2023 Denver mayoral race: Candidate Deborah “Debbie” Ortega shares her platform

Posted at 3:17 PM, Feb 20, 2023
and last updated 2023-03-22 15:45:31-04

Debbie Ortega, a long-time Denver councilwoman, is running for mayor to build a “safe, affordable and strong Denver.” Ortega was born in New Mexico and moved to Denver when she was 13 years old. She was first elected to the city council in 1987 and served until 2003, when she became the first executive director of Denver’s Homeless Commission. She returned to the council in 2011 and has held her citywide at-large seat since.

Ortega qualified for the Denver Fair Elections Fund, according to city data. At the start of February, she had received $279,418.67 in campaign donations. Of that, $171,361 is from the Fair Elections Fund.

March 22 update |Response to the shooting of two deans at East High School in Denver:

“Yet again, our community is shaken by the news of a shooting inside of East High School. My prayers are with the victims - two of our dedicated school administrators - their families, and the entire East High School community. But prayers are not enough. Students, parents and teachers are afraid. They came to City Council and pleaded for police presence in their schools. We can’t wait for another tragedy to take action. I called the Mayor and have made a request to convene City leadership and school leadership to address this issue - immediately.“

Denver7's Chief Investigative Reporter asked Ortega about her plans if elected as Denver's next mayor. Watch their conversation or read a transcript below.

2023 Denver mayor race: Candidate Debbie Ortega shares her platform

Tony Kovaleski: Introduce yourself. Tell us your story.

Debbie Ortega: OK. I'm Deborah Ortega. Everybody calls me Debbie. I'm in the public service arena because of my parents. My dad was a coal miner who was killed in the mine cave in. But before that, he was the person that did all of the rounding up of dollars and food to help his colleagues. So, I saw the impact that his service had on the lives of other people. And then my mom volunteered at food banks, but that's when we moved to Denver. So service is part of my DNA. And I do this because it's been a labor of love.

Tony Kovaleski: First question. Insiders say the four most important issues in this election: crime, homelessness, housing and transportation. Rank them from most important to least important for you. And please explain why.

Debbie Ortega: Crime and safety, No. 1. No. 2, I would say affordable housing. And that does add to the next one, which is homelessness, and then transportation. But they're all intertwined. I don't think you can completely segregate them all from one another. So part of why I think crime and safety is No. 1 is because it's having an impact on people not wanting to be in Denver, especially downtown. Businesses are leaving. We have residents that want to leave. I'm concerned about the impact that will have or maybe having now to conventions wanting to come to Denver. And that's our economic engine. That is part of our tax base that helps provide other services and resources that Denver voters rely upon. The second one, affordable housing — as you know, it's very pricey to live in Denver today. And so being able to have solutions to how we address housing affordability, for the very low-income, as well as the missing middle, which is, you know, firefighters and teachers and police officers that come to our city to work, but they can't afford to live in Denver. So I have solutions. People can go to my website,, to look at some of the ideas that we have on how to close the gap and address both homelessness as well as affordable housing, as a couple of those. The issue of transportation is one where I think we have to close the gap on what is referred to as the First Mile and Last Mile so that people have connections to where they live. If you live in the suburbs, and work downtown, you want to move around, get to your bus stop. That first mile, last mile is really critical to being able to have people live anywhere in the metro area regardless of where they work. And so those are a couple of the things that I think are critical to those issues.

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Tony Kovaleski: A follow-up question based on your No. 1 priority: crime and safety. What is your pledge to the voters on how you will address it? And how might that be different than your other competitors on this ballot?

Debbie Ortega: So, one of the first things I want to do is have a Metro Crime Task Force that will be focused on addressing the issue of car theft. We're No. 1 for car theft. And taking guns off the streets. And then focusing on how we can take the drugs out of our streets. Drugs are now impacting not only people who are unhoused, it's impacting kids in our schools. And, you know, it's everywhere. It's in the bars. So, I want to take those nasty drugs out of our city and address the safety from that perspective. Part of the way we do that is we also have to have the right staffing within our police and sheriff's department. As you know, we are at an all-time low, especially in our sheriff's department, at only 60%. We need to train them well. We need to make sure we're picking the best and the brightest. And we want to recruit them from within our school district into our cadet program that gives them an entry-level opportunity to become a police officer, which is a livable wage job.

