Denver Mayor's Race: 48 Hours of Jamie Giellis vs. Michael Hancock

Denver Mayor's Race: 48 Hours of Jamie Giellis vs. Michael Hancock
Jay Vollmar
The race to decide who will serve as the mayor of Denver for the next four years is no longer a marathon. The runoff election is now a sprint.

After none of the six mayoral candidates on the ballot and numerous write-in hopefuls collected more than 50 percent of the vote on May 7, incumbent Michael Hancock and top challenger Jamie Giellis were given a mere four weeks to convince locals that they should name them on their next ballot, due by June 4.

Five city council contests will be determined on that day, too, as well as the position of clerk and recorder. But mayor of Denver is the marquee match, and the stakes could hardly be higher. Look no further than John Hickenlooper, who parlayed a stint as Denver’s top official into eight years as governor of Colorado and a run for president.

To give you a sense of the mayoral madness, we’ve assembled a series of campaign snapshots taken over approximately 48 hours from May 13 to 15 — a seemingly brief period of time that nonetheless included bold power plays, public accusations of murder, a near collapse at a unity rally, a racial controversy on social media and too many charges and counter-charges to count.

On your mark. Get set. Go!

click to enlarge Michael Hancock’s heavy-weight supporters have been out in full force during his reelection campaign. - MICHAEL ROBERTS
Michael Hancock’s heavy-weight supporters have been out in full force during his reelection campaign.
Michael Roberts
10 a.m. May 13
W.H. Ferguson Park

In 2011, Michael Hancock had to take part in a runoff in order to become mayor of Denver, ultimately besting Chris Romer, a former state senator and son of ex-governor Roy Romer. And while he managed to avoid the process when he ran for re-election in 2015, he didn’t gripe and grouse when he barely topped 38 percent of the vote in the May 7 election, necessitating another go-round with former RiNo Art District president Giellis, whose 24 percent allowed her to outdistance educator and activist Lisa Calderón (who scored 18 percent), veteran official Penfield Tate (14 percent), artist and advocate Kalyn Heffernan (2 percent) and Stephan “Chairman Seku” Evans (south of 1 percent).

An email blast announcing the launch of Hancock’s runoff campaign was sent out that night, complete with a glass-half-full summary of activity at what all involved had hoped would be a victory party, and a rousing exhortation from the mayor: “Let’s go to work!”

Less than a week later, at W.H. Ferguson Park — a charming patch of green space known colloquially as Turtle Park — Hancock presented an impressive show of political strength by gathering together a slew of power players who are in his corner: ex-state senator Irene Aguilar, onetime Obama administration appointee Katherine Archuleta, Denver icon Polly Baca and at least twenty other headline-ready figures, all of whom either knew and liked each other...or managed to give that impression, anyway.

There was hugging. There was laughing. There was back slapping. And there was retired Rabbi Steven Foster gleefully sharing with anyone he could buttonhole his definition of chutzpah: when a guy murders his parents and then pleas for mercy before the court because he’s become an orphan.

The choice of Linda Bates (Transou) Leali, Hancock’s principal during the time he attended Manual High School circa the 1980s, as the first to speak immediately underscored a central line of attack against Giellis — that he’s a Denver native, while she moved to town in 2006. Leali recalled a teenage Hancock telling her that one day he would become the first black mayor of Denver — and even though another Manual graduate, Wellington Webb, beat him to the office, she noted that he’d still managed to reach the object of his goal.

She also suggested that Hancock’s rivals had tried to make things “personal” — the closest anyone came to referencing his 2018 apology for inappropriate texts sent to Denver police officer Leslie Branch-Wise when she was a member of his security detail during the nascent years of his mayoralty. But Leali quickly flipped the word by pledging to make it her “personal business” to make sure he earned a third term.

