Jamie Giellis arrived for an interview last week, chuckling with a campaign staffer about the song he played to boost her spirits on their drive over.
“It’s Disney, from ‘Frozen’,” he admitted.
They both belted it out in the café.
“LET IT GO,” they sang. “LET IT GO.”
Giellis, who is trying to unseat Denver Mayor Michael Hancock in the June 4 runoff, had barely slept for two nights as last week’s media storm about her racial awareness – or lack thereof – kept roiling in her head. In the space of a couple days, she had managed to raise eyebrows in Denver’s black, Asian and Latino communities with remarks past and present that suggested she doesn’t really know the city she wants to lead.
For someone who has built a career largely on preparation and presentation, letting it go was easier sung than done.
“I’m my own worst critic,” she said. “And I’ve been kicking myself, just kicking myself for my blind spots.”
Given the hot seat Giellis is on and the microscope she is under, the political newcomer was fully aware that singing a Disney tune, especially that Disney tune to a reporter risked reinforcing the image of ditzy, blond whiteness and high-heeled shallowness with which she knows Hancock and his supporters are eager to frame her.
And she was OK with that.
“They think they know me – Millennial Barbie,” she shrugged about one of the nicknames social media trolls have coined for her.
“But there’s a lot they don’t know,” she added, “like that I’m a fierce fucking fighter.”
Farm girl to city woman
Giellis, for the record, is not a millennial. She’s 42, which makes her a Gen-Xer.
In a mayoral race buzzing with gender and racial undercurrents, the accuracy of the Barbie label is open to interpretation.
She grew up in Leland, Iowa, population 277, where her great-great-great grandfather started the first business, her great-great grandfather built all the bridges, her great-grandfather graded the roads, and her grandfather worked on the railroad. It’s a heavily Lutheran community where casseroles are topped by Tater tots and “Everybody’s kind of overly nice to one another.”
“Nobody wants to come off as aggressive or overbearing or mean,” she said. “So they’re all kind of quiet and apologetic about things.”
Giellis’s parents grew corn and soybeans and raised cows, chickens and pigs on their farm. She had her own pigs, which she trained like dogs and taught to do tricks for chocolate. People were trickier for the girl whose shyness kept her from sleeping over at friends’ houses or going to overnight camp.
Her “Pops,” as she calls her dad, Jim Ambroson, served 13 years as Leland’s mayor, a volunteer job in which he was on call 24/7 to lend a hand to fellow townsfolk. She remembers him “getting up in the middle of the night because somebody’s sewer had backed up into their basement.
“He had no clue if it was their line or the city’s line that was the problem, but (he)…helped clean up the mess.”
Giellis says she admired his connection to a town that sustained their family for five generations. Yet, even if her own generation could still make a living in Leland – and it can’t – she gravitated toward places that are bigger and more complex.
After graduating from the University of Iowa with a journalism degree, she went to work in Cedar Rapids as a TV reporter. That job helped her overcome her shyness and buoyed her confidence in her ability to grasp a lot of information quickly. But it didn’t suit her, she says, because it didn’t let her dig deep enough into important issues, and it made her feel that she was exploiting rather than helping the people she covered. She recalls an assignment covering a young woman’s brutal murder and the TV station insisting that she stand on the woman’s parents’ front lawn until they gave a statement.
“I said, ‘No, why would you do that to people? That’s horrible. Let them grieve.’”
Giellis went on to work in public relations and then ran a downtown redevelopment organization in Cedar Rapids. At 26, she married Jim Licko, a fellow Iowan and public relations guy who had his eyes on Denver.
The couple moved in 2006 when Licko took a PR job here and Giellis – who went by the name Licko at the time – went to work for Progressive Urban Management Associates, P.U.M.A., a firm specializing in downtown revitalization projects.
Her job as a junior associate mainly involved working with neighborhoods in Denver and other cities nationally to form business improvement districts. Those are arrangements in which property owners in a defined part of a city agree to an extra property tax to pay for things like sidewalks, landscaping, or lighting to make the area more business friendly or livable.
Giellis’s boss at the time, P.U.M.A. President Brad Segal, describes her as “very smart, very ambitious.”
