In practical terms, Denver’s most contentious mayoral election in recent memory ended where it began: with incumbent Mayor Michael Hancock — who has presided over a period of both economic prosperity and growing dissatisfaction with how equitably it has been shared — holding on to power. But the challenger who tried and failed to unseat him nevertheless hopes her campaign made an impact on the city’s future.
“The most important thing that happened is that we changed the conversation in Denver,” Jamie Giellis told a crowd of cheering supporters at Ophelia’s Electric Soapbox on Tuesday, June 4. “We brought up issues that neighborhoods and communities around the city are feeling every day. We gave the people who had been left out of the conversation a voice.”
Shortly after 9 p.m., Giellis, joined by members of her family and campaign team, took the stage to announce that she had called Hancock to concede. As of 1:50 a.m., results showed Hancock with a commanding thirteen-point lead in Tuesday’s runoff election, which followed a first round of voting from which he and Giellis advanced last month.
“This is not the speech I wanted to give, or the outcome that we wanted, but we must move forward as a city in unity,” Giellis told her supporters. “I hope the mayor and his team will thoughtfully consider the many issues raised in this campaign.”
Giellis’s speech brought an end to an anxious couple of hours for the crowd gathered at Ophelia’s, many of whom had clung to hope of a comeback victory following the first wave of results earlier in the night. And it capped off a month-long runoff election marked by heavy spending and bitter personal attacks.
It was an often bruising introduction to politics for first-time candidate Giellis, a consultant and former president of the RiNo Art District who would have been the first woman to be elected mayor of Denver.
“She knew this was going to be an uphill battle, and she put her hat in the ring because she truly cares about Denver,” says supporter Alexandra Hilker. “It’s something you don’t see every day in politics. I wish we had more of that.”
Giellis received just under a quarter of the vote in the first round of voting last month, trailing Hancock, who led the field with 38.7 percent. Challengers Lisa Calderón, a community organizer, and former state senator Penfield Tate placed third and fourth, with 18.5 percent and 14.7 percent, respectively.
Calderón and Tate endorsed Giellis in the runoff, forming an uneasy “team of rivals” united by their dissatisfaction with Hancock, and both joined her on stage at Tuesday’s watch party. All three challengers campaigned on the message that under Hancock’s leadership, Denver has become a less equitable city, prioritizing big business and high-end development while leaving many low- and middle-income residents behind. Together they received nearly 60 percent of the first-round vote, forcing an incumbent Denver mayor into a runoff election for the first time since 1995.
But the debate over issues like growth and inequality quickly took a back seat to mudslinging. Hancock and his supporters attacked Giellis over an interview in which she failed to remember what the acronym NAACP stood for, and resurfaced a 2009 tweet in which she asked why “so many cities feel it necessary to have a Chinatown.” A Hancock TV ad also used an edited video of Giellis to falsely claim that she had “called undocumented immigrants criminals.”
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Giellis responded in kind, leveling accusations of a “culture of sexual harassment” that had taken root at City Hall under Hancock’s leadership. At an event in her campaign offices last week, Giellis stood beside Leslie Branch-Wise, the Denver Police Department detective who came forward last year to accuse Hancock of inappropriate behavior while she served on his security detail in 2011 and 2012. Branch-Wise called Hancock a “pitiful, desperate liar” for implying in a May 28 debate that his sexually suggestive text messages had been in some way reciprocated.
As the dust settles on an ugly election and Hancock prepares to enter his third and final four-year term as mayor, Giellis supporters are looking to the future and hoping that the promise of her campaign can eventually be realized. Elsewhere on Tuesday, three different incumbent city council members appeared headed for defeat, suggesting that a shift in Denver's political winds might be coming after all.
“This is hopefully ushering in a new wave of people wanting to stand for something and advocate for new ways of doing things,” says Hilker.
"We still have a fight to fight against runaway development, against pollution, against traffic," Giellis told supporters Tuesday night. "We made it clear that our schools and our parks and transit are critically important, and we can still work to make sure that those things happen in the next four years. We'll just have to fight a little harder."