Denver Mayoral Candidate Interview: Chris Romer

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Denver residents will pick their next mayor June 7. The finalists are former state senator Chris Romer and city councilman Michael Hancock. They’re both Democrats, in a contest that’s officially non-partisan. We spoke with Hancock yesterday. Today, Chris Romer on the city budget deficit, jobs and education.

[CPR Photo]


Warner: Tell me one way life would change for people in Denver in the first year of your administration?

Romer: You know, we’re going to cut red tape to get small business people back to work. We’re going to get small and medium-size businesses to start hiring people. That’s something I’ve done through my whole life. I really know how to help get people back to work. That’ll be the big difference.

Warner: Now, many people would say that red tape is not necessarily what’s preventing them from hiring, it’s the economy. So what is red tape that is so in the way businesses aren’t making hires?

Romer: Well, small businesses are ready to start hiring. It’s the permitting process, the construction permits, the zoning, the other things that really hold people back. Those jobs can be put back to work in 30 days.

Warner: Let’s take an example of a permit. Are we talking about commercial construction, residential construction? And is it that it just takes too long?

Romer: Well, two different examples, one of which is the gymnasium that I work at on Colfax, who simply wanted to move across the street and was held up for six months because there were permits that could not be issued on a timely basis.

The second issue is the cupcake truck and Denon Moore, who just wanted to have the right to use a new truck in downtown Denver and city government couldn’t get their act together and held her up and she had to lay off a couple of employees.

Warner: You’ve had several careers. For a long time, you were an investment banker, specializing in financing public projects, so roads, water systems, hospitals, all sorts of things. You also worked in education and served four years in the state senate.

Can you cite a personal experience that made you say, “Yes, I should be mayor. That’s the job that matches the skills I have?”

Romer: Sure. And the biggest one that I will talk about is my decision to see the potential of this city through the other cities that I’ve worked for. I’ve done very important work for the City of Albuquerque on water. I helped the City of Phoenix design and effectively implement their transportation system and in my early part of my career, I also helped put together the cash flows at Denver International Airport.

So, when you’ve done as much budget work that I’ve done with other mayors and other city councils, I knew that I had the right tools for a city that really has a big budget deficit and needs to put people back to work.

Warner: We’re going to talk about the deficit in mere moments, but, Chris Romer, what’s the largest number of people you’ve managed?

Romer: Sure. I’ve managed 40 people when I ran the New America Schools and what I did — and that’s just 40 employees. We also had over 500 students in those schools, so I was managing an organization of 540.

Now, to be candid, by comparison, the most my opponent has ever managed is about 12, with a budget of less than $1 million.

Warner: He cites it being a bit higher, I think closer to the 40 figure, when you count all of the folks who worked with the Urban League. So, the New America School, by the way, a school for immigrant kids, especially tailored to their needs, we should say for the background.

Again, we’ll get to some of the issues, but if there’s a rap on you in this race, it’s that you’re a big idea guy, but that sometimes you’re not very focused. One of your legislative colleagues, Sen. Lois Tochtrop, told the Denver Post she was kidding around once and she tied you to your seat to get you to sit through a committee hearing. She said it didn’t work, by the way.

Do you have the patience to manage a big bureaucracy, day in and day out?

Romer: Look, I was one of the hardest-working legislators down there. I have an awful lot of energy and I commit that to doing big, important things, like Denver Union Station, like helping with FasTracks. So, yep, I am willing to think about important, transformational projects and ideas.

Warner: And the question isn’t that you lack big ideas. The question is the daily implementation of that, the patience, stick-to-itiveness.

Romer: Sure and that’s what I did for 18 months with the New America School to save them as they started to implode and everybody bailed out of that organization. I’m just a builder. I dug in.

Warner: Saved it from what?

Romer: It would have gone bankrupt. It would have closed.

Warner: It was majorly a financial issue?

Romer: Well, a number of students had bailed out. We did-- enrollment was down. We were losing people. I had to basically let go a principal on the first day I took over as a volunteer and I became not only the volunteer superintendent, I became the principal in the classroom and I took an unpaid leave of absence from my job to do it.

Warner: Let’s talk about the $100 million budget deficit the city faces. You proposed a couple of major changes that you say will help. You say Denver Water is part of the answer to this problem. How so?

