Shortly after Mary Louise Lee’s husband, Michael Hancock, was elected mayor of Denver in June 2011, the couple had dinner with former Mayor Wellington Webb and his wife, former first lady Wilma Webb.

It was a direct and intimate conversation in which the Webbs, who had lived through 12 years of Wellington as mayor, let Hancock and his wife know what they should expect — and of the toll that comes with public service on a couple’s family and personal life.

“That was one of the best talks as far as politics that we’ve ever had,” Mary Louise recalled recently. “And they were very candid on everything, the mayor as well as the first lady.”

And it has all proved true, as both Lee and her husband described recently during a “Women for Hancock” rally near the Martin Luther King statue in City Park.

The rally came during another bruising week in Hancock’s runoff race against challenger Jamie Giellis, an urban planner and former president of the River North Arts District.

Giellis had accused Hancock of fostering a culture of sexual harassment at City Hall that has resulted in lawsuits and settlements totaling $1.5 million. None of the settlements were for incidents directly involving Hancock.

A May 19 tweet sent out by the Giellis campaign claimed the $1.5 million in settlements were paid to “coverup Hancock’s sexual indiscretions.” But in 9News/Colorado Politics debate on May 22, Giellis acknowledged she had no evidence to back up that tweet. A Hancock campaign spokeswoman called the accusation “an absolute falsehood.”

She and other opponents from the general election campaign have also revived criticism of Hancock based on a set of sexually suggestive text messages he sent to a Denver Police detective who was formerly a member of his security detail.

Hancock has repeated taken responsibility for the texts, noting that he has apologized to his family, the detective and the community.

But Lee made clear the campaign charges also have a personal impact.

“What people don’t realize is — or frankly, maybe they just don’t care — when they ridicule him, they’re attacking the family as well,” Lee told the crowd.

“Now I don’t know who said, ‘Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words don’t ever hurt me,’” she added. “But I’m here to tell you right now, they lie. Words hurt.”

Hancock echoed that theme when he spoke to the crowd.

“I often tell people you cannot do this job no matter who you are or where you come from without someone who holds you up when you walk through that door no matter what happened outside that door. Says to you very simply and lovingly, ‘I’ve got your back,’ no matter what happens,” he said.

“And she has strengthened me during my weakest hour, even when I’ve hurt her,” he added. “She said, ‘I’ve got your back.’”

“And Mary’s right,” Hancock continued. “When you go through the storm and people feel emboldened, particularly in this day of social media, to say whatever they want to say but would never say it to your face. They don’t realize that your children are reading it. Your nieces and nephews are reading it. Your grandchildren are reading. People who love you are reading.”

“And it takes a family to simply say, ‘We know you’re out there. We know what you’re doing,’” he added. “And though we don’t get all of you anymore, we’ve got your back.”

In an interview with Colorado Politics after the rally, Lee declined to discuss the incident involving the text messages.

But she did talk about how she has dealt with the impact of the campaign on her life.

“What I will say is that it was a very difficult time for not only me, but for our kids as well,” Lee said. “Everyone has their private information. Everybody has things going on. Nobody’s perfect,” she added. “But when it’s out in public, it’s everybody’s business.”

“But I just have to remain strong. I have a very strong faith life,” she said. “You know, I’ve always been taught that when people apologize to you, you’re supposed to forgive them as a Christian.”

A 13-year-old’s ambition to be mayor

Shortly after they met as students at Cole Middle School, Lee remembers Hancock telling her that one day he would become Denver’s first African-American mayor.

“I thought he was crazy. I really didn’t know who this guy was,” she recalled. “I mean, I never heard a 13-year-old being so passionate about wanting to be a community person, a public servant.”

“And it just threw me off completely,” she added. “But I knew there was something about him that I liked.”

Wellington Webb, of course, would beat Hancock to that goal. But Lee said the dream was consistent with the youngster she first met when she was in 7{sup}th{/sup} grade and he was in 8{sup}th{/sup} grade. She remembers the first time they met in the second semester of that year.

“He was just walking down the hall. But he was head boy of the school, that is like the president of the student council,” Lee said.

“I always liked him, but I was so shy back then, he added. “I just thought he was cute, and he has all this energy and all this passion for wanting to run the school. I knew he had potential back then,” she said, breaking into laughter.

They dated on an off through high school. Then Hancock went off to Hastings College in Nebraska while she attended Metropolitan State College of Denver.

Their relationship grew more serious after he graduated from college and returned to Denver.

“He said, ‘I don’t know who you’re dating, but you’ve got to break up with him,” she recalled. “And I did. So, we dated probably about a year and then we decided to get married.”

The couple married on July 3, 1993. They have had two children, Janae and Jordan. Hancock also had a daughter by another relationship. Janae appeared in her father’s first campaign ad earlier this year. She also introduced her father to the crowd when they gathered for the general election results on May 7.

‘Win or lose, he is still going to be loved’

Lee — who is also a professional rhythm and blue singer — energized what had been a subdued crowd up until that point that night at the EXDO Event Center with her rendition of “If You Believe,” a song from the musical “The Wiz.” She sang the same song in the same room on the night he was first elected mayor in June 2011.

Lee explained that she has not had as many opportunities to campaign for her husband this spring, in part because of commitments to her singing career and the band. But during the Women for Hancock rally, she did take some credit for her husband being “an everlasting champion of the arts.”

Later Lee said she is looking forward to this runoff election coming to an end.

“Oh my gosh, yes. I cannot wait,” she said. “I will be a happy person on the 5th of June.”

Asked if that will be the case win or lose, she replied, “You know, I will. Because he has been a fighter. And win or lose, he is still going to be loved. He’s still going to be a champion in our household and in the community as well.”

“But you know, he’s the person for the job,” she added. “He has the passion. He has the dedication. He was built for this job, and he’s done an excellent job, and we’re proud of him.”

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