Michael Hancock is fighting for his political life.
Denver’s two-term mayor gleaned almost 39 percent of the vote in last week’s election – failing to meet the 50 percent threshold he needed to avoid a June 4 run-off. He’ll face Jamie Giellis, a political newcomer whom scores of city residents had never heard of until last Tuesday’s election.
Hancock attributes his lower-than-hoped-for election showing to having faced a field of five challengers he says he expected would cause a “tremendous split in the vote,” and to the influx of “110,000 people moving to the city who don’t really know me.” Turnout was about 44 percent.
“We need to do a better job introducing ourselves” to those voters, he told The Independent this afternoon.
“Every third term is a little bit harder to win,” regardless of the candidate, added Hancock’s Chief of Staff Alan Salazar. “I’m very comfortable suggesting to people in this race, if they look at the records and the personality of the candidates, that the Mayor comes out on top.”
But Hancock’s showing last week raises questions about why an incumbent running a city that keeps topping national rankings for prosperity, livability and hipness isn’t faring better with voters. An examination of who is – and isn’t – lining up behind his bid for a third term suggests aspects of his record and personality that may be less appealing than his chief of staff acknowledges.
Hancock’s challengers slammed the mayor throughout the campaign for what they deemed as his failure to put in place smarter zoning and planning requirements, inertia creating more affordable housing, inaction on filling potholes and easing traffic congestion, inability to curb violence and overcrowding at the city jails, silence about excessive force cases and, among other issues, a habit of inviting lobbyists on city junkets.
Over the weekend, Giellis – a consultant in developing neighborhoods who snagged almost 25 percent of last week’s vote – coalesced backing from two of her top vote-getting former opponents, Lisa Calderón and Penfield Tate, who won 18 and nearly 15 percent, respectively.
It’s unclear whether Calderón and Tate might take on roles in a Giellis transition team or administration should she unseat Hancock in June. Giellis said she would not comment on their agreement until after the trio holds a news conference tomorrow.
The “Team of Rivals,” as the unity coalition is referring to itself, is hardly a union built on warm, fuzzy feelings.
Giellis and Calderón shared notable tensions and, at times, animosity throughout the campaign season. At a debate sponsored by The Colorado Independent, for example, Calderón accused Giellis of treating a Healing the Hood event – which sought to address issues around gang violence – as a “photo op” (see video at 1 hour, 18 minutes). Giellis appeared to be shaking after their back-and-forth.
The coalition also isn’t one of unified political perspectives or ideologies.
At several points during their campaigns, Calderón and Tate sniped at Giellis for being out of touch with minority and underserved Denverites, for working as what Calderón characterized as “a proxy” for developers, and for not having voted in 10 of the 22 municipal elections held since she moved to the city in 2006. They pointed to her efforts to appeal to Republican voters in the Democratically-dominated city and questioned whether she’s a conservative in progressive clothing.
Political experts without a dog in Denver’s mayoral fight say the unlikely coalition underscores an agenda in the city that shouldn’t be underestimated.
“It’s an anybody-but-Michael-Hancock agenda,” says pundit Eric Sondermann.
As he tells it, that sentiment stems partly from voters’ frustrations with the city growing and gentrifying so quickly.
“Hancock is in a tough predicament here,” Sondermann says. “He is the mayor of a spectacularly robust city at the moment, but one that is feeling its growing pains. In this race, it seems clear those growing pains are outweighing (his) successes.”
Some experts attribute the “anybody-but-Michael-Hancock” agenda to the mayor’s close ties to developers and other companies that do business with or rely on the city for permits. Others point to his record of having sexted Denver Police Detective Leslie Branch-Wise when she was part of his security detail in his first term.
“Women are tired of male politicians who’ve been known to harass women. They’re fed up with that kind of behavior and I think we’re seeing that in elections throughout the country,” says former Lt. Gov. Gail Schoettler.
Like Colorado’s governorship and both its U.S. Senate seats, the Denver mayor’s office has never been held by a woman. Schoettler isn’t involved in the mayor’s race, but long has championed Democratic women running for office.
“When people start to feel that their voices aren’t being heard, they think a woman will pay more attention,” she says. “Women did extremely well in 2018. When people look at the mess in the country, women start to look really good as leaders. They work across the aisle. There’s less ego when women lead than when men want to lead.”
Time will tell whether Giellis “unifying” with Calderon and Tate is an act of ego-lessness if not also one of political necessity to secure the votes of their supporters.
Hancock downplays the significance of their endorsement of Giellis.
“It doesn’t surprise me. It would be really difficult to walk back some of the rhetoric that they said (about me) during the campaign.”
Sondermann challenged Salazar’s assertion that third-term Denver mayoral candidacies traditionally have been difficult, noting that the last mayors to seek third terms – Bill McNichols and Wellington Webb – both won re-election in “cakewalks.”
Schoettler questions if Hancock might be facing a runoff precisely because an elected official serving three consecutive terms “is something that a lot of people don’t like.”
“Three terms is too much,” she says.
Hancock held an event Monday morning to showcase his success at what a press release described as “building a broad coalition of support.” But the rally included no announcements of new endorsements. He and Salazar have been reaching out over the past week to civic, faith, and community leaders, several of whom said they have not had a call from the mayor in eight years.
A significant portion of those in attendance at Park Hill’s Turtle Park work for Hancock’s administration, rely on it and his campaign for business, or lobby the city for business, policies or approval of their development projects. It was a rally in which folks in business suits and golf attire stood next to a playground at 10 a.m. on weekday, when most Denverites were working.
About the event, Hancock told The Independent, “I can’t tell if we had contractors there,” and noted that “I saw a very diverse crowd.”
Indeed, the supporters his campaign placed next to him on the podium were mainly black and Latino. In a campaign against a white woman, the black mayor made a point of noting their racial diversity several times during his rally.
“This is what Denver looks like. This is Denver, Colorado. This is our special sauce,” he said.
Denver Councilwoman Stacie Gilmore, who represents Hancock’s old Council District 11, spoke of him as a husband and father, and of the $162 million in improvements he has helped her bring to the district. She called him “bold” and “progressive.”
Former U.S. Attorney John Walsh – who’s running for U.S. Senate – lauded Hancock’s policy protecting undocumented immigrants in Denver and his work, as Walsh put it, “protecting the civil rights of all.”
Eric Shumake, whose house abuts the park where this morning’s rally took place, came out to heckle the mayor for his urban camping ban, which voters upheld in last week’s election. “Stop killing homeless people,” he yelled.
Eula Adams, a Hancock supporter who has organized Denver’s Juneteenth Music Festival, defended the mayor’s record on homelessness.
“People can avail themselves of housing and food in the city of Denver thanks to Mayor Hancock,” he said. “There is no reason for people sleeping on the streets and people who can’t find food.”
Hancock’s campaign is relying on his debating skills and showmanship to eke out a victory over Giellis. The mayor who has spent 16 years in public office and used to work as a Broncos mascot has challenged Giellis – a former TV reporter – to 12 debates in the three weeks until the June 4th election. He says her camp hasn’t responded.
If Hancock is sweating this sprint of a runoff election, he’s not showing it.
“I’ve been very blessed in my life and I believe that we’ll continue to be blessed,” he said.