Editor’s note: Joey Bunch is away, so this week we revisit his Insights column of Oct. 26, 2018.
Not long ago, Democrats were talking about the trajectory of Michael Hancock’s political bottle rocket, and whether it made sense for him to seek a third term as Denver’s mayor or move on to a higher office.
Hancock was talked about as a potential gubernatorial candidate, potentially the state’s first black governor. Instead, Jared Polis became the state’s first Jewish and first gay governor.
Others who know these things said a while back that no one should be surprised if the mayor waits until 2020 to take on Republican incumbent Cory Gardner to return the U.S. Senate seat back to Democrats, after Gardner took it from Mark Udall in 2014.
The two-term mayor, instead, might be in for the fight of his political life to stay relevant between now and May’s city elections. Hancock has a resume he can run on, but he also has quality opponents with the money and manpower to pick his record apart.
This is new. John Hickenlooper served two terms as mayor before he ran and won the governor’s office in 2010. When Wellington Webb sought a third term in 1999, the economic landscape was much the same one Hancock enjoys today. Webb collected 81 percent of the vote in the four-way race.
Hancock will face politically amplified charges that he hasn’t managed the city’s growth well, preferring developers over neighborhoods. His opponents will say he doesn’t respect women or the dignity of his office. They will say he operates the city within a bubble of close advisers. I know that because his opponents and anti-Hancock operatives are already saying that to me.
In 2015 when he ran for re-election, Hancock faced under-funded candidates who didn’t pose much of a threat. In 2011 he beat Chris Romer, the son of former Democratic Gov. Roy Romer, by an easy margin. Hancock called himself “a poor kid from northeast Denver.”
This time around, there are candidates who are anything but Palookas in this prize-fight.
One is Penfield Tate III, a political household name in this city. He’s the former state legislator and high-profile aide to former Denver Mayor Federico Peña. Tate’s father was the first black city council member and mayor in Boulder. The younger Tate ran for mayor in Denver in 2003, one of seven candidates in a field that included Hickenlooper.
Then there is Lisa Calderón, who is lightning in a bottle. A criminal justice activist, Calderón concedes she won’t have big dollars to take down the incumbent. However, she commands an army of alliances from her life in community activism. She is known for her work with the Colorado Latino Forum.
“We’ll have to do with people what they do with money,” Calderón told me.
(Update: Jamie Giellis, former president of Denver’s River North Art District, entered the race in November and as of Jan. 31 was second in fundraising to Hancock.)
Hancock has reminded voters where the city was when he took office. The recession blew a $100 million hole in the city’s 2012 budget, forcing the elimination of about 100 jobs and furloughs for other city workers.
In his State of the City address in July 2018, he spoke of the thousands of “affordable housing units” and rent assistance his administration had championed.
But more than anything, when Hancock hits the campaign trail, expect him to talk about equity, as a counter to the city’s gentrification. He will talk about giving more people who already live here an equal shot at better housing, education, transportation and the spoils of growth.
It’s about time, Tate told me soon after he got in the race.
“We’ve grown and developed so much, but we’ve ignored what I call the human infrastructure of the city,” Tate said. “That is how people live and that’s how they’re impacted. For instance, we’ve been in such a rush to bring jobs to town but we haven’t been talking about workforce development or job training to help the people who are already here.”
Hancock also will face his #MeToo moment. In February 2018 he admitted sending inappropriate texts to a female subordinate, Detective Leslie Branch-Wise, six years earlier when she was assigned to his security detail.
Hancock apologized profusely to the detective, his family and the city.
Calderón said her reasons for running were a culmination of concerns, but the first thing she listed was “the lack of accountability for the sexual harassment” from Hancock.
“Just talking to a lot of women who were just feeling left unprotected as city workers if they are sexually harassed by elected officials,” Calderón explained about the ranking the issue so high.
She and Tate agreed that the public has been left out of the decisions that feed the development of their neighborhoods.
“We talk a lot about PPPs, public-private partnerships,” she said. “I want to add a fourth P — people.”
Such campaign rhetoric could spell trouble for the incumbent.