03 June 2011

Denver's Municipal Election Round Two

Ballots must be received in Denver's runoff election on Tuesday. Today is that last day the a mailed in ballot has a reasonable chance of arriving; delivering a ballot to a designed drop off (the instructions in your ballot have locations and hours of operation) is a better bet after today.

The Mayoral Race

The marquee race for mayor is between Chris Romer and Michael Hancock. I made a choice and voted, but honestly, I am as ambivalent as I've ever been in an election. I'm not alone in this; Vincent Carroll at the Denver Post wrote a column saying the same thing.

Polling shows Hancock with the lead, although not an insurmountable one, despite the fact that Romer had the most votes at the end of the first round.  Voting in the Mayor's race once again closely followed ethnic lines in the first round, with predominantly Hispanic neighborhoods favoring Meija, predominantly black neighborhoods voting for Hancock, and white neighborhoods voting for Romer.  Most of the leaders in the Hispanic community have backed Romer in the runoff following the lead of Meija, but many of the runner up white candidates in the Mayoral race have backed Hancock.

Both are Democrats. Neither was my first choice. Both have political experience. Romer has a background as na investment banker who specialized in municipal bonds and focused a fair amount on out of the box solutions to the state's problems, particularly transportation, while in office in the Colorado General Assembly representing parts of the city including Congress Park. Hancock is our outgoing city council President with strong ties to the community. Neither have experience of CEO of an organization in any way resembling the City and County of Denver in either size or character. Romer has stronger ties to big business and has been the preferred candidate of big Denver names in the Republican party, and his father was a decidedly moderate Democrat while he served as Governor of Colorado. Hancock's natural instincts are to consider the impact of policy on the little guy, but he lacks the connection's to the city, state and national power elites that can help make things happen that Romer has at his disposal.

Romer has waffled on his stand on medical marijuana. Hancock has attacked Romer for taking big donations from strip clubs, equivocated on teaching evolution and is lukewarm about the right to choose. It is hard to tell how this will play out as the City develops policies for dealing with legal and illegal vices. Neither man seems to have an unwavering commitment to the sensible cost conscious, treatment oriented criminal justice and corrections administration reforms that Doug Linkhart has quietly but relentless secured in his tenure on the City Council.

Romer has promised to cut down on land use and licensing red tape, a legitimate issue that Hickenlooper also put on his agenda but never managed to pull off. Hancock seems inclined to refocus city attention on neighborhood level projects rather than big ticket centralized projects that most of his predecessors have focused upon.  But Hancock has less of a business orientation, for example, fumbling his handling of a situation involving the regulation of the city's taxi market in a way that seemed to help keep a new competitor out of the market for no legitimate reason. Hancock had personal involvement in developing the city's new zoning code (which is substantively probably worse than the hodgepodge that came before it despite being statutorily much more clean) and may feel a stronger stake in defending it whether or not it makes sense in a particular case out of respect for the process that created it, than Romer who has far less participation in that process.

Hancock's political style is more consultative, and community involvement is a natural instinct for him, but perhaps as a result, has few signature innovations as feathers in his cap despite the power he held in city council and he offered no substantive reforms other than greater community contract when asked by Colorado Public Radio how the city would look different after a year in his administration. Romer is better at avoiding falling into group think with independent ideas, but while this may show leadership, it also isn't unusual for his proposals to face opposition because he hasn't won sufficient support behind the scenes with all of the players involved before announcing them. He poses a greater risk of embarking on big new ideas that fall entirely flat. Neither man has the game changing capacity to walking into a room and suddenly secure seemingly impossible compromises that our state's most effective politicians, like John Hickenlooper and Andrew Romanoff, share (most recently seen in Hickenlooper's successful legislative battle to secure passage of the bill approving the state's regulations, despite a squabble over pay day lending regulation that he got state house Republicans to give up upon).

Both men acknowledge that need to continue and improve upon the efforts of Mayor Hickenlooper and acting mayor Bill Vidal to be more effective in disciplining bad cops and both have promised to remove a key figure in that process who has been roundly criticized - although under Vidal's administration public discipline has been stepped up; but it is hard to tell who would be more effective at securing that result. The fact that Romer was endorsed by the Fraternal Order of Police and that Hancock has closer political ties to communities that have been on the receiving end of police misconduct tend to tip the balance towards Hancock in my mind on this very important issue.

