuse of jails” as having detrimental and lasting impacts on individuals, and destabilizing effects on vulnerable communities.

I would protect our city against future crises first by strengthening our social safety nets for tenants, workers and marginalized communities. I will invest in building social and affordable housing, strengthening unions and workers’ rights including for city workers and addressing wealth disparities and lack of access in the neighborhoods in Denver that have suffered the most through disinvestment.

However, our city has yet to be made whole by the ongoing COVID-19 crisis. One thing I will pursue as mayor is working to find ways to subsidize the rent of tenants who are still struggling to make ends meet after months of lost wages. I will also support efforts to ensure employers give workers appropriate sick time so as to not continue the spread of the virus in the pursuit of profit.

Above all else, I realize that our communities have been damaged in myriad ways by the COVID-19 pandemic, and I will create an administration that is accessible and reflective of the diverse needs of Denverites as we continue to heal from the past three years. I will also work to follow Albuquerque’s lead in funding health clinics like Planned Parenthood that provide comprehensive health care and preventive care, and lead in gender-affirming care at a low cost in Denver.

How will you work with Denver Public Schools to improve education and safety in schools?

As a graduate of Denver Public Schools, and a fourth-generation Denverite, I recognize the critical role that strong public neighborhood schools and unionized teachers play in communities. As mayor, I will work to make sure the mayor’s office and city departments develop partnership programs with DPS, providing resources and supporting positive initiatives. I will expand the work of the Office of Children's Affairs to include parents and teachers, increase the availability of affordable housing and center economic opportunities with steady living wages across all policy areas.

Additionally, I would partner with DPS to create a safer environment for kids to learn. As mayor, I would work to improve the strained relationship between DPS Security and principals to explore alternative forms of discipline that prevent the school-to-prison pipeline. I would also expand resources for gun violence prevention, and improved education on drug-use prevention, treatment and harm-reduction.

Public schools are pivotal hubs of community services, extending far beyond simply offering an education, but often playing a vital role in the health and well-being of the surrounding communities. For example, I would work with DPS to support and expand before/after school child care that supports working families, business community internships, and support the return of trade school education within each high school that creates pathways to success for Denver’s youth, and support the increase of nonprofit wrap-around services that help students and their families connect to critical support services.

Particularly in communities of color that historically are denied access to public and private resources, public schools can fill that gap. With sufficient investment in public schools, schools can help alleviate long-standing inequities, and help alleviate poverty, community safety issues, public health challenges, and environmental justice in surrounding communities.

What is your stance on the Park Hill Golf Course development proposal?

Currently, Denver has less than three-quarters of the recommended park space per capita. The city must proactively pursue opportunities to expand city parkland and build on Denver’s City Beautiful movement by adding even more parks and parkways. Development without strategic consideration threatens our public spaces and our parks. As a Denver City Council District 9 resident, former Parks and Recreation Advisory Board member and former Chief of Staff for Councilwoman Candi CdeBaca who was denied a seat on the area planning committee, I am more invigorated than ever to protect the conservation easement and open space. A city housing plan shouldn’t be driven by corporate developers making backroom deals with compromised politicians. A public park system belongs to all Denverites.

In November 2021, Denver voters already made their wishes known by a wide margin. They resoundingly defeated Westside’s duplicitous and dueling initiative to lift the 1997 conservation easement protecting the last large undeveloped properties in Denver. The choice between open space and housing was always a false one. We can have both, but not by sacrificing one for the other. Our housing crisis will not be solved by cheaply selling our finite green spaces, which are the lungs of our neighborhoods, to combat the urban heat island effect. That is why we must balance the needs of housing, multimodal transportation and environmental issues in our decisions.

As Mayor, I commit to building deeply affordable and mixed-income social housing in grey and brown space to reach our housing, affordability and climate goals. I will also work to prioritize the balance of our green space and development. A public realm needs to be nurtured district-by-district, with City leadership, not just private enterprise.

How can Denver significantly expand its affordable-housing stock?

We are in a housing crisis and need publicly funded social housing and more accessibility. As Mayor, I will introduce dense, affordable and social housing, and prioritize development on underutilized spaces such as brown and grey space. I would also support renters by developing a tenants’ bill of rights, and create community land trusts that prioritize the needs of residents before corporations.

Additionally, my approach to governing includes a deep dedication to including community members in planning processes, such as by implementing participant-public-private partnerships so that community concerns related to affordability are included from the outset.

