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Regime Change
Denver City Election
May 2003

by Floyd Ciruli

The following PowerPoint was prepared to facilitate discussion among Denver civic leaders concerning the factors and issues that will frame the May 2003 city election. It was presented in 2002 to the Denver Metro Convention and Visitors Bureau and the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce.

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In the past two decades, Denver voters twice elected new mayors (Peña, 1983 and Webb, 1991). Both times, voters were in a mood for change. Some observations:

Results of the 1983 and 1991 elections were unexpected. Voters were rebellious and not strongly committed to the incumbent in 1983 (Bill McNichols), or the highly touted front-runners (Dale Tooley, 1983 or Norm Early, 1991). In both elections, Denver voters proved that although they like their strong mayoral form of city government, they also like to rattle it periodically.

  • Well-run campaigns were important. Long shots became winners through superior strategy and seizing opportunity.

  • The dynamics of a general election are different than a runoff. The winner of the first general election is not assured to win the runoff.

  • Dominant issues sometimes fade and new ones emerge. Issues in the two elections became the differentiating factors among candidates (e.g., snow removal, crime, neighborhood empowerment, airport) and were used to court specific constituents. But personality and style of leadership also made a difference. Intense media coverage and numerous debates and forums allowed voters to see candidates close-up.

  • The 1983 and 1991 elections energized and later served to incorporate the Hispanic and black communities into the power structure. However, successful candidates had to build broad coalitions among Denver’s multi-cultural electorate.

The 2003 Denver election will be unprecedented due to the number of elected officials leaving office, the fact that many term-limited incumbents remain popular and likely would win re-election, and the re-emergence of a weak economy, lost jobs and declining tax revenue as key issues after a decade of prosperity.


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