Year in Review

The Ten Biggest Denver Political Stories of 2020

The George Floyd protests in Denver marked one of the key moments in 2020.
The George Floyd protests in Denver marked one of the key moments in 2020. Evan Semón
Many of the big political stories in the state spilled over into Denver...and vice versa. From the Colorado State Capitol on May 28, lawmakers watched the first demonstration over the murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis polis just days before. But dissension in this city didn't just focus on racist law enforcement; residents also debated what to do with homelessness, whether the mayor had too much power...and whether a former mayor should be honored with a neighborhood named after him.

Politics became very personal this year.
Here are the ten biggest political stories in Denver in 2020:

George Floyd Protests

Just a few days after the killing of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police on May 25, first dozens, then hundreds and eventually thousands took to the streets of Denver to protest police brutality and demand accountability and reform. The size and scale of the protests caught the Denver Police Department by surprise, and law enforcement responded in an unnecessarily heavy-handed manner, demonstrators charged — and a judge agreed. The protests led to some major political developments, including state lawmakers successfully pushing for the country's most progressive law enforcement reform bill. Meanwhile, the city is now on the receiving end of multiple federal lawsuits regarding police conduct during the protests, as well as a critical report from Nick Mitchell, the outgoing Independent Monitor.

Shooting Death at Denver Protest

On October 10, as dueling rallies organized by a far-right activist and far-left individuals were winding down by Civic Center Park, a scuffle broke out. In a matter of seconds, Lee Keltner, who had attended the so-called Patriot Muster, lay unresponsive on the ground. Just feet away, Denver police officers surrounded Matthew Dolloff, who put down his 9mm gun and surrendered. It turned out that Dolloff was working as a security guard for a 9News crew covering the protest, but neither of the firms he worked with had proper licensing. Dolloff has bigger problems, however: He's now fighting a second-degree-murder charge for the shooting death of Keltner.

Saying Goodbye to Stapleton

In the wake of the racial justice protests in Denver, activists renewed their efforts to get rid of the Stapleton moniker given decades ago to a then-new neighborhood in northeast Denver. Previously, the land had been home to Stapleton Airport, which got its start as Denver Municipal Airfield but was renamed in the 1940s after then-Mayor Benjamin Stapleton, a card-carrying member of the Ku Klux Klan in the ’20s, when he was first elected. In a matter of months, the neighborhood association for Stapleton had come up with a short list of replacement options, and residents voted for perhaps the most innocuous choice possible: Central Park, after a park already in the area.

Safe-Camping Sites

Back in April, service providers proposed the idea of setting up safe-camping sites for people experiencing homelessness throughout Denver, to offer them a safe place to shelter as well as protection from sweeps. Mayor Michael Hancock initially rejected the idea, but as months passed and encampments grew in size, the city restarted sweeps — and Hancock announced that he now supported the Safe Outdoor Spaces program. After a few false starts, service providers were able to set up two sites with a combined total capacity for several people in the Capitol Hill neighborhood. And more safe-camping sites could be coming soon...this time from the city.
click to enlarge Denver officials swept a major encampment in RiNo in November. - MICHAEL EMERY HECKER
Denver officials swept a major encampment in RiNo in November.
Michael Emery Hecker

Homeless Sweeps During the Pandemic

Despite guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advising municipalities not to perform sweeps unless individual housing is available so as to avoid spreading the coronavirus, the City of Denver has been sweeping homeless encampments since summer. Denver officials and contractors handling the sweeps have been met with resistance by protesters, who have transferred at least some of their energy from the racial justice demonstrations into homelessness activism. They've also been met with a lawsuit: Ten homeless plaintiffs and Denver Homeless Out Loud are currently suing the City of Denver over the sweeps, with a judge's ruling on the lawsuit likely to come in early 2021.

Denver City Council Increasing Power

Denver has a strong-mayor form of government. But with a few Denver City Council members leading the charge, voters started chipping away at the mayor's grip on power in Denver, approving three measures in November that give council more authority. One confirms that council can hire independent consultants, such as engineers or lawyers, when reviewing contracts or preparing for a vote. Another gives council approval authority over key mayoral appointments, including the sheriff and police chief. And a third measure gives council the power to enact mid-year expenditures from unexpected revenue sources.

Pit Bulls Are Back in Town

Repealing a ban that had been in place since 1989, in November voters approved allowing pit bulls back into the city. The battle to give pit bulls a fighting chance to live in peace in Denver had started earlier in the year, when Denver City Councilman Chris Herndon pushed a repeal of the ban through a council vote. Although the proposal passed, Mayor Hancock vetoed the measure. When Herndon fell one vote short of overriding the veto, he opted instead to ask the people to weigh in on a proposed ordinance on the fall ballot. And voters barked back at Hancock, approving the repeal by a two-thirds majority.

Susana Cordova Resignation

In November, Denver Public Schools Superintendent Susana Cordova made the surprise announcement that, after a long career with DPS, she would be taking a job as a deputy superintendent of public schools in Dallas. While Cordova has remained cordial when she cites her two years as superintendent working with the Denver Board of Education, Mayor Michael Hancock and former mayor Federico Peña came together to write a letter arguing that Cordova had been given a raw deal by both the teachers' union and an adversarial board. Dwight Jones is now serving as the interim superintendent while the hunt for a successor continues.

Small Businesses Suffering

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a devastating effect on large and small businesses alike — but it's the small businesses that give the city so much of its flavor. Some, like Racines and El Chapultepec, which were already contemplating closure, decided to bow out early; others, like the legendary Tattered Cover, found survival in a sale. But many, many more are struggling to hang on and make it to the other side.

Hancock Thanksgiving Fiasco

On Thanksgiving Eve, Mayor Michael Hancock made news around the globe — for all the wrong reasons. For months, he'd been imploring Denver residents to act responsibly in order to flatten the COVID-19 curve; for weeks, he'd been encouraging them to stay home over the holidays. Then he went against his own advice and traveled to Mississippi to see his daughter for Thanksgiving — but before Hancock had even boarded the plane, an eagle-eyed citizen caught the mayor on camera, just minutes after a tweet from his office reminding everyone, again, to stay home.
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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.