Michael Hancock has defeated Jamie Giellis in Denver’s mayoral runoff.
“Tonight, we won this race together,” he told a crowd of supporters at EXDO Event Center in Five Points. He congratulated Giellis on a “spirited” campaign.
He was ahead, 56.3% to 43.7%, with 161,582 ballots cast in the race as of 1:50 a.m. Wednesday.
Flanked onstage at EXDO by family and former Denver Mayors Wellington Webb and John Hickenlooper, among other politicians and community leaders, Hancock said, “Tonight, the people of Denver agreed: they said they want four more years of progress!”
After initial returns came in, the mood at Giellis’s gathering at Ophelia’s Electric Soapbox was social, but not somber — partly because many supporters didn’t seem to understand how wide and significant Hancock’s early margin is, and partly because those who did understand were holding out for a statistical lightning strike.
But just after 9 p.m., Giellis called Hancock to concede, according to Hancock’s staff.
Sheila McDonald, Giellis’s campaign manager, praised the candidate’s pluck. “This is about somebody who saw a chance to make a difference, and despite lots of people telling her not to do it, she took that chance,” McDonald said. “She got this city talking about a lack of attainable housing, runaway growth, homelessness and where Denver wants to be 10 to 20 years from now … We were outspent four or five to one. That’s too much to overcome. But I can tell you this. Jamie is not going away.”
The runoff election, one of the ugliest in years, was widely seen as a reflection of widespread discontent with Hancock, the two-term incumbent who has presided over a period of historic growth in Denver, but also over historic displacement of low- and middle-income communities, as well as a series of scandals concerning the city Safety Department; bid-rigging in city contracting; and sexual harassment and gender discrimination against female city employees.
Michelle Hancock-Sproling, the mayor’s twin sister, suggested this race took a lot more out of Hancock, his family and his camp in general than did his previous two bids for mayor.
“I think it was harder for him, but he hung in there and held his head high,” she said.
She added that the family was relieved but unsurprised to see Hancock win.
“I think people already knew it was there, but seeing these numbers right now confirms it,” she said.
Hancock’s wife, Mary Louise Lee, addressed a cheering crowd: “I am so proud of the man he has been and the mayor that he will be for the next four years.
Over at Ophelia’s, Rachel Maryniak, a recruiter for a Denver tech firm, said she’s still “praying” for Giellis.
“We really need a woman’s voice at the city. We really need a change,” she said.
Hancock needed at least 50% of the vote in the initial election May 7 to win a third term in office. He secured only 39%, prompting a runoff with Giellis, who, with 25% of the vote, finished second among Hancock’s five challengers. The third- and fourth-place finishers, Lisa Calderón and Penfield Tate, not only endorsed Giellis in the runoff but have been running with her as a “unity ticket” determined to oust Hancock.
On Election Day afternoon, Hancock discussed the tightness of this election in an interview with The Independent, during which he downplayed the degree to which it’s been a referendum on his own performance.
“Certainly, we understand people’s frustrations and sense of challenge during this time, but we believe most people in Denver believe the city’s headed in the right direction,” he said.
Hancock has consistently campaigned on the idea that Denver should retain him in order to stay the course and not risk becoming a “dying city,” economically and otherwise.
“When an organization is doing well, you don’t pause that progress, you don’t pause that city so a new mayor can figure that out,” he said.
Giellis rejected that thinking, saying that although growth has brought some progress in Denver, it also has caused a constellation of problems that Hancock and his administration have ignored. Chief among them, she says, is poor zoning and planning in an era of unprecedented development and how it is affecting neighborhoods, city services and quality of life in Denver. She has criticized Hancock for failing to address affordable housing needs and homelessness in meaningful ways.
“What we have here is an administration that hasn’t addressed fundamental needs in our city,” she says. “The people of Denver are hungry for a leader who’s more interested in solutions than in (doing business) the same old ways, with the same contractors, with the same lack of progress.”
Giellis is a development consultant who has worked for neighborhood groups in Downtown Denver, RiNo, LoDo and the Golden Triangle, among others, creating improvement districts, arts districts and public-private partnerships to fund bike paths, sidewalks, landscaping, green infrastructure, pedestrian bridges and other projects to make those areas more livable for residents and more desirable for businesses.
