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Meet the candidates running for Denver Mayor: Debbie Ortega

9NEWS asked all 17 people running for Denver to answer the same policy questions.

DENVER — There are 17 people on the 2023 ballot for Denver Mayor, all vying to replace Michael Hancock after three terms in office. If that's not the most ever, it's at least the biggest pool of candidates for that office in decades, according to the Denver Clerk and Recorder's Office, which checked their sample paper ballots going back to 1946.

Each candidate has their own ideas regarding crime, homelessness, housing affordability and more. We asked all of them the same policy questions and asked for written responses.

Below you'll find Debbie Ortega's answers, all unedited and in the candidate's own words, as well as documents related to policy proposals.

You can see the other candidates' responses here.

Denver's Election Day is April 4.

Debbie Ortega

Debbie Ortega is a longtime member of Denver City Council, at the district level from 1987 to 2003 and as an at-large member since 2011. She previously led the Denver Commission on Homelessness and is President of the board of Del Norte, a non-profit developer of affordable housing.

Political affiliation: Democrat

No provided links to policy paperwork

Long-form questions

In a single sentence, why are you running for mayor?

Now more than ever, Denver needs a leader who can hit the ground running on day one to solve the challenging issues we face; I grew up here and love this city - I know the inner workings of the city and am the only person in this race with the necessary experience to get us back on track.    

Please provide specifics on your plan to improve public safety and reduce crime in Denver. Specifically, please note whether the Denver Police budget should be increased or decreased (including funding diversion to non-police emergency responses).

I will strengthen Denver’s public safety by standing up a Metro Task Force to crack down on auto theft, bicycle theft, and keep deadly drugs and guns out of our city. To do that, I will enhance recruitment, training, hiring and retention of our public safety personnel in our police and sheriff’s departments. Our law enforcement officers must reflect the diversity of our city. One way we can achieve this is by encouraging Denver’s young people into the Public Safety Cadet Program. Additionally, I will expand our gun buy-back program to get dangerous weapons off our streets.

As Mayor, I will allocate financial resources to our public safety departments to bring staffing levels to the levels pre-covid to have a stronger presence in neighborhoods, and continue funding to Denver’s Support Team Assisted Response (STAR) Program, so qualified mental health professionals can resolve nonviolent scenarios and police can focus on keeping us safe.

What should the City of Denver do to promote affordable housing? 

Our city’s vibrancy, ability to attract new residents and businesses, and economic vitality depends on the ability of working people to afford to live here. To address the crisis of unaffordable housing, a comprehensive approach is required, including job connection, public transportation, childcare, and much more.

The EHA program created by City Council begins to address this by expediting permits for affordable units, but more work is required to fix Denver’s broken permitting process so that affordable housing can be brought online more efficiently. 

Additionally, we need to invest more strategically in alternative housing, including single room occupancy (SRO) units, co-housing modular homes, repurposing vacant units and/or commercial buildings, and ADUs. We should also identify vacant public lands for manufactured housing at 40% cheaper than on-site new construction. Solving our housing needs also requires regional solutions.

Furthermore, the housing demand of our senior population is growing and we need to look ahead to prevent them from falling into the cycle homelessness. 

How should Denver change its approach to addressing homelessness?

The first step is accepting that there is no one-size-fits-all solution to homelessness. There are many economic, social and health reasons that people experience homelessness. We need dynamic solutions, from addiction and mental health treatment (including more treatment beds for people in crisis) and pathways to self sufficiency.

As Mayor, I will first declare homelessness a public emergency to mobilize existing and future resources from local, state and federal organizations. I will work to find resources to open a city owned facility for mental health and substance misuse treatment, and for respite beds for individuals released from the hospital that need a safe place to heal.

Second, we must expand single room occupancy housing (SRO’s) and remove any zoning barriers. The varying price points of housing are critical for people on fixed incomes and who need a more communal environment with shared dining and living areas.

Third, I will prioritize regional partnerships for housing, treatment and wraparound services – including the critical missing piece of job connection and helping people to self-sufficiency – resulting in less demand on our already strained resources and long-term solutions to the crisis.

Last, I will have performance-based contracts for the funding targeted to meeting the needs of our unhoused population that have been in motels and our 24/7 shelters. The focus will be to give them hope, by connecting them to training programs that will enhance their skills, connect them to employers with livable wage jobs that will help them to achieve self-sufficiency.

How should Denver change its approach to mobility and safe streets?

