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. Four candidates appeared on the ballot for District 5, with Amanda Sawyer, at 40 percent, and incumbent Mary Beth Susman, who scored just shy of 36 percent, leading the field.
We submitted the following questions via email to the ten city council finalists: District 1's Mike Somma and Amanda Sandoval, District 3's Veronica Barela and Jamie Torres, District 5's Susman and 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 5 candidate and small-business owner Sawyer below.
Westword: How would you describe yourself and the reasons you decided to run for city council?
Amanda Sawyer: I’m not a politician and never intended to run for office. I’m one of those people who found out about a development up the street from my house and as I started to ask questions about that process, I discovered that the voices of the people who live in our neighborhoods are being ignored in favor of big money and big politics. I’m running for city council to restore the voice of the people who live in our neighborhoods to our local government.
What makes your district unique?
District 5 is unique because of its suburban neighborhoods. We live five minutes from world-class restaurants and museums, but we also have quiet, residential communities that are wonderful places to raise a family. The fact that east Denver offers the best of both urban and suburban living is truly unique.
What is the biggest issue affecting your district?
The biggest issue facing our district is development. For the last decade, the city has continued to approve development without building up the infrastructure to support it, which has left our neighborhoods with a legacy of bad traffic and almost no reliable public transportation. Development is going to continue, because we need the housing. But we also need to focus on building complete communities that work for the people who live here. That means ensuring that the developments being built fill a need in the community, like providing housing for middle-income earners and investing in the necessary infrastructure, including more public-transit options, bike lanes and even simple things like crosswalks to ensure that the people who live here and their families can get around safely.
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 its opponents?
My answer to this question is the same now as it was before 300 was defeated. We need to take a housing-first approach to homelessness in Denver. We also need to allocate the proper resources to ensure that we are supporting our population of residents experiencing homelessness by lowering the barriers to entry to our shelter system. That takes both funding and political will. Over the last few years, the funding has started to come online. But the political will is still lacking, and that has to change.
How would you tackle Denver's affordable-housing issues?
Our housing affordability crisis cannot be solved solely by adding more supply. That will help, yes, but it isn’t the entire solution. We need to work with developers to ensure that the units they are building fit a need in the community, whether through enforcing inclusionary zoning or other options. We also need to work with the state legislature to better support our community of renters, who have relatively few tenants' rights.
How concerned are you about gentrification in your district, and what can be done to strike the right balance?
Gentrification is a problem all over the city, and District 5 faces those issues as well. Too many young people and older adults are being forced to move out of our city due to skyrocketing housing costs. In neighborhoods like Hilltop, original 1940s and 1950s homes are being scraped to make way for much larger single-family homes, which cost significantly more and therefore have the effect of pricing many potential residents out of the neighborhood. However, the city zoning code permits that land use without review, as long as the new structure abides by the current zoning requirements. In other District 5 neighborhoods like East Colfax, the challenges around gentrification are a bit different as a result of the installation of the bus rapid transit system. The east area neighborhood plan and the newly adopted Denveright plan will bring significant new development to that neighborhood, even as leaders try to maintain its Main Street feel. City leaders will need to partner with neighborhood organizations and developers to achieve a balance between progress and costs that protects the character of our neighborhoods.
Do you support rent control in Denver?
I’m not sure that traditional "rent control" is the right answer for Denver, and it is not currently an option because it’s a state legislature issue — municipalities don’t have home rule over this. However, our leadership needs to recognize that our wages have not kept up with the cost of living here, and as a consequence, the high cost of rent is driving out longtime residents, retirees, communities of color and workers. We have got to find solutions that work within the framework the state allows but that also work for our community of renters.
Would you expand the tiny homes concept? If so, how? If not, why not?
I, personally, think tiny homes are super-cool. I believe they are one of many options that could be used to help our city move forward with a housing-first approach to homelessness, and it's one of many options we need to consider moving forward.
