A $100 million budget deficit, a police department under scrutiny, an over-budget mass transportation project and the chance to work in the long shadow of one of the city's most popular politicians.
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Ten candidates are running for the job, almost ensuring a runoff after the May 3 election because the winner needs at least 50 percent of the vote. The list includes a former state senator, three city council members and a citizen who advocated a Denver extraterrestrial commission. Surrounding cities are watching closely.
"Denver is in the center of all things, let's face it," said Larry Harte, mayor of the neighboring city of Glendale. Harte, who chairs the Metro Mayors Caucus, said the election affects the entire region.
Glendale and other cities rely on Denver Water, and Denver is the focal point of the mass transit expansion known as FasTracks. It includes a 12-mile rail line under construction to the west suburbs of Lakewood and Golden and a 24-mile line from downtown's Union Station to Denver International Airport. The project faces a $2 billion budget shortfall, and officials hope to raise funds to meet a 2019 completion date.
On such regional issues, Harte said, other city mayors came to admire former Mayor John Hickenlooper, the brewpub owner-turned politician who is now governor.
"The most important thing is to keep the spirit of collaboration that John Hickenlooper was able to achieve," Harte said.
Denver's budget will likely be first on the next mayor's to-do list. After the July 18 inauguration, the mayor will have 60 days to close a $100 million deficit for 2012. That amounts to a 10 percent cut, said interim Mayor Guillermo "Bill" Vidal.
"It's a huge management job that requires great skill in consensus-building," Vidal said.
Denver's police department also is under scrutiny following the firing of two officers after a video showed a Hispanic man being slammed to the ground during an arrest in April 2009. The officers, Devin Sparks and Randy Murr, are appealing their terminations in a drawn-out case that generated intense criticism of the department's handling of excessive force allegations.
Most of the top mayoral candidates have said they won't keep Chief Gerald Whitman, who has led the department since 2000, and that they need to restore public confidence in the department.
Former state Sen. Chris Romer, a Denver Democrat, is considered the mayoral front-runner because of his fundraising and name recognition: His father, Roy Romer, was governor.
The top six candidates have raised nearly $3 million for the race, and Romer accounts for $1 million of that. City Councilman Michael Hancock has raised nearly $582,000. And Councilwoman Carol Boigon has raised about $567,000.
Rounding out the top six are James Mejia, who was project manager for the $425 million Denver Justice Center, which features a courthouse, detention facility and post office; Doug Linkhart, another council member; and Theresa Spahn, a former prosecutor.
And then there are the fringe candidates, like Jeff Peckman, who last year got a proposal on the Denver ballot to have the city establish a commission to track extraterrestrials. Peckman argued that the government tracks alien sightings but keeps their reports a secret. Voters rejected his proposal.
The top two vote getters in May's mail-only election most likely will compete in a June 7 runoff. But there was one winner last week in a mayoral forum, dubbed "Candidate Survivor," in which the audience text messaged candidates off the stage in a spoof of the hit "Survivor" TV show _ Councilman Linkhart.
The event highlighted the fact that Denver's next mayor will be a liberal one. All candidates agreed that gays should be able to marry and that birth control should be made available at middle schools, for example.
Linkhart, the last candidate standing, was a hit with the mostly young crowd with an awkward rendition of a popular hip-hop dance, known as "The Dougie," and his stance on marijuana. Asked what the city would look like if he were mayor, Linkhart responded, "Denver will be the greenest city in the country, marijuana will be legal, and there will be gay marriage and a jail that is much more empty than it is today."