A political activist in my Denver neighborhood was walking her dogs the other day and stopped to chat.
“Who do you like in the runoff for mayor?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” she grimaced. “Maybe I won’t vote for either of them.”
So I’m left with a choice between an incumbent who seems to be growing more desperate and less likable every day and a challenger who has brought new meaning to the term “blank slate.”
The Denver mayoral runoff has turned into a weird local version of the 2016 presidential race, with many voters trying to figure out which candidate they dislike least.
One local television report claimed the contest has toppled into the gutter, with Mayor Michael Hancock’s attack ad suggesting challenger Jamie Giellis is racially insensitive and Giellis accusing Hancock of enabling a “poisonous culture” of sexual harassment.
The case against Giellis is based primarily on her inability to say what the acronym NAACP stands for and a question she posted years ago on Twitter about why so many cities have Chinatowns. These are both cringeworthy moments, and they served to reinforce the notion that Giellis is an empty vessel who decided to run for mayor because she didn’t have anything better to do.
They made me wish, again, that Tate or Calderón had finished second, and they made me wonder, like my neighbor, whether I could vote for Giellis in good conscience.
The case against Hancock is more substantial. His sexually suggestive texts in 2012 to Leslie Branch-Wise, a Denver police detective then on his security detail, were not disclosed until six years later, when reporter Tony Kovaleski of Denver’s Channel 7 broke the story after an unsigned letter was sent to a number of media outlets.
Although much of the media has treated this as old news, noting it happened seven years ago, this is the first opportunity to litigate it during a Hancock political campaign because it wasn’t revealed until last year.
“You look sexy in all that black! LOL”
“Loved the short doo. You made it hard on a brotha to keep it correct every day.:)”
“Ok, so I just watched this story on women taking pole dancing classes. Have you every (sic) taking one and why do women take the course? If not, have you ever considered taking one and why? Thoughts? Be careful! I’m curious:)!”
In another text exchange, Hancock asked Branch-Wise, “What are you doing tonight?”
“Nothing just watching tv,” she replied.
Hancock’s response: “Just giving you a hard time. I have to keep you balanced. All I hear from my friends is how fine you are.”
In an interview with Kovaleski last year, Branch-Wise made it clear she believed the mayor had sexually harassed her.
Kovaleski: “In your mind, are you sure you were sexually harassed by the mayor?”
Branch-Wise: “I’m positively sure I was sexually harassed by the mayor.”
Q: “No doubts?”
A: “No doubts.”
Q: “He crossed the line?”
“There were times that he said I looked sexy and I would make it hard for him to concentrate,” she said. “It’s now out there. I can’t be silenced by the city anymore.”
When the texts came to light last year, Hancock did a round of interviews in which he apologized for what he called “inappropriate” messages but said they did not constitute sexual harassment.
Last week, after Giellis held a news conference highlighting what she said were numerous instances of sexual harassment of city employees during the Hancock administration, the city suddenly released a six-year-old affidavit signed by Branch-Wise.
The affidavit was apparently part of a settlement in which Branch-Wise received $75,000 from the city as compensation for a sexual harassment charge against Wayne McDonald, a Hancock aide in 2012. McDonald was subsequently fired and received a $200,000 payout himself in 2016 after he alleged wrongful termination.
In the affidavit, Branch-Wise said no one other than McDonald, including the mayor, had harassed her. When 9News asked Branch-Wise last week for her thoughts on the document and the timing of its release as Hancock fights for his political life, she said by text:
“My response and thoughts are let’s keep the focus on the issue at hand and that is the sexual harassment and admitted inappropriate conduct by the mayor.”
In other words, she was again calling it what it was. Perhaps it wasn’t as obvious to many men as it should have been in 2012 and 2013, but can anyone who hasn’t been living under a rock during the #MeToo movement contend seriously that the mayor of a city repeatedly flirting with a female subordinate and suggesting a pole dancing class does not constitute sexual harassment?
