Lisa Calderón: Why You Should Elect Me Mayor of Denver

Lisa Calderón was among the first candidates to announce a run for Denver mayor.
Lisa Calderón was among the first candidates to announce a run for Denver mayor. lisa4denvermayor.org
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 of the hopefuls, community organizer and educator Lisa Calderón, has to say.

Although election day, May 7, is still months away, an important deadline is looming. Candidates 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 candidates have filed paperwork with the Denver Elections Division to run for mayor: Calderón, Stephan Evans (also known as Chairman Seku), Marcus Giavanni, Jamie Giellis, current mayor Michael Hancock, Kalyn 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, though the latter spoke to us for a previous mayoral race in 2011. In addition, Giavanni declined to participate by way of a memorable reply we will share this weekend. The other six took part.

Here's what Calderón had to say about 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?

Lisa Calderón: I am a longtime community organizer, a nonprofit director and currently an educator. I grew up in Denver and graduated from North High School, and raised my two children in Denver while obtaining my undergraduate degree at Metro State University, master’s degree at the University of Denver and then my law degree at the University of Colorado. I am co-chair of the Colorado Latino Forum, an organization that seeks to transform Colorado by increasing Latino participation in the electoral process, and in educating and mobilizing the Latino community around issues of importance to the community.

I also have over twenty years of experience in the Colorado nonprofit sector, first as legal director for Safehouse Boulder, serving and helping people seeking to escape domestic violence, and then as the executive director of the Community Reentry Project, an organization that helped formerly incarcerated individuals as they reenter the community. Most recently, I finished my doctorate in education at CU Denver, focusing on improving educational outcomes for incarcerated adults. I am currently a full-time faculty member at Regis University, where I teach sociology and criminal justice.

I am running for mayor because I love my city and because I believe Denver can be a city that is more fair, more just and more equitable for all of its residents. I believe that by working together, we can build a city based on shared power and accountability — one where residents and workers are included in the policy decisions that most affect them.

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

Building attainable and affordable housing to meet the needs of individuals and families today and in the next few years will require a fundamental restructuring of the city’s engagement in housing. After eight years of lost initiatives, low expertise and limited experience in dealing with the complexities of expanding and preserving housing affordability, I will call for the following changes: a cabinet-level Housing Department administered by housing experts with deep experience; a fully supported, accountable and transparent Comprehensive Fund to fully finance initiatives across the spectrum of our housing crisis; and implementing participant-public-private partnerships, or P4 initiatives, which require the involvement of community members (participants), the government (public) and developers (private) in all decision-making.

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

Yes — I will rescind Executive Order 100, which prioritizes economic development over affordable housing. I will work with experts, community members and advocates to implement new policies that prioritize current and future city-owned land for affordable housing.

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

Yes. In order to truly create an inclusive Denver, we need mixed-income communities. This will require a restructuring of the relationship between government agencies (the City, Denver Housing Authority) and supporting foundations with private-sector for-profit and nonprofit developers to revamp the incentives and opportunities that will allow us to expand and preserve affordable housing under the Comp Fund and zoning process.

Do you support rent control in Denver?

I fully support tenant protections and the thorough consideration of rent stabilization efforts, which can be achieved through participant-public-private partnership (P4) initiatives where residents are at the table with developers and city planners. I believe all options should be on the table, including an analysis of rent control policies in other cities about how they can be an effective tool in making rental markets more affordable, as well as the potential unintended consequence, such as limiting available rental housing stock. However, when incorporated as part of a robust equitable housing and anti-displacement housing policy, rent control could be a valuable mechanism to reduce homelessness and provide a needed safety net for vulnerable populations who are at risk of losing their housing.

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

Yes. I will identify city-owned land and will partner with homeless-rights advocates, residents, business owners and nonprofit organizations (e.g., the Urban Land Conservancy and Interfaith Alliance) to find permanent land for the expansion of the Beloved Community Village. Under a new Comprehensive Fund initiative, I will identify funding resources to assist with the maintenance and preservation of the units. As a service provider who has worked with homeless populations for over twenty years, I will also work with the community, advocacy organizations, local business and nonprofits to also look for more permanent housing solutions, since tiny homes are a temporary measure to get people immediately off of the street as they transition to safe, stable and long-term housing.