Romer: Well, walking through, let me give you the five specific things we need to do. We need to look for efficiencies in the manager of safety’s office. We need to look at our 14,000 acres of mountain parks that are interfaced with the Jeffco Open Space. We need to save $1 million a year there. We need to go through the Environmental Health Department and make sure we integrate it with Denver Health and Hospital. There’s a number of-- probably $5, $6, $7, $8 million of savings there.

Denver Water does not pay the way it does in Colorado Springs, the utility does not pay the general fund something called payment in lieu of taxes. And we’ve been doing this for years in other jurisdictions in Colorado. It’s fully legal under Colorado law. It’s something that would help us to the tune of $12 million a year and Denver Water can do this without raising water rates.

Warner: How do you know it won’t raise water rates? I mean, it is more money from Denver Water, is it not?

Romer: Sure. But we’ve gone through this and we’ve been able to analyze the amount of the benefit package. Right now, the Denver Water employees don’t make any contribution to their own pension funds. That singular act of asking the employees to contribute the same amount other city workers contribute to their pension funds would free up pretty close to the whole $12 million we’re looking for.

Warner: Does City Charter allow this?

Romer: Well, you do it as a charter change, which is to ask them to pay payment in lieu of taxes. And there’s a dispute. If the conclusion is, you can’t do it without a charter change, then you go to the voters and ask them to simply do what Colorado Springs has historically done to its general fund.

Colorado Springs pay $25 million a year to its general fund. So clearly, it’s legal under state law.

Warner: You can request a change in the city charter. There would be a vote by the people for that, but you can’t force Denver Water to start making its employees pay into their pension. I mean, that’s a decision Denver Water would have to make, right?

Romer: Well, I have the right to appoint the board to that organization and I would not appoint anyone to that board without a commitment that they have to have the same kind of equity to other city employees. But that’s leadership.

Warner: Well, let’s tackle just some of the other ideas you’ve brought to the table. Finding efficiencies with the manager of safety. So, there’s a police chief in Denver, then there’s also this other position, the manager of safety. What would you do there?

Romer: Well, we have a lot of bureaucracy that’s built up in that department and, unfortunately, so far, it took two years to get a conclusion to the DeHerrera discipline case and part of that was the amount of bureaucracy that that decision and that discipline process had to go through.

Warner: This is the case of a young man whose beating was caught on police cameras.

Romer: The challenge is, is there were so many steps in that process and there was so much ability to delay and revisit each one of those steps it took two years. It should not take more than a year to come to closure.

So, I’m more than willing to challenge the bureaucracy of City Hall. That’s really the difference in this race, my willingness to challenge the status quo, to be more frugal and more efficient and my opponent’s willingness just to defend the status quo.

Warner: You know, what’s interesting is we spoke with Michael Hancock. He doesn’t talk about you as much as you talk about him. Just an observation to make. In other words, you know, he makes a point and he doesn’t say, “And Chris Romer is so-and-so and such-and-such.” Are you setting a different tone in your campaign than he is in his, do you think?

Romer: No, I think it’s important to have a choice. This is an interview process. It’s an interview process for a very powerful position within our municipal government. It’s a strong mayor form of government.

Warner: With the changes you’re proposing, do you think that you could avoid the need for layoffs in city government?

Romer: You know, we don’t know that yet. We need to see the complete revenue forecast. We need to see how much efficiencies we can get, how many vacancy savings. We need to see whether or not we can negotiate with Denver Water for their employees to do exactly what the other employees in Denver do, which is pay their pension funds. I think it’s fair for us to ask for that kind of equity and that’s what I’m going to do.

Warner: You’re listening to Colorado Matters. I’m Ryan Warner and we’ll be back with Denver mayoral candidate Chris Romer in just a moment. This is Colorado Public Radio.

(approximately 30 seconds break)

Warner: You’re back with Colorado Public Radio. I’m Ryan Warner. And Denver mayoral candidate Chris Romer is with us. We heard from his opponent in the race, Michael Hancock, yesterday.

The Library Commission has proposed to make the library system a special district that could levy its own property taxes as a way of generating revenue for the libraries. What do you think of that idea?

Romer: I’m open to the dialogue. I’m open to dialogue, as long as it’s not just a bait-and-switch, that the real beneficiaries will be the decision by people to continue to do pay raises in the general fund, where the library ends up with the exact same amount of money as they had before.

Warner: Would you care to elaborate on that? So, one criticism you have of your opponent in the race is that he voted to raise salaries for the city council and the mayor. With that context, elaborate just a bit more about what you don’t want to see if the library were to pursue a tax?