Tony Kovaleski: As you know, like many other cities, Denver has a lot of financial needs right now. If elected, what would you prioritize? And what might you decide to trim?

Debbie Ortega: So, one of the first things I want to do is go back and look at a lot of the things that we have been funding that have been pet projects of previous mayors. We don't always go back and look at those, we continue to keep them funded. And I think that gives us a chance to look at where we can trim some of the fat, so to speak. And then I think the STAR program, as you know, has been one of the programs that the city has funded. We do get some of the Caring for Denver dollars that offsets the cost of that. That is doing an important — it plays an important role in dealing with people in crisis that do not need a police officer to respond. And that's been very successful. So I think, getting back to your question about what do we do to address the budgetary constraints — we still have some of the ARPA funding that we're spending. But when you look at our unhoused population, I want to make sure we're helping get them back to work and helping them to achieve self-sufficiency. And we do that by pulling together our different arms of the city that help people. We have contracts with organizations, we want to use them to help people get back to work so that they're able to get back on their own two feet.

Tony Kovaleski: As you know, Denver is a wonderfully diverse city. If the voters elect you, will you make a pledge to make sure your administration reflects the city's diversity? And if yes, how?

Debbie Ortega: Absolutely. I think first of all, I want to pick the best professionals to do these jobs. But I also want to make sure it does, in fact, reflect the diversity of our city. Part of how I do that, I worked with the Hancock administration to implement what is now referred to as our RSJI program — race, social justice, equity and inclusion. And it's incorporating within the budget of all the agencies, how they're dealing with communities, and especially communities of color that are on what everybody refers to as the inverted L, where most of our low-income neighborhoods are. But it's got to reflect that diversity, I think, to continue to be the inclusive city that we have been.

Tony Kovaleski: City council has the potential for a significant change after this election. How are you planning to work with the new council if elected? And what would that relationship look like?

Debbie Ortega: Those relationships are really important for the mayor to be successful getting anything done. And I intend to — my whole adult life has been about cultivating relationships. You know, everything we do is relational. And so having those working relationships is important. Obviously, the mayor meets with city council once a week. And I think having periodic touch points with members of council and talking to them about the initiatives and the things that they're trying to do so that we have an opportunity to be open to listening and to do that, not just with myself, but with my cabinet-level members whose agencies might be impacted by the proposals that were going forward.

Tony Kovaleski: As you know, 16 other candidates are on this ballot. If you could ask one other candidate one question, who's the candidate? And what's the question? And I can see the wheels turning.

Debbie Ortega: Yes.

Tony Kovaleski: Good. One candidate, one question.

Debbie Ortega: I think it would be Ean Tafoya and I would ask him how he, if he were not selected as the mayor, how he would want to be involved with the new administration around some of the policy issues that he has worked on. A lot of them are around environmental issues, which are very important for our city. And as you know, in this amount of time, we don't have time to talk about all of the issues. But I'd love to see what he would see is his role in working with the new administration.

Tony Kovaleski: This is a question to get to know you. We're getting a little short on time. So quick answer preferred. What's the last book you read? And why and what do you do for fun?

Debbie Ortega: I'm actually in the middle of the book, and it's the one that one of my colleagues Kevin Flynn wrote, and it's about the Alan Berg killing, murder, and all of what led up to that.

Tony Kovaleski: What do you do for fun?

Debbie Ortega: I enjoy my grandkids.

Tony Kovaleski: Good for you. OK. Final question. Closing statement opportunity. Please look into the camera. And what do you want the voters to know about you?

Debbie Ortega: I want the voters to know that I have many years of experience in knowing and understanding how the city works. I have worked on big projects and small projects. And I think with the kinds of issues that we're facing today in our City of Denver, now more than ever, it's important to have somebody that knows and understands how to get things done, and can hit the ground running. I intend to do that. And as your mayor, I'm here to ask for your vote as well.