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Jamie Giellis, left, and Denver Mayor Michael Hancock. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

A few months back, it appeared the deciding issues in Denver’s mayoral race were going to be mainly related to policy: Growth. Congestion. Homelessness. Affordability.

Instead, the runoff election Tuesday between incumbent Mayor Michael Hancock and challenger Jamie Giellis has morphed into a battle of personal integrity. It’s one of the most negative contests in recent memory, mired in the politics of race and gender.

In this way, the election reflects national political currents — identity politics, the #MeToo movement and class warfare — that are obscuring a central question: Do people like the direction Denver is heading?

The campaign rancor isn’t exactly surprising those keeping close tabs on the election. The ingredients needed for mud-slinging existed at the start.

During the first round of voting, Hancock was the obvious target, attacked by five challengers who tried to distinguish themselves with policy plans for development and transportation beyond being a new personality. Now the mayor has a clear opponent in Giellis and she in him.

But the intensity with which the race is ending has raised eyebrows, especially at how starkly the lines are being drawn by the candidates: Vote for one and you are casting a ballot against women. Vote for the other and you are against diversity.

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“I anticipated the race would go there. I’m maybe surprised how fast it went there, how it only exclusively it went there,” Eric Sondermann, a Denver political analyst who has worked on prior Denver mayoral campaigns, said of the attacks.  “… What’s scarier? The norm, with its evident shortcomings? Or the unknowns, i.e. Giellis?”

Hancock, seeking his third and final term, ran from an enviable position, able to tout Denver’s economic boom and youthful vibrancy. But his challengers in the first round of voting May 7 questioned the city’s rapid development and pushed him from the political left, demanding more be done to address things homelessness and housing affordability.

No candidate reached more than 50% in the first vote, which forced a runoff. (Hancock received 39% of the vote and Giellis landed 25%.) Other results on the ballot left only confusion about the city’s political values.

Denver voted by a massive margin to keep in place a camping ban blasted by civil rights advocates, but then effectively decriminalized magic mushrooms, a first in the U.S. that made the city a national punchline.

Giellis, a political newcomer vying to become the city’s first woman mayor, emerged as the top challenger to Hancock and claimed support from two former rivals, Lisa Calderón and Penfield Tate. From there, the race quickly turned negative.

Political observers say the back-and-forth attacks could have more potency in the mayoral runoff for two key reasons: Denver’s voting population includes many new residents who don’t know Hancock or his challenger well and could be more easily swayed.

“You have a lot of new voters who haven’t been here, who have moved here in the last four years,” said Mike Dino, who worked on the successful campaign of former Denver Mayor Wellington Webb and is supporting Hancock’s re-election. “That’s an important group to convince to vote for you.”

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The two candidates get down in the dirt

The race’s turn toward the negative happened just days after the runoff race began.

Exactly a week after the first election, Giellis joined a Facebook Live interview with a prominent Denver civil rights activist and journalist and was asked what the acronym NAACP stands for.

She was unable to define the group’s name — the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People — and later said she temporarily misremembered. Then her critics pounced on a 2009 tweet in which she asked why so many cities “feel it necessary to have Chinatowns.” In response, Giellis said she was taken out of context and hid her private social media accounts.

Hancock’s campaign jumped on the missteps in a television ad and the mayor suggested the election is a referendum on race, telling The Denver Post that Giellis’ statements are “a clear indication that the black and brown communities (shouldn’t) be apathetic when it comes to this election.”

Giellis fired back the day after the TV spot was released, with a news conference highlighting sexual harassment setttlements made under Hancock’s leadership and saying he allowed a “culture of sexual harassment in city hall.”

It had the effect of resurfacing accusations by a Denver police detective last year that Hancock harassed her in a series of 2012 text messages — a topic left mostly unmentioned during the initial, six-way campaign.

Hancock has apologized for the texts, but stopped short of saying they were sexual harassment. This week he went a step further to suggest in a Denver Post debate Tuesday that the public hadn’t seen both sides of his text-message conversations with the detective, Leslie Branch-Wise.