Romer's personal life has been unnotable. Hancock's personal life has been messier, for example, he didn't publicly acknowledge an out of wedlock child born two years before he married his current wife who is the mother of his two younger children until around the time he started contemplating his current run for office (thereby heading of the potential scandal of a child appearing out of the woodwork), but not in any way that obviously impairs his ability to serve the city as Mayor.

I could have probably dug deeper and found out more about the candidates before I voted and relied to some extent on a variety of endorsement cues and gut feelings rather than taking the time to really gather all the information I needed to make an optimal decision in what is a close call when lots and lots of information is available. But, I didn't have the time and both men are competent enough that I have considerable hope for Denver's future no matter who gets elected.

Also, notably, while some people have grumbled about negative campaigning in the Mayoral race, I'm not one of them. Honestly, I wish there had been more of it. A flawed Mayor can do a great deal of damage, while the difference between what a pretty good Mayor and a blandly competent one can do for the city is pretty marginal. (Neither runoff candidate is out of the park excellent this time around.) If a candidate has a serious flaw, or even does something that might provide a hint that there is a real probability that the candidate has a serious flaw even if it doesn't squarely prove that, I really, really want to know that as a voter. Civility has its place in politics, and untruthful negative advertisements do detract from the process, but truthful negative advertisements are vital to helping voters make good decisions.

The Race To Be Clerk and Recorder

I also looked into the runoff Clerk and Recorder's race again before voting in that race between McCarthy, my neighborhood whom I should have known better when I first posted about the race who had a much better campaign than I had given her credit for having, and Debra Johnson, Aurora's city clerk. The really good news is that two other candidates for the office, whom I sounded criticized in a blog post prior to the first round were defeated (in one case by a margin smaller than the number of people who had read that blog post).

Again, I didn't have as much time to scour the scarce information about that race as I would have liked, and despite having personally spoken at some length with McCarthy and heard interviews with Johnson on the radio, I ultimately drew a blank on the issues that mattered most to me: "what agenda does each woman have to make changes in the office on day one?", and "who is more likely to make the right decisions on close election administration decisions?" Neither woman articulated much of an agenda or really answered the question of what problems they would solve when in office. Both seemed to manage to avoid giving answers on election administration questions in the statements I heard from them and the materials I reviewed that shed much light on how they would handle those issues differently from their competitor.

I ultimately voted for McCarthy, because she seems to have more political sense and more of a sense that she is entitled to use the authority of the office to the fullest, despite the fact that Johnson's experience is more directly relevant and that Johnson seems to have some sensible detail oriented ideas for improving the apolitical aspects of the office's operations. But, as in the Mayor's race, I didn't have a strong preference for either candidate and was voting as much as anything on gut feeling at a time when I felt that I didn't have the time or energy to get enough information to be comfortable that I'd chosen the person most likely to have the right instincts in close cases and to be the most effective manager of the office administratively (for managerial competence can frequently be as important as policy preferences and attitudes in this kind of post).  This was a very close decision.

The Big Picture

There are a few second round city council district races as well, but I have completely ignored them for the selfish reason that those are choices that I am not required to make myself.  The key point is that the first round of the race eliminated essentially all of the bad possiblities and have given voters time to take a closer look with more information available at the two candidates that remain in each of those races.

Four days from now, electoral municipal politics in Denver will be over for another four years and we will have a new team of leaders who have the ability to fix our city's problems and to help up realize its possibilities if they rise to that challenge, no matter who wins. Denver has been blessed by more than two decades of really outstanding mayors and strong municipal leadership on city council and in its other elected offices, that has allowed it to weather the financial crisis better than many peer cities, and to have a lot of neighborhoods that are vibrant and growing after starting from a pretty miserable place in the early 1980s, despite the fact that it is effectively landlocked. I sincerely hope that our next crew of municipal leaders, who have very big shoes to fill, will manage to continue this proud tradition.

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