How would you address homelessness in Denver?

We will not end homelessness by criminalizing our un-housed neighbors or by sweeping people from one end of the city to the other. We also must take a regional approach to addressing the homelessness crisis since these populations are fluid across city boundaries, and no single municipality can end homelessness alone.

My twenty years of executive nonprofit management experience, including eight years of working in Denver’s jails, has prepared me to move our city in a more humane direction to address risk factors for homelessness, including poverty, mental illness and addiction. My academic background, including a law degree and doctorate in education, will guide me in developing solutions that are grounded in evidence, not the politics of fear.

I will appoint administrators in the housing department with deep expertise and experience with our complex housing issues so that we can implement a coherent, comprehensive, and consistent strategy that leverages public and private resources to provide multiple pathways to proper shelter, temporary housing, permanent supportive housing, treatment services and long-term affordable housing in mixed-income communities for those experiencing homelessness.

It must also include increased coordinated outreach efforts to permanently house residents through a housing-first model, where people experiencing chronic homelessness are placed in housing without pre-conditions, such as sobriety or treatment. Meeting people where they are at, stabilizing them through rapid housing, and then incorporating wrap-around services is a better use of taxpayer dollars than the more expensive criminalization approach involving law enforcement in situations that are better handled by other supportive organizations.

By working together, Denver can be a model for how residents, service providers, business owners and city leaders can create housing for all and improve community well-being. A great city isn’t just measured by its wealth, but how it cares for those in need.

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

I support the Right to Rest bill (HB19-1096) that has been introduced in the legislature for this session. The Right to Rest and the Right to Survive ballot initiative (Initiative 300) are essentially the same bill in that they protect the same rights, including the repeal of Denver’s Unauthorized Camping Ordinance. The most significant difference between them is that the Right to Survive added a private right of action that was removed from the original Right to Rest bill. The private right of action essentially enables individuals to have a direct way to enforce their rights if a city continues to violate them. It appears that providing an avenue for individuals to bring a cause of action for civil-rights violations is the main issue of contention.

Instead, my administration would deal with the underlying issues and the false belief that there are enough services for Denver’s growing homeless population. As the only candidate who has a twenty-year history as a service provider, including running the city’s jail re-entry program, I know for a fact that we have a severe shortage of services and funding to meet the need. Rather than concerned investors spending tens of thousands of dollars to defeat a grassroots initiative brought by homeless-rights advocates, that money would be better spent on working collaboratively with organizations on scaling up funding resources.

Further, a Denver audit stated that the CIty had not adequately mitigated the potential risks associated with the Unauthorized Camping Ordinance. Under a Calderón administration, the City would fulfill its commitments and ensure that every resident has a place to sleep at night — particularly during Denver’s cold winter months.

As I state above, criminalizing our un-housed neighbors is not an evidence-based practice, and has not been proven effective at reducing homelessness. If anything, punitive policies make the problem worse by funneling people into the criminal justice system, a much more expensive avenue than investing in services at the front end.

Is development in Denver being done responsibly?

No, and it must change. As a thirty-year public servant working both in and outside of government, I believe that every action that directly affects the people should originate with the people most impacted. Rather than the current administration’s top-down planning process, I will implement community- and resident-driven development. Community-centered development brings residents to the table from the beginning, when planning decisions are made at all phases of planning, from early investigation of issues and concerns through the crafting of goals, policies and actions, and to the monitoring of outcomes. Currently, city planning in Denver is too far removed from the everyday lives of residents and has failed to meet the peoples' expectations because of the lack of vision and authentic community engagement practices. The participation of the community has been superficial at best, while merchant-developer interests have been pre-approved, subsidized and incentivized, all at the expense of Denver’s residents, resulting in hyper-gentrification and displacement.

