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Highlights from 9NEWS' second mayoral debate

Ballots are in the mail and there is still no clear front runner in the race for Denver Mayor.

DENVER — Denver is undecided.

In an unprecedented 17-way race for Mayor, ballots have been mailed out, yet there is no clear front-runner in the race. Polling shows most voters are undecided in the race that will soon shrink to a runoff election with only two candidates.

Each candidate has wildly different ideas of how to tackle Denver’s problems like homelessness, public safety and affordable housing. Voters reflecting on candidates’ policies will also consider who is prepared to lead the enormous and complex city government.

Eleven of the 17 candidates were invited to 9NEWS’ second mayoral debate at McAuliffe International School to discuss these topics.

Attendance was based on numbers from a Survey USA poll of likely Denver voters that was commissioned by 9NEWS in conjunction with our partners at Colorado Politics, the Denver Gazette and MSU Denver. 9NEWS selected the three highest-polling candidates, plus any others polling within the margin of error of second place and at above 2%.

Participating candidates were Lisa Calderón, Mike Johnston, Kelly Brough, Chris Hansen, Deborah "Debbie" Ortega, Leslie Herod, Al Gardner, Thomas Wolf, Trinidad Rodriguez, Terrance Roberts and Andy Rougeot.

The debate was moderated by Kyle Clark, Anusha Roy and Marshall Zelinger, who asked the candidates about particular leadership questions, housing, supervised drug sites, public safety and more. Here's a look at some of the highlights.

WATCH: Full mayoral debate

“Field hospital”

If one thing became clear in this debate it’s that not only do opinions on solutions differ, but some candidates consider others’ plans to be naïve, if not dangerous.

On the spectrum of homelessness, candidates range from wanting to arrest people for violating Denver’s camping ban to not enforcing the ban at all. Among the solutions is Rodriguez’s plan for a “field hospital,” institutionalizing most of the city’s unhoused population for treatment.

Former state representative and civil rights attorney Joe Salazar has called this an internment camp and said it’s illegal. JoyAnn Ruscha, a director for the Regional Transportation District, has described Rodriguez as a “fascist.”

“I respectfully disagree with those two individuals you mentioned. This is not an internment camp. This is a place where we can provide the standard of care for healing for people who are suffering and dying on our streets today. And it is the right thing to do. It's the only right thing to do,” Rodriguez said.

He argued Title 27 of Colorado’s Revised Statues allows the authority to commit people in this way.

Sitting beside him, Calderón strongly disagreed.

“This is why people with a little bit of knowledge can be dangerous,” she said. “A mayor is not an emperor. So, you have to go through a legal process. And they have a right to an attorney before being institutionalized. You're skipping over all of that, because you think you know what’s best.”

Gardner, who previously told Kyle he doesn't know the best solution for homelessness and said he didn't want to pander to voters by stating otherwise, called out fellow candidates by name on the issue of whether they care about people living on the streets. 

He pointed to Wolf, Rougeot and Rodriguez.

"When I listened down the line, Trinidad's idea, we talked about internment. Essentially the country's tried them before and it didn't work out well," Gardner said. "I can answer that question very easily. I care."

"I take severe offense to the idea that people who are experiencing actual health crises, and are of danger to themselves or others, are like Japanese people," Rodriguez said, adding he demanded an apology for people who are Japanese.

"You just admitted you know nothing about homelessness. So thanks for your opinion," he said.

For inquiring minds, Title 27 is the "Behavioral Health" section of Colorado state law. It includes a provision for emergency 72-hour mental health holds, and like Rodriguez said, it's applicable when a person is a danger to themselves or others.

Title 27 defines what that means, and the definition requires evidence beyond just homelessness. It calls for "evidence of recent threats or attempts at suicide or serious bodily harm…," or "substantial risk of physical harm to another person … by evidence of recent homicidal or other violent behavior … or a recent attempt or threat to do serious physical harm."

Ending homelessness

Johnston has said he will end homelessness in his first term in office through micro-communities with services like workforce training and addiction treatment.

"There is a path to make this successful. We just have to do it at scale with the innovations the city has helped develop," he said in the debate.

Brough was chief of staff for former Mayor John Hickenlooper in 2005 when Hickenlooper developed the "Denver Road Home" plan. It intended to do what Johnston wants to do now. Hickenlooper how says it was an aspirational goal, and Brough said in the debate that Johnston's plan isn't realistic.

"I think one of the challenges is I don't think it's as simple as micro-units. I think we're talking about people who need serious support from a mental health perspective and addiction perspective," Brough said. 

"And I think this is where we have to focus our resources as a region to build the kind of facilities we need long term. I think we have people who are chronically homeless who need long term supportive care. And I think that's the other part of what we have to build."

Do the candidates think Mike Johnston the frontrunner?

The candidates were given the opportunity to present others with a question. Most of them chose to direct their questions to Johnston.

Park Hill Golf Course

Denver City Council has already approved the framework of what could be developed if ballot issue 2O passes.

Gardner questioned Ortega about how little affordable housing he thought was approved.

"Ten percent is set aside, which is around 300 units, which is for low, mixed, income units," Gardner said.

"First of all, it's 25%. That is what the community benefit agreement calls for," Ortega responded.

Ortega was right.

If 2O passes, the developer is bound by several agreements that say 25% of the homes built must be income-restricted units.

Gardner's 10 percent number actually represents the number of affordable units that must be for sale, not rentals.

Defunding police

"You previously said in the summer of 2020 that you support divestment 100%. That you saw your police accountability bill as the first step towards defunding the police," Rougeot said to Herod.

"I did not speak about divestment of the police. In fact, I talked about how we created STAR in the summer of 2020," she replied, referencing the Support Team Assisted Response program that calls for mental health professionals to respond to appropriate 911 calls rather than officers.

Herod has talked about divestment of the police, and is quoted in a 303 Magazine article as saying, "I support divestments 100%."

That is not the same as defunding and eliminating 100 percent of a police budget.

In 2020, Herod answered a question during a KDVR forum about the STAR program, and relying on co-responders and not necessarily law enforcement.

Future elections

The mayor of Denver may currently serve three terms. In a show of hands, all but Rougeot said they would pledge to serving just two.

With 17 candidates in the race, only two at the debate -- Rodriguez and Wolf -- said it should be harder to get on the ballot.

All the candidates on stage except for Wolf, Rougeot and Ortega said they would prefer a ranked-choice voting system opposed to the current runoff system.

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