On Tuesday night, for the first time since I worked as a senior research analyst on a presidential campaign, I watched a political debate with a pad of paper and a pen.
It turned out I couldn’t scribble fast enough to capture some of the most jaw-dropping moments during the Denver mayoral debate.
In particular, I found the performance of Jamie Giellis both confirmed her campaign’s incompetence and highlighted a shameful predisposition toward unsubstantiated claims.
I’m not a Denver resident and don’t get a vote, but I also recognize that Denver is the engine that drives the economic health of the cities and communities that surround it. Denver’s choice affects the rest of us.
By finishing as the top Anybody-But-Hancock candidate in Denver’s May 7 municipal election, Giellis earned the right to face Mayor Michael Hancock in a runoff.
Unfortunately for Giellis, her campaign has been in slow-motion-train-wreck mode over the past week. She whiffed when asked to identify what the acronym NAACP stood for, deleted her social media accounts to cover-up racially insensitive remarks and began avoiding appearances before minority groups. It seems to be only a matter of time before #GiellisGaffes starts trending on Twitter.
Blunders while running for office aren’t unique to Giellis, though — just ask Rick Perry or Joe Biden. But the frequency of Giellis’ blunders and her response have been atrocious. Both belie a fundamental failure to adequately address the problems herself or, maybe more importantly, build a capable staff to help mitigate the fallout from such errors and, ideally, avoid these situations in the first place.
Red lights first started going off for me when Giellis’ voting record, or lack thereof, garnered media attention. While I believe skipping 10 of 22 elections is a first order civic failure, I also understand political engagement sometimes grows with time and experience.
However, Giellis prefaced her response by stating “I didn’t realize that there was a litmus test for being willing to step up and take a leadership role in the city.”
Such a smug, dismissive brushoff would constitute political malpractice if drafted by a seasoned campaign communications director.
Of course, an experienced team also would have prepped her for the NAACP question, reviewed her Twitter feed and found the “Chinatown” reference months ago, developed a strategy for framing insensitive comments that didn’t give rise to an even more harmful “cover-up” storyline, and counseled her to accept every roundtable and debate hosted by minority groups, no matter how hostile she perceived their leadership might be.
Professional operatives also would have helped Giellis avoid floundering on the debate stage. Her missteps included defending a “secret settlements” claim disavowed by her own communications director earlier in the day, turning a blind eye to the appearance of corruption generated by her largest contributor and touting non-specific governing plans seemingly based on being “open” to alternatives.
The most problematic moment came when a moderator asked Giellis about a letter from leaders in Denver’s Asian community about her Chinatown comments.
This should have been a softball her team teed up pre-debate. And Giellis’ initial response played well; but then she kept talking. Giellis stated that the letter came from “two mayoral appointees” and implied it was just a “political game.”
After the debate I contacted my friend Harry Budisidharta, Executive Director for the Asian Pacific Development Center, because his was one of nearly 40 signatures listed on the letter.
Not only did Budisidharta disagree with her characterization, but he was apoplectic about the Giellis campaign using his likeness on her website as “some sort of prop.”
That’s right. Under fire for racially charged comments, the Giellis team used a picture of an Asian community leader who actively questioned her positions without first getting his permission. That’s more than incompetent, it’s cynical and it’s shameful.
If Jamie Giellis wants to be Denver’s next mayor, she needs to persuade nearly 70 percent of the people who voted for someone other than her or Hancock to cast a ballot for her over the next couple of weeks.
Given her recent performances, though, her campaign will be lucky to hold on to the 45,000 who already did, much less make up the difference.
Mario Nicolais is an attorney and columnist who writes on law enforcement, the legal system, healthcare, and public policy. Follow him on Twitter: @MarioNicolaiEsq