Stepping to the podium next was John Walsh, another attendee with Obama administration bona fides thanks to his six years as U.S. Attorney. Now a U.S. Senate candidate hoping to take down Cory Gardner in 2020, Walsh focused most of his observations on the way Hancock had stood up to pressure from Obama’s successor, President Donald Trump, when it came to the treatment of immigrants and refugees. No, the term “sanctuary city” wasn’t used — but Walsh emphasized that, in his view, all of Hancock’s policies in this area have been constitutional as well as appropriate and compassionate.

Following Walsh was Stacie Gilmore, a member of Denver City Council who’d avoided a runoff; so, too, had colleague Kendra Black, also on hand. Gilmore talked about the work Hancock had done to make sure needs were addressed in District 11, which encompasses Montbello, Parkfield, Green Valley Ranch, High Point and Denver International Airport (and which went heavy for Hancock during the first round of voting).

Throughout the orations, Hancock stood beaming alongside dozens of supporters arrayed around and behind the speakers. And when it was his turn, he emphasized the diversity they represented. “This race is about a broad-based coalition,” he intoned with enthusiasm. “It’s about representing all of the very best of Denver, and even the most challenged of Denver.”

Then came a generic allusion to Giellis. “They want to make this campaign about growth and about development,” he contended. “But I want to be very clear with you. I’d much rather live in a desirable city and address the challenges of growth than address the challenges of a dying city any day.”

He waited out part of the big whoop that followed before riding its wave: “What we have in front of us is an opportunity to take our successes that we’ve been able to develop over the last years, from recovering from the recession to thriving in the second term, to bring forward a broad coalition of Denverites. The capable and those who are disabled. African-Americans and, yes, those who are white. Asian and Latino. American Indian and other. LGBTQ and those who are not.”

More cheers — and more categories to hit: “We have a chance for every single person. Those who are challenged in this economy and those who are doing well. Those who need housing, and those who are housing-secure.”

This last reference was appropriate given how many voters have called homelessness the city’s most important issue. But it couldn’t help calling extra attention to a demonstrator who silently circled the border of the park throughout the event. He carried a repurposed sign from the movement against Initiative 300, better known as Right to Survive, which was overwhelmingly defeated on May 7. To the No on 300 group’s slogan, “We Can Do Better,” he’d added a one-word question: “How?”

Although the protester let the placard send his message, a man who seemed to have been walking by and noticed the gathering was much more vocal. In a tone loud enough to carry over the mayor’s, he said, “You’re killing the homeless, Hancock.”

Hancock didn’t look over at the man or respond to him directly, but his pace picked up as he rattled off more statistics: “Six-thousand new, affordable and attainable units of housing for our great city, and yes, Councilwoman Gilmore, tax relief and emergency assistance to keep our great city affordable....”
“Your policies kill the homeless, Hancock,” the man continued.

“Housing and jobs for those who are experiencing homelessness,” the mayor went on, even more quickly. “So do you want to know what’s next? All of Denver is next. Homeless at the table is next. Housing people at the table. That’s what’s next....”

“Stop killing the homeless.”

“Denver, we’re on our way,” Hancock pushed on — but seconds later, he brought his address to a rapid conclusion. His speech was shorter than any of those before it, which might have been the plan all along. Or maybe he was simply done competing for center stage against a man eager to vent his frustration.

click to enlarge Jaimie Giellis has merged her campaign with those of Penfield Tate and Lisa Calderón. - MICHAEL ROBERTS
Jaimie Giellis has merged her campaign with those of Penfield Tate and Lisa Calderón.
Michael Roberts
10:30 a.m. May 14
Denver City and County Building

Around the time Hancock wrapped his remarks on the 13th and his sidewalk accuser continued down the street, representatives of Jamie Giellis, Lisa Calderón and Penfield Tate were putting the finishing touches on a big reveal that had been rumored over previous days: After hashing out their differences at a post-election meeting, they had decided to join up in the hope that their combined strength would drive the mayor out of office.

The plan showed promise from a mathematical perspective: The combined votes received by Giellis, Calderón and Tate exceeded 50 percent. But many of those who backed Tate and, especially, Calderón seemed almost as unenthusiastic about Giellis as they did about the prospect of another Hancock term.