We can also create more affordable housing by legalizing accessory dwelling units, which let homeowners build rental units on unused space and avoid displacement. We can also mandate that new developments offer housing for low- and moderate-income families at or below 50 percent of the area median income (AMI). By including a 50 percent AMI — a lower AMI than currently utilized — we can expand truly affordable housing that is accessible to a broader population of low-income Denverites. And if we simultaneously improve the permitting process to expedite the building process, we can develop new affordable housing to meet the urgent housing needs with less delay.

Denver has historically been a car-centric city. Should the city take significant road space from cars for other forms of transportation (walking, rolling, biking, scootering, bus, etc.)?

Denver must move away from being a car-centric city, and prioritize multi-modal transportation that is easy and convenient, as well as cheap or free.

As mayor, I will implement my 'SMART' vision for city planning and transportation: Smart growth is key to comprehensive land-use planning for environmentally sustainable, compact, walkable and multimodal urban centers with mixed-use development offering a range of affordable housing options. This plan includes focusing on mobility by implementing initiatives to shift the culture from being car-dependent to reducing energy consumption and greenhouse-gas emissions. I will use data to inform decision-making and measure benchmarks to reach the goal of zero traffic fatalities as envisioned by the Denver Streets Partnership Vision Zero five-year plan. I will increase funding to create equity across neighborhoods where the majority of deaths occur in 'high-injury networks' or 'communities of concern,' which disproportionately impact people of color and working-class people. I will build infrastructure for alternative forms of transportation to make walking and cycling safer. Paired with this, I will give a particular focus on trees and open space.

What would you do if the Denver Broncos demand public dollars as a requirement for keeping the stadium in the Mile High City?

Denver is facing a housing crisis, homelessness crisis and affordability crisis. The city budget is a social contract that represents the values and priorities of the city, and we must prioritize addressing the pressing issues faced by Denverites. While sports and events contribute to the economic prosperity of the city, this prosperity is only for a small percentage of residents, and would ignore the immediate and urgent funding needs that would benefit the majority of Denverites. Public funding to the Broncos would disproportionately benefit certain communities while diverting funds away from communities that most need funding for social services, neighborhood improvements and city-run programs. Therefore, I would oppose using public funds to finance a new stadium.

Violence during let-out in LoDo has been an issue for years. Would you support a staggered closing time that ends at 4 a.m.?

I would need to see the research that staggered times reduce violence, and also hear from residents and business owners, including food truck operators. However, there's a bigger issue to address: violence during let-out in LoDo is not simply reduced to an issue of closing times, but a product of numerous failures of the current mayor’s administration over the last 12 years to address the systemic issues that lead to violence and crime. Focusing on changing the closing time is looking at a symptom of the problem rather than the cause. Instead, we must look at the factors contributing to crime, poverty, and violence within Denver. This includes reimagining public safety in line with my vision detailed above, taking measures to address rising inequality and poverty within Denver, and improved gun control.

Crime is a product of numerous underlying causes, such as lack of affordable housing, barriers to employment, education inequality, wealth inequality and systemic racism. The most important way to prevent crime is to address these underlying causes. As mayor, I will overhaul the public safety office and create an Office of Community Safety and Well-Being, appoint an experienced leadership team centering the voices of formerly incarcerated people and invest in the co-production of community safety to develop holistic approaches for improved safety outcomes.

What question do you wish we'd asked?

I wish you had asked how I stand apart from other candidates in making Denver better for everyone who lives in the city. Unlike other candidates, my administration will distribute power currently held by the mayor’s office and put it back into communities. Denver is better when community members are making decisions for and about their own communities. My platform is driven by a commitment to center marginalized communities and ensure that the residents most typically excluded from political decisions have access to, and input to, how Denver works for them. Moreover, I am the only candidate that brings thirty-plus years of experience in implementing city programs. Not only do I understand how to craft effective and robust policy, but I bring a proven track record of delivering on implementation with clear results. Given the severity of our housing, homelessness, and public safety crisis, we need urgent and sweeping action, led by someone who understands how to translate big ideas into meaningful change.
See answers from Kelly Brough, Thomas Wolf, Lisa Calderón, Andy Rougeot, Ean Tafoya, Renate Behrens, Debbie Ortega, James Walsh, Robert Treta, Leslie Herod, Chris Hansen, Mike Johnston, Trinidad Rodriguez, Aurelio Martinez, Terrance Roberts and Al Gardner.
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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.

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