Around the country, and around much of the rest of the state, Republicans and conservatives were celebrating victories in the November elections. Legislative seats, a governorship, city councils, and school boards changed hands. Ballot measures were passed or defeated. In Minneapolis, the home of “Defund the Police,” that sort of talk cost four of 11 city council members their seats. Nationally, the talk was of a repudiation of progressivism.
Here in Denver, though, we were singing a different tune. The teachers unions tightened their grip on the school board. The city will go further into debt. And measures to deal with homelessness, preserve neighborhoods, and limit taxing all went down to defeat.
Denver school board
Let’s begin with the school board races. Up for grabs were three district seats and an at-large seat. Two years ago, the teachers unions wrested control of the board from the pro-charter schools, pro-reform faction that had been in the majority for a number of years. This year, all four races featured both pro-choice and union-backed candidates. And in all four races, the union-backed candidate won.
The closest a reform-minded candidate came to winning was in District 2, where Karolina Villagrana came within 200 votes of beating Xochitl “Sochi” Gaytan. District 2 is the southwest part of the city, now considered the most Republican-friendly area.
Perhaps the biggest lost opportunity – and the biggest cost – was in the city-wide at-large seat. Tay Anderson buddy and union creature Scott Esserman won that five-way race with under 40% of the vote. Esserman, for those of you just joining us, paid Tay Anderson $5000 for social media consulting. This after an investigation found that Anderson likely used social media himself to flirt with an underage girl, and has long been known to encourage his supporters to harass critics online.
There were three credible reform-minded challengers for that seat who insisted on splitting roughly 55% of the vote, handing the seat the Esserman and the unions.
A debt spending spree
Denver also voted on five separate bond measures, but only seemed to separate out one of them. Questions 2A-2D were for perennially popular things like “transit” and parks. Measure 2B was an open-ended measure to fund the homeless-industrial complex. All four passed with between 61% and 64% support, indicating that voters didn’t really differentiate among them. That was in line with the advertising I saw, which lumped all four together into a feel-good message about post-Covid recovery.
Question 2E, to fund the last stage of the National Western Complex redevelopment, along with a new arena there proposed by Mayor Hancock, went down to defeat with slightly more than 40% of the vote. It was the only measure with serious individual funding, and the pro-2E forces vastly outspent those opposing it. Nevertheless, there’s a reason the city council broke these proposals into their own measures, and it showed here.
Finally, we come to the legal changes on the ballot. Question 2F, which would have reversed the city council’s city-wide change in zoning to permit group housing anywhere in Denver, was defeated by nearly 70-30. There was undoubtedly a sentiment to let people do what they want with their own houses, and the council – which has been adding fees and restrictions to even small landlords – cynically took advantage of that.
But the main message of opponents was that the zoning change was a way of adding to housing stock without having to build new apartment buildings. In the city that has seen the greatest decline in housing affordability in the nation, this was a powerful argument, and almost certainly the one that carried the day.
Initiative 300 would have raised marijuana taxes to pay for Covid research. It’s tempting to project one’s own reasoning onto voters’ choices, but the statewide Prop 119 also failed, which would have raised pot taxes to pay for out-of-school educational programs. So it’s possible that people just didn’t want to raise taxes on pot, or that they didn’t want to change the current tax structure at all without a more compelling reason.
Initiatives 301 and 302 were joined at the hip, with the Yes on 301/No on 302 crowd having the better funding and the better argument. Voters passed 301 by a 63-37 margin, and flunked 302 by almost the same amount.
The biggest disappointments were the defeats of Initiatives 303 and 304. Initiative 303 would have forced the city government to provide tent housing for the homeless. It would also have forced the city government to enforce the camping ban when called by residents to do so, and would have created a legal process by which citizens could take the city to court if it didn’t. These ideas were patterned after successful and popular programs in Boulder-like Austin, Texas, where residents also had to overcome a progressive city council on this issue. That measure failed 56-44.
Opponents hit on two themes. First, they said that “housing” means “a roof and a door,” not a tent, so the requirement for tent housing, they argued was insufficient care for the homeless. They will no doubt return to this argument, using the defeat of 303 as an excuse to interpret the mandate from 2B as expansively and expensively as possible. Second, they ran ads arguing that the city needed solutions not lawsuits, dodging the fact that the lawsuits could only come about if the city failed to enforce the law.
Initiative 304 would have imposed a TABOR-like sales tax cap on Denver, while simultaneously reducing the current sales tax. It was defeated by a 5-3 margin, and a combination of sentiments. Denverites tend to vote yes on individually small but cumulatively large sales tax increases, and perhaps didn’t want to forestall that. They also may not have fully understood how the cap would have worked, and decided to leave well enough alone. Finally, the reducing in the current tax raised questions about current services, with opponents naturally pointing to things like police and fire.
These results are disappointing, but not necessarily discouraging. It’s possible that the opportunity for idea like 303 has passed momentarily, given the success of 2B. Given the likely outcome of 2B – more homelessness and greater expense – that opportunity will return. If it does, proponents will have seen the opponents’ playbook, and will be better prepared to respond. They’ll also have a longer, more dismal record of failure to point to.
Likewise, 304 could return in a modified form, perhaps a cap without the reduction, or a cap that’s even slightly higher than the current tax level, along with a better explanation of how the cap would force the city council and mayor to make choices with public dollars.
Joshua Sharf is a Denver resident and a regular contributor to Complete Colorado.
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