The results of the May 7 Denver election didn't settle every contest. The mayor's race between incumbent Michael Hancock and challenger Jamie Giellis will be decided by way of a June 4 runoff, and so will the competition for five high-profile Denver City Council positions, whose winners will help determine the future of the community for years to come.
City council candidates who earned more than 50 percent of the vote in the May 7 election avoided the runoff; the pair of at-large seats won by incumbents Debbie Ortega and Robin Kniech were exceptions. If no one vying for membership in specific districts hit that mark, the two top finishers advanced to the second round on June 4. Seven candidates appeared on the ballot for District 1, with Amanda Sandoval, at 31 percent, and Mike Somma, who scored just shy of 17 percent, leading the field.
We submitted the following questions via email to the ten city council finalists: District 1's Somma and Sandoval, District 3's Veronica Barela and Jamie Torres, District 5's Mary Beth Susman and Amanda Sawyer, District 9's Albus Brooks and Candi CdeBaca, and District 10's Wayne New and Chris Hinds. All of them agreed to participate.
Get to know more about District 1 hopeful and veteran firefighter Somma below.
Westword: How would you describe yourself and the reasons you decided to run for city council?
Mike Somma: I have been a public servant to the residents of Denver for the last 34 years, and I have served as a Denver firefighter since 1992. I also served for a decade as the Government Affairs Director for Denver Firefighters Local 858, during which time I attended nearly every city council meeting and gained a deep understanding of our city’s government.
Northwest Denver has been my home for 64 years. I have traveled every street and alleyway of this district — whether as a kid on my bike, or as a firefighter in my rig. I know the people, I have lived through the changes, and I believe my knowledge of and love for northwest Denver equips me to represent it well. This neighborhood raised me, and it would be my honor to serve it.
But my commitment to my home and my neighbors is not the only reason I’m running. I’m running for city council because something’s got to give. It has been years since northwest Denver had a councilmember who would pick up the phone, a councilmember who truly put the residents first. I do not believe that being on city council is about auditioning for mayor; I believe that being on city council is about serving the residents of this district, and that’s what I intend to do.
People have asked me to run for this seat for years, and I always told them, "I’m not a politician." Then I finally realized that’s the point.
What makes your district unique?
More than most other parts of the city, northwest Denver still has a very small-town feel in a lot of ways. Of course, that’s changing more every day, but it’s not gone. For years, this was the part of town where you could buy single-family homes with the salary of a laborer or a small businessperson, and where you could raise your kids a stone’s throw away from downtown but with the safety of the suburbs. These days, though, prices are soaring and that familial way of life is being squeezed out.
What is the biggest issue affecting your district?
Housing is the most pressing issue affecting northwest Denver, by far, and I will discuss it more below.
Now that the Right to Survive ordinance has been defeated, how would you address the issues of homelessness cited by both the measure's supporters and opponents?
I firmly believe that only housing solves homelessness. We need to take swift and comprehensive action to increase the number of shelter beds in the city; to zone, permit and build tiny home villages; and to convert existing, underused city properties into attainable housing.
I believe that we should follow the lead of San Antonio, a city that has virtually eliminated homelessness. Through public-private partnerships, San Antonio created Haven for Hope — a series of programs providing food, child care, pet care, job training, addiction counseling and more, located on a 22-acre campus that houses offices of more than thirty agencies. So far, San Antonio has moved more than 3,000 individuals into permanent housing, and has more than 5,000 folks in temporary housing.
In the meantime, I believe that we need to work on transitional measures to curb the cycle of arresting and re-arresting homeless Denverites while we undertake swift city action to house them.
How would you tackle Denver's affordable-housing issues?
Since 2010, Denver housing prices have increased by over 50 percent — and the average cost to buy a house in Denver has risen to $500,000 while rent has skyrocketed over 48 percent. Hardworking families are struggling to afford a roof over their heads.
For cheaper housing, we need to increase our housing supply, and we need to build the type of housing that regular Denverites want and need. This means rental units in the $800-$950/month range, and starter homes in the $200K-$300K range.
There are thousands of luxury units in the city sitting vacant. We need to tax these empty, million-dollar units and put that money toward the city's affordable-housing trust fund.
I support the decision last year to double the city’s financial commitment to the affordable-housing fund — but it needs to be funded to a much higher level. We need to evaluate what amount of existing impact fees/transfer taxes we can redirect into the affordable-housing fund to ensure that it stays well-funded without raising taxes on ordinary residents.
How concerned are you about gentrification in your district, and what can be done to strike the right balance?
Northwest Denver has seen its fair share of gentrification, and it has left deep scars throughout the community. Things are not quite as bad right now as they were at their peak a few years back, but there are still neighborhoods all over this district that are at risk of being completely bulldozed. I believe we need to place a greater emphasis on renovating, restoring and reusing existing structures, so that growth does not necessarily bring disruption. I also believe that the city needs to take a stronger hand in ensuring that rising property taxes do not lead to seniors and low-income families being priced out of the homes they have owned for decades.
Do you support rent control in Denver?
In short, yes. We cannot allow rent to continue its upward trajectory, or the 50 percent of our population that rents will eventually be forced to move.
Would you expand the tiny homes concept? If so, how? If not, why not?
Yes, I would. Denver is tens of thousands of housing units short of where we need to be. Tiny homes are a quick and affordable near-term solution for meeting the housing needs of the most vulnerable Denverites while we lay the groundwork for longer-term solutions.