To help convince them, the trio made an announcement on May 13 — complete with a fresh hashtag, #UniteDenver — that they’d appear at a group news conference the next morning.

The delay before the gathering gave the Hancock staffers time to try undermining it. They made plans to put on a shindig steps away in Civic Center Park one hour earlier, at 9:30 a.m., complete with even more prominent folks than had been trotted out at Turtle Park the day before: ex-mayors Webb and Hickenlooper, plus a statement representing Bill Vidal, who briefly served in that same role after Hick stepped down to run for governor.

The timing proved convenient for media types, who were able to move from one setup to another in a matter of minutes — and the Giellis squad provided plenty of visuals for the cameras upon their arrival. Before things officially got under way, Giellis was greeted by a gaggle of children apparently selected for maximum adorableness.

Despite the careful planning, however, there were technical difficulties with the audio equipment, which caused any word delivered too exuberantly to crackle and distort when transmitted through speakers. After one particularly ear-grating pop, introductory speaker Reverend Timothy Tyler, pastor of Denver’s Shorter Community AME Church, joked that the microphones “weren’t made for a black preacher.”

Fortunately, Tyler didn’t need amplification. He projected easily while accusing the Hancock administration of assorted sins related to the homeless, the impoverished, the displaced and the vulnerable.

Calderón struck similar notes during her moments in the spotlight, repeatedly castigating Denver’s urban camping ban, the Hancock administration policy tool that inspired Initiative 300. She stressed that this team of rivals — in using the term, she deliberately invoked President Abraham Lincoln’s approach to governing — wants the ban to be repealed and replaced.

For his part, Tate stressed what he sees as a lack of ethics and transparency in the way Hancock has run Denver for the past eight years before throwing to Giellis, who kept the kumbaya chorus going.

“When I launched this campaign, ‘All Together Now’ was the theme,” she said. “It was there because of our vision to collaborate, to set a big tent, to set a big table, to invite all the voices in to be included and to be heard. And this unity moment embodies those values. Coming together. Putting people first. The voters of Denver have spoken, and this is what they want. They have made it clear they’re ready for change, and all of us, working together, are going to bring that change on June 4.”

After praising Calderón and Tate, Giellis delivered a prediction about the Hancock force’s tactics: “We’ve got a bumpy three weeks ahead. They are going to come at us with every ounce of negative energy they can bring. They’re going to come at us with all they’ve got. They’re going to turn the story. They’re going to try to change the story away from the real problems of this city. As Lisa mentioned, the urban camping ban is already a conversation that they’re trying to turn. But this is about solutions.”

Giellis concluded with maximum passion, declaring, “We will run this race focused on unity, equity, change and lifting everybody up! There is no doubt that now is the time for bold collaborative leadership. We are all ready for a city that believes in the power of her people. We are all ready for change! All together now, let’s go forward and take back our city!”

The applause that greeted her words seemed to invigorate her, but not for long. Tyler invited questions from journalists, and when a scribe wanted to direct one to Giellis, the pastor asked that she be given a few minutes because she’d grown “lightheaded” in the heat, which topped out at 81 degrees that day. She tried to rally a short time later, but after rejecting the idea that she’d flip-flopped by opposing 300 but supporting the repeal of the urban camping ban, she said, “Sorry, I just need a moment. I got a little overheated. Could we just take a moment? I just need to cool down for a few minutes. I just don’t want to faint on you.”

Calderón did her best to fill the vacuum. She insisted that she hadn’t been promised a job in a new administration — she said being the dean at a university was her dream job. And she answered frankly when a reporter raised her past criticism of Giellis, who she claimed learned of the racist practice of redlining from a museum exhibit. Regarding questions about Giellis’s “cultural competence,” Calderón said, “When Jamie, Penfield and I sat down, that was on the table. And what I was appreciative of was, Jamie acknowledged her blind spots, but more importantly, her willingness to learn. And when I talk about what makes great politicians, it’s admitting where your deficits are and where you can strengthen.”