If elected, I will treat gentrification as a civil-rights issue and enact anti-displacement policies to identify neighborhoods most at risk in order to prevent or mitigate the most harmful effects. I will appoint experts in city planning with deep experience who are also fully committed to participatory development and design. This means that at every juncture and at every level, city government operations and the community planning administration will become decentralized and redistributed evenly in the neighborhoods. I will make administrative barriers and zoning ordinances more user-friendly, with authentic engagement processes. As part of these efforts, I will prioritize P4 initiatives.

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

Denver must make transportation more accessible to more people. Making public transit more affordable and accessible will be a priority, as we are the hub of the metro area’s business industry. I will work across municipalities and at the state level to support funding for transportation, as well as the Regional Transportation Board. I will be a convener of stakeholders to hold RTD accountable to be more affordable and inclusive of all communities, particularly those that are public transit-reliant. If we want to be a state that prospers, we must work with our regional partners to make transit work for all people and communities.

As part of my SMART (Smart Growth, Mobility, Assess, Revitalization, Trees and open space) vision for planning, I will implement initiatives to shift the culture from being car-dependent to reduce energy consumption and greenhouse-gas emissions. Unfortunately, Denver currently lacks a truly comprehensive, multi-modal approach to transportation. As mayor, I will call for the development of a single integrated transportation plan that brings together planning for streets, boulevards, parkways, bikeways, sidewalks, transit and para-transit. I will also use data to inform decision-making and will measure benchmarks to reach the goal of zero traffic fatalities as envisioned by 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 consist of working-class people. And I will build infrastructure for alternative forms of transportation to make walking and cycling safer.

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

No, I do not support fare increases. RTD fares are among the highest in the country and are already unaffordable to many Denver residents who depend on public transit to access jobs, education and other necessities.

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

I support the full implementation of the the Vision Zero Plan, and I support the expansion of Denver’s bicycle networks, which is a component of the plan that has already shown success. However, the current administration’s transportation planning overall has been disjointed and has been implemented in a piecemeal fashion. Under my administration, working to expand Denver’s bicycle network will be part of a single integrated transportation plan that brings together planning for streets, boulevards, parkways, bikeways, sidewalks, transit and para-transit. I will work with the community, including cyclists, pedestrians and those who use cars, to determine next steps as part of a wider plan for truly multi-modal transportation options in our city. I will also work with experts on correctly collecting clear and complete data to inform resource allocation decisions. Through community input and research, I will improve and expand our bicycle options, particularly the expansion of cycling routes in our neighborhoods and protected and raised protected bike lanes on heavy-traffic streets.

In addition to creating an integrated plan and correctly collecting data, I will also prioritize the follow-through. It’s not enough to make plans: We also need to do the work to make our vision for a truly multi-modal, bicycle- and pedestrian-friendly Denver a reality. Under the current administration, in particular, the City Auditor has found that the strategies recommended in the Denver Moves Bicycle Plan were ignored by city agencies when it came to the full implementation of projects and programs. I will ensure that budgeting and funding allocations at Public Works and other agencies are in alignment with our transportation goals, so that initiatives like expanding our bicycle network throughout our neighborhoods will be properly implemented. The personal health and public health outcomes of bicycle use are worth it for all of us.

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

We must begin from a recognition of the dignity and humanity of those who are affected by the opioid crisis, especially the dignity and humanity of drug users themselves and their families. In addition, the city must use data and evidence-based strategies to respond to this crisis. When we approach the opioid crisis in these ways, our policy solutions will move away from a criminalization model toward a public health-oriented model. This means that our drug policies must meet substance users where they are and help them take the steps needed to get treatment when they are ready. Cities around the country are exploring their options, including improved safe prescribing policies (like online training for doctors and drug take-back programs). Denver has clean needle-exchange programs, Naloxone availability and fentanyl testing strips, which provide important safety options. However, we can and must do more. As mayor, I will support policies to provide a full array of harm reduction strategies while also working to fully fund treatment and other supportive wraparound services to help people when they are ready to take that step.

What's your position on supervised use sites?

