As the May 2019 municipal election approaches, only one sitting member of Denver City Council who is not term-limited has decided not to run for re-election; in December, District 1 Councilman Rafael Espinoza announced that he would not be seeking a second term in office.
Espinoza was elected by an overwhelming margin (nearly 70 percent of votes in his district) in 2015 to represent northwest Denver, which includes such neighborhoods as Highland, West Highland, Sloan’s Lake, West Colfax, Berkeley and Sunnyside. Back then — as they are now — the overriding issues in District 1 were traffic and gentrification, as historic and minority neighborhoods faced significant development and longtime residents accepted buyouts from investors or were priced out of their homes.
An architect by trade, Espinoza focused most of his time in council on zoning and development issues, with perhaps his greatest impact being his successful effort to put a moratorium on slot homes and garden court homes. Known for their boxy architectural designs, they were maligned by such groups as Denver FUGLY and used prolifically in neighborhoods such as Jefferson Park by developers to maximize the number of disconnected units (and profit) on single plots of land. Also included in accomplishments posted to District 1's website are Espinoza's efforts to make sure neighbors are notified whenever nearby parcels are rezoned, a tally of affordable units added to northwest Denver, and a number of historical properties he saved from being destroyed.
But Espinoza has also been something of a lone wolf at times. A self-admitted skeptic on city council, he didn’t always find allies among his colleagues or in the mayor’s office. He vehemently opposed a number of measures championed by Mayor Michael Hancock’s administration; in the case of I-70 expansion and the administration’s stormwater drainage plan, Espinoza went so far as to try to join a lawsuit against the city to fight a flood control project at the City Park Golf Course.
Espinoza has also been at odds, publicly, with members of City Council, perhaps the most searing moment being when Espinoza drew rebuke from council president Jolon Clark last October — “You demean this chamber!” — when Espinoza said his colleagues were acting like Donald Trump.
In a statement released on December 20 explaining why he would not seek re-election, Espinoza said that he felt he could better address issues of development, design and zoning as a private citizen — particularly his efforts to create zoning “overlays” for individual neighborhoods that more specifically guide development in those areas.
Since that announcement, Espinoza has endorsed his former staffer, Amanda Sandoval, for his seat come May.
But there’s a lot more to his decision than he let on last December. To find out more about the councilman’s time in office — including his solo public stand and infamous letter calling for an investigation of Mayor Hancock for “sexual harassment” (Espinoza’s words) — as well as what’s next for him, we sat down with Espinoza for a wide-ranging exit interview.
Westword: Councilman, as you enter your final months in office and think back on the totality of your term, what do you consider your greatest accomplishments?
Rafael Espinoza: My two regulatory-tool highlights were the slot home amendment and the Central Platte Valley zoning amendment. Of all the things I've [tried to advocate for] — open space, the need for design guidelines, the need for higher affordability, mixed income communities — all of that came together in the Central Platte Valley zoning. That's one thing I feel good about, because basically everything that I was throwing down from the dais was largely captured, and captured to a degree which I didn't think we as a council were capable of getting to.
The slot home task force also effectively ended that stupidity. It was shit like this [holds up architecture plans showing six units on what used to be a single-home property] coming from shitty developers. Now, I want it to be clear to people who say that I got rid of the affordability of the neighborhood by taking away units: I wish we had unit density as part of our zoning code. But the reality is that what we did was change the form that you can build in that has zero effect on the number of units you can build. That's just a function of how you design a project.
Coming from private practice as an architect, was there a steep learning curve when you joined Denver City Council? And what was it like developing relationships with colleagues, including the mayor, that you’d be working with?
My first year in office, everything I was learning about each agency and what they're working on...I was just questioning it all. And I was getting frustrated because I could see better possibilities. And I can tell you that, in all those meetings with different agencies and department heads and staff, they all know better than to undermine the administration. That [became] part of my frustration.
When I came in to office, before I was sworn in, the mayor invited me in to his office for a sort of "Ask me anything" [meeting]. I didn't know that; he just said to show up. So I go to his office, and his whole cabinet is in there, and we sit down and he says, "So what's on your mind?"
I'm thinking, Okay, didn't know this was my conversation…
But I started by saying, "What are we going to do about the zoning code?"
He said, "There's nothing wrong with it."
And I knew there were all kinds of problems with it, slot homes being just one example.
Then everyone was looking at me like I was from another planet, to be sitting there challenging the mayor on his positions on the beauty of the existing zoning code. That's when it was very clear that someone who was elected as a councilmember within weeks of the adoption of Blueprint Denver in 2002 and has spent his entire career under the language of that document, and then was sitting council president when the zoning code was adopted in 2010 and been mayor for the entire administration of that document…for him to be five years into that document and not be cognizant of the problems, that's when it was clear that this guy doesn't give a shit about the quality of design in his city. He can have his awards noting some significant architecture, but as far as the day-to-day character of individual neighborhoods, that was just of no interest to him. World-class cities have world-class neighborhoods.