He says she quit after almost four years at P.U.M.A. on the pretense that she was launching a company that would offer marketing and branding services for communities forming business improvement districts. Instead, he says, her new company, Centro Inc., went head-to-head in competition with P.U.M.A. for contracts to actually create the districts. He says Centro copied content from P.U.M.A.’s web site, claimed credit for projects that Giellis hadn’t led, and solicited clients that P.U.M.A. had been courting before she left. Among those was the government of Singapore, which ultimately gave Centro – in conjunction with a British firm called Mosaic Partnership – a contract that Segal says his company had been seeking for a year and a half.
“She misled us about her intentions. It put us through a lot of turmoil,” Segal said, noting that since her departure, he requires all new employees to sign what he calls “the Jamie Licko non-compete clause.”
Giellis says she and Licko were divorcing at the time (he now is endorsing Hancock) and she launched the business to earn more money so she could afford to keep her house. She says she was upfront with Segal about the work Centro would do, and that she never stole his clients.
She and Segal have vastly different takes on a blow-up they had in 2008 over a plan she wrote for the Downtown San Mateo Association in California. Segal says she put more time into the plan than necessary, given what P.U.M.A. was being paid. Giellis says Segal had put her in charge of the project and that she was learning from it and wanted to please the client. She describes him as a controlling and sometimes abusive boss who “literally scribbled all over the report in red pen” and “berated me rather than talking it through constructively.”
The upshot, according to Segal, whose company has a contract with the city: “Her reaction was to go into her office and hysterically cry and heave for 45 minutes. She is manipulative. And she’s manipulating the whole fucking city of Denver right now.”
The upshot, according to Giellis: “I took the plan and threw it on the ground. I didn’t throw it at him, though I wanted to. I was certainly pissed off, but I’m not a wilting flower who curled up in the corner and bawled, if that is how he (is) positioning it.”
“If he was unhappy with me and I was manipulative, why didn’t he fire me? And why did he continue contracting with me even after I left?” she asked. “He’s pissed because I beat him, over and over, fair and square for work. I beat him for Chicago work. I beat him for Singapore work. And I beat him for the contract for RiNo. That’s why he’s mad now, 10 years later, because I proved myself and my ability to succeed.”
There is a resolve on Giellis’s face when she talks about that point in her career, or points in her campaign when she has been underestimated. These are moments when her “Iowa nice” gives way to a mettle that is missing at her rallies and forums. She reveals the scrapper who will not apologize for having outgrown a mentor, strived and stretched in her career, and tried like hell to hold on to her house during a recession.
“I worked my ass off,” she said. “But I did it.”
Centro is a consulting firm that has ranged in size from one employee, Giellis, to three.
It bills itself as “an internationally sought-after resource for best-practices and proven-processes in developing high-quality spaces and enhancing quality of life across communities.”
What that means, in practice, is that cities or neighborhood groups hire her to be what she calls an “urban therapist” to bring residents, small businesses, big businesses and developers together – often for the first time – to reach a shared vision for a specific urban space and a common understanding of whom it serves and what, as a community, it values. Once that vision is honed, she helps the community finance improvements by creating special taxing agreements and public-private partnerships, and she sometimes brands and markets the project.
Giellis says the process empowers communities to “create their own destinies” rather than being dwarfed by or pushed out by development.
Despite Hancock’s attempts to label her a developer, she isn’t, and notes that she has “never worked for a developer.”
“I’ve worked with developers, not for them. And it’s often the case that I’m pushing back against what they want to do,” she said.
For five years after leaving P.U.M.A., she travelled between Denver, other U.S. cities, the United Kingdom where, among other projects, she helped businesses near the London Bridge come up with a redevelopment plan, and Singapore, where she created a plan to revitalize the city’s riverfront.
Mo Answat, founder and director of the U.K.-based Mosaic Partnerships in the U.K, partnered with Giellis on projects for four years, including the one in Singapore. He describes her as a shrewed businesswoman who, “when focused, can be a very, very formidable opponent.” He also says that, unlike many Americans, she’s a listener who doesn’t inject her ego into her work and is “adept working in a wide variety of cultures that are different to her own.”