Although Denver’s next mayor will have to enact a multitude of policies and initiatives to ensure a safer, more accessible, and fairer transit future for Denver, my top priorities stem from providing equitable transportation solutions, decreasing carbon emissions that accompany transit, advancing Vision Zero, and closing the gap on first mile and last mile connections.

We need to look at congestion and give people alternatives to single occupancy vehicles by providing a mass transportation connection from downtown to River Mile, Auraria Campus, and Empower Field.

As Mayor, I’d collaborate with Aurora and Lakewood to build out the Colfax Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) from one end of the Metro Area to the other, reassess the costs of under-grounding this line where possible, and work with Denver and their adjacent communities. This will transform how bus service throughout the region functions - no longer requiring most buses to travel into downtown Denver, thereby connecting to this new E/W spine - making the connectivity throughout the metro area more functional and distributed.

Additionally, I will partner with philanthropic organizations and the business community to increase rebate programs and other incentives for alternative modes of transportation such as E-Bikes. I also want to explore hydrogen fueled fleets and fueling stations given my role as an NREL Energy Executive Alumni - where my class project was to address the importance of this technology. 

We must also mandate greater education around emerging multimodal transportation systems to protect pedestrians, riders and drivers to achieve Vision Zero goals, while improving and maintaining our bike lanes and walkways – including snow removal – as part of a viable transportation network.

The Mayor has significant control over a $3-4 billion budget and will hire cabinet members who oversee roughly 12,000 employees. Please detail your experience with budgets and hiring.  

I’ve served on City Council for more than 25 years and have had significant insight into and opportunity to weigh in on, amend and approve the city’s budget. As a sitting member of the Budget and Policy Committee, I am the only candidate in this race with a comprehensive understanding of the budget and the opportunities to refine our priorities while enforcing accountability with any city contract-holders. As Mayor, I will hit the ground running on day one to ensure thoughtful and impactful prioritization of how we spend taxpayer dollars.

Furthermore, as the first Executive Director of the Denver Commission on Homelessness under Mayor Hickenlooper, I’m well-versed in contracting and hiring the best experts in each respective field, which I will do when appointing my cabinet and department heads.

Should the City of Denver explore ways to exert more control over Denver Public Schools? If so, how would you do that and what would be your goal?

While DPS and the Mayor’s Office are separate entities, I would prioritize building off of my work creating the City-School Coordinating Committee, which forged intergovernmental partnerships to address ongoing access to early childhood education locations and educational and safety issues. This committee would play a crucial role in working on a range of issues such as the impact of school closures on their immediate neighborhood, keeping our children safe as they get to and from school by fulfilling the Safe Routes to School program which intends to reduce rush hour traffic while keeping our children, parents, and caregivers safe from traffic.

Additionally, the citizen-adopted Denver Preschool Program provides tuition credits to Denver families for Pre-K childcare, however, access to licensed facilities and qualified teachers is not meeting the growth of our population, and staffing shortages provide an additional challenge, which must be addressed, especially in low-income neighborhoods.

Please assess the Hancock administration’s response to the influx of migrants from the southern border since December 2022. What should Denver do to prepare for and respond to another potential influx of migrants?  

There is clearly more work to be done at the federal level to create a safer, more welcoming, and efficient immigration process that leads to more pathways towards citizenship.

On top of the existing work being done that seeks to protect and support immigrant families, including the Public Safety Enforcement Priorities Act and Denver’s Immigrant Legal Defense Fund, I would work closely with the Denver Office of Immigrant & Refugee Affairs (DOIRA) to see where the city, nonprofits, and other organizations can best support New Americans looking to call Denver home.

We are facing critical staffing shortages across all industries and it is imperative that we support New Americans in obtaining documentation and connecting them with training and employment services, to help them achieve self-sustainability.

Additionally, I will seek ongoing federal funding to offset the costs incurred by the city for its work to support New Americans.

What should Denver do to prevent the displacement of longtime residents due to gentrification and tax burdens?

The City got it right with changes to Blueprint Denver. The 2010 Zoning expands housing opportunities along the edges of our neighborhoods including commercial corridors, while allowing ADU’s across the city.

With that said, I will work to create tools to protect our remaining affordable neighborhoods from gentrification. I served on the committee that made changes to our Group Living Ordinance that allows more unrelated people to live in larger homes.

Additionally, many of our business corridors have vacant spaces that represent untapped opportunities for affordable housing. I will start with revising Denver’s permitting process and zoning code to ensure we address any barriers that prohibit repurposing these units as well as the co-existence of live/work housing.

