Denver mayor election: Racial missteps come under fire in crowded race
Campaign flyers that promote a white candidate with racially charged language. A TV ad that includes video of mostly Latino or Black people who are homeless, fighting or engaged in crime. News stories that focus on the alleged mistreatment of legislative staff by a candidate who’s a Black woman — but don’t scrutinize other candidates’ reputations as bosses.
All of these have fueled recent flashpoints over race and gender as a historically large, and notably diverse, field of candidates campaign to be Denver’s next mayor in the April 4 election.
Disputes over campaign tactics have put two white candidates — Mike Johnston and Chris Hansen — on the defensive. And a group of 25 Black elected officials and community leaders endorsed a statement March 8 that condemned media portrayals of Black candidates, messages promoted by some campaigns, and the exclusion of lower-funded candidates from debates and forums as organizers have sought to narrow the field of 17 ballot-qualified contenders.
Among the motivators cited by those signers in interviews were Johnston’s flyers, Hansen’s ad and media coverage of state Rep. Leslie Herod’s management style.
It all points to the sometimes explicit, but often subtle, ways that race, ethnicity and other facets of identity, including gender, play out in political campaigns. This year’s mayor’s race has been no exception, with examples that some people might easily dismiss or view as open to interpretation — while others decry them as blatantly offensive.
“The truth of the matter is that the psychology of voting and political behavior and opinion is still deeply tied into race and gender,” said Phil Chen, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Denver whose research focuses on the impact of identity in politics. “It’s going to take a much more concerted long-term effort to see that shift.”
Decades ago, non-white candidates often faced overt racism and even formal barriers to running. Chen and other experts say the strides made in American law and society since then have ensured equal access to the ballot, while leaving behind a more complex set of challenges in 2023.
Subtle perceptions and biases still color how voters, campaign operatives, journalists and even potential donors evaluate candidates of different backgrounds, Chen said — no matter that Denver is a city that has elected a Latino mayor to two terms and two Black mayors, each to three terms. That includes outgoing Mayor Michael Hancock.
In this year’s field, which narrowed to 16 on Thursday after Tattered Cover CEO Kwame Spearman threw in the towel, white candidates are a minority. Nine of the remaining candidates are Latino, Black, Native American or multi-racial. Five are women.
The six or seven candidates recognized as the top tier of the field include four women, three of whom are Black or Latino: Herod, community activist Lisa Calderón and City Councilwoman Debbie Ortega. Kelly Brough, the former leader of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce, is white.
That ethnic and racial diversity is a big part of what excites Jeff Fard, a Five Points activist known as Brother Jeff, about this year’s race. It still hasn’t produced clear front-runners but could result in the city’s first woman mayor.
He signed onto the recent letter, he said, because of worrisome signs that subtle biases and bad campaigning decisions were creeping in, even if he lauds the candidates’ respectful treatment of each other in debates. He sees the incidents thus far as glaring exceptions — and hopes to nudge others to check their racial blind spots in a city that counts 29% of its population as Latino and 9% as Black, according to census estimates.
“Hopefully that letter is putting folks on notice that we as a community are watching,” Fard said. “We don’t want to have a norm established where we as a community are being portrayed in a certain way or excluded.”
Khadija Haynes, who leads a public affairs consulting firm and is on the board of the Montbello Organizing Committee, said the letter was the result of people reacting to individual events and comparing notes.
“If we all feel it, then there’s some truth in it,” she said. “And we need to expect more and we need to demand more — not just from our candidates, but from our media, from our (debate) moderators … and the supposed thought leaders.”
“All Votes Matter” on Johnston flyer draws rebukes
Four years ago, it was on Fard’s online streaming show that Jamie Giellis ran into trouble.
Giellis, who is white, had made it into the runoff against Hancock, and during a live interview, she couldn’t remember what NAACP stands for. (It’s the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.) Soon after that lapse, she came under scrutiny for an old tweet in which she questioned the value of Chinatowns, prompting her to take down social media accounts as she went into defensive mode.