“In Singapore, we were in a place we didn’t know, in an environment that was unfamiliar to us. We had to learn about Singaporean culture and understand how their politics operate, all in a very short space in time,” said the Englishman of Indian descent. “I know there’s a bit of a thing going on in Denver about her inexperience with other cultures. But in all my time with Jamie, she always treated all of those elements with sensitivity.”
In 2014, while splitting her time in the U.K. and Denver, she met Chris Giellis, owner of Mile High Wine and Spirits in Belmar, on eHarmony. She since has cut back on work requiring heavy travel so she could center her life with him and his son Jackson, who’s now 9. She married Giellis in June 2018.
“I recognized at a certain point how desperately I needed roots. I wanted a family, and we planned on having a baby,” she says. “Chris and Jackson have been an extraordinarily calming influence on my life. Here was this incredible man saying, ‘Babe, I’m not here to do anything but support you and let you shine.’ It was, well, it was just a refreshing thing.”
In 2014, she started working with the RiNo Art District in River North, the industrial area north of downtown and south of I-70. By that point, developers had started building big office and condo buildings there and artists and small businesses were concerned about how unbridled growth would affect art studios, street art, sunlight, and the general feel of the area.
“Let’s just say that the artists, business owners and developers were not rolling in the same direction at that time,” says Justin Croft, who worked as a barista in River North before becoming vice president of development for Zeppelin Development.
The company – one of Giellis’s biggest backers – has, among many other projects, converted a former shipping terminal, a former service garage, a former Yellow Cab dispatch center and an abandoned warehouse into multi-use projects called Freight, Cadillac, Taxi and The Source.
Giellis helped artists, small businesses, local developers like Zeppelin and out-of-state investment firms with property in RiNo form special taxing districts that would pay for arts and cultural priorities such as street art, artist housing, bike lanes, and river access. She went on to become executive director of the art district in RiNo, which is now the largest business improvement district in Colorado and pays artists participating in CRUSH, its annual street art and creative festival, directly from revenues generated by the business improvement district.
“I’ve never seen somebody able to walk into a situation to get these different interests to build bridges – not just giving people a token voice, but to have them feel like they’re really invested in the outcomes,” Croft says.
But not everybody in RiNo felt included or valued.
Brian Mathenge owned Cold Crush, a live music and art venue that opened on Larimer Street in 2013 when many of the properties around it were still boarded up and abandoned. The club was beloved by members of Denver’s hip hop scene, and by music fans of all ages, colors, gender identities and sexual orientation. Some considered it the single most diverse place to hear music in the city.
“What makes me proud, really proud, is that it was a real melting pot,” says Mathenge, who is black.
As he tells it, Giellis never reached out to him about the direction RiNo was taking. He says the inclusivity he now hears her talking about on the campaign trail flat-out didn’t happen with him, even though his club was an early draw to the neighborhood, a pioneer of street art there, a frequent organizer of shoe drives, coat drives and other charitable efforts, and financially successful.
A shooting outside Cold Crush in 2016 led the city to pull its license and shut it down for about 10 days. When it reopened, Mathenge says Giellis – who by that point was president of the art district – actively worked to have it closed permanently without discussing her concerns with him. He blames her for the fact that Cold Crush’s landlord ended the club’s lease in 2017.
“There are a lot of ways she could have handled it. She could have taken the time to get to know us as a business. But her approach was ‘get rid of those people” and ‘get those people out,’” he said. “I’m not saying she’s a racist. I’m just saying she’s a gentrifier who worked to push out one of the few, if only, black businesses in RiNo.”
Giellis says it was the responsibility of the art district’s steering committee members to reach out to and communicate with business owners, and that doing so with Cold Crush was not part of her role. But when Mathenge’s business was temporarily shuttered, she says she helped draw up what she calls a “good neighbor agreement” between the art district and Cold Crush that she gave to the city in support of reopening it.
She calls Mathenge’s assertion that she’s a gentrifier misguided.
“There’s nothing that ties me to gentrification other than I was working in a neighborhood where change was coming at a wicked pace,” she says. “Gentrification comes from failed policies at the city level. My specific role was to come into and engage a community about what they were going to do about it.”
What Giellis prefers voters take away about her work in RiNo and other parts of Denver where she has consulted is that it gave her a unique vantage from which to view how the city approaches planning and how it responds to communities’ taking active roles in how their landscapes take form.