That meeting must have given you pause, because Denver is also a “strong mayor” city, meaning that most measures and city priorities need the mayor's approval unless city council can muster a nine-vote super-majority to override a veto.
Yeah, that became the other struggle with my colleagues. Every year we'd put together our priorities after we'd heard from our constituencies about what they want, and when it'd come time to review the budget, if the mayor didn't align with those priorities, we wouldn't push back. [Instead] we'd sit there and fight for some portion of the leftover reserve funds. So here's thirteen councilmembers that, in my first year, were fighting for some portion of $3 million.
I'm like, this is stupid. All you have to do is say no. I'm not saying to be obstructionist and break government, but fight the hand and say, "Look, we expect more on sidewalks. That is what is a priority for Denver. And if you're going to spend $1.8 billion doing other things, $3 million isn't sufficient."
But you have to do that as a body. And there was so much resistance to challenging or questioning the mayor. I didn't see a chink in that armor until the last twelve months: [Hancock's] vulnerability as a candidate and his vulnerability from the sexual harassment issue.
My whole point is that, as a body, we always could have pushed harder for the things that we're trying to see. But if we're all factioned and a group of us basically says the mayor does no wrong, it's hard to get there.
We also make so many approvals on a weekly basis that there are lots of things that go by that should be challenged and aren't. And if you start raising a stink, you're sour grapes. And it's tough for me to watch all of those things go by.
What are some of the things you had hoped to address and didn’t on city council?
One item was alternatives to the camping ban. I called [Hancock Deputy Chief of Staff] Evan Dreyer one day and told him I have all these ideas that aren't the work of a councilman, they're the work of a mayor. And I said, “You can take credit for these ideas; I don't give a crap. I just want this for Denver."
It was a five-part plan. I started to explain how Los Angeles has this program called "the bin." It's run by homeless people and is where they can store their personal belongings, since a lot of them are working and have no place to store their things. Item two, I called "church BnB." We already allow up to eight people to stay overnight at churches.
But actually, come to think of it, I didn't even get there. [Dreyer] was like, "Oh, no, if you're trying to let people sleep out at night, it's a non-starter." So my ideas never got off the ground.
Because it's looming so large right now and is related to the camping ban, do you have any thoughts or a position on I-300, the Right to Survive, in the upcoming election?
I want to be able to support it, but I can't. It's like Proposition 112 [from the last election]: right idea, wrong implementation. I get why, if you're going to go, go big. But that's a bit too big for me.
Back to your legislative priorities. Are there other items you wanted to address but didn't on council?
It's in my nature that I [wasn't] convinced I was doing a good job until my team put together a list of accomplishments. And when I looked it, I was like, "Oh, I feel better about myself. I did a lot." But when I got through it, there were two things that had been major campaign items: addressing the character of development in the district, and trying to give the community a stronger voice on social-justice matters [including gentrification].
Those were my two smallest [areas of accomplishment], and I thought, oof!
I did not see how I could address those items in the way that I wanted to while still seated. I could legally do it and technically do it because I'm an architect by trade, but the other requirements of the job do not give me the capacity to do it. And I couldn't stomach the idea of being in office another four years while having not addressed those concerns. I realized I could do more on that front as a constituent focused on that front.
Every year I've been on council, I've been effective in advocating and getting additional funds for the Department of Community Planning and Development. I was asking for funds so staff could make overlays to the zoning code. The zoning code has always had the capacity to address the character of individual neighborhoods.
Sloan's Lake, West Highland and the Berkeley/Regis neighborhoods have never had a neighborhood plan. And the way that CPD ranked the order of plans, they sit dead last. Lowry and Stapleton come up sooner in the planning process than three huge neighborhoods that are getting the brunt of some really crappy design.
So at that point, I realized this was never going to work through the normal channels of government, because I don't get to decide what the CPD staff works on; that's the mayor's job.
In my third year, in November of 2017, my office kicked off a community-driven overlay process. The overlay is the tool in this zoning code that allows you to modify the zoning to get different outcomes. We went through three different architects; that became a problem in that I couldn't find someone that could produce the work that needed to be done for the amount of money I could offer.
At some point, two of my constituents in two different neighborhoods were mad at me, and rightly so, in pointing out that I could have done [the overlays] myself. If I didn't have the responsibility of being on council, yes, it would have been done. And that was the first feeling of letting my constituents down, realizing that I could have technically done this.
