The Indy 500: The message behind Denver’s mixed election results

New apartment development in North Denver. (Photo by Allen Tian)
New apartment development in North Denver. (Photo by Allen Tian)

After Denver voters on Tuesday elected Mayor Michael Hancock to a third term but ousted three council members – two of them Hancock allies – from office, the obvious question was: What gives?

What to make of an election in which the message for city council was “out with the old,” but the message for mayor was “more of the same.”  So, I asked our Facebook community how it explains the mixed messages.

The consensus, not only on our Facebook page, was that Hancock defeated Jamie Giellis simply because she was a weak candidate. She failed to show she knew enough – or cared enough, given her failure to vote in several previous elections – to run the city.

But that outcome, readers and others said, in no way diminishes the larger message voters sent on May 7, when Hancock failed to win the 50% of the vote he needed to avoid a runoff. It was the same message voters sent on June 4, when they replaced the three sitting council members with people who have never held office and who have been sharply critical of Hancock’s handling of the city’s growth.

When I spoke Wednesday with Councilwoman-elect Amanda Sawyer, a political newcomer who ousted two-term Councilwoman Mary Beth Susman, she brought up residents’ complaints about the development and traffic in the district. This does not mean they, or she, for that matter, are anti-growth, she notes. It means they are anti-unplanned growth, growth with no mind to the consequences.

What she heard on the campaign trail, she says, was that Denverites wanted a council member focused on the integrity of their neighborhoods and the quality of life within them. “People are hungering for that.”

“I have three kids who are in DPS and on sports teams,” she told me. “People see me cheering my kids at the side of the pool during swim meets on Friday mornings. I’m on the soccer fields in Lowry and at the flag football games at Cranmer Park. We’re out eating dinner at our local restaurants and having coffee at our local coffee shops. People see I am part of the community and I think that’s really valuable.”

Sawyer is getting to something intangible but powerful here. She is speaking to the way in which the regular rhythm of a neighborhood or a community can reassure us of our place within it, the sense of being anchored and connected. She is also speaking to the fear that much of that connection is at risk.

Our neighborhoods have mushroomed skyward in dense clusters that churn with change. In the best cases, new development has injected block after block with vibrancy and optimism. In the worst, the seemingly ceaseless growth has outpaced, outthought, and outmaneuvered City Hall. Displacement and replacement have splintered long-standing and vital bonds. Ink Coffee posted a sign boasting of gentrifying Five Points in late 2017, but the controversy still came up in the council campaigns because people are still wounded by it. Native Denverites still remember a neighborhood called Auraria that became a cluster of college campuses with the same name. They still remember the old Curtis Park where for generations, extended family members lived next door to each other. And they know in these memories of histories swallowed whole that changes politicians sell as progress do not necessarily mean their progress. They rage at the expectation of their sacrifice and the assumption that lofts and co-working spaces for people other than themselves will achieve some greater good. They bristled at Hancock’s implication on the campaign trail that Denver will either keep growing as it has been or become “a dying city.”  

If Tuesday’s results seem confusing, it may be because voters want a more balanced in-between. They envision a city led by people who know the conflicting impulses that inhabit the path forward, and who understand that Denverites need to believe there is still a place here for all who want one.

Tina is The Colorado Independent's managing editor. She was a city columnist for the late great Rocky Mountain News and the Denver Post. She left Denver for Richmond, Virginia in 2012, where she worked as a news editor at the city's alternative newspaper, Style Weekly, and its premiere city mag, Richmond Magazine. She was also a staff writer for the Washington Post and its Storyline public policy/narrative journalism project. Tina lives in Fort Collins with her husband and two kids. She's a native New Mexican and prefers red over green.

10 COMMENTS

  1. I’m very encouraged by the 3 new Latinas on city council. I don’t know Amanda, but will keep an eye on her. Yes the Mayor, whom I voted for needs to revisit some of his behaviors and behave as well as address growth, planning and homelessness, but these new women can help get a fresh perspective! As for the community, we all need to work together. We almost had a Trumponian spawn as our leader and can never let those sublilminal motives fester in our city.

