Littwin: Can Giellis swing story back to ‘vulnerable mayor’ from ‘string of unforced errors’?

Mayoral hopeful Jamie Giellis, left, with former rivals Penfield Tate and Lisa Calderon at unity rally opposing Mayor Michael Hancock on May 14, 2019. (Colorado Independent photo by Alex Burness)
Denver mayoral hopeful Jamie Giellis, left, with former rivals Penfield Tate and Lisa Calderón at a May 14 unity rally opposing incumbent Mayor Michael Hancock. (Colorado Independent photo by Alex Burness)

It was never going to be easy, but Jamie Giellis — the little-known challenger pitted against the apparently too-well-known Denver mayor in a runoff election June 4 — had only one job in the home stretch of the campaign: Don’t screw it up.

She didn’t have to show that she was fit to be mayor. She only had to show that she wasn’t unfit, and if she could pull that off, she had a real shot at an upset. 

Giellis made that strategy work for nearly a week, which, by my calendar, was about three weeks short of the goal. In fact, in the space of two days, she had flubs and flubbed responses to the flubs, each of them revealing, for better or worse, seemingly unlearned issues of cultural sensitivity. And suddenly the race looked like it could be more than a referendum on Hancock, which may be the only way Hancock can win.

Those who know Giellis tell me that we’re getting a wrong, or at least incomplete, picture of Giellis. I’m ready to believe that. But even assuming that’s true, her real problem — the one that could cost her — is that once she recognized the blunders, she seemed to have no idea how to address them, which leads to the obvious question: Would she able to handle the real crises that mayors routinely have to face? It’s the inexperience factor that she’s always faced.

In one case, she shut down her personal social media sites to avoid further damage — an open invitation for oppo researchers to prove that tweets never die. In another, on the day she said she would no longer give interviews addressing the flubs, she had a change of heart and decided to give what can charitably be called a cringeworthy interview to 9News’ Kyle Clark.

While Clark can be a tough interviewer, his questions were based on the same questions he had been raising publicly, on the air, for a few days. It wasn’t a pop quiz. 

Michael Hancock, the two-term incumbent who is sufficiently vulnerable that he couldn’t bring in quite 39% of the vote in the election’s first round, shouldn’t have to run any negative ads. All he has to do is run Clark’s 7-minute, unedited interview with Giellis.

When Clark asked Giellis about the impact of her mistakes, she replied, “ When you’re in the midst of that moment who knows what the right decision is to be made, but I’m here … I made mistakes, I’m going to make mistakes …”

When Clark pointed out she hasn’t said what mistakes she actually made, Giellis picked up from there while still not admitting what mistakes she made: “Everything you do in this campaign is going to be perceived in different ways — was it right, was it wrong. The posts that were made, the deleting that was made, you can go interview everyone in this room and they’re going to say ‘That was wrong’; ‘There was nothing wrong with it’. Everyone’s going to perceive it differently.“

So, what were the mistakes? We start, of course, with the acronym problem, when, in a friendly interview on the Brother Jeff Fard’s video webcast, she couldn’t come up with what the NAACP initials stood for. If Giellis had been on Jeopardy, she’d have been buzzed on the second letter. National … African … 

That was hardly a big deal, but then she was asked what the NAACP actually did, I had her buzzed by the third platitude, but only because I was in a generous mood. It’s an advocacy group. It’s an issues group. 

I don’t know how many people know what NAACP stands for. These days, it would be NAAPC — people of color. But I’m pretty certain that every big-city mayor knows. Try asking smallish-size-city Mayor Pete, and I promise he’ll give you W.E.B. Du Bois’ favorite breakfast cereal and recite the organization’s top 10 accomplishments, in Norwegian. 

All Giellis had to say was something like this: “It’s strange that I can’t quite recall what NAACP initials stand for. But I definitely know the history of the NAACP and what that means. I know we wouldn’t be the same country without the hard and often dangerous work of the NAACP, from its strategies to overcome Jim Crow segregation and worse in the South to the Brown school integration decision to their work today in the fight against the GOP’s assault on voting rights.”

Instead, she would later say she had a memory lapse — which almost no one believed — and then came the rest. The tweeted invitation for tacos and low-riders event at a Mexican restaurant. A tweet which she deleted.

And then the nearly decade-old tweet on Chinatowns, of all things: “Here’s a question: Why do so many cities feel it necessary to have a ‘Chinatown’?”

Why did she make this apparently random tweet? After a few attempts in talking about inclusivity, she finally conceded she had no idea. And, again, she missed the chance to answer by saying she understands the origins of Chinatowns and also the racist Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and how you can link it directly to Trump’s anti-immigration and anti-refugee policies.

It’s at this point that I have to stress again how vulnerable Hancock seems. He is obviously faced with widespread dissatisfaction with his handling of the rapid pace of the city’s growth. (Pro tip: It’s great to be mayor of maybe the hottest city in the country — until, suddenly, it isn’t.) There are gentrification issues, closeness-to-developers issues, and, of course, there were the sexual-harassment texts that roiled Hancock in the #MeToo era.

And Giellis had surprised us by putting together a “team of rivals,” in which Lisa Calderón and Penfield Tate, the two most successful candidates in the race who didn’t qualify for the runoff, have thrown their support to Giellis. The support isn’t so much pro-Giellis — Calderón, especially, made some very tough slams on Giellis during the campaign — but strong anti-Hancock sentiment.

This is particularly important given that Giellis is white and Hancock is black. The endorsements from Calderón and Tate give her credibility in minority communities. And Hancock must turn out the minority vote if he is to pull out a win in the June 4 runoff. Meanwhile, Hancock keeps pulling high-profile endorsements, including one from Hillary Clinton. Who knew that Clinton was paying attention to the Denver mayoral race?

Those who are paying attention know that Giellis is young at 42 and not a politician and faces, as she wisely admits, a significant learning curve. And they know she also has an opponent who still has to figure out how to turn a disappointing 39% of the vote into 51%. After the election and the team of rivals’ news conference, Giellis had real momentum. Now, in the few days left, the question is whether she can figure out how get it back.