I have the skill set. I know that I can produce this sort of thing.
Going back to the relationship between city council and the mayor, I'm curious about the Leslie Branch-Wise allegations — that the mayor had sent a female member of his security detail unwanted sexually suggestive texts — that made headlines during your term. What was that like, considering that you were the only councilmember to publicly call for an investigation of the mayor — one that never happened?
It should be known that my letter [calling for an investigation] was leaked from within. When I sent that letter, at roughly 4:30 p.m. on a Monday, it was only to sitting councilmembers. But at the meeting that night, [Denver Post reporter] Jon Murray asked me about it. So somebody leaked it to him, and that only could have been a sitting member of council or somebody who has access to them.
I got accused of playing politics by the administration for writing a letter and then leaking it. That's utter bullshit; I didn't do that. At the same time, I was somewhat glad the conversation [about an investigation] could then happen.
Right. What was frustrating for me is that we find out over the course of time that the city knew those texts existed at the time of two settlements and did not convey that to council at that time.
The problem that I have is that we went into executive session and had a bunch of conversations about that, and only some of that executive session, as far as I'm concerned, was legitimate. When you're talking about things that put the city at risk, that's appropriate for executive session. But at that executive session, we should have laid down the ground rules to members of council about what you can and cannot talk about, what is the third rail, and what we do. That conversation could have been public.
In our briefing, when we learned more about how sexual harassment law works in Colorado and what our subpoena power does — all of that information would have been a teaching moment for everybody. So that when we came out with our ultimate decision, at least people would have had some kind of basis about how we ended up there.
Who got to decide how much of what was discussed in executive session was ultimately presented to the public? Was that the city council president's decision?
The language of whatever letter came out was part of the debate in those executive sessions. And I will say there was not consensus on where we should go.
There was clearly a desire to just not deal with it. And that desire was not shared by me. I thought that we could have set parameters that let [Branch-Wise] know that she could testify publicly, and that whatever she talked about was not subject to sexual-harassment litigation, so that it was clear that we weren't stepping on her rights to privacy that she's entitled to under state law.
Why do you think there was a majority consensus to, as you put it, just let her accusations go?
There are people [on council] who are pretty much always with the mayor, that basically were either mentored by the mayor or are close friends with the mayor. They are a handful who just never question [him].
Do you think the relationship between city council and the mayor changed after the Leslie Branch-Wise story came out?
There was a definite cooling period where some distance was maintained. Not by me, since [me and the mayor] have never been warm since our first conversation. The couple times I've had private meetings with him was me basically being told to know my place.
It was frustrating, because I always wanted him to succeed.
With this whole experience under your belt, how are you feeling about the future of the city? And how important is this upcoming election in May?
With a strong mayor government, it does come down to who's on top. And I think you need somebody with creativity. I think if I was reforming things, I would give council more access to the appointed positions, somehow having a say in tweaking the makeup of boards and commissions.
And would I like to see seated members question things more, push and advocate harder, challenge the administration in ways that I think are better for the people of Denver? Yes. But only if they're doing it in a way that is mindful of their capacity. I hear, in forums for my position, [candidates] making promises that aren't in the purview of an elected member of city council — and I'm sure I did it myself when I was running. But it's problematic, because if you accuse people of being do-nothings on issues that they can't actually do anything about and you start letting that affect your judgment about who can be more effective, then you'll end up getting somebody promising you the world. That's how we ended up getting a president who's a complete imbecile.
Do you see yourself as going back to politics ever in the future?
I'll be honest and say I never imagined myself in this capacity. I was honored to take a stab at it, and I'm proud of the accomplishments we were able to achieve. But I’ve found I'm more of a front-end person, and it didn't take me long to realize once I was here that all the things I wanted to do would be a hell of a lot easier if I were mayor.
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It didn't help me when, at a certain point, some people said, "We want you as mayor."
Interesting. Did that get you thinking along the lines of running for mayor?
Yeah. At some point I actually did go to my wife and asked her what she [thought] about it, because I had been using my wife as an excuse, saying, “Well I think that'd be too hard for her.” But then I asked her and she was supportive. And I was sort of like, "Oh crap, I just got rid of my out!"
That was two years ago. This is a long way to say that I would much rather have somebody that I feel is more capable than I am to lead this city. But I have a track record of having come into office and largely doing what I set out to do. Yes, it's crazy politics to leave. But I'm leaving with my constituents largely wanting more. And so if I'm able to be successful in creating the tools that I promised to build, then it comes down to, if the mayor gets re-elected, who jumps into the race next go-around. If I'm not happy with those options, then that's the only position I could see myself pursuing. Because then you're on the front end.