  2. By in large, citizens of Denver have spoken that change was overdue. The next 4 years will be transformative for the City Council as the more “Neighborhood Friendly” members will be expressing their constituents’ voices………something that has seemed to go out in vogue…It will also be a time to start cultivating our next mayoral candidate as to the value of listening to the voters and not the money people as they only have one vote…we have thousands…Do you wish to be in on the change? NEIGHBORHOODS WORK BETTER WHEN THEY WORK TOGETHER. Go to denverinc.org and join the movement. It’s your city, get involved, take control.

  3. What isn’t understood by current residents is that the city is growing unprecedentedly. I understand the need to preserve old homes and parts of the city but it is important to realize that they are not sustainable. A parcel of land containing an old house can accommodate the population boom with apartment complexes. Moreover, I understand the community wants an identity but its important to realize that our city didn’t always have the mail box building or any of the buildings we see today; the city had to upgrade in the 60’s and 70’s to meet modern times and we find ourselves again having to do the same thing.

  4. As far as I’ve heard from the voters I know (all millennials) most of them voted for Hancock only because it will be his last term, while if Jamie were elected, she could have up to twelve years ahead. At least in the circles I run (largely Democratic Socialist) Hancock and Gielles are seen as cut from very similar establishment cloth.

  5. Tina, do you think the opposition’s inability to unseat a not-especially strong incumbent has anything to do with a goofy election format?

    Under the current scheme, most of the time, attention, and money go into a race that is structurally guaranteed to produce two results: the incumbent wins, but nobody gets a majority of the votes.

    Why not give Denver voters a meaningful main race, with a clear choice in an arena where two candidates walk in and one leaves? (A line from 1985’s Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, which is just as apt here.)

    The primary can decide which candidate has the best chance to defeat the incumbent — a much more vivid conversation than anything we saw. After all, an incumbent who wants reelection has the inside track anyway.

    Hard to tell who would have won. But with benefit of hindsight, the outcome would have probably been different.

  6. While these ideas are appreciated, Tina, my question has to do with the huge undercount in the Clerk & Recorder runoff. Over 20,000 folks declined to choose a candidate. The percentage of total votes in the race outpaced every other contest on the ballot. Why did so nany choise NIT to vote in that race?

  7. One message of the recent election I think has been overlooked — among the registered voters, voter participation for the mayor’s vote was just under 40%. A bit over 22% of the voters registered in the city and county of Denver supported Hancock. A bit over 17% voted for Giellis.

    By the math, 20% or so of those participating in the 2018 general election didn’t bother to vote. Slightly less than 40% of those registered didn’t vote in either the 2018 OR the 2019 election. Something like another 150,000 adults in the county are eligible, but not registered to vote. [Yeah, I know, there are slips in that math, but I think the broad brush stroke is right.]

    Just over 160,000 voted. There are likely to be about 550,000 adults eligible to vote in the election.

  8. Nice to see Latinos voting! Seems to be a pretty common sense flex considering the abysmal voting rates in Colorado and the evolving demographics.

    Denver needs to wake up and increase voter participation before the next General. Otherwise the Fundie Footsoldiers from the Crusade Corridor from Douglass County to The Springs are going to be overrepresented in the tally compared to their dwindling numbers statewide.

  9. This election was a watershed to change our approach to urban development. The last 16 years are noteworthy purely on the change from consulting residents prior to proposing changes to the concept of expert opinion based on increasing profits regardless of their effect on communities. Cities are the environments in which we live. Failure to consult residents produces the scattering of functioning social networks. We are a social species. We need each other to deal with life. We cannot produce a functioning city without considering the benefits of a thriving community. Our attempts to substitute government services for ordinary communities is doomed to fail.

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