Would you support a higher minimum wage in Denver? If so, where would you like to see the minimum wage set?
I do support a higher minimum wage in Denver. I have been a laborer all my life, and a union member for more than thirty years, and I know that working people are underpaid. With the state’s minimum wage set to go up to $12/hr, with annual cost of living adjustments after that, I don’t think we have gone far enough. The Fight for $15 for city employees was important — and it’s something that we should expand to all Denver’s workers, not just those who work with the city. If the legislature so allows, we should raise Denver’s minimum wage to $15/hr, with annual cost-of-living adjustments after that.
Is development in Denver being done responsibly?
No, for the most part, it is not. Denver’s rapid growth has been shoved into corners and niches all over the city, wherever it could fit, with little thought paid to scalability, efficiency, or preservation. We often act like “growth” is a spigot that someone turned on, and that someone, someday, will turn off. It doesn’t work that way. We need to govern our growth with an eye toward keeping Denver affordable and livable, and that does not seem to have been the priority in recent years.
What should be done to address problems related to traffic and traffic safety in your district?
Denverite reported recently that Denver traffic deaths are at an all-time high, which concerns me. Already in 2019, multiple pedestrians have been struck and killed by cars in northwest Denver. Study after study has shown that road design is a major factor in both driver and pedestrian safety, and Denver’s Vision Zero program has helped to emphasize that point. We need to make minor but significant alterations to medians, intersections and curbs across the city to promote safer behavior, and we need to bring renewed focus to the idea of walkability.
What improvements do you believe should be made to Denver's public-transportation system?
For 78 years, Denver had the most extensive streetcar network in the country. I believe we need to bring them back — with a modern twist.
Today, many cities have electric streetcars. They do not require an in-road or overhead track, and have been shown to be financially sustainable because they have higher capacity and ridership than standard bus lines. Many cities have also demonstrated that investment tends to follow streetcar routes much more than bus routes.
If we bring a handful of electric streetcar lines back to the northwest corner of town, we can reduce congestion, provide affordable linkage to the existing bus and train networks, and increase foot traffic in small, struggling commercial districts.
As an added note: There was no discussion of this issue when I first started talking about it several months ago, and I’m pleased to see that it has now become a focus of the mayoral runoff. Good ideas deserve discussion.
Would you work to expand Denver's bicycle network? If so, how?
As with streetcars, a safer and more extensive bicycle network would help increase foot traffic in struggling commercial areas and would help ease some of the congestion on surface roads. I am not an expert in bicycle infrastructure, so I will refrain from offering any solutions at this time — but I look forward to working with communities and experts to expand protected bike lanes and our overall bicycle network, because I firmly support the concept.
Would you welcome social consumption venues of the sort envisioned in a bill passed by the state legislature in your district? If so, why?
I am very wary of mixing cannabis and alcohol, because I am a first responder and I have seen how significantly it can contribute to fatal traffic accidents. That being said, cannabis is legal in Colorado, and I believe that people should be allowed to take advantage of their freedoms. I would tentatively support social consumption venues so long as they were zoned responsibly, and so long as mixed consumption of alcohol and cannabis is not permitted. This is another area where I’m not quite an expert — but I’m a learner, and I look forward to further education on this issue from experts both inside and outside of city government, like my friend and former opponent in this race, Scott Durrah.
What can and should be done to improve law enforcement in Denver?
The biggest problem facing law enforcement — and public safety — in Denver is that staffing has not kept up with growth. Our police officers are overworked and understaffed, which can exacerbate any number of problems. I also believe that we need to renew our focus on community policing. It’s important to increase foot and bike patrols, which take down the barriers and make officers more accessible to the community, and better able to interact with citizens in the neighborhood.
Adding two-officer patrol cars to our district would also make it safer and more timely for officers to respond to calls without waiting for backup. I know that this is not always feasible, but we should prioritize it wherever possible, because response time is crucial to stopping crimes in progress.
Would you like the city council to have more mechanisms to keep the mayor accountable? If so, what changes would you like to see?
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Yes. I think that Denver’s strong mayor system helps us avoid some of the bureaucratic pitfalls that weak mayor-city manager systems often suffer from. However, I believe Denver has taken it a bit too far, and the mayoralty needs to be bound more closely by city council. One thing I would like to see is for the council to be given a veto-proof majority. As it stands, the mayor has near-unlimited veto authority, which the council can overturn only by mustering a supermajority in opposition to the veto. I believe that measures passed by at least two-thirds of the council should not be subject to veto by the mayor in the first place. This, and other minor changes, could help make our city’s highest office more accountable to the people it serves.
Are there other major issues we haven't mentioned that are important to you, and if so, what are they?
There are so many issues that impact people all over the city, and I wish we had the time to discuss them all. If there’s one thing I can leave with your readers, though, it’s this: Integrity matters.
When I was finally convinced to run for council, I already knew that Denver politics did not exactly have a reputation as a light and fluffy scene — politics ain’t beanbag, as they say — but I don’t think I fully understood until I saw it up close. There are great people in our city government, but there are also some back rooms and some deep pockets. This campaign has helped open my eyes to that. At the end of the day, though, it has only strengthened my commitment to throwing open the doors of city hall, bringing the spirit of public service back to District 1, and serving the great people of northwest Denver. And if I lose this race, I will lose it as the same Mike Somma you have always known. Why? Because integrity matters.