The Iowa native has faced persistent questioning about her preparedness for the mayor’s seat. She did not vote in nearly half of the elections since she moved to Denver 16 years ago, and has on several occasions invited scrutiny about her cultural awareness and racial sensitivity. She’s also changed her message on homelessness several times, leading many to wonder where her convictions actually lie.
But some, including Calderón and Tate, saw opportunity in Giellis’s relative newness and touted her as an open-minded collaborator and quick study.
Giellis was vying to be the first woman mayor in Denver’s history.
Elizabeth Schlosser, who ran for mayor in 2003, calls Giellis’s campaign “a valiant effort.” “Jamie’s smart. She’s tough. She reminds us of how much better Denver could be,” she said.
Giellis launched her mayoral bid in November 2018 after never having run for public office. Though she easily snagged enough votes in the May election to challenge Hancock in a month-long runoff election, she was expected to, as one political consultant put it, “be chewed up and spit out” by the mayor in a series of debates.
She says she was able to fare strongly enough in their first debate, sponsored by 9News on May 21, that “I gained a lot of confidence moving forward.”
“I walked into that debate and came out feeling like I had found my voice, like I could hold my own against him,” she says. “That was a real turning point to realize that. I feel like I’ve found a whole new level of strength and confidence and boldness over this runoff period that has helped me find my way.”
Gielles has spent the past 24 hours mostly off the campaign trail and visiting with relatives who’ve flown in from other states to be here for election day. The family had a barbecue (steak and potatoes) on Monday night, and on Tuesday, she gave her two nieces, ages 7 and 8, from Kansas City manicures. She says she and her family were doing a lot of pacing this afternoon until they decided to head to Sweet Cow ice cream where she had chocolate chip cookie dough and told herself to “breathe deeply and enjoy this time” because “one way or another, my life is going to change in some big ways tomorrow.”
Many voters felt alienated by this runoff. It grew increasingly ugly after the initial vote on May 7, with — among other examples — Hancock alleging a “pattern” of cultural insensitivity from Giellis and releasing an ad attacking her for acknowledging her white privilege, while Giellis held multiple press conferences to reiterate her belief that Hancock is a sexual harasser.
In addition, Hancock and Giellis are both backed heavily by developers and each has seen their respective characters questioned because of recent controversies — Hancock on sexual harassment and Giellis on race. Whereas the presence of Calderón and Tate, plus fifth-place finisher Kalyn Rose Heffernan, offered Denver progressives real options in the first stage of the election, many in that voter bloc say they don’t feel represented by either Hancock or Giellis.
“I guess it just gets worse every day,” said Luke Dan, who voted for Calderón in the first round. “It’s been one gaffe after another. I’m feeling really poorly about it.”
Heffernan intentionally stayed out of the public eye during the runoff because, she said last month, “I’m not about replacing one ruler with another just because it’s not (Hancock). I think that’s a very dangerous situation.”
But the widespread disillusionment does not appear to have limited turnout in the runoff. By 6 p.m. Election Day, voter turnout hit 34%, closing in on the 39% voter turnout in the May election, which had more races on the ballot and the contentious vote on whether to overturn the city’s camping ban.
A Denverite analysis of five previous municipal elections going back to 1999 found voter turnout never cracked 50%, with the highest turnout, 46.85% in the 2003 election.
At the city’s eight in-person voting spots, southeast Denver’s Christ Community Church in southeast Denver (generally seen as Giellis territory) took an early, strong lead in voter turnout, followed by the Hiawatha Davis recreation center (seen as a Hancock stronghold.) Former Mayor Wellington Webb, a Hancock supporter, said given the number of ballots already returned, the victor should be clear by 7:15 p.m.
Asked what he will do to unite the many voters who doubt him, Hancock said, “The reality is that when I win tonight, I recognize I represent everyone. And I think the No. 1 responsibility I will have after tonight is to begin to bring the city back together. … It’s important to me that I have their trust, so (I’ll) go back to work and win their trust from there.”