Fard and others said they experienced a similar sense of disbelief late last month after Denver Public School Board Vice President Auon’tai Anderson publicized Johnston’s campaign flyers.
Two similar flyers touted Johnston’s work to help Black families afford homeownership, but they had different headings — one that was left on vehicles outside a Black church said “Black Votes Matter,” while the other, intended for a mostly white audience, said “All Votes Matter.”
Anderson tweeted that the flyers, using language that echoes the debate over “Black Lives Matter” and “All Lives Matter” during the 2020 protests, amounted to “segregationist tactics.”
Johnston, a former state senator and head of a philanthropic organization, said on Twitter that he had not seen or approved the flyers, adding that “as soon as I saw them I pulled them entirely out of circulation.” He attributed them to campaign supporter John Bailey, who chairs the Colorado Black Round Table; Bailey said he didn’t intend to use divisive language. Campaign finance records show Johnston’s campaign has paid Bailey $10,000 for his consulting services.
Fard suggested that Johnston failed to take full responsibility for the distribution of flyers that represented his campaign.
“This is an opportunity to show leadership in terms of how you will lead,” he said. “These are very telling moments.”
Hansen came under nearly universal criticism at a debate in mid-February, just after he’d launched a TV ad focused on addressing crime and homelessness. Though the ad used real footage, including from a porch camera that captured a mailbox thief, candidates including Ean Thomas Tafoya saw the people portrayed, who appeared to be mostly Black or Latino, as perpetuating racial and ethnic stereotypes.
At the debate, Tafoya, an environmental justice advocate, asked other candidates to raise their hands if they agreed.
“The whole stage raised their hand — and the whole audience raised their hand,” said Tafoya, who is Latino and Native American, in an interview. “That gives me hope that we are seeing the change from the (2020) protests,” in terms of a greater recognition of subtle racism.
But Hansen, in a campaign statement, stood his ground, denying any racist intent and chalking up the criticism to politics: “This is what happens when you challenge the status quo, you get attacked.”
“We are tired of seeing this,” official says
Anderson, who has endorsed Herod, was among the organizers of the March 8 letter, which brought together people from the city and across the state to express concerns about “the blatant anti-Blackness that has been pervasive in the 2023 municipal elections in Denver.” University of Colorado Regent Wanda James, another Herod supporter, also played a key role, but the majority of the signers had not donated to or publicly endorsed Herod.
“We are tired of seeing this,” James said of the flyers, the ad and other infractions. “It’s time for all of these campaigns to come down and speak with people (in the Black community). Understand what you’re doing wrong.”
James said her participation in the letter was motivated most strongly by two recent news stories, published online by Denverite and Axios Denver, about Herod. The stories zeroed in on claims — mostly from unnamed sources — that Herod mistreated her legislative staffers, which one woman described as “degrading” to Denverite. Others characterized Herod as having high standards, and Herod, for her part, disputed some characterizations to Denverite and said she wasn’t aware of others. Neither story examined the records of other candidates.
“First off, we have to come to the conclusion that the difficult black woman is a racist trope,” James said, suggesting that diving into the histories of several other candidates and elected officials would “get the same response.”
Haynes also was animated by those stories.
“Leslie is not an angry woman, and if you want to see an angry woman, then keep this up,” said Haynes, who has donated to Herod’s campaign. “We are tired of it. We are tired of being servants of our community and being passionate and being direct and not having time for (expletive) that gets mischaracterized. … It is the sexism and racism at play here, and if we don’t see that, then I just don’t know what to say to people who can’t see that.”
Chen, the DU political science professor, said subtle negative perceptions still factor heavily into how women are perceived by voters and pundits, who might judge them as weaker on certain leadership qualities. Even political donors tend to donate less to female candidates who are Black or Latino, he said.
While women have won elections at all levels of government, he said, there are distinctions — with voters more willing to elect women to “communal-based” positions.
“So women running for city councils or the legislature … the stereotypes don’t necessarily hurt women as much as they do for executive-level jobs” such as mayor, Chen said.
Updated 6:30 a.m. March 21, 2023 This story has been updated to clarify the number of terms Denver’s Latino and Black mayors served.
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