Well, yes, apparently. During a debate last week on 9News, anchor Kyle Clark, attempting to prove that Giellis’ news conference claims and a subsequent tweet were inaccurate, asked her to name instances of sexual harassment by the mayor.
Giellis cited the city’s settlement with Branch-Wise and the subsequent payout to McDonald. In her news conference, she had also cited two instances of alleged sexual discrimination in the Denver Fire Department, one of which included a claim of sexual harassment.
“Not a single one of them was tied to the mayor’s conduct — there was no payout for the mayor’s conduct,” said Clark, echoing the City Hall talking point.
In that instant, he validated all the women who say men just don’t get it. A journalist was parroting the city’s cover story. Like the mayor, he was on solid ground technically — the payout to Branch-Wise ostensibly covered only the harassment claim against McDonald, and the city suddenly had a signed affidavit saying so.
But the fact that Branch-Wise was asked to sign a statement saying the mayor never harassed her — a statement she has said repeatedly over the past year she does not believe — makes the whole thing smell. Why would such an affidavit be necessary if there were no evidence to the contrary?
And for a male journalist to take what looks like a transparent attempt to protect the mayor and use it to question the credibility of a female challenger, focusing on the composition of a tweet rather than the substance of the charge, was a depressing moment.
It was also the moment I decided to vote for Jamie Giellis. Watching her debating a man, with two men doing the questioning and seeming to dismiss her position on the issue of sexual harassment, demonstrated just how far Denver has to go on this front.
The most obvious question went unasked: Does Hancock accept the view Branch-Wise has expressed repeatedly over the past year that his conduct did, in fact, constitute sexual harassment?
In fact, Giellis posed it herself: “Would Leslie Branch-Wise agree that she was not sexually harassed if she were standing here today?”
The answer, based on her interview with Kovaleski and her response to 9News just last week, seems obviously to be “No.” But Hancock was never forced to confront the question.
Nor was he asked an obvious followup: Was Branch-Wise required to sign the affidavit exonerating the mayor in exchange for the $75,000 payout? Whose idea was the affidavit?
Given her reference to being “silenced by the city” in her interview with Kovaleski, that would seem an appropriate line of inquiry. Did the mayor or his aides see trouble down the road from his “inappropriate” texts and seek to inoculate him in advance?
The answers to these questions would be far more newsworthy than the composition of a tweet by a challenger, but the questions of Hancock were limited to whether he can set a good tone on the subject and whether the city needs a new tip line.
I wish Giellis was better informed on a host of issues. I wish she’d made a more cogent case for change, as both Calderón and Tate did in the first round, linking Hancock to the soaring cost of housing in Denver and having hard numbers ready to make the case.
I wish she’d pushed back on the nonsensical claim, repeated by Hancock over and over, that the alternative to Denver’s explosive growth was “a dying city.”
What, if Michael Hancock hadn’t opened the door to every high-end developer, Denver would have turned into Youngstown, Ohio? Really?
What big Western city is “dying” because it didn’t have Michael Hancock in charge? Salt Lake? Phoenix? Portland? Seattle? Uh, no.
Either Hancock’s self-regard has gone off the rails or he is frantically building straw men in an effort to overcome the fact that six out of 10 voters in the first round chose somebody other than the two-term incumbent. His argument, apparently, is that Denver has two choices: Michael Hancock or disaster.
We have another choice. We can choose a woman to run our city for the first time, and in so doing repudiate a culture that still too often defends the harasser and attacks the accuser — or even the female politician who tries to speak up for accusers.
With any luck, if she wins, Giellis will lean heavily on the expertise of Calderón and Tate, both of whom are supporting her. It was Calderón who offered by far the smartest take on the back-and-forth over race and gender in the runoff campaign.
What we don’t need is a third term for a man who still won’t own up to the creepiest chapter of his tenure by calling it what it was.
Dave Krieger has been a Colorado journalist since 1981. Follow him on Twitter @davekrieger