Inside Michael Hancock's High-Society Fundraiser for His Re-election

Mayor Michael Hancock
Mayor Michael Hancock Brandon Marshall
It turns out that Mayor Michael Hancock is no more immune to Denver’s traffic quagmire than the rest of us. He arrived about thirty minutes into a campaign fundraiser thrown for him on Friday, May 18, by former U.S. Secretary of the Interior and Colorado attorney general Ken Salazar.

Hancock looked cheery despite having tangoed with I-70 congestion, and immediately glad-handed with the lawyers, politicos, businesspeople and longtime friends who’d come to propel him toward a third term as Denver’s mayor.

The guests began arriving around 5:30 p.m. in BMWs, Mercedes-Benzes and Land Rovers, and scurried through the pelting rain past idling Denver police cars that were providing security. They ascended a staircase to a side entrance of Salazar’s two-story home near Regis University and exchanged wet umbrellas and three- or four-figure checks for name tags from young, starry-eyed volunteers. Some luminaries — including Governor John Hickenlooper and former governor Bill Owens — didn’t bother with the name tags.

The well-heeled rubbed shoulders, daintily pecked on a spread of gourmet cheeses, nuts, cookies and jumbo shrimp, and kept the caterers busy pouring wine and cracking Odell beers. The crowd grew to about sixty people — the men in pressed coats, women in dresses and heels, a few kids scurrying about, probably wondering why they were at this boring affair. It was loud, but clips of conversations about development projects, the recent state legislative session and the Rockies could be heard.

It’s a particularly tricky time for Hancock. His office has spent the past few months in damage control, thanks to the revelation that he sent sexually suggestive text messages to a female police detective during his first term in office, as well as a leaked video that surfaced a few weeks ago showing his 22-year-old son mouthing off to a police officer — the tirade complete with cringe-worthy homophobic and misogynistic slurs — after he was pulled over in Aurora for speeding.

Just how much has the recent string of negative stories affected Hancock's relationships with high-profile politicians and businesspeople who hold the strings of power in Denver? If Friday was any indication, Hancock's bad press hasn't hurt him much, if at all.

Endorsements in this cocooned society of favors and an “I-got-your-back-if-you-got-mine” mentality are everything. Still, someone listed as a host on the party announcement told me, “Just because some of us are named on [the announcement] and will give money doesn’t mean we actually support him. You have to understand, in this world, it’s all political.”

click to enlarge The flier for Friday's event. - MICHAEL HANCOCK FOR DENVER
The flier for Friday's event.
Michael Hancock for Denver
The event wasn't on Hancock's campaign website, but it wasn't entirely secret, either. Nor was the guest list, though some invitees, including Senator Michael Bennet and Congressman Ed Perlmutter, never showed up, supposedly because they had important things to do in Washington. Also notably absent, which Hancock acknowledged and explained right away, was his wife, Mary Louise, who he said was preparing for her leading role in the opening night of Ain’t Misbehavin’ at Littleton's Town Hall Arts Center.

There had been social-media chatter of protesters storming the party; they even made a Facebook event page announcing their plans to shame guests as they arrived. As it turned out, the would-be protesters talked a big game on Facebook but never showed. Armchair activists really are a dime a dozen these days.

The party was short. Even with the copious amounts of booze, this wasn’t the type of gathering that people let loose in and stayed at for hours on end before calling an Uber because they had too much fun. There was no music. Definitely no dancing. The shindig started at 5:30, and by 6:45 more than half of the guests had left (including the mayor, since he needed to make it to his wife’s play and stay on her good side).

It seemed like many of the guests were either there because they had to be — people like Hancock’s new director of public safety, Troy Riggs — or because they swoop through these things all the time and Friday’s fundraiser was one more opportunity to see and be seen.

The crux of the event was a thirty-minute-long series of speeches, kicked off by Salazar (who has transitioned from public service into working as a lawyer for the oil and gas giant Anadarko).

