Denver Mayor Michael Hancock is headed for a runoff election with challenger and urban planner Jamie Giellis.
Unofficial results at 1 a.m. Wednesday showed Hancock with 39% of the vote, falling short of the 50% plus one vote that he would have needed to avoid the June 4 runoff.
They also showed Giellis, a former president of the River North Arts District, as the top vote getter among the challengers, with nearly 26% of the vote.
Other candidates in the field of six were well behind. Lisa Calderón stood at just over 17% in unofficial results and Penfield Tate III at just under 15%.
At an election watch party at the EXDO Event Center in the River North neighborhood, Hancock supporters took the news of a runoff in stride.
“I’m not surprised really. Runoffs take place when you have this many candidates," said Alan Salazar, Hancock's chief of staff and a veteran of Democratic politics in the city.
"And the history in Denver if you go back — and I’m old enough to know some of this history — is [that] Federico Peña in 1987 came in second and went back and won his second term.
"And then [there was] Wellington Webb in his second term," Salazar added, referring to Webb's runoff with City Councilwoman Mary DeGroot.
"So when you have the combination of low turnout ... [and] that many candidates, runoffs happen," he added.
Hancock's campaign spokeswoman April Valdez Villa said she was optimistic about the early results but accepting of the runoff.
"We’re always ready to go another day if we need to," she said. "But I really like where the numbers started out strong from early voting."
A short distance away at the Giellis election watch party, the challenger welcomed the results.
“I’m so proud of the campaign we’ve run,” Giellis said, struggling to make her voice heard over the din at her campaign’s packed election night watch party at the Ramble Hotel in Denver’s Upper Larimer neighborhood.
Nodding to the crowd, she added: “The diversity of the people here is beyond words. The number of people who have stepped up to fight this fight is incredible.”
“Anything can happen on election night,” she said with a smile and a shrug,
Giellis said she was inspired to run by her parents, who both held office — her father, James Ambroson, who was mayor for 13 years in Leland, Iowa, and also spent some time on the city council, and her mother, Melanie Ambroson, who served on city council in Leland, a town of about 250 near the Minnesota border.
She said she’s valued the advice they gave her at her campaign’s outset: “Be true to yourself, be graceful, stay high,” she said, raising her hand above her head. “Stay positive. Elevate the conversation.”
Giellis said she was glad her campaign has mostly been about the issues that drew her to her first run for office. “We’ve talked about development and growth and the things we need to do to support Denver’s growth,” she said.
Moments before she learned she’s likely headed to a June runoff with Hancock, Giellis said she would recommend running for mayor to anyone who believes they can make a difference.
“The way I have grown as a person and learned and been exposed to so many part of the city — that, in and of itself, is priceless. Whatever happens, I’m a changed person” she said.
Meanwhile, back at the Hancock campaign gathering at EXDO, the candidate's wife sent a jolt through the audience.
For most of the first two hours of the evening, the crowd of several hundred people at the Hancock gathering was subdued.
They listened to speakers, munched on Cajun and Mexican food from food trucks parked outside, and generally clustered around their own tables.
That changed when Hancock’s wife Mary Louise Lee got up to speak, or rather to sing.
Lee, a professional singer, belted out a soulful tune she had sang eight years ago, when her husband finished second in a crowded field of candidates for an open seat in the mayor’s office.
He went on to defeat former state lawmaker Chris Romer by 16 points.
“Believe in yourself, right from the start. Believe in the magic that’s inside your heart,” Lee sang to the suddenly energized crowd. “Believe in yourself, as I believe in you.”
Lee reminded her audience she first met her future husband when they were in Cole Middle School. Back then he told her that he was going to become mayor someday, she said.
“I know that it is the dream of my husband to be mayor and to be a good mayor,” Lee told the crowd, flanked by her son Jordan and daughter Janae.
“And what I can say is that he has been not only a good mayor, but a damn good mayor for eight years,” she added as the crowd broke into applause.
When Hancock took the stage at 8:47 p.m., he started by noting the tragic events in Tuesday's Highlands Ranch school shooting, where one 18-year-old was killed and several others were injured. Hancock called for a moment of silence for the teen who died and offered “as a neighbor” for the city to do anything to help in Highlands Ranch.
As for the election, he reminded the audience of the history of Denver mayors such as Peña and Webb who rallied to win runoff elections.
“And so now it looks like we’ve got another month to tell the story and that’s OK.” Hancock said.
“I don’t want you to be disappointed. I don’t want you to be surprised,” he said. “Because it’s simply the way it works out with the number of candidates we had in this race.”
“Folks. It’s time to do this. Now this campaign is one-on-one. Let’s do this. Let’s rise up,” he said, lapsing into the cadence of a preacher. “We don’t quit.
“We won tonight,” he continued. “And come June 4, we’re going to win again.
In a conversation with reporters after his speech, Hancock outlined some of the issues that are likely to come up in the next 28 days.
“We’re ready for 28 days making the clear case for keeping Denver’s progress moving forward.
One of those issues is the urban camping ban — adopted by the city in 2012 — which forbids people from camping out overnight on public property within the city.
The ban was targeted by supporters of the now defeated Initiative 300, which sought to repeal the ban.
“While my opponent says she wants to repeal the urban camping ban – you know, you might as well put 300 in place because that’s our tool to move people along to move into services, to come into contact with them and to help them get connected directly with services," he said.
“And so, we’ve got to speak truthfully about this going forward.”
“You don’t repeal this ban because it gives us that opportunity to get with people and to help them as best we can.”
