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 Mary Beth Susman, at 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 current District 5 councilmember Susman below.
Westword: How would you describe yourself and the reasons you decided to run for city council?
Mary Beth Susman: I want to take care of the town I live in. Throughout my time on the city council and even before this, I wanted to build a city that embraced people from all walks of life and created homes and unique spaces for us. I helped guide the development of Lowry, served on the planning board when we were preserving sunlight on the 16th Street Mall and many other place-making decisions that have kept Denver a great place to live. When the opportunity to make a bigger impact as city council member was available, I went all in for it. Taking care of my town and community is most important to me.
What makes your district unique?
District Five is home to both the wealthiest and poorest precincts in the City of Denver. It calls for careful — and sometimes conflicting — considerations of what is best for the future of all our citizens. It also sits in the "doughnut hole" of transit options, which means that we have only our cars to get around the city most of the time.
What is the biggest issue affecting your district?
Traffic congestion is the most often-heard issue. Second is affordability for families. Our district (and most of our city) was built for a car culture, and we need to find better ways of getting around that are still convenient and inexpensive. The dramatic rise in the cost of housing is beyond the reach of too many families. Residents looking to downsize have difficulty finding housing options to meet their needs. Mobility and affordability are related. We want District 5 to be a safe, accessible, affordable home to people of all ages and economic backgrounds.
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?
Housing first. We need to create housing that includes transitional units, so that people without housing are sheltered safely and can get back on their feet. I support building more inclusive shelters that accommodate individuals with unique needs. And then a stable place to live with wrap-around services has been shown to be the best solution to prevent recurring homelessness.
How would you tackle Denver’s affordable-housing issues?
We have to build more affordable units across the city. We have dedicated funds to incentivize this, but we need to do more. We also need to address filling the "missing middle," which is housing for middle-income people. We need to continue incentivizing the building of all kinds of housing, with density near transit corridors but also other levels of affordability in all our neighborhoods.
How concerned are you about gentrification in your district, and what can be done to strike the right balance?
We need to do more to build diversity and equity in our city without destroying the character of neighborhoods. A significant piece of this is building affordable housing for both lower- and middle-income people that tend to be more diverse in age and income. If we can create homes for everyone to live in, then our city will thrive.
Do you support rent control in Denver?
No, in the belief the rent control would alarmingly benefit those who have the current means and buying power to acquire the rent-controlled residence and effectively shut out opportunities for others. We need to build a diverse workforce housing market that can couple with a lower- and middle-income bracket to provide options to all individuals in Denver.
Would you expand the tiny homes concept? If so, how? If not, why not?
Yes. I believe this program has shown positive benefits, and it solves an immediate need for low-income housing. We have taken action to expand this program. Using unused properties for this housing is a win-win, although only an intermediate remedy. There are many other opportunities for us to provide homes.
Would you support a higher minimum wage in Denver? If so, where would you like to see the minimum wage set?
Based on the information about national trends in wage growth and disparity, I believe it is imperative that we meet the $15/hour standard and go further to look at other ways to reduce costs for those on minimum wages. Factors include transit, food and housing costs that all play a significant role in a family’s ability to thrive on a minimum wage.
Is development in Denver being done responsibly?
Yes, but I understand people's frustration that infrastructure has not kept up with rapid growth, and the complicated planning process is not always well understood. Though our meetings are public and sometimes well attended, it is clear to me that we can do more to inform the busy public about the great community-driven discussions that lead to what appear to be simple votes. Additionally, our city recently grew much faster than expected, and while neighborhoods were making twenty-year plans, our city grew in a fraction of that time. This is why the new Blueprint Denver is so important.
What should be done to address problems related to traffic and traffic safety in your district?
The first step is working to reduce the number of cars on the road and finding ways like traffic circles to lower speed but keep flow active. As a member of city council, I successfully secured — in response to constituent concerns — two of only four flashing-beacon crosswalks in the city to improve pedestrian safety in District 5. We will do more to expand that network and also lower our accident death rates by reducing speed. No one enjoys traffic in a town, which is why we have to take transit to the next level.
What improvements do you believe should be made to Denver’s public transportation system?
We must take ownership of our own transit needs. RTD is a regional service with the core responsibility of moving people into, out of and across Denver. Its ability to provide local service is limited. That is why I have worked tirelessly to bring a Denver Transportation Department to realization. I want a bus (or other transit option) that comes every ten minutes, so I don’t have to memorize a schedule and it takes me where I want to go in my daily life.
Would you work to expand Denver’s bicycle network? If so, how?
Yes, I want more protected ("comfort" is the new word for these) lanes across the city. We must up our game on connecting the bike paths we have, increase them and make them safer for both drivers and riders.
Would you welcome social consumption venues of the sort envisioned in a bill passed by the state legislature in your district? If so, why?
Voters expressed their support for venues to provide places where people can use marijuana socially. Many tourists have no places to use marijuana, and so we have usage happening illegally in our parks, alleys, streets, etc. We need legal places where they can use it.
What can and should be done to improve law enforcement in Denver?
Crime is not a stranger to District 5, but overall, we are a safe district. Neighborhood Watch is an excellent way to keep neighborhoods safer. Council has approved all funding requests by the Denver Police Department to build up their force in the face of many retirements. We are graduating more police officers than ever before to fill the need. I believe continuing our work with our police and the DA’s office to provide the resources our law enforcement needs are our best course.
Would you like the city council to have more mechanisms to keep the mayor accountable? If so, what changes would you like to see?
Our strong-mayor form of city government is one of the most significant pieces of our ability to keep Denver strong. The position of mayor of Denver is arguably the most powerful position in the state. The mayor controls the budget of the largest city and the most voters in the state. The governor does not control the budget of the state. That is in the control of the chairman of the state Joint Budget Committee. The chairman of that committee has more economic power than the governor. Not so with Denver.
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Moreover, the federal government really only speaks to states, and states decide which cities get what. To have a single person who can speak for one’s city creates a vertical power that would be diluted if we disseminated it to thirteen often-disagreeing councilmembers. Losing the power of the mayor position means losing the power of Denver in decisions of the state and federal government.
The council has many checks and balances on the mayor's decisions. In my eight-year tenure, there have been no mayor vetoes of our decisions because of our ability to work together to keep Denver strong.
Are there other significant issues we haven’t mentioned that are important to you, and if so, what are they?
This questionnaire covered the ones most top of mind. I would only add the importance of constituent services. As a member of council, it has been a priority to be responsive to constituent concerns, from fixing potholes to connecting constituents with city services. While I moved my office to the City and County Building to save taxpayer money, I welcome the opportunity to talk with constituents at "office hours" I routinely hold throughout the district.