Last Wednesday, the day after Denver’s municipal election, a few dozen members of the progressive Colorado Working Families Party gathered to debrief and to discuss the June 4 runoff between incumbent Mayor Michael Hancock and his challenger, No. 2 vote-getter Jamie Giellis.
They took a straw poll: Who planned to support Hancock?
No hands went up.
Who’d vote for Giellis?
About 75% of members raised their hands, according to party director Carlos Valverde.
“So we asked, ‘How many of you are raising your hand because it’s a vote against Hancock?” Valverde said. “Not a single hand went down.”
The anti-Hancock sentiment was indeed strong. Though he claimed a plurality of votes last week — 39% — his opponents are quick to note that 61% of the city voted for a change. And now, an unlikely coalition — including some who’ve previously demonstrated outright disdain for Hancock and Giellis alike — has formed to back Giellis and rally the vote over the next three weeks.
At a “unity” event Tuesday to formally launch this team-of-rivals coalition, Giellis stood alongside former mayoral candidates Lisa Calderón and Penfield Tate, who placed third and fourth last week, respectively. Calderón, an educator, community advocate and vocal Hancock critic, is an unapologetic, scholarly progressive. Tate, a former state senator with vast experience in city and state government, is more moderate than Calderón but ran well to the left of Hancock.
Giellis was, up until her mayoral run, the president of the RiNo Art District, which is a rather perfect microcosm of Denver in 2019: it’s had remarkable growth in a short period of time, but for many, it’s a symbol of gentrification and homelessness. Walk Brighton Boulevard or Larimer Steet and you’ll see a stark picture of income inequality. The district is lined with street art, bars, restaurants and shiny new apartment buildings, but artists and lower-income Denverites, by and large, cannot afford to live there.
So it came as no surprise when many, including Calderón — perhaps especially Calderón — fiercely opposed Giellis during the campaign, questioning her cultural competency and, after Colorado Politics reported that Giellis hasn’t voted in 10 Denver elections since moving here in 2006, questioning her qualifications to lead the city.
Backing Giellis now, said progressive Tony Pigford, who ran unsuccessfully this year for an at-large City Council seat, has required significant ego-swallowing on the part of those who last week supported Tate, Calderón or Kalyn Rose Heffernan, an artist and activist who placed a distant fifth in the mayoral race.
“But in politics,” he said, “there’s no permanent friends, no permanent enemies.”
There are a few possible reasons former foes are now united, chief among them the anti-Hancock sentiment. His opponents view him as beholden to developers and neglectful of the various ways that Denver’s boom has left behind, and in many cases pushed out, poor and minority populations.
The mayor challenges those criticisms, pointing out he created an affordable housing office for Denver and doubled its funding to $30 million annually; initiated Denveright, a 20-year development master plan; and, of this year, has a plan to increase the minimum wage for city employees to $15 per hour by 2021.
But the Rev. Timothy Tyler, who opened Tuesday’s unity event, said, “In eight years he has divided our city, destroyed our historical neighborhoods and has systematically tried to deal harshly with the homeless and the least of evils.”
At the event, Calderón and Tate each spoke at some length. Neither mentioned any of Giellis’s achievements. They said almost nothing about why they support her, beyond a collective hope that she’ll be a good listener and is generally competent. “The real deal,” Tate said of Giellis.
Mostly, they railed on Hancock and spoke of the need for change — even if the agent of that change isn’t perfect in their eyes, or even anywhere close to perfect.
Calderón said she’s heard since the election from supporters who say backing Giellis is a bridge too far, and that their desire to oust Hancock doesn’t outweigh their distaste for his opponent.
“I understand that, because I was there a week ago,” she admitted in an interview following the unity event.
Heffernan, for one, will not cross that bridge. She says she plans to vote in the runoff — for whom, TBA — but will not endorse either candidate.
“I’m not about replacing one ruler with another just because it’s not (Hancock). I think that’s a very dangerous situation,” she said by phone Wednesday.
Of Giellis, she said, “I can’t formally endorse somebody whose clear priority is development, who’s backed by developers. I’m an artist that represents people who can’t live in RiNo Art District, which she was president of. … It’s personal. And it’s personal with Hancock, too. There’s blood on both of their hands, to me.”
At the event, Giellis told her supporters to expect Hancock’s camp to “come at us with every ounce of negative energy that they can bring.” She said they’d try to paint her as a developer and would “come at us for how we support communities of color,” a line that Giellis, who is white, might not have uttered before Tate and Calderón, both people of color, joined her team.
It was telling that neither Tate nor Calderón addressed Giellis’s specific policy priorities or experience. Calderón spoke mostly about her own policy objectives, many of which Giellis pledges she’ll support: expanding mental health services in jails, repealing the city’s urban camping ban, bolstering the Office of Sustainability and tackling “environmental racism” in poorer neighborhoods such as Globeville and Elyria-Swansea, among others.
Neither former candidate said they expect a role in a potential Giellis administration, but at times on Tuesday they sounded more like running mates than mere supporters. That was especially true of Calderón, who offered a slew of “we will” promises — for example, “everything this administration does will be with an eye toward sustainability and we will invest the resources to do that,” and “we will not only repeal the urban camping ban, but we will replace it with incentive-based approaches.”
Many on the left of Giellis are backing her with some caution. Their support, they’ve said, is not unconditional. Rev. Tyler at one point said, in a remark that was not explicitly directed at anyone, “We will put you in, but if you don’t do right, we will take you out.”
Valverde, of the Working Families Party, said he’s simultaneously encouraged by Giellis’s alignment with progressive issues and skeptical of whether she actually believes in them. He called her a “novice,” but said that can work to the advantage of people like him and Tate and Calderon, who seem to see an opportunity to get in early with an impressionable candidate they say demonstrates more openness at this point than Hancock does.
“She’s made promises, but politicians do that all the time,” Valverde said. “She definitely has to say these things now if she wants to build this coalition.”
Added Pigford, “In another four years (of Hancock), the equity will have worsened and our crisis levels will have become maybe insurmountable. Right now with Jamie, there’s an opportunity to make change.”