I have been – and will continue to be – a proponent for increasing housing options across the spectrum of price points.

What should be done to revitalize downtown Denver (vis-à-vis office occupancy, the 16th Street Mall, crime)?

We need our downtown to be the economic engine that it once was, with thriving businesses, and a bustling presence of residents, workers, and conventioneers. As Mayor, I will bring our workers back to their offices, partner with government agencies, businesses, nonprofits, and adjacent neighborhoods to restore and activate downtown storefronts and host world-class events. I will also create a clearinghouse of all training programs (publicly and privately funded) - through our workforce agency (DEDO) to train and match skill-sets with employers desperate for workers. Additionally, we need to look at congestion and give people alternatives to single occupancy vehicles by providing a mass transportation connection from downtown to River Mile, Auraria Campus, and Empower Field. This assumes we’ve made significant progress on the issues of homelessness and safety, as outlined in my previous answers.

What is within the power of the City of Denver to fight the opioid epidemic? What steps should regional or state leaders take in cooperation to reduce fentanyl deaths?

From a health standpoint, the City’s role is to ensure responsible performance based contracts and use of taxpayer dollars are addressing this public health crisis of opioid addiction.

As Mayor, I would standardize the allocation of reimbursements so that taxpayer dollars make an impactful difference on the lives of the people receiving these critical services.

Additionally, I’d require better collaboration, coordination and measurable outcomes for our service providers and city departments.

Furthermore, I will support the increased responsibilities of first responders, such as a recent change that gives firefighters the authority to administer lifesaving medical treatments such as IVs.

For our youth, we need to ensure we have offerings through organizations such as Lifeline, recreation centers, libraries, etc. with programs that prevent their interest in or access to these deadly drugs on our streets (as referenced in Sam Quinones' articles in The Atlantic).

Beyond health services, our public safety departments also play a critical role in addressing the issues of substance misuse and addiction. A crisis of this magnitude requires a regional solution. As Mayor, I will strengthen Denver’s public safety by standing up a Metro Task Force to crack down on suppliers and keep deadly drugs out of our city and away from our schools.

Xcel Energy's franchise agreement expires on Dec. 31, 2026. What will you seek from the next agreement that protects Denver customers from high utility bills?

This is an important issue and as Mayor, my first priority in renegotiating the Xcel contract will be to protect Denver’s citizens from exorbitant costs. Monthly bills have increased by 200-300% and as a result, people are hurting. The last thing we need is for any permanent spike in utility bills to push more families and individuals into the cycle of homelessness while the company rakes in $1.74 Billion in profits. Denver receives $2 Million from franchise fees annually that is spent on energy efficiency but is not coordinated with the city’s Climate Action Sustainability and Resiliency office.

As a member of the City Council, I have always been a watchdog of public dollars. For example, I voted against the Great Hall renovation project for Denver International Airport, which has turned into a boondoggle for taxpayers. I will bring this same level of fiscal conscientiousness into my role as Mayor when negotiating contracts that will directly impact Denver’s citizens.

Denver has a goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 65% by 2030. A sales tax approved by voters funds the city's climate action goals. What, if any, changes would you make to Denver's climate action goals and how would you make green energy and environmentally sustainable living available across income levels?

Environmental causes have defined my career, from forcing the cleanup of contaminated sites, to protecting parkland, to prioritizing alternative transportation technologies that reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

My Infrastructure Master Plan will inform and guide future development, ultimately leading to improved air quality to help Denver be in compliance with the Clean Air Act while reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

We can have the greatest impact in greenhouse gas reduction through transportation efforts, such as building out our EV city fleets and charging stations by partnering with the business community and philanthropic organizations.

Additionally, I will expand on the work of the Colorado Hydrogen Coalition and other sustainable transportation efforts to improve green, multi-modal transportation options that help move people throughout the city.

Yes or No

Will you enforce Denver’s camping ban?


Should Denver maintain its effective status as a sanctuary city through noncooperation with immigration agents? 


Will you vote to support development of the Park Hill Golf Course as currently proposed on the April ballot?


Do you support the use of any Denver taxpayer funds to build a new football stadium for the Broncos? 


Should Denver reduce vehicle volumes downtown?


Did you support Mayor Michael Hancock’s re-election in 2019?


If the Colorado legislature lifts the ban on local rent control, should Denver pursue some form of rent control?


Should Denver pursue the creation of a supervised drug injection site with the permission of the state legislature?


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