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, because our current minimum wage is below the poverty line. The $15 by 2021 set by the city for its employees isn’t enough now and certainly won’t be high enough in 2021 if our cost of living continues on the current trajectory. A wage closer to $17 per hour would be more in line with the cost of living in Denver now.
Is development in Denver being done responsibly?
No. We are not building the necessary infrastructure to support all of the development in the city, and that is irresponsible. City leaders have also de-prioritized parks and green space in favor of more development, and that is a shame. We have got to do a better job of finding a balance between growth and the environment.
What should be done to address problems related to traffic and traffic safety in your district?
The traffic and congestion that has been created by unfettered development without adding the proper transit infrastructure has made it difficult to get anywhere in our city. Many families are concerned about their kids playing in the front yard, because frustrated drivers race through the neighborhoods down residential streets without much thought to the safety of the people who live there. Many neighborhoods of our district also don’t have sidewalks (some by choice), so residents have to share the roadways with cars. We don’t have protected bike lanes or even crosswalks in some places to get across busy thoroughfares. And because Denver has no dedicated source of funding for transit and mobility infrastructure, we are relying on political will to manage the situation, because the only way these improvements are funded is through the annual city budget. We need to identify a sustainable, dedicated source of funding for infrastructure and mobility buildout, and we need to implement it as soon as possible.
What improvements do you believe should be made to Denver's public-transportation system?
We need to start providing clean, safe, frequent, reliable public transit that takes people where they want to go. And right now, that doesn’t exist in the city of Denver. How do we expect people to make alternative transportation choices if we don’t provide them with the options to do it? This has been treated as a low priority in Denver for far too long, and that is why we need to identify a sustainable source of funding for transit and mobility infrastructure. Many members of our current city council have been too short-sighted on this issue. Without the money to fund the upgrades, transit solutions will never improve in Denver. And that simply is not an option anymore.
Would you work to expand Denver's bicycle network? If so, how?
Absolutely. It needs to be expanded, and the bike lanes need to be protected. We cannot expect people to choose mobility options that put their lives in danger. As I said earlier, the city needs to do a better job of incentivizing people to use alternative modes of transportation, and safety has to be the single biggest factor in that calculation.
Would you welcome social consumption venues of the sort envisioned in a bill passed by the state legislature in your district? If so, why?
As long as these social consumption sites fulfill the requirements set in place by the city in terms of proximity to locations like schools, I would support the idea. To me, there is little difference between a marijuana social consumption site and a bar that serves alcoholic beverages. That said, city leaders would need to clarify whether these sites would be dispensaries or whether people would be required to bring their own marijuana with them. We would also need to consider issues like driving under the influence and how to properly train employees [TIPS: Training for Intervention Procedures] for the issues that might arise in these social consumption sites. Frankly, the single-biggest issue we face with this is the U.S. federal banking laws that would force these businesses to be cash-only and create opportunities for crime.
What can and should be done to improve law enforcement in Denver?
I participated in a police ride-along in March to educate myself on what our city’s issues look like from the police perspective. What I found is that our police districts are way too large and understaffed, which is leading to the myriad problems we have in our police department. We need to look at reallocating funding to ensure our force is adequately trained and staffed. Additionally, we need to implement policies that implement these three things:
• Law enforcement officers should reflect the diversity of the neighborhoods they are working in.
• We must end to the school-to-prison pipeline. Our children, especially in marginalized communities, are being punished at their school and on the municipal level for infractions that are causing mass criminalization of our young people.
• End racial profiling.
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Would you like the city council to have more mechanisms to keep the mayor accountable? If so, what changes would you like to see?
The mechanisms to hold our mayor accountable exist. What is lacking is the backbone to do so. We need new representation on city council.
Are there other major issues we haven't mentioned that are important to you, and if so, what are they?
As a small-business owner and strategist, it’s important to me that we do more to kick-start more women and minority-owned small businesses. Small businesses are the lifeblood of our economy, and I want to make Denver a place where local business owners can compete with big-box stores. Strong communities start with a backbone of small business, and Denver needs to do a better job to support and develop that.