Later, Calderón didn’t deny that she may have nudged Giellis in a more progressive direction on some issues. “I think that’s what good governance is: You get pushed outside your comfort zone,” she replied. “We want our political leaders to be able to do that. And it wasn’t a struggle. She was willing, and that was a selling point for me. I didn’t have to convince her. I laid out what I thought we needed and she took it on wholeheartedly, and I said, ‘Okay, I can be in because of that.’”

Tate, meanwhile, shrugged off Hancock’s superstar summit with Webb and Hickenlooper, maintaining that rally attendees “are the people who’ve been excluded, and those are the people who’ve been included and are part of the deal.” Likewise, he blasted what he sees as corruption involving numerous major institutions within the city, including Denver International Airport. But when asked if he’d like to be in charge of digging into the airport should Giellis be elected, he replied, “We’ll see. Jamie’s got to win first. We’ve got to make sure the unity ticket wins, and once that happens, she’s got to sit down and evaluate what’s in the best interests of the city.”

Sitting down seemed to strike Giellis as a great idea, but doing so had to wait. A few minutes later, she still looked haggard, but she was able to participate in a television interview as she stood against the building — in the shade.

click to enlarge The mood was icy between Hancock and Giellis during a recent debate. - MICHAEL ROBERTS
The mood was icy between Hancock and Giellis during a recent debate.
Michael Roberts
1:20 p.m. May 14
Colorado Public Television

At 2 p.m., Hancock and Giellis were slated to take part in the first debate after the runoff, a joint production of Colorado Public Television, CBS4 and KOA radio to be recorded at the former’s Welton Street headquarters. But Giellis operatives arranged for their boss to arrive early for a one-on-one chat with Westword. She appeared in the lobby right on time and sans an entourage; public-relations expert Sheila McDonald didn’t arrive until the waning moments of the conversation.

A question about how she was feeling after her wooziness at the City and County Building triggered reassurances that everything was fine in tandem with a slightly annoyed expression; the last thing she needed on such a big day was to give any indication of weakness.

She said the frequent use of the pronoun “our,” as opposed to “I,” during the press event shouldn’t indicate to voters that they’d be getting three candidates for the price of one. “It’s not at all sold as a package deal. It’s more of a statement that we all agree Denver needs change. I asked them to help with the campaign; our teams have merged. We’ve taken over Pen’s and Lisa’s offices, so now we have satellite space, and our teams are getting together and figuring out how to work together. And we’ve also been talking about what roles they could play in working with the transition, because they’re both brilliant people. All three of us are very different in terms of where we have our deeper levels of expertise. But I think everything from there is a big question mark.”

So, too, was a potential endorsement from Heffernan, who’d finished fifth in the voting. Giellis revealed that she’d reached out to her and the pair had exchanged phone messages — but Heffernan, who traveled to New Mexico after the election, had not yet made a commitment to join the coalition.

On the subject of attacks against her, Giellis cited the website WhoIsJamieGiellis.com, “which made it seem like I’m some mysterious person when I’m not.” She says the site also overhyped a brief period when she was listed as an unaffiliated voter rather than a Democrat; she chalks up the snafu to her name change from Jamie Licko to Jamie Giellis after her marriage last year. She also decried whispers that she’s a closet right-winger fueled by a letter touting “Republicans for Jamie” that was sent out by her campaign. She admitted that her staff neglected to properly label the document, prompting a fine that she didn’t dispute: “It was an oversight, and we totally owned up to it.”

Likewise, she scoffed at portrayals of her as a developer, which she thought were tied to her connection with Kyle Zeppelin, a local real estate heavy hitter who’s far and away her single-largest benefactor. “I have my own consulting company, but I’ve never done development,” she allowed. “And just like the rest of these issues, I’m addressing them head-on because there’s nothing to be afraid of in any of them.” The Hancock campers “are going to keep twisting and twisting and twisting to get people to be afraid of who I am. But there’s nothing to be afraid of.”

