The day after falling short to incumbent Michael Hancock in the June 4 Denver mayor's race runoff election, challenger Jamie Giellis, a consultant and former RiNo Art District president, spoke frankly — very frankly — about her experiences.
No subject was off the table, and she didn't parse words when talking about painful subjects, including the weeks of nasty attacks from both sides and the impact they had on suppressing turnout. Giellis needed former voters for Lisa Calderón and Penfield Tate, who endorsed her in a team-of-rivals move after finishing third and fourth, respectively, during the original May 7 vote, to back her in big numbers, and not enough of them did.
"I definitely think the four-to-one spending advantage and all the resources the mayor had to go after me from every direction made a big, big difference," she acknowledged. "The negative ads, I think, put a lot of questions in people's heads and made it harder to bring some of Pen and Lisa's supporters over."
Giellis concedes that "I came into this race as a relative unknown. Then we got into the runoff, and the negative advertising and the kind of ongoing expenditure of resources on mailers and things like that by Team Hancock created a lot of questions and uncertainty for people who weren't sure if I was ready and capable of taking this on."
To create these impressions, Hancock's campaign squad hammered her on her inability to say which words were designated by the letters NAACP during a Facebook Live interview, as well as an out-of-context comment about undocumented immigrants that was used to imply she had a Trumpian view of the issue. She conceded that these tactics had an effect on voters.
"We definitely heard some of that out in the streets and neighborhoods in the final weeks of the election," Giellis noted. "You only had to look at what happened over the last four weeks to see that there was very little focus on policy discussions. We did have a few debates, but even some of them went back to the issues that were brought up in his advertising. There wasn't a lot of room for actually identifying the differences between the two of us on our policies or how we intended to run the city, and how we were laying out our vision for what Denver would look like in the next four years."
Of course, Giellis fired plenty of shots at Hancock, too, dubbing him a sexual harasser at one press conference and later sharing a platform with Denver police officer Leslie Branch-Wise, to whom the mayor admitted he'd sent inappropriate texts during the 2011-2012 period when she was on his security detail. These salvos seemed to take the Hancock forces by surprise, and Giellis felt "they did underestimate my fight, particularly during the runoff, because things were coming out fast. It was like they were going to keep pummeling me and hoping I would hit the mat and wouldn't be able to get back up."
She paused before asking and answering a question: "What does that say about the Hancock team? I don't think they ever truly knew the strength of who I am and the fact that I love stepping up to a challenge, a hard fight, a complicated problem. In some ways, that gets me even more energized. I'm not sure I can speculate much more beyond that, but I definitely don't think they expected me to fight back."
When asked if she had offered to assist the mayor in any way going forward, Giellis said, "I'm in a somewhat unique position, because I have been working for many years on community issues through my consulting practice, so I have been working alongside the Hancock administration — and pushing them about certain things. I fully intend to keep doing that."
After Hancock's victory was assured, Giellis spoke to him on the phone "and I said to him, 'I hope you take to heart many of the issues that came up during the race. I hope that you heard, loud and clear, that even though this is a win, there are still a lot of people frustrated and dissatisfied with the direction of the city, and there's an opportunity to address that. I would love to have a conversation about that.' He said he welcomes that and wanted to get together."
Whether such a sit-down takes place, Giellis emphasized, "I don't intend to stop what I'm doing. I love this city and feel there's an opportunity to fight for things that I talked about during the campaign. I would hope there's an openness in this administration to working on those together, but if not, I'll continue to do what I've always done, which is to work with neighborhoods and the community. And it looks like we're going to have a few new faces on city council. I'd love to work with the city council, as well."
During recent weeks, Hancock has announced a flurry of new programs, and one of the biggest — an April 2 proposal to create "a new Department of Transportation and Infrastructure" intended to "improve connectivity, economic opportunity and quality of life for everyone" — requires that the council refer a measure to the November ballot. Shortly thereafter, on April 19, he rolled out a blueprint for "a new Department of Housing and Homelessness" to address "the continued need for more affordable housing and better services for those experiencing homelessness in our city," to be supplemented by "a $15.7 million initiative that will be leveraged by the city in partnership with our business, nonprofit and philanthropic communities over the next three years." And that's not to mention his April 29 declaration about an "equity-focused 2A parks tax investment plan" and a May 17 event ballyhooing the "'On MY Way!’ Summer Transportation Program," an initiative enabling youth with a MY Denver Card, ages 12-18, to receive RTD passes at no cost directly on their cell phones through RTD’s Mobile Tickets app."
Cynics have wondered if these actions were mere electoral attention-getters, and Giellis promises that "I'll be keeping tabs on all of that. I think that's the first place I can be working to hold the administration accountable and push them to be better. As I said in my first speech, and in my concession speech, one of the reasons I got into this is that I felt we needed to ensure that we have a conversation about the city's future instead of just letting Michael Hancock take another four years. And we forced that conversation. I think a lot of things that came out over the last few months regarding new initiatives is because we were pushing on them — not just me, but Lisa and Pen and others in the race. Now it's our job to hold him accountable, and I'll be there to do that."
Whether she'll become a candidate again is another question.
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"That changes hour by hour," she admitted, "because afterward, you're processing a lot. But what I'll say is, I don't think I could have ever expected all of this, having gotten into the race last October or November. The race was one thing. The primary was one thing. But the four weeks of the runoff became a whole other thing, and I'm amazed by how much I've personally learned and grown and gotten stronger in the process."
In her words, "I had to find my footing as a political candidate, and I had to do that in front of the entire city. That was a bit humbling. But you don't walk away from an experience like that, or at least I can't, saying, 'I've done that, and I'm never doing that again. I'm stepping away.' My fight and my strength are still there, and I'll do something with them. I don't know if I'll run for office or do something completely different. But this is the work I do and love, and I've done it for a long time. So nothing is off the table at this moment. We'll see what the next few months and years bring."
Meanwhile, she couldn't help marveling at "the extraordinary amount of resources that got thrown into this campaign. I haven't had a chance to check if it was record-setting for a mayoral race, but it had to have been close — and we need to look at where that money's coming from. I think the next four years are going to be challenging, and while I recognize that the voters have spoken and there was definitely some uncertainty about me and what I would bring to City Hall, what I heard on the campaign trail, loud and clear across the city, is that people are very frustrated and feel cut out."
She added: "Michael Hancock's campaign was funded by a lot of people who have a lot at stake and who want to see their initiatives through. But as a community and as residents who care about the city of Denver, we can't give up. This is going to be a pivotal few years for the city of Denver, and citizens and residents can't just throw their hands into the air and say, 'Forget about it.' This is an opportunity to fight and hold some people accountable."