Kalyn Heffernan: Why You Should Elect Me Mayor of Denver

Kalyn Heffernan is an artist, activist and musician.
Kalyn Heffernan is an artist, activist and musician. Photo by David Stevens
This May, Denver will choose a mayor to lead the city for the next four years. But where do candidates stand on the issues? And how do they plan to earn your vote?

As part of our mayor's race coverage, we asked each of them. Below, find out what one hopeful — artist, activist and musician Kalyn Heffernan — had to say.

Although election day, May 7, is still months away, an important deadline is looming. Hopefuls have until March 13 to submit a verified petition comprising at least 300 signatures from registered voters to qualify for the ballot.

At this writing, ten people have filed paperwork with the Denver Elections Division to run for mayor: Lisa Calderón, Stephan Evans (also known as Chairman Seku), Marcus Giavanni, Jamie Giellis, current mayor Michael Hancock, Heffernan, Danny Lopez, Leatha Scott, Ken Simpson and Penfield Tate. We invited all of them to share their take on important matters facing Denver. The questions were the same for every candidate, and we set no word limit on answers.

Evans, Scott and Lopez have not responded to our outreach thus far, although the latter spoke to us for a previous mayoral run in 2011. In addition, Giavanni declined to participate by way of a memorable reply we have shared in this space. The other six took part.

Continue to learn more about Heffernan and her positions on the subjects that are front and center in Denver right now.

Westword: How would you describe yourself and the reasons you decided to run for mayor?

Kalyn Heffernan: My name is Kalyn Rose Heffernan, and I am rolling for mayor by leading Denver’s first disabled artist/activist campaign for the mayor seat in 2019.

I was born and raised in the Denver metro area, where I have been advocating for myself and other marginalized, vulnerable communities most of my tiny life. I front the internationally acclaimed band Wheelchair Sports Camp and represent the DIY arts scene in the city and across the country. I am an activist educator working with underserved youth and am known for fighting for access, health care and calling out politicians who protect capital interests over humans. You may have seen me rapping at a rally or playing for a crowd, rolling on the front lines of marches and movements, teaching and learning from teenagers, grieving or loving in public, riding the bus all over, or getting arrested for Medicaid, but I’ve been around the world representing Denver to the fullest.

My friends have joked that I’m the tiny happy mayor for a while because I’m so recognizable, and after sitting-in Cory Gardner’s office for three days — making national headlines to protect our Medicaid benefits — more people asked me to "run" for mayor. I’ve jokingly said I’ll never run for anything because I am a wheelchair user. But on April Fool's day last year, I posted a video about sitting for mayor and designed a Kalyn4Mayor logo. Within a day, there was so much community support, I decided I had to throw my name in the race officially. We made another video that next week portraying my fear and skepticism while also detailing the simple process to file as a candidate.

Ever since, we’ve been rolling out a poor people’s campaign focused on accessibility. Not just physical access to spaces, but access to politics, access to income/wealth, access to housing, education, public transportation, safety, health care and human rights. This campaign is highlighting the organizations, artists and organizers who already work to make this city more equitable every day while building relationships with working-class people and marginalized communities left out of the democratic process. I am strategizing around disenfranchised people to support their voice, vision and vote. While campaigning, I am also being very honest and transparent about the barriers and inaccessibility to politics.

We are actively trying to ask, answer and solve problems in real time with our limited campaign funds. With the small amount of money we’ve raised in this campaign, we’ve already fed hundreds of unhoused neighbors, paid artists, made art and built ramps, making the city accessible one step at a time. I want to see candidates use their campaign contributions to build up communities instead of just paying to play. This mayor's race is now over $2 million and it represents how much money is floating around to fight issues, when that same money could be used to support and solve city problems now. We are creating more art because creativity is the key to human liberation and imagination is more important than knowledge.

When we shape our surroundings to look and feel the way we want, we are empowered to make the changes we see necessary for our survival, stability and success.

How would you tackle Denver's affordable-housing issues?

Denver must first declare housing as a human right. We then must prioritize our housing needs by offering more funds and setting better standards when accepting development contracts. I support guidelines that incentivize union labor, strong and safe environmental impacts, equitable hiring practices and beneficial community impacts. Even the affordable housing is not always affordable, especially here in Denver, where the median income is over $70,000 a year. When rent is fixed on the median income, us marginalized folks move farther down the ladder. People living on disability benefits receive less than $800 per month, which isn’t even enough to cover rent ten years ago! Unfortunately, the process to qualify for many low-income benefits corners many of us farther into poverty. Affordable housing should be based on people's incomes individually.

Would you be in favor of using city land for affordable housing?


Would you require affordable housing in every housing development? If so, why? If not, why not?

Yes! We need over 20,000 affordable units to house our residents right now. Until we fill this basic human right, we cannot allow any housing developments who are unwilling to provide at least half-affordable units. When developments come in and only put aside 10 percent affordable units, or pay a fine to offer no affordable units, it tells the community that we are not welcome here and this isn’t our city unless we make a lot of money. This is unacceptable.

Do you support rent control in Denver?

