As Denver’s 2019 mayoral runoff roars toward the June 4 finish line, the candidates — two-term incumbent Michael Hancock and his challenger, city planner and political neophyte Jamie Giellis — and their supporters are flinging charges and launching attacks on a daily basis.
It hasn’t been pretty, but at least it’ll be brief.
With just two weeks to go before ballots are counted, Hancock and Giellis had already played the Trump card, labeling each other the local version of the president (who in 2016 lost to Hillary Clinton in Denver by a 4-1 margin).
So far, Hancock has accused Giellis of lacking the necessary racial sensitivity to govern a city as diverse as Denver based on one instance when she couldn’t remember what NAACP stands for and another when she deleted social media accounts after an old tweet about Chinatown surfaced.
The Hancock campaign ramped up the pressure with a TV ad and a rally after Giellis canceled an appearance at an African-American-focused forum organized by a Hancock consultant and later declined to participate in a series of debates organized by representatives of Denver’s minority communities.
Giellis has returned fire, blasting Hancock for what she terms a “culture of sexual harassment” at city hall — laying blame for a handful of the city’s sexual harassment and sexual misconduct settlements over the past eight years at the feet of the mayor, who apologized last year for sending inappropriate text messages to a subordinate some years back.
She’s also blaming Hancock for reported overruns at Denver International Airport, where a massive construction project could be delayed by years and wind up costing taxpayers nearly 50% more than expected.
But as rough as it’s gotten — and as rougher as it will no doubt get in the home stretch — this year’s runoff doesn’t hold a candle to the wild-and-wooly five weeks in 2011 when Hancock came from a smidgen behind in the first round to trounce former state Sen. Chris Romer by a 16-point margin.
That election had nearly everything, from secretive groups filling voters’ mailboxes with scurrilous attacks to battles over abortion and evolution. At one point, Tom Tancredo took center stage, but not before the candidates fell into a daily rhythm of lobbing blistering accusations everytime one of their supporters so much as sneezed.
“We won it in a mudslide,” quipped Doug Linkhart at Hancock headquarters when the results were clear. The former state lawmaker and Denver council member endorsed Hancock in the runoff after his own mayoral ambitions were thwarted.
It’s a truism in Colorado politics that runoffs for Denver mayor are full-contact contests, thick with flying elbows, plenty of fur and the occasional mud.
Denver’s mayor, after all, is by all accounts the most powerful elected official in the state, vested with authority over nearly 15,000 employees spread across 39 departments and agencies with a $1.5 billion budget.
As former Mayor John Hickenlooper has demonstrated, it can also be a springboard. Three years into his second term, Hickenlooper was elected to his first of two terms as governor, and eight years later launched a bid for the White House.
After he left office, Federico Peña served in Bill Clinton’s cabinet and eventually ran two federal departments — energy and transportation.
The runoff’s relative brevity — just weeks from the starting line to the finish — also focuses the vitriol of modern electioneering, which typically drips out over a much longer campaign. (The dozen Democrats hoping to unseat Republican U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner next year, for instance, have already been hurling attacks Gardner’s way for months.)
In the 10 elections since 1983, when Peña, a young state lawmaker, ousted three-term Mayor Bill McNichols — by imagining a great city and benefiting from lingering ire over that same city’s botched response to a snowstorm months earlier — Denver voters have only elected a mayor three times without forcing a runoff — Wellington Webb’s bid for a third term in 1999, Hickenlooper’s saunter to a second term in 2007, and Hancock’s walk to a second term in 2015.
In every other election, Denver voters have faced a runoff for mayor, but few had as many twists and turns as the 2011 Hancock-Romer bout.
The race for an open seat — Hickenlooper had stepped down months earlier to take over as governor, leaving Bill Vidal, the former deputy mayor, in the mayor’s office — pitted Romer, the son of former three-term Gov. Roy Romer, against Hancock, who was raised by a single mother and dreamed since childhood of becoming Denver’ first black mayor. (Webb, a Hancock supporter, beat him to that distinction.)
Out of the gate, Romer hammered Hancock with a barrage of emails and a TV ad accusing Hancock, a two-term councilman, of having “a record of fiscal irresponsibility that can’t be trusted” and questioning his opponent’s commitment to abortion rights.
Hancock’s campaign shot back.
“This is a desperate approach and is clearly how Chris is going to spend the rest of this campaign,” a Hancock spokeswoman said, adding that Romer had his facts wrong.
A shadowy attack group supporting Romer laced into Hancock with a series of mailers featuring dinosaur skeletons after Hancock appeared to say in a debate that he thought creationism should be taught in public schools. (Hancock’s campaign rushed out a statement saying he’d misunderstood the question.)
“Michael Hancock doesn’t believe in evolution,” the mailers said. “But he wants to decide what our children learn in science class.”
Through it all, Hancock kept a smile on his face and managed to frame his attacks on the more relentlessly aggressive Romer as setting the record straight, rather than jumping in the negative-campaigning trough with his opponent. But there was plenty of mud to go around.
At one point, Romer took down a negative ad shortly after getting a phone call from Hickenlooper, whose distaste for negative campaigning was already part of his brand, though Romer denied he pulled the ad at Hickenlooper’s insistence, maintaining the ad had simply run its course.
Over the course of a week, both campaigns lodged near-daily complaints that their opponents’ supporters had gone too far — in one case by disrespecting the mayoral also-rans who didn’t make the runoff by calling them “losers,” and in another when an overly zealous Hancock supporter crashed a Romer press conference and “heckled” the opponent.
And then there was Tancredo, who didn’t live in Denver but nonetheless came to dominate the race for a few days.
After the conservative firebrand and former Republican congressman said he admired Hancock’s life story, those remarks made it into attacks aimed at Hancock. In response, Tancredo jokingly endorsed Romer — “Viva Romer!” — in radio spots that received heavy play on conservative talk shows.
By the time the dust settled, Hancock, the underdog, ran away with it — in a mudslide.