Denver doesn't have a reputation for nasty politics, particularly in comparison with metros such as Chicago and New York City, where elections can be blood sports in which no holds are barred and tricks are considered better when they're dirty.
But the 2019 Denver mayor's contest has been a big exception, especially after incumbent Michael Hancock and challenger/former RiNo Art District president Jamie Giellis qualified for today's runoff election.
Race cards? They've been played and played and played again during the four weeks between the first vote on May 7 and the June 4 second round. Claims of corruption and sexual harassment have surfaced, too, along with references to alleged prostitution-ring ties that date back to the dawn of the decade. Disputes about policies on homelessness and immigration have gone beyond debate into the realm of personal attack.
The result has been both wildly entertaining and extremely concerning. After all, either Hancock or Giellis is going to be Denver's mayor for the next four years, and the winner will find keeping campaign promises that much more difficult as a result of the mess left on the path to victory.
Here are the nastiest runoff moments, presented in chronological order.
The Unity Rally
The theme of a May 14 gathering at the Denver City and County Building was togetherness. After Giellis earned the right to face off against Hancock in the runoff by finishing second to him in a vote that found no one topping 50 percent, she reached out to Lisa Calderón and Penfield Tate, the third- and fourth-placers, respectively, to form what was billed as a unity ticket.
But while the three emphasized their similarities rather than their differences during their individual addresses to supporters and the press, it was clear that what brought them together had less to do with shared philosophies than it did with a collective hatred of Hancock.
Witness Calderón, who rejected the idea that it was better to stick with "the devil you know" instead of "the devil you don't" while at the same time admitting that she had required reassurance to get over worries about Giellis's "cultural competence."
That became a hint of things to come.
What Does NAACP Mean?
After the May 14 rally, Giellis took part in a Facebook Live conversation on Brother Jeff Fard’s page, and while interviewer Shay J wasn't trying to create a gotcha moment when she asked the candidate to prove she knew the words represented by the acronym "NAACP," she got one when Giellis suggested that the first "A" was for "African."
A couple of weeks earlier, Hancock had promised to take the high road during the campaign, telling the Denver Post, "I believe if you can’t do it without going negative, you probably shouldn’t be running." But Giellis's gaffe proved irresistible, especially after it began circulating on social media. Hancock's minions made the clip the centerpiece of an ad titled "Own Words" — one of several videos that exponentially increased the irony in Hancock's de facto no-negativity pledge.
Even as the embarrassment over the NAACP slip-up spread, the anti-Giellis forces were combing through her social media (which, in a rookie mistake, hadn't been thoroughly scrubbed prior to the campaign) in search of more items that could contribute to a portrait of racial cluelessness. They found a couple — a fundraiser at a Mexican restaurant touting the combo platter of tacos and lowriders and a 2009 tweet in which she wondered why "so many cities feel it necessary to have a 'Chinatown.'"
The last of the two did by far the most damage, with leaders from Denver's Asian community sending her a letter asking her to explain what the Chinatown remark meant, prompting a response from Giellis in which she tried to frame the question in progressive terms but still offered an apology. Then, to make matters worse, Harry Budisidharta, executive director of the Asian Pacific Development Center, complained that the Giellis folks had used a photo of the two of them together on social media without asking him if he was okay with that — and he wasn't. The photo was removed, but not before it gave the Hancock forces more whispering material.
ICE, ICE Baby
Back on March 26, a YouTube user identifying himself as John Denver posted a six-second clip of Giellis at a Republican-sponsored candidate forum saying, "We won't tolerate crime or criminal activity. We will comply with authorities; we will comply with ICE in that regard."
The comment was taken out of context — excised from an answer about a related subject in which Giellis talked about the contributions immigrants make in the community. But that didn't stop Hancock's campaign from using it in the "Own Words" video mentioned above, and his spokesperson told Westword for a May 20 item that the remark was "clumsy at best, ignorant at worst. It is the way Donald Trump describes the issue in order to create the impression that undocumented refugees and immigrants violate criminal law."
In her reply, Giellis's spokesperson insisted that Hancock was far more Trumpian than her because he "sexually harasses women."
This zinger may have seemed like a pivot, but it was actually a harbinger.
The Sexual-Harassment Press Conference
Hancock's handlers knew he had plenty of skeletons in his closet, but they appear to have calculated that Giellis wasn't the type of opponent likely to drag them out into the light again. If so, they were wrong.
At the May 21 press event at her campaign headquarters, Giellis explicitly accused Hancock of being a sexual harasser and suggested that his administration has fostered a "poisonous culture" of the sort that inspired the #MeToo movement. To illustrate her point, she spoke beside a graphic showing settlement amounts paid out during Hancock's years in office. Items referenced the likes of Denver police officer Leslie Branch-Wise, whom Hancock admitted to inappropriately texting when she was on his security detail during his first term.
