The Ten Biggest Denver Politics Stories of 2022

Denver Streets Partnership
Denver's political scene in 2022 has set 2023 up to be a doozy, considering that everyone and their brother (and mother, father, sister and probably pooch) wants to be mayor, for which the Fair Elections Fund is partially to thank (blame?). What to do with Park Hill Golf Course is still a major question, as is how to revive our flagging downtown and where to put people who don't have a house and people who can't afford a house. But it wasn't all sadness and gloom: Read on for the ten biggest Denver political stories of 2022.

Union Station Crackdown

Citing heightened drug use and criminal activity at the transit center, the Denver Police Department conducted a crackdown around Union Station in February, ultimately arresting 43 people. While Mayor Michael Hancock's administration framed the law enforcement action as necessary to prevent continued deterioration of Union Station, harm-reduction advocates warned that policies of criminalizing drug use would simply shift the problems elsewhere, which is exactly what happened. In August, RTD named Joel Fitzgerald as its new chief of police and emergency management. And after RTD temporarily closed the bathrooms at the transit hub, Fitzgerald added a policy for when the bathrooms reopened so that a security officer would frequently check the facilities. “You should feel safe when you’re downtown. You should feel safe in Union Station. You should feel safe in the areas that we cover as RTD," Fitzgerald said in a November speech.

Five Points Fight

In March, business owners in Five Points alleged publicly that Matthew Burkett, an investor and business owner in the historic Black neighborhood, had been hurting, not helping the area. The public revelations by these business owners, some of whom had been sued by Burkett, came after Burkett, who has been a longtime business partner of Robert Smith's (the richest Black man in America and a Denver native), had been hailed in news headlines in 2020 as a potential savior of Five Points. Tempers have cooled somewhat since then, but the tension in Five Points that boiled over earlier this year still remains.

Wildly Successful E-Bike Program

With funding from a climate tax earmark approved by Denver voters, the City of Denver launched an e-bike program in April. The deal offered by the city’s Office of Climate Action, Sustainability & Resiliency was a great one: Any Denver resident could qualify for a $400 rebate, while people with more limited incomes could get a $1,200 rebate. Those looking to get cargo e-bikes, which have more storage capacity, could tack on an additional $500 for the rebate. Denver went crazy for the program, and within just a few weeks, CASR had to stop accepting applications because it had already received 3,250 for a three-year program budgeted at $3 million for the first year. Since then, CASR has continued to make rebates available on a periodic basis. And more and more e-bikes are popping up across the Mile High City.

Everyone's Running for Mayor

Because Mayor Michael Hancock is term-limited and cannot run for re-election, seemingly everyone in Denver is lining up to jockey for position in the open race to become the city’s next chief executive. As of now, 25 candidates are competing in the Denver race for mayor. There are current state legislators, a member of Denver City Council, past mayoral candidates and an academic from CU Denver, among others. Many of these candidates are also participating in the Fair Elections Fund, which will provide public financing for their campaigns for the first time ever in Denver. Given that there’s such a large number of candidates, it’s quite likely that no one will get more than 50 percent of the vote in the first round in April. In that case, the top two vote-getters would go to a runoff in June.

Fair Elections Fund Shows Its Muscle

One of the reasons that there are so many candidates for Denver mayor — and for city council seats — has to do with the Fair Elections Fund's coming into effect for the first time. The fund matches donations from $5 up to $50 at a ratio of nine to one for qualifying candidates who agree to lower contribution limits and take donations only from individuals and small-donor committees. With an $8 million allocation per municipal election cycle, the fund has already paid out over $2.5 million. When considering the salaries of employees administering the fund, there’s about $4.8 million left to be doled out. And it’s almost a given that the fund, which is already showing its muscle, will run out at some point; the question is whether it runs out before the April election or before the runoff. Either way, Denver City Council will have the option to add more money to the fund’s coffers.

Park Hill Golf Course

Over the past three years, the question of what to do with the Park Hill Golf Course property has remained one of the top political issues in Denver. Westside Investment Partners, the company that owns the property, wants to turn the land into a mixed-use development with 100 acres of open space. On the other side of the debate, Save Open Space Denver, an advocacy group that counts former state legislator Penfield Tate and former mayor Wellington Webb as members, opposes development of any kind on the property and wants it to be turned into a 155-acre city park. The drama over the property continued throughout 2022, with quite a few contentious city council hearings. If the council votes in January to refer a measure to the April ballot, then Denver voters will get the final say on whether to lift the conservation easement that rests on the property, which would ultimately allow for its development.

Revitalizing Downtown

Boosters of Downtown Denver are working overtime to get Denver’s tourism and economic hub back to an attractive state after the pandemic led to deteriorating conditions. "It’s having people back in our restaurants, it’s having our employees back, it’s getting the energy back in downtown Denver. That safety, that beautification, all of the things we love about our city," Kourtny Garrett, president and CEO of the Downtown Denver Partnership, said in November. Part of the city’s strategy for getting more people downtown revolves around tougher law enforcement approaches toward the possession and use of illegal firearms, along with more officers downtown. And the city and downtown boosters also plan to improve lighting in the area and increase trash and graffiti removal. But the issues aren't likely to be fully figured out before Hancock’s time in office runs out — and then it will be up to the new mayor to deal with them.

Housing-First Approach to Homelessness

The City of Denver, led by the Department of Housing Stability created in 2019, has spent much of the past year preaching a housing-first approach to homelessness, which focuses on getting individuals experiencing homelessness housed first before related issues such as employment, mental health or substance abuse are dealt with. Once they're housed, people are much more likely to get their lives back on track, research shows. As part of this approach, which is still contradicted by the constant homeless encampment sweeps in the city, Denver has earmarked $43.25 million to purchase four properties, which will likely be motels. Two of these will immediately be turned into supportive housing for people living on the streets, while the other two will be transformed into navigation centers, where people can be quickly connected with housing and services. This might finally be Denver’s road home.

Denver Will Get Full Sidewalk Network

Denver voters approved the passage of Initiative 307, aka Denver Deserves Sidewalks, in November. The measure places a new fee on property owners that will raise approximately $41 million annually, with the funds designated toward sidewalk maintenance and buildout. The approval represents a paradigm shift in how Denver approaches sidewalks. Previously, sidewalk repair had been the responsibility of property owners. Now the city will have to handle fixing sidewalks and will also have to build proper sidewalks along the 40 percent of Denver’s streets where they're missing or where they're too narrow to accommodate wheelchairs, strollers or people walking side by side.

Denver Wants to Expand Housing Affordability

Denver City Council passed a major legislative package in June that requires developers to build affordable-housing units in new projects. The measure also requires developers to pay a higher per-square-foot fee, known as a linkage fee, for new construction. Revenue generated from that fee will go toward constructing more affordable housing. "Our housing crisis is as crushing as it's ever been,” Councilwoman Robin Kniech said in a committee meeting prior to the bill’s passage. The Expanding Housing Affordability measure is designed to create housing for people who fall somewhere between low-income earners and people making the area median income, which was $82,100 for a one-person household in 2022.
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Conor McCormick-Cavanagh is a staff writer at Westword, where he covers a range of beats, including local politics, immigration and homelessness. He previously worked as a journalist in Tunisia and loves to talk New York sports.

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