Like two fighters who’ve sparred so long they anticipate each other’s moves, Denver Mayor Michael Hancock and challenger Jamie Giellis ended their series of mayoral runoff debates Tuesday with a flurry of jabs over issues of race, sexual harassment and homelessness.
Not much new ground was broken during the hour-long debate, hosted by The Denver Post at The Denver Press Club, on several policy issues where they disagree. But the back-and-forth between the two candidates was a lot more intense and personal than some of their previous debates.
It was the sixth debate they have held since the May 7 general election in which Hancock, who is seeking a third four-year term, drew nearly 39% of the vote compared to nearly 25% for Giellis, an urban planner who is making her first run for public office. That prompted a June 4 runoff election, since no candidate garnered more than 50% of the vote.
Hancock had challenged Giellis to a series of 12 debates during the campaign. His campaign staff said there were other community groups that offered forums. But in the end, the Giellis campaign settled on six.
That led to some heated exchanges between the candidates after Hancock accused Giellis of skipping debates before minority audiences after a gaffe in which she could not identify what the letters in the acronym NAACP stood for.
For example, when Giellis was asked a question about how she would combat pay-for-play, she vowed to surround herself with people who were better attuned to Denver’s neighborhoods.
“I’m most interested in listening to the voices of the people because the community is struggling, and I think that’s who I think needs to be heard first,” she said.
That prompted Hancock to reply, “That is the most amazing statement for someone who refused to go into some neighborhoods because she thought the conversations we’re going to be tough.”
Giellis countered that she skipped one debate with the Colorado Black Round Table because one of its members was on Hancock’s campaign payroll.
She said her campaign declined another debate in Montbello because it conflicted with two other events. And she added that she had been before a Montbello audience earlier on Tuesday.
She also said Hancock missed several debates during the general election. He countered that it was only a few and that he also has mayoral duties.
Hancock later said he did not think Giellis’ flub with the NAACP question disqualified her as a mayoral candidate.
“But I think what offended people was the lack of willingness to educate yourself before that interview because you had been asked that question before,” Hancock said.
He also cited a 2009 tweet in which she asked, “Why do so many cities feel it necessary to have a 'Chinatown'?”
When asked by the debate moderator about the Chinatown tweet, Giellis said she needed to first acknowledge that she came from “a place of white privilege.”
She also said the tweet came out of a larger context about gentrification and displacement of minority communities.
“I understand that there are stumbles to be made,” she said. “I fully respect that I have a lot to learn in this process, and that’s why I’m in it, to listen and learn.”
“This shouldn’t be a race about race,” she later added. “It should be a race about coming together and understanding each other.”
But Hancock said he was disturbed by what he saw as a pattern to Giellis’ stumbles.
That prompted Giellis to bring up the issue of a set of sexually suggestive texts that Hancock had sent to a female police detective who had formerly been part of his security detail.
Hancock again noted that he had taken responsibility for the texts and had apologized to his family, to the detective and to the community.
"When you make a mistake, acknowledge it, lrn from it and don’t let it happen again," he said.
Giellis criticized Hancock for not seeing the texts as a form of sexual harassment.
“We all stumble. We all make mistakes,” she said. “But to sit there and say that, I think you need to acknowledge that you’ve made your own mistakes as well.”
Ballots for the runoff election have been mailed to Denver voters and must be returned by 7 p.m. on June 4.