The RiNo district, for example, decided it was fundamental to its economic vitality and sustainability to build sidewalks, allow pedestrian crosses, set height restrictions for new buildings, require a certain percentage of affordable housing units, install a green stormwater system and clean up the river banks. Even though lower-level city staffers in the planning and public works departments embraced that kind of innovation, Giellis and others say the Hancock appointees those staffers worked for often would reject it as being too new, too risky or too much work. Some staffers note that the administration has gone 10 months – during one of Denver’s biggest growth spurts in history – without a planning director.
Giellis says communities shouldn’t have to pay an advocate like her to have their values recognized by city government. That got her thinking last year about a possible mayoral bid despite the fact that she had never run for office.
After she and her husband had spent four years trying various fertility treatments, they decided to stop last August when in vitro fertilization didn’t work.
“It was devastating,” she says. “As a woman, I just hit this really low point, one of those moments when you ask what’s the mark I want to make, what’s the opportunity I have to take this energy I have and create something positive and important?”
So, in November, she launched her campaign to become Denver’s first female mayor.
The photo on her Facebook profile seems to capture something essential about that decision. It is of a fortune cookie fortune that reads, “You will continue to take chances and be glad you did.”
Almost 40% of eligible voters cast ballots in May 7 election – the highest participation since 1991. Gielles managed to win about 44,000 votes to Hancock’s 68,000, denying him the more than 50% margin he needed to skate into a third term without a run-off.
Ballots for their June 4th runoff election started arriving by mail Tuesday, and many Denverites – especially those who didn’t vote in the first round – are just beginning to pay attention.
Hancock has held the office for eight years and has used the power of incumbency to raise $2.1 million as of the last reporting deadline on May 3. His contributors included dozens of contractors, vendors, developers, lobbyists, bankers and consultants who do business with the city.
Giellis has raised $506,000 as of May 3 from architects, artists, lawyers, psychologists, real estate brokers and a few developers. Because of her newcomer status and fundraising disadvantage, she has to work harder to introduce herself to voters and make her positions known.
If there’s confusion about those positions, it’s because some are murky and some have changed dramatically in the six months she has been running.
In April, a letter from a group calling itself “Republicans for Jamie Gielles” was mailed to the relatively small portion of Denverites registered with the GOP. In the field of candidates seeking to run the city, it said she was the “best choice for conservatives.” It turned out that her campaign had sent the letter, but left off the “Paid for by” language in what she calls an oversight by her staff.
The letter highlighted Giellis’s opposition to Initiative 300, the “Right to Survive” measure seeking to lift Denver’s urban camping ban. The ban makes it illegal to “reside or dwell temporarily in place.” Under it, the city’s police and public works department have conducted homeless sweeps — what Hancock calls “cleanups” — to push homeless people off the streets and temporarily seize their belongings. Giellis opposed overturning the ban, as did the vast majority of Denver voters who shot down the measure in the May 7 election. She says it is not a contradiction that she now supports working with City Council to repeal the urban camping ban because it is her understanding that Initiative 300 could have led to eliminating curfews in city parks and some other “unacceptable consequences.” Denver’s city attorney’s office has said the initiative’s language was open to interpretation on how it might have affected curfews.
Perhaps the chief concern about Giellis is her record of not voting in 10 of the 22 elections in Denver between her move here in 2006 and this year. That, to many voters, suggests a longstanding disinterest in city government that seems incongruous for someone seeking to run it.
Gielles says she was overseas for six of those 10 missed elections. About the others, she has said she “was focused on other things.” She says she realizes those reasons won’t sit right with some people.
Segal said the Giellis he knew wasn’t interested in local politics or policy. He warns voters not to be snookered that she now is.
“There’s no real conviction, (and…) the policies that are coming out of her are all over the place,” he said, calling her a “narcissist.” “Her endgame … is what’s in the mirror. Her endgame is achieving this milestone she’s not qualified for.”
Others say Giellis’s voter inactivity belies a disturbing lack of awareness about her own privilege. To those without power, it is a frustrating reminder of a long-held assumption by Denver’s white middle class that things will go their way regardless of whether they vote.
Giellis knew that to beat Hancock June 4, she needed support from Lisa Calderón and Penfield Tate, her top rivals who won 18 and 15% of the vote, respectively.