When it comes to the urban camping ban, Giellis noted that she’s long called for its repeal “because it’s bad policy” that was applied to the homeless community after being developed in 2012 in reaction to the Occupy Denver movement. Even without the regulation, “it’s still illegal to put up a tent on a sidewalk and stay there, because it’s illegal to block a right of way, and it’s illegal to put up a tent in a park and sleep there overnight because we have camping curfews. We already have rules on the books for all this stuff — so let’s find a new path forward and replace the camping ban with real policies and programs that work. We have to take care of our people, including people who are struggling with mental health and addiction to opioids. We can’t just keep sweeping them and saying, ‘You have to figure it out for yourself.’”

Her work with RiNo has led to accusations about gentrification that she refuted: “River North was a very unique experience — and at the end of the day, it helped me truly recognize how hard it is to work with this administration. We fought for more affordable housing, we fought for tiny houses, we fought to provide a greener, cleaner infrastructure. And every step of the way, it was a total uphill battle. That’s why so many of our neighborhoods have been left behind.”

Still, Giellis didn’t call for purging the sort of Hancock cronies who’d spent the past two days singing his praises. “There is a sense that there is an old guard and a new Denver,” she conceded. “But I don’t necessarily want to create divides between them. Unfortunately, I think elections do that because it’s the nature of the beast and we’re up against an incumbent. But my hope is that if we succeed at this, I’m hopeful that even the old guard will see that we have an opportunity to be even better than we are now.”

2 p.m. May 14
Colorado Public Television
After a quick consultation with McDonald after the interview, Giellis hurried to the Colorado Public Television studio, where her interlocutors — CBS4 political reporter Shaun Boyd, consultant Eric Sondermann and CPT host Dominic Dezzutti — were assembling. Shortly thereafter, Hancock strolled in and took a seat alongside Giellis. But despite their close proximity, they didn’t give off the air of friendly combatants.

He turned one way, she turned the other.

For much of the debate, which CPT will air at 9 p.m. on Friday, May 24, the candidates touched on familiar talking points. For example, Hancock used his line about preferring to deal with the challenges of growth rather than the problems of a dying city on multiple occasions. And he repeatedly juxtaposed tales of his deep Denver roots with sly suggestions that Giellis was a comparative newcomer who couldn’t possibly understand the complex issues facing the Mile High City.

In contrast, Giellis belittled the notion that the first eight years of Hancock’s administration have set the stage for real accomplishments in the third, arguing that he should have gotten more done the first two times around. And she pummeled him over the urban camping ban — condemnations that seemed to get under his skin.

However, Boyd, in particular, managed to force the pair to confront topics they obviously would have preferred not to discuss. To Hancock, she brought up a Colorado Public Radio investigation that tracked his extremely close relationship with lobbyists, who’ve accompanied the mayor on plenty of trips over the years. He countered by pointing out that he hadn’t been accused of breaking any laws and had always been transparent about any gifts he’s received. He said he’d grown up with many of the lobbyists and had been friends with them for years, as if that explained away any hint of hinkiness.

As for Giellis, Boyd hit her with an inquiry about Zeppelin, said to be responsible for around a quarter of all her campaign donations. Did this level of support mean Giellis was essentially in his pocket? She said no before pivoting away from the subject.

Giellis tried a similar tactic the next day, too. It didn’t work.

click to enlarge Jaimie Giellis has merged her campaign with those of Penfield Tate and Lisa Calderón. - MICHAEL ROBERTS
Jaimie Giellis has merged her campaign with those of Penfield Tate and Lisa Calderón.
Michael Roberts
11:23 a.m. May 15
Somewhere on the streets of Denver

Over the course of the morning, social media became increasingly obsessed with Giellis’s May 14 Facebook Live interview on Brother Jeff Fard’s page, during which she had failed to remember the words designated by the letters NAACP: National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. During the campaign, Calderón had questioned her “cultural competence,” and a subsequent Facebook statement in which Giellis awkwardly tried to minimize the damage fell short after two more items surfaced: an event at a Mexican restaurant highlighted by tacos and lowriders and a decade-old tweet in which she wondered why so many American cities had Chinatowns. Her decision to temporarily pull down two Instagram accounts and her old personal Twitter page didn’t help matters.