Hancock apologized on Wednesday, saying he takes full responsibility for his actions though still pointing out that Branch-Wise signed a sworn affidavit saying he did nothing wrong.

Denver Mayor Michael Hancock speaks at the opening of a new Denver Zoo grizzly bear exhibit on May 15, 2019. (John Ingold, The Colorado Sun)

“You’ve got to understand where your votes are”

The shift in focus could play in Hancock’s favor in some ways, though by going negative he has exposed himself to a new wave of criticism around his texts to Branch-Wise.

Hancock’s success in the first election centered on support from Denver’s most diverse precincts, like northeast Denver where he won broadly even though turnout was low.

His attacks on Giellis could help motivate voters who didn’t show up for him in the first round, observers say. Hancock wants to make the point that Giellis can’t relate to a diverse city.

“I can’t tell you how many times when I walk in a room that the issues are real. They’re raw. It’s a mosque, it’s a synagogue,” he said in an interview. “And people want to know that you understand the pain and concern that they’re feeling and that it’s not clouded by some conception of who these individuals are. That’s what a true mayor has to do.”

Hancock’s campaign has taken out digital ads, on top of the TV spot, highlighting Giellis’ NAACP and Chinatown comments, and his supporters are jumping on board with the attacks, too.

“You gotta know a lot of acronyms to get this job done,” state Rep. Leslie Herod, a Denver Democrat, said at a campaign rally highlighting the women supporting Hancock’s candidacy last week.

State Rep. Leslie Herod, D-Denver, speaks at a campaign rally for Denver Mayor Michael Hancock in City Park on Wednesday, May 22, 2019. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

Hancock said boosting turnout in the areas of Denver that supported him the first time around — especially in the city’s northeast corner — is a key strategy to win on Tuesday.

“You’ve got to understand where your votes are. You’ve got to understand where (your supporters) voted last time and how you get them out more this time around,” he said. “We also believe we’ve got to get votes that maybe didn’t come our way last time.”

His message to voters, during a 9News debate, on the issues: “Because we were focused on the very well being of this great city, pulled it out of the recession, today all of us in Denver sit in the most economically vibrant city in the country with one of the lowest unemployment rates. The reality is, we as Denverites should certainly want to manage the politics and challenges of growth rather than the challenges and politics of a dying city.”

But for all of his efforts to frame Giellis as being out of touch with diverse communities, he has been unable to shake the questions surrounding his 2012 texts to Branch-Wise.

His comments suggesting the public hadn’t seen the full extent of their conversations prompted Branch-Wise to hold a news conference with Giellis on Wednesday calling Hancock a “pitiful, desperate liar.” They were her first public comments during the campaign and she says she wouldn’t have stepped forward if it weren’t for Hancock’s remarks during the Denver Post debate.

“It could change the tide of this election,” said Dick Wadhams, a former chair of the Colorado Republican Party and veteran consultant who has kept close tabs on the race, of Branch-Wise’s news conference. “I do think that was a powerful event.”

Independent Denver pollster Floyd Cirruli agrees.

“If Jamie Giellis derailed the beginning of her campaign with the NAACP memory lapse, Michael Hancock is even more damaged by his late clumsy effort to reframe his sexual harassment controversy in a final debate one week out before Election Day,” he posted on his blog.

Jaimie Giellis, a political newcomer running for Denver mayor, speaks at a news conference on Wednesday, May 29, 2019. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

A departure from policy

Giellis’ rise had to do with her ability to tap into discontent about the state of Denver and its future.

The woman whose work on the River North Art District helped prompt the neighborhood’s boom pitches herself to voters as a way to reset the city and move it forward on a different, more sustainable path.

Here’s how she described Denver at the 9News debate: “Growing too fast. Needing some structure, some strategy in how we’re going to tackle the pain points that people are feeling related to affordability, related to congestion, related to homelessness. We need good planning to take us forward.”

In the final days, however, she is redirecting the conversation to Hancock’s leadership, specifically on sexual harassment. Some think that could work against her, however, moving voter attention away from policy and what landed her in the runoff in the first place.