Romer: Well, let’s be very clear. Not only did he vote for his own pay raise and for a pay raise in 2007, he’s now promised a pay raise to city employees, notwithstanding the fact that we’re $100 million upside down on the budget. That’s not leadership by example.

So to go to the voters and just do a bait-and-switch with the library district where the real beneficiary is just to continue to do the same things and not to bring fiscal discipline to City Hall, number one, it’s a bad policy decision, but number two, the voters are going to figure it out and it’s really not about the library, it’s really about a budget solution that didn’t include fiscal discipline.

Warner: When Michael Hancock voted for that 2007 pay raise, he was reelected and in the latest pay raise, it doesn’t kick in, actually, until 2013 and it wouldn’t kick in unless the economy had recovered. Mr. Hancock also says he wouldn’t take the pay raise if elected mayor, he’d give it to charity. Aren’t there elements of that that show fiscal responsibility?

Romer: The firefighters are very confused about that, as are the police officers, who are facing layoffs. They don’t understand why they had to vote. And remember, Michael Hancock voted against the pay raise and then flip-flopped within two weeks and then voted for it.

Warner: I want to weigh the question of taxation for the library against another financial option.

Romer: Sure.

Warner: You said you strongly support a tax increase to ensure completion of FasTracks, which would build out six new rail lines across the metro area. Is the question of FasTracks and the library, would that have to be either/or for you?

Romer: No, I’ve made it very clear that we should not go with a vote for FasTracks in 2011. This is not the time and I will not put a FasTracks vote up until we show the fiscal discipline of making sure we’ve gone through every public/private partnership to reduce the cost of FasTracks and make sure that it’s viable. I did some work on FasTracks and some work on Denver Union Station. I know how to put that together.

The way to do this is with authentic, frugal budget cuts. Then we should go vote the library district and then in 2012, we should have a conversation about FasTracks.

Warner: Chris Romer is our guest. He’s running for mayor of Denver. You’ve stressed the need to bring jobs to the city. Have you spoken with any businesses about what the city could do to get them to relocate here?

Romer: Sure. We’ve talked to a number of different people around the country. I’ve talked to some of the most recent people who’ve moved here, including the CEO of DaVita, who just moved the first Fortune 500 company here and I went deep dive on how and why they chose Denver versus Dallas and Nashville and there’s a bunch of good lessons to learn.

Warner: Let me just say they do dialysis work. But what was one lesson that you gleaned from them?

Romer: Well, that when we get a lead like DaVita on the line, we need to do a better job of recruiting that leadership team from DaVita to Denver. You know, Kent Thiry made the decision himself, based upon what he thought was best for his employees. He felt like the recruitment process from Dallas and Nashville was a little bit different than it was from Denver and that we could improve our process.

Warner: Just in terms of what? Like, I don’t know, the wining and dining or the being on the phone or what does it mean?

Romer: The group of the civic umbrella, making sure that the leadership team at DaVita hears from the complete community of the leadership team from Denver.

Warner: So, you’re talking about maybe the superintendent, the Chamber? Who are the folks at that table?

Romer: CEO contact to CEO contact.

Warner: Okay.

Romer: Basically, selling the city.

Warner: Cities sometimes offer financial incentives to lure companies. Should Denver be doing that?

Romer: Yeah, absolutely. We have and we should.

Warner: To what tune? More money or more tax breaks? What do you think that looks like?

Romer: It’s the same package we offered to DaVita. You want to have some level of deferral. It’s mostly off of state income tax. There are states who offer a lot more incentives than we do. You don’t want to offer too much, because then you’re just giving away the whole store. You want to offer just enough to be competitive.

But the most important thing we want to market is that we’re a world-class city and that we’re going to have a world-class school system. Most executives are really interested in the educational system of a community.

Warner: Now the verb tense you used is important there, that we’re going to have a world-class education system. What is the mayor’s role in making that happen? You know, the constitution actually sets the priority for managing education with school boards and superintendents. So what can you do there?

Romer: Well, that deals with an activity from basically 7:30 in the morning ‘til 2:30 at night for the group of children who are in K to 12 education. There’s an awful lot of education that happens before the age of five that we need to make sure that all children show up ready to learn.

The vocabulary gap by zip code is huge. You need to use the city’s services to make sure that all children are ready to learn.

Warner: Give me an example.

