Meet Four Social Justice Advocates Running for Denver Mayor

After 12 years in office, Denver Mayor Michael Hancock is nearing his term limit. As of early January, over 20 candidates have announced a bid for the 2023 Denver Mayoral election. Ready for a shake-up in city leadership, candidates range from government officials, business leaders and grassroots activists.

The Mayor’s Office oversees nearly every aspect of what it takes to manage, grow and protect a city with over 715,000 residents, complete with managing a multibillion-dollar budget. Candidates need to have sound platforms for issues at the center of voters’ concerns, such as housing, economic justice and public safety.

303 Magazine spoke with four social justice advocates running to be the next Denver Mayor, featured in descending alphabetical order.

Leslie Herod

Leslie Herod running for Denver Mayor

Photo courtesy of Amanda Piela, Leslie Herod.

In 2016, Leslie Herod made history as the first Black LGBTQ+ member of the Colorado legislature. Since then, she has passed over 150 pieces of legislation and earned a reputation for working across the aisle on critical bipartisan bills. Now, she’s running to take on her most challenging role yet: creating sustainable change for a major U.S. city at the highest level while prioritizing grassroots values. 

Background

  • Elected to Colorado General Assembly in 2016. In 2023, she begins her fourth term. 
  • Introduced and passed landmark police accountability legislation: The Law Enforcement Accountability and Integrity Act. Among other provisions, the bill ended qualified immunity for police officers, banned chokeholds and required all officers to wear body cameras while on duty. 
  • Passed the CROWN Act, which protects people from discrimination based on ethnic hairstyles in schools and at work.
  • Led the successful Caring For Denver ballot initiative.

“Social justice is not only a responsibility of the Mayor’s Office but also requires a vision to tackle our most pressing issues in an equitable way. That leadership is necessary to address the intersectionality of disability, race, religion, gender, sexual orientation and other identities. It also helps ensure communities of color, our disabled community, and low-income communities have a say in all the programs that impact them,” said Herod.

How She Plans to Serve as Denver Mayor

  • Securing affordable housing at scale.
  • Revitalizing economic opportunity for entrepreneurs, small business owners and artists.
  • Making public transit more accessible and efficient across the entire city.
  • Introducing and implementing a climate action agenda.

“As Denver continues to grow – and become increasingly unaffordable for too many – we need to be sure that our next mayor focuses on the people and fights to ensure that Denverites can stay in Denver, people can afford to buy in the neighborhoods they grew up in.

It also means that new Denverites can fight for their dreams here too, whether that’s opening a new restaurant or pursuing creative interests — we’ve got to make sure that Denver is a Denver that embraces all of us,” said Herod. 

What Sets Her Apart

Out of over 20 candidates, Herod points to her history of passing strong, community-centered legislation on complicated issues similar to the challenges Denver faces.

Herod is also known for working effectively with a range of stakeholders to inform her work. To pass The Law Enforcement Accountability and Integrity Act, she worked with law enforcement officials and community members whose neighborhoods face over-policing.

“I’ve never been business-as-usual; I’ve always focused on bringing people together to meet today’s challenges and create real results. Politics is dead. People want real solutions, not lip service. I have a track record of delivering for Denver,” said Herod.

Jesse Parris

Jesse Parris for Denver Mayor

Photo courtesy of Jesse Parris for Mayor

Jesse Parris is a Denver activist known for organizing around homelessness and Black liberation. During his last semester at Metropolitan State University in 2012, Parris lost housing- at the same time Denver enacted the Urban Camping Ban.

After several traumatic experiences, Parris began to get involved with organizations dedicated to addressing homelessness in Denver. He has been heavily involved in the city’s grassroots activist community ever since.

Background

“I have been personally affected by bad policies such as the Urban Camping Ban. I was banned from the Auraria campus for eight years as a result. Denver is in a state of emergency; I feel that only people who have experience with the societal ills in this city are the ones who can solve those problems,” said Parris.

How He Plans to Serve as Denver Mayor

  • Repeal Denver’s Urban Camping Ban as a first step toward addressing homelessness.
  • Defunding and abolishing the Denver Police Department. Installing a community-based, trauma-informed agency to perform core responsibilities of ensuring public safety.
  • Creating a Reparations Office within the city to implement the distribution of reparations in the form of housing, land, homeownership and debt forgiveness.

“I view the office of Mayor as being responsible for social justice. As Mayor, I could practice true justice which guarantees no one is mistreated by the color of their skin and [ensures] those who need the most constructive help in this city get it,” said Parris.

What Sets Him Apart

Parris has a depth of experience in grassroots organizing, working on several independent, yet interconnected issues. He has been involved in movements directed at addressing homelessness, poverty, reparations and police accountability. Famously, he has also attended nearly every weekly city council meeting for six years. 

“I am the only Black First Candidate. I am [running for Mayor] out of moral conviction and love for my city and its people. Denver has a rich Black history and I want to make Denver a city where Black people not only survive but thrive, which they collectively [they] are not currently able to do in the ‘Mile High Income City’! I have integrity and credibility in the streets, and I have empathy and compassion for the people suffering the most in this city,” said Parris.