Hancock said he was disappointed at the low turnout in the election and vowed to try to convince more of the city’s newer resident to cast ballots in the runoff.
Hancock said he does not believe the fact that 60% of the voters chose another candidate indicates that people are unhappy with the direction in which the city is headed.
He said the polling he’s seen shows a similar percentage say the city is going in the right direction. But those people were spread out over the six candidates in the race.
After the second round of votes had posted online, Giellis quieted the boisterous crowd at the Ramble Hotel to declare she had forced the two-term mayor into a runoff, something an incumbent Denver mayor hasn’t faced since 1995.
Denver voters “have sent a clear message that they are done with the way the city is headed under the current mayor, Michael Hancock,” Giellis said, pumping her fist in the air. “And let me just say, I am ready for the fight.”
“When I got in this race, my big commitment was to change the conversation about how this city is run,” she said. “People come first. People want to be heard. … They are tired of a select, small group of people having a voice and having the mayor’s ear when it comes to the future of this city. They are done with that.”
Giellis said that campaigning in every one of Denver’s neighborhoods over the past six months had led her to conclude one thing: “The inequity is clear. It is so clear between the haves and the have-nots, between who has a voice and who doesn’t.”
Then she turned to issues she said are at the center of her campaign.
“First of all, we have to fix the runaway development that is driving the city right now. We have to fix it, that developers are the only ones that people feel have a voice in the city right now,” Giellis said, adding that she’s running to solve Denver’s urban transportation problems — including by reviving the city’s network of streetcars — and to find “compassionate solutions for homelessness.”
Giellis next invoked the “me too” scandal that briefly engulfed Hancock.
“And we need ethical leadership. Our mayor should be our role model. We are not going to have any more sexual harassment payouts.”
As the crowd erupted in cheers, a beaming Giellis concluded:
“We have 30 days — and our opponent is going to fight like hell, so we have to fight like hell, too,” she said. “I’m not going dirty, and I don’t want anyone to go dirty on my behalf. This is about what Denver can be; this is about what Denver will be,” she said.
Hancock had campaigned on the city’s vibrant economy and that fact that Denver is appealing enough to have attracted an estimated 110,000 new residents over the last nine years. He has also cited the city finding housing for 7,000 homeless residents during his first eight years in office.
His opponents sought to make the election a referendum on simmering discontent over the side effects of that growth in the form of traffic congestion, not enough affordable housing, growing homelessness and residents displaced by gentrification.
Giellis took her vintage 1970 yellow school bus to every neighborhood in the city during the campaign. She also rolled out her plan for what she would do during her first 100 days in office if elected.
During the campaign, Tate pointed to an incident in which Hancock sent provocative text messages to a female police detective who had been assigned to his security detail.
Hancock has acknowledged his mistake and has apologized to the detective, to his family and to the city.
As an incumbent who has raised $2.2 million in campaign contributions, Hancock was the presumptive front-runner in the race.
The other challengers included:
• Calderón, a criminal justice professor at Regis University, who has been critical of how the city’s jail has been operated under Hancock’s watch. The former director of a nonprofit inmate re-entry program, she has a federal lawsuit pending over the city’s termination of that firm’s contract. This is her first run for public office.
• Tate, a former state lawmaker who served under Mayor Federico Peña and was a department head under Gov. Roy Romer. Tate has called for a temporary moratorium on new construction permits. He said growth is bound to continue but has vowed to give neighborhoods more say on what kind of growth. He ran for mayor in 2003 and finished fourth.
• Kalyn Rose Heffernan, a disability rights activist and an art teacher whose campaign started as an April Fool’s joke but grew serious as she criticized the city’s treatment of homeless people and the lack of affordable housing. She has run an unconventional campaign, including a protest by musicians Sunday outside the Denver Center for the Performing Arts. This is her first bid for public office.
• Stephan “Chairman Seku” Evans – a community activist who takes pride in having attended and spoken at more than 500 city council and committee meetings over the last 10 years. He has been critical of the city not doing more for its poor and low-income residents. He ran against Hancock four years ago and got about 3% of the vote.
As Giellis supporters jostled their way around the crowded event hall, carrying sweets from Voodoo Doughnut and flutes of champagne, former state Sens. Dennis Gallagher and Rob Hernandez, both Denver Democrats, surveyed the crowd and smiled.
“She’s got a wonderful chance,” said Gallagher, Giellis’ campaign chairman. “She’s a breath of fresh air.”
Added Hernandez: “Jamie is the infusion of energy the city needs right now.”
“Jamie had zero name recognition four months ago, and she’s made it into a run-off with a two-term mayor,” crowed Sheila MacDonald, Giellis’s campaign manager.
“It’s a 60% anti-Hancock vote,” she added. “The people are ready for a change.”
Giellis had chosen her dress for the watch party deliberately, MacDonald said with a wink, adding that the classic white frock was a nod to the suffragettes.
“Denver has never had a woman mayor,” she said. “Denver has never had an urban planner as mayor.”
MacDonald conceded that Giellis would start the run-off campaign at a financial disadvantage to Hancock, who has reported hauling in about $2 million — around four times what the Gieliss campaign has raised.
The challenger would be scheduling meetings in coming days with the three major candidates who were trailing and ask for their endorsements, MacDonald said.
“All of them ran great campaigns. Their ideas are important, and we want their support.”
First, though, MacDonald said Giellis and core supporters planned to be at the corner of Lincoln and Colfax, across the park from city hall, waving signs at 7:30 a.m. the next morning.
“It’s a brand new campaign,” she said.