Romer: Well, the example is, making sure in Swansea and Elyria and in Globeville that the children at most--

Warner: These are-- just for a statewide audience, this is north of town. It’s been a kind of mix of residential/industrial.

Romer: Well, more importantly, these are neighborhoods that socioeconomically are very low income. And right now, we’re distributing opportunity by zip code, because low income children don’t really have an opportunity to go to college, because they don’t have either the capacity of getting to a school where they’re actually learning enough and we need to start making change.

That’s why I’ve worked with schools like KIPP, because they run a much longer school day. That takes more resources and a mayor can help with that wrap-around program of helping to make sure you have fully funded after-school programs and to make sure that we put sports back into middle schools.

There’s just not a lot of good that happens to middle school boys and girls when they leave a school at 2:30 in the afternoon. We need to keep them busy and healthy and a mayor can play a really big role for that.

The second thing that’s very clear is, right now only 51% of our children read at grade level by third grade. We really need to address that holistically from the library to the pediatrician to the school, to the after-school program, to Summer Scholars. So, there’s a lot to do and the mayor can rally the community to really have a world-class school system.

Warner: I imagine that every mayor in Denver’s history has placed some emphasis on education. Can you point to something, you know, concretely, that has changed in the schools, in the education system, because of the work of a mayor?

Romer: Well, the passage of the school bond elections and the passage of ProComp and the passage of a mill levy override, all of which had the big support of a mayor and specifically Mayor Hickenlooper.

Warner: I want to bring a question to you from Denver’s current mayor, Bill Vidal.

Romer: Sure.

Warner: He took over the job when John Hickenlooper became governor of Colorado. Here’s what he asks.

BILL VIDAL, Denver Mayor:

Once you become mayor, those who helped you fund your campaign are going to expect you to live up to the promises you made and, in addition, everybody who’s well known in Denver will invite you to give speeches, attend galas. You’ll also engage and meet many CEOs who will talk about various business opportunities. And most of all, you’ll become a local celebrity.

So the question is, how will you make time to listen and take care of the daily needs of the voiceless, the forgotten and those who don’t have access to you?

Romer: You know, the great story is it’s exactly what I did as a senator. I was the one with the Catholic Church and the Progressive Coalition that pushed back on 30 paid lobbyists and the most powerful law firms in town to pass the bill to stop predatory lending from payday lenders.

So here were the voiceless, those who were being charged 300% interest rates for two-week loans and I stood up for them with solely, just one lobbyist, the archbishop and the AFL-CIO.

The second issue is, I was the one, with a little bit of encouragement from the Hispanic community, who made a decision to carry the bill for the undocumented to have tuition equity, not just because it’s morally the right thing to do, but it’s economically the right thing to do.

Warner: There’s been lots of controversy recently surrounding the Denver Police Department, charges of police brutality, the firings of several officers. You’ve said, if elected, that you would get rid of Chief Gerry Whitman. What, specifically, do you think he’s done wrong?

Romer: You know, the leadership has become defused. The ability to get the decisions out of the discipline process has been too slow. So there has been a rift of trust and that’s why we need a leadership change. Chief Whitman has done an enormously good job for the community. I look forward to having him as a member of the force, but it’s just time for a change.

Warner: We want to wrap up with this question. What most annoys you about living in Denver?

Romer: (laughs) What most annoys me is the fact that we’ve stopped investing in things we care about. We have too many potholes. We are getting alignments knocked out, flat tires, because we’re not investing in our streets. We’re not investing in our parks. We’re not able to invest in the big ideas that we need to put people back to work.

And the reason why is we’ve had a culture of spending in City Hall that’s caused us to be $100 million upside down. It’s time to stop it. That’s why you need to have leadership by example and it’s time to get our budget fixed so we can invest in parks, that we can invest in fixing our streets and we can invest in putting people back to work. We just need to change the culture of spending.

Warner: Chris Romer, thanks for your time.

Romer: Thank you very much. This has been great.

Warner: Former State Sen. Chris Romer is running to become Denver’s next mayor. He’s 51. The election is June 7th. Our show yesterday with his opponent, Councilman Michael Hancock, is at We’ll also re-air these conversations this weekend. Check our website for times —

Well, thanks for being with us. Michelle P. Fulcher produced our conversations with the Denver mayoral candidates. We had technical help from Martin Skavish. Kelley Griffin is News Director at Colorado Public Radio and I’m Ryan Warner. This is Colorado Matters.