Kayvan Khalatbari is running for mayor. On Tuesday, February 14, the Denver business owner and cannabis advocate filed paperwork with the Denver Elections Division, formalizing his candidacy for the 2019 mayoral race; Sue Chavez of the Denver Elections Division confirmed that Khalatbari had stopped by on Valentine's Day to turn in a formal application for candidacy.
The move pits Khalatbari against incumbent mayor Michael Hancock, who raised $77,000 for his campaign chest in 2016 and is looking at a third term.
Hancock ran virtually unopposed for his second term, with no serious challengers in 2015. But that won’t be the case if he stays in the race in 2019; other strong competitors are also reportedly eyeing a run and could land on the May 7, 2019, ballot.
Khalatbari is a well-known and outspoken man about town, recognized for his businesses (Denver Relief, Sexy Pizza, Sexpot Comedy, Birdy magazine) as well as his activism around the arts, homelessness and cannabis. What’s motivating him to enter the race — and to do so more than two years out from election day?
“I can’t hear so many people complain about Hancock running unopposed again. It can’t happen,” says Khalatbari. “And the time is now, especially with all the fervor around national politics, which has shown us two things: One, anybody can win; two, if people stay inactive, bad things happen. Period.
“I love this city. It’s given me everything I have in my career, friendships, love life and community organizing — Denver afforded me all of those opportunities,” he explains. “But the longer that I do business and [live] in this city, I realize the detriment this city is placing on the people that I care about. I can’t sit by and watch it anymore. I feel it’s incumbent on me as a business leader and community organizer to engage people and give them hope that they can make a difference.”
Khalabari lists six policy areas that will be the focus of his campaign:
Homelessness: Khalatbari already drew significant attention to this issue when he captured and published a video of Denver Police Department officers confiscating blankets from homeless individuals as evidence that they were in violation of the city’s camping ban. Between Khalatbari’s Facebook account, other social media sites and television news outlets, the video was watched millions of times. As a co-chair of the advocacy group Alternative Solutions Advocacy Project, Khalatbari is also working to change zoning to allow the homeless to live in tiny homes and yurts, as well as to push the city to end homeless sweeps and enforcement of its camping ban. “I don’t think I’ve ever entrenched myself as far in an issue as this,” says Khalatbari. “Individuals experiencing homelessness go through more than we do on a daily basis. They are clawing and fighting for their lives.”
Sanctuary cities: Despite President Donald Trump’s executive order threatening to pull federal funding from so-called sanctuary cities that shield undocumented residents, Khalatbari believes Denver should join places such as San Francisco that have formally declared themselves sanctuary cities — a move the Hancock administration has said it’s open to but has not yet done. “The only way that we’re going to combat what’s going on at the federal level is to not be vague in our intentions and not pussyfoot around a topic,” says Khalatbari. “We need to be direct.... We’re beyond appeasing everyone in this country; that ship has sailed. We need to do what’s right, not what’s political.”
Police accountability: Khalatbari wants to see more public input and oversight of the DPD in light of expensive settlements and Chief Robert White’s initial decision to announce a new “use-of-force” policy without holding public meetings (that was reversed after complaints; DPD held three public meetings). “That Chief White didn’t want to solicit feedback from the community is just depressing. It’s the same thing that Mayor Hancock has been doing with homelessness,” says Khalatbari.
DIY artist spaces: Following surprise inspections and evictions at do-it-yourself artist spaces like Glob and Rhinoceropolis in December, Khalatbari says he’d like to see more commitment from the city to provide spaces where artists could live and perform without getting kicked out or priced out. “We’ve got a creative community here that doesn’t deserve to be treated in a rough manner,” he says. “A lot of people are on the verge of getting kicked out of their places or are moving to other places that are more underground, which creates more of a danger, in my opinion.”
I-70 expansion: Khalatbari objects to Denver working hand-in-glove with the Colorado Department of Transportation and the federal government to gut parts of Globeville, Elyria and Swansea in order to sink and widen Interstate 70. “The city has made those neighborhoods seem extremely undesirable by not putting infrastructure in,” he notes.
Creating new business coalitions: Khalatbari says that his difficulty persuading large cannabis businesses to formally support I-300, the social-consumption initiative that passed in November, as well as to sign petitions criticizing the city on its approach to homelessness has shown him that many businesses are afraid to declare their privately held beliefs. “I talked to all the big cannabis businesses in Denver, and they said, ‘You know what? We agree with you, but we can’t do anything to visibly support you because we’re afraid of repercussion from the city,’” claims Khalatbari. “That’s an issue that’s affecting other things. If you have businesses that don’t stand up for what’s right, then you’ve lost a huge voice. [Instead], it’s those business voices downtown with the Denver Partnership and Chamber of Commerce that are pushing I-70, homeless policy, kicking DIY out and working with developers to sanitize our city.
“You have people who feel helpless because they’re in a silo,” he continues. “One of the messages that I’d like to relay during the next two years is that these groups can work together and find commonality and make their voices louder.”
The mayoral race is not Khalatbari’s first foray into politics. In 2015, he ran for one of Denver’s two at-large city council seats — a race that he lost handily, coming in fifth with only 7.63 percent of the vote. “I wasn’t surprised I lost, because I was very new to politics and didn’t raise near the money that Robin [Kniech] or Debbie [Ortega] did,” he says. “I was also a bit brash and sometimes offensive to people.”
His brashness extended to a video he posted to Facebook titled “What the Fuck?” that questioned his opponents’ business experience. “That wasn’t with malice, but because I wanted to be known and heard,” he says. “I’ve learned that I need to take an approach that is dramatic and gets notice but isn’t offensive.... I’ve matured and refined myself over the last two years.”
Still, Khalatbari recognizes that significant challenges lie ahead, including fund-raising as an independent who won’t have the Democratic Party machine behind him. Even so, Khalatbari doesn’t want people to donate money to him just yet: “I’d love to get some money pledged and show people that I mean business, but I think it’s inappropriate to take money now. At the end of this year, if it looks like there’s momentum and a groundswell and people are responding to how I’m approaching this, then I will start raising money in 2018.”
He may not be collecting money now, but Khalatbari insists he’s serious about this run. “Gathering information, forming relationships and creating dialogue doesn’t cost money,” he notes. “I’m not advertising myself. I’m getting to the bottom of what the city cares about and understanding it as best as I can. I think running two years before the election is an opportunity to ensure that dialogue happens around these issues. Mayor Hancock should be grilled at every chance, in public spaces, explaining himself as to why a lot of these things are happening. And unless someone runs against him, that’s not going to happen.
“I’m also hoping that my entry into this race will excite other people to do the same. I would love to see a mayoral pool consisting of a lot of people. Let’s have some real debates! Let’s have some real forums! I think eight mayoral candidates sounds like a lot of fun, because we’re going to dig to the bottom of a lot of stuff.”
Even if he winds up running against seven other candidates, Khalatbari believes he has a reasonable chance. “Would I love to win? Hell, yeah. Do I think it’s possible? Yes, I do,” he says. “But even if it’s me getting my ass kicked in this process, I will make sure that there is dialogue.”
Keep Westword Free... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Denver with no paywalls.