5 takeaways from Tuesday’s Hancock vs. Giellis Denver mayoral debate

Sexual harassment, homelessness and gentrification were all on the table

sparks fly in Denver mayoral debate
Denver Mayor Michael Hancock and challenger Jamie Giellis at Channel 9-KUSA debate on May 21, 2019. (Photo courtesy of Channel 9-KUSA)

Editor’s note: A previous version of this story incorrectly suggested that Leslie Branch-Wise had signed an affidavit this week saying she was not sexually harassed. That affidavit was signed in 2013.

Incumbent Mayor Michael Hancock and challenger Jamie Giellis pressed one another on issues including homelessness, gender discrimination, gentrification and development Tuesday night in their first televised debate of the runoff election.

A quick recap of how we got here: Hancock, who is seeking a third term, has led the city during a time of unprecedented growth and economic vitality, but has come under fire for, among other things, rising displacement of the city’s low-income and minority communities, coziness with developers and sexually suggestive texts he sent to a member of his security detail.

He faced five challengers in the May 7 municipal election and won a 39% plurality of votes — 11% short of the total he needed to avoid a runoff. Giellis, the former president of the RiNo Art District, got 26% and has since won the endorsements of the third- and fourth-place finishers, Lisa Calderón and Penfield Tate.

Tuesday’s debate was moderated by Kyle Clark and Marshall Zellinger of 9News. Here are five takeaways:

Giellis presses Hancock on sexual harassment — kind of

Earlier today, Giellis held a press conference to condemn Hancock and city officials for putting taxpayers on the hook for what she calculates are about $1.5 million in payouts to victims of sexual harassment and gender discrimination. But Giellis, in that presser, played up the sexual harassment instances — including one in which the mayor sent sexually suggestive texts to a subordinate on his security detail named Leslie Branch-Wise — and didn’t note that more than half of the payouts she highlighted were not, in fact, found to be harassment.

She attempted to cover for that by saying that she believes gender discrimination is a form of sexual harassment. Then she broadened her point: “There is a culture,” she said. “Somebody has to stand up for these women. … That culture is there because (Hancock), at the top, started that culture. When that is the behavior that the leader has, it will continue to happen.”

“What Jamie and her team did today was political theater,” Hancock said of the Giellis press conference. “Let’s be clear: I have never been sued for sexual harassment.”

But when Hancock went on to say that the case of the woman who accused him of sexual harassment “did not involve me,” Giellis didn’t have a chance to follow up. Hancock has admitted to inappropriately texting the woman and even said Tuesday he apologized to his family, the city and to the victim.

“Would Leslie Branch-Wise agree that she was not sexually harassed if she were standing here today?” Giellis asked.

But it ended there. The moderator, Clark, cut off the conversation at that point and noted that Branch-Wise signed an affidavit saying she was not sexually harassed.

Giellis did at one point call for Denver city employees to be able to anonymously report sexual harassment, and Hancock said they can call the city’s fraud hotline if they wish to make such a report.

On homelessness

Giellis boasted during the initial campaign that she was the first candidate to come out against Initiative 300, the measure to repeal the city’s urban camping ban. I-300 failed miserably in the May 7 election, failing to secure even a fifth of the vote.

These days, Giellis sounds nothing like the candidate who was proud to stand up so strongly against overturning the ban. Asked about the apparent flip-flop, Giellis explained, “I was clear from the beginning I was anti-300. (It) was not just a repeal of the urban camping ban. It would have opened us up to a lot of other challenges.” But she says now that the ban must be repealed and replaced with a new comprehensive plan to get people to shelters, tiny homes and other services.

Hancock didn’t seem to buy that Giellis has real solutions to replace the camping ban, which went into place in 2012 on his watch and which he called “an important tool.”

“Jamie, you have not proposed anything new that we’re not doing,” Hancock said. He defended the city conducting sweeps and temporarily seizing the property of homeless people. “Tell us what better ideas you have,” he challenged Giellis. She didn’t specify.

Neither seemed to want to touch RiNO

The River North Art District, better known as RiNo, is arguably Denver’s hottest neighborhood right now, with dozens of new and new-ish restaurants, bars, breweries and government-sanctioned street art. Several of its most popular attractions were developed by Kyle Zeppelin, the single biggest backer of the Giellis campaign.

RiNo is also synonymous with homelessness and gentrification of the historically black Five Points neighborhood. And that may be why the two both came off as trying to distance themselves from the changes in the area.

Giellis, the former president of RiNo Art District, said one person alone can’t gentrify a neighborhood, but city government can. She noted that the area plan was adopted in 2004, long before she became involved. Hancock argued in response that city government can’t gentrify a neighborhood, either. “No it cannot,” he said several times.

Though both are backed by developers, they consistently paint each other as being particularly beholden to development interests.

Hancock and assimilation

The moderators posed a question about all those transplants — including Giellis, an Iowa native. How to balance all those newcomers and new businesses with the lifelong residents who, increasingly, are being displaced.

“I celebrate being a native of Denver,” Hancock said. “I also celebrate the new people who’ve come here. … But we also have a responsibility to lean in, to become a part of the community, whenever we get here, to assimilate and to make sure we are here to become a value to the community.”

Clark, incredulous, challenged Hancock on his use of “assimilate.”

“If your opponent or anyone else for that matter had suggested that immigrants have a duty to assimilate,” Clark said, “I have a feeling you would’ve taken them apart for that.”

“I’m not speaking about immigrants,” Hancock replied. “I’m talking about people who come to our city … understand the history of that community, and make sure you honor that history.”

Sexism and Chinatown

Giellis’s strategy after the May 7 election was defined by her partnership with Calderón and Tate, two candidates of color who lent some cultural competence to the campaign. But Giellis quickly faced questions about her own cultural competence when she stumbled through a question last week about the name and mission of the NAACP and when a decade-old tweet of hers surfaced: “Here’s a question: Why do so many cities feel it necessary to have a ‘Chinatown’?” the tweet read.

She deleted that tweet, her personal Twitter account and wiped her campaign instagram. She passed Tuesday on an invitation from the moderators to address the Asian-American community directly about the Chinatown tweet.

Hancock jumped on that.

“I think the last week, when we saw her offend just about every minority community in Denver, is an indication of her insensitivity,” Hancock said, as part of a comment about a general lack of preparedness he says he sees in Giellis.

She took exception to the suggestion, and said that he wouldn’t make the same judgment of a male opponent.

“Did people say that to (former mayor) Federico Peña, at 37, when he came out of nowhere? Or (former mayor and governor) John Hickenlooper, when he was running a bar?” Giellis said.

“Jamie, I never made an issue about you being a woman,” Hancock responded, before proceeding to lay out various ways he believes Peña and Hickenlooper were both more qualified than she is.


  1. Weird comment about RINO being synonymous with Five Points gentrification.

    I don’t see the connection. Lived in that part of the city for over ten years and can’t there.

  2. That means you lack historical context. Parts of RiNo are actually Five Points, just rebranded.

  3. You could be right, but I’ve never seen the jazz-infused, African-American centric, fiercely independent Five Points district associated with the historically industrial River North area, owned for decades by commercial enterprises…owned by white folks.

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