Terrance Roberts

Terrance Roberts running for Denver Mayor

Photo courtesy of Ben Eng, Telluride Mountainfilm

Terrance Roberts has worked as an anti-violence activist in Denver for over 20 years. Roberts was raised in Park Hill and sentenced to a decade in prison for gang activity. After finishing his sentence, he founded The Prodigal Son Initiative, an organization dedicated to reducing local gang violence through mentorship.  

In 2013, Roberts shot a local gang member at his own community rally for peace, sparking a high-profile investigation. Julian Rubinstein, a journalist who followed the investigation in depth, published The Holly, a book about Roberts’ story in 2021.

In 2022, a documentary of the same name premiered. The events that take place in The Holly underscore the exacerbating tensions between Denver’s communities and the police force and unravel evidence of corruption within the police department. Roberts announced his campaign for Mayor in April 2022. 

Background

  • Founder of The Prodigal Son Initiative.
  • A community leader with Frontline Party for Revolutionary Action; organized over three dozen protests, demonstrations and non-violent acts from 2019-2020.
  • Worked on Colorado SB-217, The Law Enforcement Accountability and Integrity Act. 
  • Worked to pass a No Knock Raid Ban in Aurora.

“Too often, mayors and council representatives get into office, or retain office, and they soon forget about the very people they are supposed to be fighting for. The mayor literally sets our policy on how the city and law enforcement deal with homelessness, violence, and development. The [Mayor’s Office] has the power and financial ability through budgeting to be a true advocate and make many changes for those who need it the most,” said Roberts.

How He Plans to Serve as Denver Mayor

  • Redirecting police department funding earmarked for public safety programs to fund programs for public housing and mental health services.
  • Work toward improving Denver Police Department through cultural reforms that encourage community-oriented practices and establish additional police accountability.
  • Limiting the Mayor’s Office to two terms. Currently, the limit is three terms.
  • Establishing rent control for Denver residents.

Central to his platform is restructuring the city’s approach to mitigating and preventing homelessness. Roberts proposes a public banking system. In his vision, Denver’s Public Bank is owned by taxpayers and provides accessible banking services to unhoused residents. Since public banks have no shareholders to pay dividends to, they have more revenue to pour into city projects and secure low-interest loans.

“I need to be able to shift our public safety budget in ways that truly benefit the most vulnerable people, and that serve everyone in our city at all income levels. Future mayors will have to work more closely with the community and other elected officials like City Council members for important decisions like high-level appointments that affect thousands of people,” said Roberts. 

What Sets Him Apart

Roberts positions himself as a unique candidate: he is the only candidate with his particular background and lived experience. He has demonstrated his ability to lead community groups and make real progress in Denver’s anti-violence movement. For Roberts, his life is his work, and this motivates him to serve Denver at large.
 
“From my personal history of surviving youth violence and incarceration to the amount and types of organizing I’ve done through Frontline Party for Revolutionary Action, there is not a candidate in the United States like myself currently running for any office, especially for mayor of a major city with nearly a $1.5 billion General Fund, and a nearly $3 billion annual budget,” said Roberts.

Ean Tafoya

Tafoya running for Denver Mayor

Photo courtesy of Ean Thomas Tafoya for Mayor

Ean Thomas Tafoya is an environmental activist who has worked in public service for over 20 years. He has worked on over a dozen successful ballot initiatives- most recently leading the effort to pass Denver initiative 306: “Waste No More.” Starting in 2023, apartment buildings, office buildings and commercial buildings that serve food will be required to create recycling and composting programs, complete with proper signs and educational materials in English and Spanish.

Bolstered by his experience in local government and community organizations, Tafoya is seeking to strengthen Denver’s communities from the highest office in the city. 

Background

“We need a Mayor who brings together that diversity of voices from the beginning. When we work together, we make this city the best place it can be, for ourselves and the coming next seven [generations],” said Tafoya.

How He Plans to Serve as Denver Mayor

  • Establishing secure affordable housing programs.
  • Implementing sustainable climate action policies.
  • Creating shelters and public restrooms at city bus stops.
  • Expanding public transit to Red Rocks Amphitheater and mountain parks throughout the region to curb emissions and expand access to the mountains.

“I’ve spent my entire life asking, how can I make Denver the best city it can be? How can I fight to make sure all communities are heard? That’s why I’ve worked to advance environmental, economic, and racial justice as a community organizer, a teacher, an artist, and in three branches of local government,” said Tafoya.

What Sets Him Apart

Tafoya is the candidate with the most experience in environmental advocacy and reform. He plans to pair that with extensive experience working for the city, through years working in local government and time served on several task forces and community boards.

“Many people feel that politicians prioritize corporations over working people, and don’t care about or understand our experiences. Others want a candidate with a lot of political experience coming into office–they ask themselves, can this person actually get things done,” said Tafoya.

What’s Next

Take some time in the new year to make sure you’re registered to vote at your current address!

Denver’s mayoral election takes place on April 4. If no candidate receives more than 50% of the total vote, the two candidates with the most votes move on to a runoff election, to be held on June 6.