Calderón is a social justice educator and community organizer who is black and Latina and has advocated for overhauling the city’s controversy-plagued Safety Department. Tate, who is black and a former state lawmaker, is a lawyer who specializes in government contracting and finance. They had spent several months criticizing Giellis as unqualified and out of touch.
But both agreed to support her on the conditions that, if elected, she would appoint a diverse cabinet, embrace a platform that reflects some of their priorities, and build an administration more responsive than Hancock’s to Denver’s communities of color and vulnerable populations.
“Deal,” she says she told them.
Overnight, a candidate whose base had consisted largely of business people, fiscal conservatives, soccer moms, empty nesters and RiNo millennials had the support of many in the city’s civil rights and social justice communities, including people of color who have become disenchanted with Hancock.
“People have seen what it means to vote for someone just because they’re black. They have felt the sting of it,” said H-Soul Ashemu, a civil rights activist who in 2016 turned the city’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day “Marade” into a march against Hancock for his handling of sheriff’s deputies killing of a mentally ill black man, Michael Marshall, in the city jail. “It says something about this mayor, a man who has done more to hurt people who share his skin complexion than help them, that people are uniting around this white woman from Iowa.”
At a rally for Giellis last Tuesday, Calderón described what she sees as patterns of racial tokenism, cronyism and sexism by Hancock. Tate slammed Hancock for awarding only 8% of $3.5 billion in contracts to minority-owned businesses in a city whose minority population is 46%. That lack of concern about black and brown people, both told the crowd, needs to end with the June 4 runoff.
They rallied for ending what they described as a rash of sweetheart deals and a culture of pay-to-play in city contracting. And they called for an end to displacing wide swaths of Denver’s communities of color with unbridled gentrification.
And then Giellis stepped up to the podium in front of City Hall, just below the mayor’s office.
“This is a humbling day,” she said.
She spoke of her commitment to “recognizing that a culture of inclusion is a conscious effort every single day.”
“We have to be willing to listen, to open our minds, to engage and not just to pay lip service like this administration has done.”
But the day that had started as humbling became, by Giellis’s own making, humiliating.
The candidate who had just promised a higher consciousness about race couldn’t, when asked in an interview after the rally last Tuesday, say what the acronym NAACP stands for and stammered to say what the civil rights group does.
Things got worse for her Wednesday, when, amid a social media flurry about her NAACP answers, a Hancock supporter dug up and posted one of Giellis’s tweets from 2009 reading, “Here’s a question: Why do so many cities feel it necessary to have a ‘Chinatown’?” The tweet triggered even more discomfort about her grasp of racial issues, this time in her own field of community development.
Also Wednesday, an invitation for a Giellis “meet & greet fundraiser” at a Mexican restaurant featuring “a nacho/taco bar, lowriders, and a conversation about Denver” spurred criticism that she was stereotyping Latinos.
It was a two-day, triple whammy of what Hancock’s campaign, pundits and even her own supporters read, to varying degrees, as racial insensitivity and ignorance.
Giellis’s explanation for the lowriders: She says the restaurant owner throwing the fundraiser for her invited his friends, who have a low-rider club and wanted to show off their cars. She says her campaign honored his wishes.
She struggles to explain the decade-old Chinatown tweet. “It was in the context of a bigger discussion about displacement of communities, like Chinese communities, while cities still commercialize and capitalize off them,” she says. Even if that explanation matched the tone of her tweet, she could not remember whom that “bigger discussion” was with.
Giellis’s NAACP answers have caused the most widespread concern – less because she couldn’t say what the acronym stands for than because she seemed unclear about what the group even does. They were not “gaffes” or “blunders,” as many news outlets reported. To many, they reflected an incuriosity about and indifference to civil rights struggles and raise questions about her fitness to lead a big city.
She says she understands those concerns. “I know I’m new at this, and I know I have flaws… blind spots,” she said.
It rattled Giellis, how quickly and ferociously those blind spots can blindside a newcomer to politics. It pained her, knowing she had let her team of rivals down. But it has moved her, too, the extent to which people who never expected to find themselves rooting for Millennial Barbie have been urging her to stand up, let it go, and fight.