“(The policy issues) are still out there, even though they aren’t the ones being ligated most vociferously on a day-to-day basis,” Sondermann said. “To the extent Giellis has a shot, it is around those issues.”

At the news conference with Branch-Wise, Giellis said the way the mayor has dealt with sexual harassment in his administration “reflects on his leadership in many other ways” and is part of those policy discussions.

“I think it’s gotten away from focusing on the real issues, and that’s an unfortunate thing,” she said of the race. “But we are where we are. I’ve been very open and been asked many times about the stumbles that have happened and the misstatements that have occurred to address them head on. I think it’s fair that we ask the mayor to do the same.”

Branch-Wise also released a meme she says she received from the mayor in a text message, showing a young black child and using a racial slur as proof of Hancock’s own racial insensitivity. Hancock says he doesn’t recall sending that message and said “I don’t use that language.”

Denver police Det. Leslie Branch-Wise speaks at a news conference beside mayoral candidate Jaimie Giellis. Branch-Wise says that Denver Mayor Michael Hancock sexually harassed her through text messages he sent her in 2012 when she was serving on his security detail.(Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

Calderón, the former mayoral candidate now backing Giellis, said Hancock’s text messages to Branch-Wise in themselves represent a form of racial oppression.

“This happened to a black woman so I would like to see more of an analysis and an outcry around the intersection of race and gender when we’re talking about a double oppression,” Calderón said.

Calderón and other top supporters of Giellis stood by the candidate after the stories came out about her statements on race, saying that they feel she quickly owned up to her mistakes. Giellis will need support from backers of Calderón and Tate to win next week, and her campaign says it is focused on turnout across the city to accomplish that goal.

“In the final days of the race, we are trying to bring it back to policy and me as a leader to really refocus on where we are and where we’re going and what’s important for the city as a whole,” she said in an interview Thursday. “… I do not want this to be framed as anti-woman or framed in the race card because I think this has to be focused on the fact that this is about the city, this is about the issues of our city.”

What it will all say

Come Tuesday, it’s hard to say how much the animosity will matter.

Ask Giellis supporters what the election says about how Denver residents feel about their city and they point to it being a referendum on the future.

“I think the vote is about how badly people in Denver want change,”  Tate said.

Hancock backers think the vote centers on experience.

“The choice voters have is who can execute,” said C.L. Harmer, a Hancock supporter who isn’t working on the race but has been involved in prior Denver mayoral campaigns.

How the rapidly shifting ground around the personality battle fits into the mix depends on who you ask.

“It probably either lowers numbers on how many people are voting, or if people were kind of on the fence it determines for them, ‘I’m going to stick with the person I thought I was going to stick with,’” said Cody Wertz, a political consultant who has worked on Denver elections in the past and supports Hancock. “How many minds does it change? I don’t know.”

One thing most agree on is they will be glad to have the negative campaigning over.

“I think everyones just sick and tired of it,” said Fiona Arnold, who serves as Giellis’ campaign treasurer, of Hancock’s attacks. “They just want to get on with it.”

What else Denver will be deciding on Tuesday

The mayoral runoff isn’t the only election being decided on June 4. Here’s a look at other races where voters must choose:

Clerk and Recorder
– Paul D. Lopez, Denver city councilman
– Peg Perl, political and campaign finance consultant

City Council District 1, northwest Denver
– Amanda Sandoval
– Mike Somma

City Council District 3, west Denver
– Jamie Torres
– Veronica Barela

City Council District 5, east-central Denver
– Amanda Sawyer
– Mary Beth Susman*

City Council District 9, downtown Denver
– Candi CdeBaca
– Albus Brooks*

City Council District 10, central Denver

– Wayne New*
– Chris Hinds

Ordinance 302

– Asks whether voter approval must be sought out before any city money can be spent in connection with an Olympic games.

* = denotes an incumbent

Jesse Paul

The Colorado Sun — Desk: 720-432-2229 Jesse Paul is a political reporter and editor at The Colorado Sun, covering the state legislature, Congress and local politics. He is...