Clearly, Giellis was done playing nice — and her focus on Branch-Wise laid the groundwork for another plot turn. First, however, there would be an accusation made and withdrawn. Sort of.
To Cover Up, or Not to Cover Up?
At a May 22 debate, Giellis charged Hancock via a CBS4 story with hiding information about renovation delays and ballooning costs in regard to the Great Hall project at Denver International Airport. "Overruns of this magnitude don’t crop up overnight,” she maintained, adding, "My question is, what did you know, when did you know it and why did you cover it up?"
In response, Hancock said that since the cost projections she'd cited were developer projections, not hard-and-fast city numbers, no coverup had occurred — and Giellis subsequently said she was "not making that accusation." Mmm-kay.
Leslie Branch-Wise, Part One
On May 24, Branch-Wise told Westword that in February 2012, Hancock had sent her a meme of what appear to be nearly naked African children dancing emblazoned with the phrase "It's Friday Niggas." She said she was "disappointed and shocked that my boss, an African-American man, would send that to his employee, an African-American female."
Although Hancock had acknowledged that he'd sent the aforementioned texts to Branch-Wise, he denied sending the N-word meme — the same one an AT&T executive had been fired for distributing a few years earlier. Instead, his campaign stated that he had "no recollection of sending or forwarding this meme to anyone" before going on to tout his record on civil rights and social equity.
At the time, Branch-Wise stopped shy of endorsing Giellis, but she would do so soon enough. Before that happened, though, Giellis had to contend with fallout from a new attack.
The Alleged Flip-Flop
On May 26, over the Memorial Day weekend, the Giellis campaign tweeted out a video in which she said, "As mayor, I cannot and will not repeal the urban camping ban," even though she said she would do so plenty of times over the course of the campaign, as Hancock's YouTubers made clear in yet another video.
The assertions from the Hancock folks put Giellis back on the defensive. She had emphasized that only Denver City Council or the city's voters could dump the camping ban "in all of the last few debates," she insisted to Westword on May 29, but claimed to have "always been consistent." She also blamed Hancock for muddying the waters by suggesting that her antipathy for Initiative 300, also known as Right to Survive, a ballot issue about homelessness that was overwhelmingly defeated on May 7, made no sense given her similar dislike of the urban camping ban.
"This has been twisted primarily because of the resounding opposition to Initiative 300," she said. "This has been a great point for the mayor to try to twist into: 'We're succeeding because we have the camping ban in place.' But the truth is, people in Denver don't think we're succeeding. They're seeing more urban camping than ever."
Despite this attempted explanation, voters remained as confused as ever about Giellis's urban camping ban position. So she changed the subject in a big way.
Leslie Branch-Wise, Part Two
On May 29, five days after unveiling the N-word text, Branch-Wise was back in the spotlight. This time, she stood alongside Giellis at a press conference, where she explicitly offered her endorsement while branding Hancock a "pitiful, desperate liar."
What changed to make her step forward in this way? The night before, at a Denver Post-sponsored debate at the Denver Press Club, Hancock had said he hadn't characterized his texts to Branch-Wise as sexual harassment because "you don't see the back-and-forth conversation that occurred." She took that as an implication that she had crossed a line in her responses, which so offended her that she decided to drop her neutrality — and drop the hammer on Hancock. Giellis was more than happy to oblige.
Put a Ring on It
The one weapon Giellis didn't deploy against Hancock was the assertion that he'd been a customer of the Denver Players/Denver Sugar prostitution ring. These claims surfaced just prior to his first election in 2011 by way of a client list that included a misspelled variation on his name — "Mike Handcock" — and his cell-phone number.
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But Fox31 reporter Joe St. George went there, as evidenced by the video in the May 29 tweet above. Rather than specifically referencing Denver Players/Denver Sugar, St. George spoke generally, saying, "Eight years ago, you were elected under a questionable cloud of your ethical conduct. Here we are, eight years later. Don't you think voters are tired? Are they tired of your conduct, and allegations around you and your conduct?"
The query plainly angered Hancock, who snapped about "false allegations" and "blatant attempts at character assassination." Then he talked about "someone" [read: Giellis] making a "desperate political move" to bring up the subject again.
Problem is, Hancock seems to be responding to the wrong incident. While the texts to Branch-Wise were sent in the range of eight years ago, they weren't publicly revealed until early 2018, unlike the Denver Players/Denver Sugar matter, the real subject of St. George's question.
The confusion is understandable. Suddenly, there are too many scandals to keep track of — another reason that this has been the nastiest Denver mayor's race in recent memory.