Supervised use sites are proven to save lives, reduce medical costs and prevent the spread of HIV and Hepatitis C. Although supervised use alone will not solve the opioid crisis, it is a powerful tool when used in conjunction with other harm reduction, treatment and supportive strategies. So it’s important to recognize that supervised use sites are currently the only tool missing from local harm reduction efforts to respond to the opioid crisis in our city. These sites are a public health-oriented response to substance use, and they provide an entry point for people who need help to get it, both short- and long-term. The ordinance that was passed by City Council last fall would allow for an initial supervised use site that would be locally controlled and privately funded. It is intended to collect the data that advocacy groups desperately need in order to properly evaluate the efficacy of supervised use in Denver — and it would save lives while collecting that data. As an educator and service provider who has worked on drug policy issues for over a decade, I fully support evidence-based drug policies. Denver must be a leader in showing other U.S. cities how to respond to the drug epidemic in a humane and helpful way. I fully support the city having this site where we need it, and as mayor, I will proactively work with stakeholders and state legislators to make it happen.

Where do you stand on social consumption venues?

In 2016, Denver voters passed an initiative to allow businesses to apply for licenses to allow public consumption of marijuana. Like Denver voters, I believe we must have responsible spaces for social consumption. Unfortunately, the implementation of this initiative has fallen short of the original vision: Current licensing regulations do not allow social consumption venues to be sustainable businesses for cannabis entrepreneurs. These businesses are not allowed to sell cannabis or food that isn’t already prepackaged, and they have been zoned for areas that are unlikely to attract tourists. As mayor, I would welcome and support the cannabis industry, not just tolerate it. I would work with stakeholders to remove the licensing and zoning barriers that are impeding this aspect of economic development in our city.

Additionally, the 2016 initiative included the creation of a task force to study the impacts of these spaces on the city. I will utilize the data collected and recommendations made by the task force, including cannabis dispensary owners and residents, to help in guiding future policies around social consumption licensing and zoning in the city.

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

As a founder of the "Fix Broken Policing" initiative years ago while serving as an organizer with the Colorado Progressive Coalition, I worked with my neighbors on solutions to address law enforcement issues in our city. For over a decade, I have been a vocal voice of accountability, including serving on both the Denver Sheriff Department and Denver Police Department Use of Force committees to revise accountability standards. On both committees, I was a catalyst pushing for more transparency and community input. As co-chair of the Colorado Latino Forum, I led the effort to be the first organization to write a comprehensive report with community stakeholders to recommend reforms after tragic occurrences in the jail. Further, I will improve the screening and hiring process for officers. We can use information such as that to inform our hiring, our training and resources to help officers as they navigate the stress of their jobs.

I will reorganize and hire staff to run the city’s public-safety system who use research and evidence-based policies and programs to reduce incarceration, and who have track records in effective jail management practices and recidivism reduction.

I will also use evidence-based practices to improve the training of officers and reduce implicit bias. I have worked with renowned national expert Dr. Phillip Goff to develop a racial profiling data collection initiative for the Denver Police Department to quantify the problem and introduce ways to reduce bias and increase accountability for law enforcement. I also advocated for the creation of the Independent Monitor’s Office, and most recently advocated for a restoration of the Monitor’s investigative authority of command-level officers after the Mayor reduced the Monitor’s powers that were recently restored by Denver City Council.

Finally, we must address the underlying causes that contribute to recidivism (e.g., affordable housing, reducing barriers to employment) and shift resources from punishment for nonviolent drug offenses to treatment and services that will reduce recidivism and incarceration costs. I will appoint an experienced, diverse leadership team invested in the co-production of public safety, where community members partner with law enforcement to develop holistic approaches for improved safety outcomes.

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?

Despite a four-year reform effort and tens of millions of dollars paid out for consultants, settlements and ballooning overtime pay, Denver taxpayers have received little return on investment. The root of the problem is inadequate leadership. The mayor, without community input, appointed someone who had never been a sheriff before to run the largest jailing system in the state, and a safety manager who had eight jobs in nine years before being hired by Denver. Because of the way Denver’s safety system is structured, where the Mayor’s Office essentially runs Denver’s safety departments, it is difficult to attract experienced leadership to the positions of Sheriff and Safety Manager.