Yes, as well as supporting better renter's rights! I’ve been a [Colorado Senator] Julie Gonzales supporter since we met long ago at Occupy Denver, and strongly support the state bill being introduced to allow cities to regulate our rental markets.

Would you expand the tiny homes concept? If so, how? If not, why not?

Yes, the tiny home village is a solution-based action that needs more land and more homes. It works, it’s affordable and attainable, and everyone deserves housing.

How would you address homelessness in Denver?

As mayor, I would eliminate the urban camping ban immediately! The city is in a housing crisis, and we must prioritize our residents first. More homeless people died in Denver last year than ever before and will likely continue [to die] if the city doesn’t make this a top priority. What we are seeing are the vicious cycles of colonization. Denver was taken from Natives — over time, different Denver neighborhoods are taken by higher socioeconomic groups, and once again we repeat the process — where one group sees another community as exploitable and less deserving of land, shelter and resources.

Specifically, rent has increased 80 percent in ten years, and our wages/average income do not remotely reflect that exponential increase. Most people left without shelter have a disability, have experienced trauma and abuse, and intersect with marginalized identities. Our shelters are not typically accessible, or safe enough, especially for queer/trans [women of color]. The city is spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to destroy people’s belongings, while Denver businesses will likely spend over a million dollars to fight the Right to Survive initiative on the upcoming ballot. If we spent the same amount of money solving the problem as we did fighting the problem, we would not be in such a crisis.

This is the most important issue facing our city, and it would be my top priority. We won’t solve anything if we don’t see homeless people as humans with rights first. I am in full support of the Right to Survive initiative. I believe all humans have the right to shelter and that no human existing in a public space is "illegal." There are many creative ways to solve the crisis, but only if it is our top priority. The city is sitting on many vacant properties that could be used to house people affordably. Groups like Interfaith Alliance, who are working with faith-based communities to turn their properties into affordable housing, will have my support. I will continue to work with Denver Housing Authority on their housing plan and will insist that the permanent affordable-housing fund be increased to meet the needs of our community.

The problem, as I see it, isn’t money as much as it is priorities. If the city prioritized our most vulnerable populations, we would not be in such a burden. We must also support communities in acquiring land through community land trusts and need to support tiny home villages and accessory dwelling units. We must ensure that predatory house-buying practices are regulated, if not altogether eliminated. Again — our city has a wealth of resources. We must bring together the best minds in housing with authentic community leaders to find solutions that will provide access to housing for our most vulnerable populations. Gentrification is a form of cultural eradication. We must work to put an end to this eradication by committing to solving this problem once and for all. It is possible so long as it’s our top priority.

We must also simultaneously continue to support and fund mental health care, trauma-informed health care, crisis intervention and rehabilitation, [and] support organizations to keep people who are housed safe and stable.

What's your position on the Right to Rest bill?

I have been publicly protesting the urban camping ban since it was snuck into policy seven years ago. I fully support the Right to Survive initiative and will continue collaborating with Denver Homeless Out Loud to support our homeless friends and neighbors.

Is development in Denver being done responsibly?

Development in Denver is blatantly for the middle and upper class. When a new development in Denver says it will provide 10 percent affordable units, that says to the community that the upper class is 90 percent more welcome. This is the repeated history of colonization. Our politicians are accepting campaign contributions from these same developers to keep the poor out.

What improvements do you believe should be made to Denver's public-transportation system?

I would support public transportation more than ever. I have been riding public transportation here in Denver for the past twenty years and still rely on public transportation. I am also a member of the legendary ADAPT group, who laid their bodies and wheelchairs in front of the Colfax and Broadway buses demanding they be made accessible for us over forty years ago. Denver made accessible transportation possible, and yet RTD is not very accessible to many today, especially people with disabilities and people in underserved communities. With better access — not just physically, but also financially — more residents would ride public transit.

Right now, Denver’s public transportation is the most expensive in the country, with very limited service. As mayor, I would prioritize accessible public transportation that is affordable (possibly free) across the densely populated city. If service was more accessible and extensive, more commuters would ride, which would make traffic, parking and private transportation less of an issue. Bus stops are being limited in communities that rely on public transportation the most, and funds are being allocated mostly for transit to new, developed commerce districts. Denver was the first city to make public transportation accessible to disabled people in the country and yet we are nowhere near the most accessible public transit cities. Disabled people who rely on Access-a-Ride are paying $5 each way and have to plan everyday tasks two days in advance and wait for a two-hour window. This is an atrocity for a community that cannot use Lyft, Uber or even taxis. I would fund and support our public transportation system to be the most accessible and inclusive in the country. RTD leaders should be bus riders themselves. The CFO makes three times as much as our governor, does not ride public transit, and was even given a vehicle as a bonus. Structural changes must be made to provide us bus riders. That is why I am part of the newly formed Rocky Mountain Bus Riders Union, so we can collectively address these problems.

Would you support RTD fare increases? If so, why? If not, why not?

No. I would work to make public transportation free and accessible.

Would you work to expand Denver's bicycle network? If so, how?