Salazar is a seasoned pro when it comes to these kinds of fundraisers. During his speech, he alluded to multiple money-tree-shaking events he's thrown in the past and another fundraiser he's hosting, this one for attorney general candidate Phil Weiser, at his home on June 8.

“Get ready to see one of Colorado’s most famous photographs," Salazar boomed as people hushed and crowded his living room.

Salazar then gathered Hickenlooper, Owens and Hancock for a group photo. Iphones materialized everywhere, people jabbing their thumbs on their screens to get personal snaps of the staged moment.

“But this is not intended for publication by the media until we okay it," Salazar warned.

Here’s the photo:

click to enlarge Hick looks a little awkward off to the side, doesn't he? - CHRIS WALKER
Hick looks a little awkward off to the side, doesn't he?
Chris Walker
Neither Salazar's nor any of the speeches that followed mentioned Hancock’s recent woes in the media or any of his emerging challengers, such as Denver entrepreneur Kayvan Khalatbari, who out-raised Hancock during the first quarter this year.

Hickenlooper complimented Hancock on making strides with Denver International Airport and the National Western Center that he couldn't accomplish during his tenure as Mile High mayor. "But I predict, despite how in awe I am of the airport and National Western, he's going to be remembered for making sure that we kept kids as our priority," Hick said, mentioning the Hancock administrations’ efforts to fund college scholarships and early-childhood education.

"My words to all of you are: We cannot for a moment take a risk that he doesn't get returned to office," Hickenlooper said. "And he has so much going on right now that it should be the number-one North Star in the next six or eight months to make sure he raises enough money and has enough support that he is swept into office and can finish all these great things he started."

Now it was time for Hancock to address the crowd. It was a good speech, delivered without notes, and easily the most relaxed I’d seen the mayor in front of a crowd. He was on home turf in front of friends. 

"One of the things I tell my team is that being elected for a third term is harder than being elected for a first term,” he said. “After eight years, you have pissed off a lot of people. And people will work to pick you apart."

He mentioned all the jobs and companies that had come to Denver since the Recession, the city’s low unemployment rate, and how the ever-expanding airport was elevating Denver as a competitor on the global stage.

“As I look to a third term, one of the things I will not do is shy away from the challenges,” he added. “We are proud of how far we've come, but we know we have challenges in housing, in mobility — I was stuck in traffic tonight — and people feeling like we want to fight to make sure Denver remains that city that we know it to be, the Denver that we love. ... So next term is not just about someone who understands how to build a great city, but also can take the time, and has the compassion and desire, to slow down long enough to make sure we reach back for those who have not come along in this moment of prosperity.”

click to enlarge CHRIS WALKER
Chris Walker
Peopled beamed as he spoke, though some of it was on account of the wine and beer, and Hancock received loud applause. Then he opened himself up to questions.

"Can you expand on your vision for affordable housing?" a man asked immediately.

Hancock didn’t hesitate. "Sure. Now, everyone in this room is interested in a diverse and inclusive city. Now what this city has done is..."

As soon as he began going into the specifics of things like Denver’s five-year housing plan, the previously silent room filled with side conversations. Some attendees at the developer/lawyer/politico-leaning gathering obviously weren’t too interested in this affordable-housing stuff.

Another woman, mentioning she was an immigration lawyer, asked Hancock the next question: "How do you see yourself as a leader for the Hispanic community and the immigrant community as a whole?"

The mayor name-checked the city’s immigration ordinance passed last year and said “diverse” and “inclusive” about six times.

More hands were about to shoot up when Salazar stepped up in front of Hancock to quash what was turning into an informal press conference.

“All right, here’s the deal!” the host shouted. “Are we going to get this guy re-elected or what?"
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Chris Walker is a freelancer and former staff writer at Westword. Before moving to the Mile High City he spent two years bicycling across Eurasia, during which he wrote feature stories for VICE, NPR, Forbes, and The Atlantic. Read more of Chris's feature work and view his portfolio here.
Contact: Chris Walker