Therefore, rather than the Sheriff having the authority to make necessary changes, it is the Manager of Safety who has the ultimate authority over the Sheriff, including hiring, firing, promotion and discipline. As a result, Denver’s jails are run by politicians and lawyers who lack the training or experience to effectively manage jails. These political appointees, are only accountable to the Mayor and operate without transparency or meaningful input from voters, deputies, inmates or their families.

We also have two law-enforcement departments, Denver Police Department (DPD) and Denver Sheriff Department (DSD), that are treated unequally, with DSD provided fewer resources and subjected to more discipline as compared to DPD — which has as many, if not more, excessive force complaints. I will change this system to create more equity between departments and invest in qualified and independent leadership while strengthening independent oversight.

I would reduce the safety department bureaucracy and shift those top-heavy salaries to independent oversight and jail services. I would reign in ballooning operations costs and put more effort into retaining experienced officers. I would support an initiative to elect a sheriff as most other jurisdictions do in the nation. In the meantime, I would appoint an independent, experienced and respected leader with the power to make sweeping changes to improve public safety, reduce costs, expand inmate services, increase staff morale and build public trust.

Further, I would empower the sheriff to directly make necessary leadership changes and budget management decisions, free from the political influences of the Mayor and Manager of Safety, much like the City Auditor and Clerk and Recorder do, as elected officials whose offices function autonomously as part a democratic system of checks and balances. The Denver City Council and Office of the Independent Monitor would still retain reviewing authority of budgetary and disciplinary issues but would work in tandem with the sheriff to improve Denver’s public safety system and increase transparency and accountability.

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

I have long advocated for this and support the recent changes passed by City Council that corrected our current mayor’s overreach in banning the independent monitor from investigating cases involving the police chief or sheriff. I have pushed for years for increased independent oversight of our Public Safety department, free of political interference or retaliation. I believe this should extend to all agencies. As mayor, I will ensure that there will not be separate rules for mayoral appointees and the rest of our city workers. Democracy works best when we have independent agencies providing checks and balances on power at all levels of government.

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

Yes. The City Attorney has failed to act in the best interests of the city, and sadly, has acted as attorney for the Mayor. Since Denver does not have a separately elected City Attorney like some other cities do, they are beholden to the Mayor’s actions.

I am glad Denver City Council members have recently passed policies to strengthen the role of the Independent Monitor for the city. They listened to the community and corrected the current mayor’s overreach. But we need more. We need to have the same rules for the mayor that we have every city worker. I will support and expand independent oversight across all city agencies. Being accountable, transparent and fair shows true leadership. No leader, from the mayor of Denver to the president of this country, should be allowed to be unaccountable to the people they represent. It’s time we have more checks and balances on our city government, including the Mayor’s Office.

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

I do not intend to live at Cableland, which should continue to be used for the public benefit. I feel strongly that I must remain in my current community of the Cole neighborhood, which is rapidly gentrifying. I want to ensure that my anti-displacement policies are effective, and there is no better way to see what is working than being centered in a community that is impacted. I will work with the community to determine the best use for the benefit of the public for this property.

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

I will advance policies that promote parity for women in the workplace: equal wages, opportunities and protections against gender discrimination and sexual harassment in city government. In terms of equity, I believe we should look at all policy through a gender-responsive lens, so that women and our LGBTQ communities are being treated fairly in our city’s employment policies and in the services the city provides to the community.

Additionally, I am the only woman of color among the leading candidates, and if elected, I would become the first woman — and woman of color — to hold the office of Mayor in Denver. I am also the only top contender who is not backed by large corporate investors and developers. Instead, my base is made up of small individual donors largely comprised of progressive voters.

Denver is a city at a crossroads. Right now, Denver’s prosperity works for some, but not for enough of us. I know we can take a different path. I'm not a career politician, but I have spent thirty years in the service of others as an organizer, educator, nonprofit director and community leader. I have the heart, the skills and the policy know-how to lead this city in a new direction, one that places people first and prioritizes the needs of women, workers and residents in Denver over the interests of an elite group of political and corporate power brokers. Working together, we can build a city that provides more opportunities for more people and where we all can thrive.
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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