May 15, 2023 - Politics

Progressive voters are major X factor in Denver mayor's race

Kelly Brough and Mike Johnston during a Denver mayoral debate at Regis University on May 11. Photo: Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post via Getty Images

Mike Johnston appears poised to win progressives' votes in the runoff race for Denver mayor.

Why it matters: Progressives could determine the outcome of the election, political pundits predict.

  • Many voters are looking to align with a new candidate after leading leftist Lisa Calderón came in third place in last month's general election.

Driving the news: Johnston was endorsed last week by former candidates Al Gardner, Terrance Roberts and Ean Tafoya, as well as state Sen. Julie Gonzales — signaling major inroads with far left-leaning leaders.

  • Last month, the former state senator also won the backing of a key former opponent, state Rep. Leslie Herod, who was seen as a formidable progressive candidate.

The other side: Runoff challenger Kelly Brough's latest seals of approval from law enforcement groups — including the Denver police and sheriff unions — are solidifying her status as a centrist, many local progressives are quick to point out.

  • It's also raising red flags. "In general, we find police unions lobbying against accountability measures," Wendy Howell, state director for Colorado Working Families Party, tells us.

Yes, but: Neither candidate has completely captivated — or repelled — progressive voters, Howell says.

  • For example, the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition 4 Action, which endorsed Calderón in the general election, isn't throwing support behind either candidate, CCJRC executive director Christie Donner tells Axios Denver.

What they're saying: Many far-left voters are "watching to see what they do on policy and how they continue to talk about issues," particularly around affordable housing and the root causes of crime "going into this runoff," Howell says.

  • Both candidates could do themselves a "favor" by not "dancing around" issues, including their ties to organizations with racist histories, she added.

Of note: Johnston acknowledged the history of the elite Skull and Bones Society at Yale University that he was a part of, but told Denverite by the time he was a member, the group "was racially diverse and open to all genders, as it is today."

  • Meanwhile, a spokesperson for Brough said under Kelly’s leadership, the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce "was committed to addressing the inequities created by past wrongs."

The intrigue: Calderón has yet to endorse either candidate — and it remains unclear if she will.

  • "A centrist man running as progressive or a centrist woman running to be the 1st isn't persuasive," she tweeted last Thursday. "What matters are policies and advisors. More soon."

By the numbers: In April's election, Calderón collected more than 31,000 votes, while Herod raked in about 18,500, according to Denver Elections Division data.

  • Collectively, that's more than either Johnston or Brough brought in on their own.

What we're watching: How many people cast their ballot in the June 6 runoff. If history is any indication, voter turnout rarely increases from a general election.

  • In the city's last runoff, in 2019, nearly 21,000 fewer voters participated compared to the first round, the Denver Post reports.

Editor's note: This story has been updated to show the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition 4 Action — the political arm of the coalition —  endorsed Calderón in the general election.


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