This mess was gaining traction when Hancock handler April Valdez Villa called.

Westword had been requesting an interview with the mayor like the one in which Giellis had participated for the better part of a week, but Valdez Villa kept putting it off, blaming his crazy schedule. The closest such an exchange had come to happening was when Hancock shook hands with yours truly at Turtle Park — but as soon as he found out he was face to face with a reporter, he split to find a more important mitt to grab.

There was no shortage of them.

Suddenly, though, Valdez Villa was on the line. She had Hancock with her, and because they were en route from one event to another, she said he had eight minutes to talk.

Fortunately, Hancock can say a lot in a brief amount of time, and he did — especially when it came to Giellis’s status as a transplant. “The message I’m trying to send is that my experience in the city, and knowing the neighborhoods in the city, helps me to understand and recognize the transformational changes the city has gone through,” he said. “And it also helps me know how we can foster strategies and policies that elevate neighborhoods. It’s instinctive. I was elected in 2011, and in 2012, I ordered a gentrification study, because I saw historically that African-American and Latino communities were transforming. I wanted to understand what was happening so we could better counter that, so people weren’t being displaced out of Denver. I think that gives you an example about the understanding of Denver I’m speaking to.”

Furthermore, he implied that Giellis’s knowledge of Denver neighborhoods is limited to just one: “I think Jamie’s lack of engagement outside of the RiNo area doesn’t give her the balance of understanding about how Denver operates and how other neighborhoods are impacted. She issued on her social-media platform last week a map of Denver that left out Stapleton, Montbello, Parkfield, Green Valley Ranch and DIA. So you’ve got over 75,000 residents out there who were like, ‘You absolutely disenfranchised us, as if we don’t exist.’ That’s a lack of understanding about Denver where you see those kinds of things rear their ugly heads.”

He also painted Giellis’s championing of an urban camping ban repeal as an insult to “the dedication of Denver’s Human Services department, Denver’s Road Home team and our Denver Police Department, and to the personal dedication they all demonstrate to reach out to help support the homeless community as best we can as a city. I don’t like that these people come and propose these high ideas without any real understanding of what’s happening on the street. There is not a more complex issue than homelessness in the city of Denver. They don’t mention that the city’s grown by 100,000 people, and they don’t mention the innovative processes Denver has brought to the challenges of fighting for mental health treatment and against drug and alcohol addictions in our community.”

With that came a shift into the third person: “They try to create these fancy words to demonize the Hancock administration, when I can tell you that across this whole city, there are so many agencies and individuals working hard to lean in and do everything we can. Can we do better? Absolutely. I’ve never said we were perfect, and we’re always going to aim to get better and do a better job of addressing the challenges around homelessness. But the fact that they don’t acknowledge that every major city in American is facing this issue shows to me a cynicism that comes without really wanting or trying to acknowledge the complexity and enormity of the challenges the city is trying to address.”

Unpacking all of these claims would have taken some time, and Hancock didn’t have it. Villa Valdez brought the call to a conclusion so close to the eight-minute mark that she might as well have been holding a stopwatch — but she said the mayor could answer additional questions via email. We quickly sent off a series of inquiries about Giellis’s NAACP flap and whether it spoke to her overall understanding about communities of color in Denver; the odds of Hancock changing anything about his relationship with lobbyists in light of the CPR salvo; the flurry of new programs he’s introduced in recent months and whether they’re more election-related show than substance; fears he expressed during the debate that Denver voters’ decriminalization of psychedelic mushrooms could hurt the city’s reputation; and whether his reliance on high-profile surrogates to sing his praises risks playing into Giellis’s branding of herself as an outsider and non-politician.

At this writing, the number of these questions to which we’ve received answers from Mayor Hancock stands at zero. Clearly, he’s busy.
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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts