At a press conference this morning, May 21, Denver mayoral candidate Jamie Giellis, who's challenging incumbent Michael Hancock in the June 4 runoff election, fired the latest shot in an increasingly nasty campaign. The former RiNo Art District president 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, Giellis 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. Also cited was ex-Hancock pal Wayne McDonald, whose firing for alleged sexual harassment led to a lawsuit that ended with a city payout of $200,000.
"The true cost of the settlements to taxpayers during Michael Hancock's administration is not fully known, and I am demanding that it be disclosed this week," Giellis said. "There have been sexual-harassment incidents over the past eight years that are estimated to have cost the city well over $1 million, but the final tally has never been released. The people of this city are paying for it. They have a right to know how much it costs."
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During a May 14 press event announcing that she'd teamed up with former rivals Lisa Calderón and Penfield Tate, Giellis predicted that the weeks leading up to election day would constitute a bumpy ride, and that's certainly been the case — though perhaps not in the way she might have envisioned then. First, she was castigated for failing to remember the words designated by the letters NAACP in a Facebook Live interview and subsequently scrubbing past items from assorted social-media accounts, including a decade-old tweet in which she wondered why so many U.S. cities have a Chinatown. Then, in recent days, Hancock's forces took an excerpt from a Giellis quote about immigration during a weekend debate to imply that she would favor a Trump-style ICE crackdown on the undocumented.
Given these developments, the decision by Giellis to deploy the nuclear option didn't seem coincidental. But in the moments before she took the podium, Tate, who had come to offer his support (Calderón didn't attend), shrugged off the importance of the NAACP gaffe, saying that he knew plenty of twenty-something African-Americans who couldn't break down the acronym, either. But he seemed to take the ICE slam more seriously. He ripped the Hancock forces for taking her remark out of context and referenced a comment the mayor made to the Denver Post in which he said that if a candidate felt the need to go negative, perhaps he or she shouldn't be running.
No surprise that Giellis mentioned this remark, too, even as she attempted to frame the event as a call for new policies.
"As your mayor, I will be implementing ethics reforms to end a culture of sexual harassment in city hall that is out of control under Michael Hancock," she stated. "Eight years is enough unacceptable behavior and sexual harassment from the mayor and his administration. We need change in leadership to end this poisonous culture."
Here's her list of promised reforms:
1. The city will make any sexual harassment settlement details fully transparent to the public.
2. Bring to city council legislation to codify requirements that sexual harassers reimburse the city for judgments. Even Congress has enacted similar legislation.
3. Ensure that this policy applies to mayor and mayoral appointees including agency heads and chiefs.
4. Review and improve Code of Conduct specifically for Department of Safety employees, and mayor and mayoral appointee employees.
5. Tighten up and refine anonymity at the Department of Safety and for mayor and appointee employees to report sexual harassment. These settlements have not been coming from Career Services. They are all coming from the other two. As you get higher up in the system, there is less accountability.
Before opening the floor to questions, Giellis added that she will "encourage the mayor to explain in more detail the true and total costs to taxpayers of sexual harassment settlements under his administration" at a 9News debate slated for this evening.
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When asked about the timing of her focus on sexual harassment, and whether it was tied to recent attacks on her, she insisted that this wasn't the first time she'd raised the subject — though Tate has been more outspoken on the topic — and noted that the runoff is just two weeks away. She also shrugged off the idea that she was engaging in retaliation.
When asked directly if Hancock is a sexual harasser, Giellis unhesitatingly answered, "Yes — there was a settlement," she said. After pointing out that the money paid to Branch-Wise was supposed to be about harassment from McDonald, a reporter followed up by wondering if her assertion was based instead on her belief in the officer's own conclusion that she'd been sexually harassed by Hancock. That earned another "Yes."
In response to a request for comment, Hancock campaign spokesperson April Valdez Villa wrote via email: "Jamie is desperately trying to distract from the alarming revelations about the cultural ignorance and insensitivities she has displayed over the last decade. There’s nothing new in what she said today. The mayor has been completely transparent about this from day one — from all settlement and legal costs to the strengthening of the city’s personnel and workplace policies and training. These are all matters of public record. Jamie is just trying to divert attention away from the serious misgivings voters are having about her inability and lack of qualifications to lead Denver forward."
This post has been updated to include a comment from the Hancock campaign.