Yes, residents should be able to get to and from places safely and affordably. I would prioritize making our sidewalks more accessible and then continue expanding our safe bike lanes. I support the Denver diagonal crosswalks that are proven to be safer as well as prioritizing pedestrians with “walk” signals. Many downtown one-way streets now give cross "walk" signals less, which I’ve seen give cars the impression they can turn on red lights and not give us the right of way.

What should be done to deal with Denver's opioid crisis?

Supervised use sites will help Denver deal with the opioid crisis. We also need to support and fund more supportive mental health, rehabilitation and restorative-justice organizations.

What's your position on supervised use sites?

I support Harm Reduction Action Center and have learned how supervised use sites are effective in preventing overdoses while also lowering drug usage over time. It just makes more sense and saves lives!

Where do you stand on social consumption venues?

I don’t stand on much of anything, but I do support decriminalizing marijuana use even more. Although recreational cannabis use is legal, people of color are still being disproportionately criminalized for it. I’d first like to pardon everyone incarcerated for cannabis charges, as well continue to decriminalize marijuana use. The city and state are making more money from marijuana DUIs than ever and people are now racially profiled for driving while high, given DUIs and thrown into the system they may already be trying to crawl out of. There’s no reason someone should have to pay thousands of dollars for driving under the influence of marijuana and be forced to take alcohol classes. There is plenty of data and evidence to prove that using marijuana is safer than alcohol. I also support a more inclusive cannabis industry that is regulated to support more farmers and businesses led by people of color, and who employ more people of color. Right now our cannabis industry is overwhelmingly led by and profiting for white business owners who were never criminalized for it in the first place.

What can and should be done to improve law enforcement in Denver?

I am very interested in finding ways to help people get the services and support they need in crisis instead of criminalizing them. I am inspired by Eugene, Oregon’s CAHOOTS program, which offers 24/7 emergency responders that include a medic (either a nurse or an EMT) and a crisis worker (who has at least several years' experience in the mental health field). Denver would most certainly benefit from better crisis-response services. I will continue to collaborate and be led by groups like Denver Justice Project, Colorado Freedom Fund and other abolitionist leaders to dismantle this complex system of incarceration rates and police-violence rates that we know disproportionately affect marginalized communities the most.

Do you believe reforms in the Denver Sheriff Department and the Denver Police Department have gone far enough, or are there additional measures you would institute? If so, what are they?

Currently, there is no in-person visitation allowed for family and friends of those incarcerated in Denver jails. I support legislation to mandate that in-person visitation be allowed, in order to support the mental health and well-being of those who are incarcerated. I would abolish cash bail. I also support moving the safety department’s budget into community-based restorative-justice programs and direct the district attorney to refer non-violent cases to these programs for sentencing. And supporting re-entry programs for formerly incarcerated folks.

Do you believe the Office of the Independent Monitor should have greater investigatory powers over law enforcement leadership?

Yes, and they should be able to hire their own attorneys!

Should the City of Denver create a mechanism that would hold the mayor more accountable?

Big yes! This city should have zero tolerance for sexual misconduct, racism or disenfranchising vulnerable communities.

Do you plan to live in Cableland as mayor, and if not, what should the city do with the property?

As a recipient of the Daniels Fund scholarship, I would definitely want to live in the Bill Daniels mansion! I have already promised my high school students that I would continue teaching class from the mansion as well as record music, host parties and continue its legacy as a hub for innovators who know how to have a good time. Bill Daniels spent almost every morning reading the newspaper and would often leave money for families and people struggling in the city anonymously. I will also use the mansion as a shared community living space for my close kitchen cabinet team as well as invite and host celebrations and strategy meetups with organizers and leaders to make Denver the most accessible city in the world.

Are there other major issues we haven't mentioned that are important to you, and if so, what are they?

Education! I personally have been an educator in DPS high schools and treatment centers across the metro area for at least six years now. I teach music production through a social justice lens with underserved youth, where we learn from each other how to empower ourselves through music and storytelling. I hope every mayor has real relationships with the youth in the city they lead. Most importantly, DPS leadership should reflect the population it serves. Our education pedagogy should be culturally responsive and trauma-informed. Education, while it is not the job of the mayor (but rather the school district), must be a priority of any mayor who seeks to build a city for everyone.

As mayor, I will support economic opportunities for DPS students who want to gain the career and technical skills to attain high paying, quality jobs. I will create a fund that incentivizes businesses to offer paid internships and apprenticeships to DPS students. I will use city funds to support community organizations that provide supplemental services in the schools. And I will support DPS leadership so long as they value education that is both culturally responsive and liberatory. Finally, I will ensure that transportation dollars are used to provide high-quality transportation to school for all DPS students while also prioritizing ways to keep students in their communities with quality education. DPS is the most segregated by race and class as it’s ever been, and the achievement gap between white and minority students is one of the worst in the country. As with any real solution, I will support youth leaders in Denver Public Schools, since they are the most impacted. Student voice is key, and I will use my mayoral office to amplify student voices and follow student leadership whenever possible.

While I strongly supported the recent teachers' strike, I am aware that we must also advocate for paras who are not making nearly enough to live as well as all the other public-school providers like the cafeteria staff, janitorial staff, etc.
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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts