Denver’s Jewish community, undeterred by rain or political overload, turned out in droves for the Intermountain Jewish News’ Denver mayoral forum Tuesday night, April 30, at the HEA.
Third-term hopeful Mayor Michael Hancock and contenders Lisa Calderón, Jamie Giellis and Penfield Tate III fielded questions for an hour-and-a-half.
Panelists who questioned the candidates were JCRC Chair Jacki Cooper Melmed, IJN Assistant Editor Chris Leppek and attorney and KNUS talk show host Craig Silverman.
IJN Editor and Publisher Rabbi Hillel Goldberg moderated.
Stephan Elliot Evans, AKA Chairman Seku, who was also on the ballot for mayor but did not respond to the IJN forum invitation, showed up anyway.
He ranted at the audience. “I’m pro-Palestinian!” Police escorted him out of the building.
This was the final mayoral forum before the May 7 election, and all the bases were covered — growth, development, affordable housing, parks, potholes, loopholes, the pros and cons of the Urban Camping Ban, mental illness and more.
But the spotlight on anti-Semitism, including security measures and ways to effectively combat it, distinguished this gathering from all the rest.
The IJN held its first mayoral forum in 1983, when Federico Peña successfully ran for mayor, and has hosted mayoral forums in every contested Denver mayor race since.
It’s safe to assume that some attendees had already picked their candidate, while others straddled the fence. No doubt the tableau erasa contingent also showed up.
The audience also included candidates’ staffers who cheered for their man or woman on the dais.
Rabbi Bruce Dollin, who welcomed the crowd of more than 200 people to the HEA, somberly mentioned the shootings at the Chabad of Poway synagogue April 27 in San Diego.
“We pray for their healing and the healing of their families,” he said. “Mayors of too many cities, including our own, have seen too many vigils. May there be no more vigils.”
Goldberg opened the forum by directing a few short questions to the candidates about synagogue security, potholes and traffic (which elicited a knowing laugh) and parks and open spaces.
The tone was set.
Hancock responded to every subsequent issue armed with impressive statistics, while Calderón, Giellis and Tate charged that his administration had failed to deliver on transportation, affordable housing, density and other issues facing the city.
Synagogue security morphed into the spike in violent anti-Semitic incidents and a search for tenable solutions at the local level, a new topic in Denver’s mayoral forums.
“It’s troubling that we can no longer exercise our faith in a safe environment, in our country and around the world,” said Tate, who pushed hate crimes legislation during his tenure in the Colorado House and Senate, 1997-2003.
“I have always thought that spiritual faith gives us a sense of moral security . . . holds you steadfast and tight in difficult times.”
Hancock, elected mayor in 2011 and an ordained deacon in the Baptist tradition, said he takes the security of his own church “very seriously. We move toward action, because faith without action is dead.
“We need to identify plans and strategies that keep our faith communities safe.”
Giellis, most recently president of the RiNo Arts District, described the current societal climate as “incredibly fractured. We have an opportunity with our cities, from our leadership position as mayors, to establish a tone of understanding, togetherness and community.
“That’s a unique opportunity for a mayor — to address the things that help break down barriers.”
Calderón, who worked as a legal director for abused women for 12 years, said part of that job entailed escorting these women to court “under threat of death or violence to ourselves.
“People must take all necessary precautions. But ultimately we can’t live in fear.”
The first question from the panel concerned the ADL’s recent report on the sharp increase of violent anti-Semitic incidents across the country, including Colorado.
How do the candidates assess anti-Semitism in Colorado, and what, if any steps should be taken?
“There’s been about a 60% increase in hate crimes incidents over the past three years,” Calderón said. “The commonality linking these crimes are white supremacist ideology, anti-immigrant sentiment and scare tactics they hope will divide our community.”
A supporter of legislation in the Colorado House that would expand education on the Holocaust and anti-Semitism, she said she would use a public health approach to tackle the latter.
“I’m a college professor and an academician. I want to know the causes of anti-Semitism. Why is it spreading? We know it proliferates through social media. But how do we address people in their isolation, their desperation, while keeping our communities safe and supporting each other?”
Tate said that anti-Semitism is not a new problem. “We’ve always had it here in Colorado . . . We had issues with hate crimes in 2000, but I don’t think they were publicized or amplified enough. That’s different now because of the rhetoric coming out of Washington, DC, which I think in many ways has emboldened some people to act on their thoughts.”
The other contributing factor is the improper use of social media, he said.
Tate upholds First Amendment rights but cautioned that “even in this country there are limits to what you can do in terms of speech.
“We must come together as a community and report suspicious activities to the police,” he said. “When we see swastikas or nooses on homes or businesses, we must speak out. It’s just plain wrong.”
Hancock said that leadership matters — in Washington as well as Denver. “The reality is we have a president who is willing to make excuses for these dastardly acts. We as a people have to move Washington to action.”
Hancock, along with the City Council, helped pass the first hate crimes ordinance in Denver’s history two years ago. The police department has a special unit dealing specifically in hate crimes.
“We need to partner with the communities and the schools; give them the necessary tools to respond quickly and strongly” to recurring shootings and tragedies.
“Nothing is more powerful than a community that stands up and says, ‘Not here, not now, and not ever again.’ We’ve seen it in Colorado, and we’re not doing it again.”
Giellis, who did not directly address anti-Semitism in her answer, attributed the rise in racist attacks to the “day-to-day inequities and racism that continue to exist in our city.
“Our poorest neighborhoods, and our neighborhoods of color, have some of the biggest challenges thrown on them. We have a responsibility not just to show up after things have already happened. We need to engage with these communities, address the challenges and inequities, and have the conversation on a daily basis. It’s critical.
“I think it begins with education and talking with our kids, our schools and in our neighborhood groups; continue building community. And as Lisa said, we need to address the isolation that some people feel.”
Denver’s accelerated growth, which some residents blame for traffic congestion and the dominion of high-rise luxury apartments in historic enclaves, was a major issue.
Should Denver continue attracting mega giants such as Amazon, which is putting down sprawling roots in LoDo? Is this within the mayor’s purview? Should he or she continue to encourage this development surge?
“I think it’s definitely part of the mayor’s job to bring business opportunities to Denver,” Tate said. “But it’s a question of balance. Although we want to keep growing, and we will grow, and continue developing our economy, we really need to pay attention to what we have.
“I spent a number of years on the board of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce, and we learned that the majority of people in this community work at smaller businesses, not the large corporations.”
He also said that the “capacity to grow existing businesses is often greater than our ability to go out and get the next big bright shiny object.”
Hancock, who is very aware of his anti-development critics, countered that pursuing new businesses is vital to the economic cycle. “Yes, we must continue to attract companies to Denver — small, medium and large.
“Some companies will stay. Others will leave. It’s part of the cycle, and we must not stop. We also need to think regionally. We compete as regions, not cities.”
Approximately 8,100 businesses have moved to Denver over the past eight years of his administration.
“We need a broader approach to business,” he said. “We want large businesses, but we also want the smaller, supply chain companies that follow them — and they will follow.
“Those are the real job generators because they will help sustain the economy as it changes.”
Giellis said the cost of doing business in Denver is “extraordinary.” But cost is not the sole prohibitive difficulty — far from it.
“One of the things companies struggle with is that as we have grown, and grown quickly, we haven’t addressed the growing pains that accompany it: the high cost of housing for employees; the lack of good transportation so people can get around.”
Companies want to attract not just qualified employees but employees who can afford a quality of life and are willing to commit to staying in Denver. That’s still a missing piece, she said.
She also said that when the city throws huge amounts of money at Target, it blatantly ignores the smaller stores. “People feel left out of the process.”
Calderón said, “This mad dash for growth is stressing out our infrastructure and stressing out our current residents. So I’m for the people who are already here, rather than more growth and more corporations.”
She said that during recessionary periods (she predicts another imminent one), Denver has been able to bounce back faster than other cities due to small businesses.
“We need to take care of our local businesses first because they are invested in Denver’s future. We also need to increase the pie” for access to monetary resources. “It shouldn’t be who you know or whether you’re close to the mayor . . . I want to return power to the people.”
Calderón, who had a scheduling conflict, excused herself and left.
And then there were three — and 45 minutes of additional questions.
The Urban Camping Ban, which was put into effect in 2012 following Occupy Denver, forbids the homeless to use sleeping bags or set up tarps or tents in public areas.
Advocates for the homeless say the ban criminalizes homelessness.
The other side feels that the routine “sweeps” conducted under the ban target unsanitary conditions.
Initiative 300, called the Right to Survive Initiative, would reverse the ban. It is on the May 7 ballot.
Where do the candidates stand?
Giellis does not support Initiative 300. That said, the current sweeps are pointless. “They move people along, to nowhere. Where are they supposed to go?
“We can still get the homeless to safe places, even under the Urban Camping Ban.”
She said that increased affordable housing and shelters are the best solution.
Hancock said that no initiative being put before Denver “is more dangerous than Initiative 300. It’s unhealthy for the homeless, and unhealthy for us. These conditions are very unsanitary.”
The Urban Camping Ban encourages the homeless to seek shelters and ultimately a real home, he said.
Despite claims to the contrary, Hancock said that only felons have been arrested during sweeps.
“We need more housing, more outreach to the homeless. It’s not about finding the money, it’s about expanding the direct services we offer them.”
“They’re both wrong!” insisted Tate, who directed the audience to read about his plan to end homelessness on his website.
“I want to get people off the streets before winter comes and they freeze to death. We must find more affordable housing, more shelters in communities.”
After the forum concluded, audience members had the opportunity to participate in an IJN straw poll. Results were tabulated Wednesday.
Lisa Calderón received 18.09% of the vote; incumbent Mayor Michael Hancock, 22.3%; and Jamie Giellis, 26.6%.
Penfield Tate III won with 32.97%.
Copyright © 2019 by the Intermountain Jewish News