A week into Denver's mayoral runoff campaign, challenger Jamie Giellis found herself embroiled in a racially charged controversy over an acronym, low riders, a late-night social media purge and a decade-old tweet about Chinatown.
On Thursday, as her campaign said Giellis, who is white, wanted to talk about "the issues that Denver is facing" even while declining interview requests, incumbent Michael Hancock, Denver's second African-American mayor, blasted Giellis for a "pattern of cultural and racial insensitivities" and called the first-time candidate's response to the furor "flippant."
Defeated mayoral candidates Lisa Calderón, who is black and Latina, and Penfield Tate III, who is black, came to Giellis' defense Thursday — three days after the former rivals endorsed her — and accused Hancock of trying to distract voters with "a manufactured controversy."
Hancock swung back hard at Calderón in an interview with Colorado Politics, saying the longtime critic of his administration was only overlooking Giellis' "missteps and misstatements" so she could pile on Hancock, "speak[ing] to her willingness to waver when her self interest is involved."
Giellis and Hancock face off in a June 4 runoff election. Ballots for the all-mail election go out to voters beginning Monday.
Giellis acknowledged Thursday night in an interview with 9News that she "made a mistake" but declined to say what the mistake was.
Instead she said, "We're all going to misstep at one time. I don't know how people are going to perceive it, but I'm putting myself out here to be open to it."
It started Tuesday when Giellis couldn't say during a live interview that "NAACP" stands for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
Hancock pounced, tweeting: "This is alarming."
In a written statement issued Wednesday, Giellis said she had "momentarily struggled to recall" what NAACP stood for — "National African-American ... ?" she'd said in the interview — but that it came to her after the show, she told the hosts and apologized.
"This campaign has expanded my knowledge of other cultures, their wants, struggles and successes," she added. "I am learning more every day."
But the controversy snowballed late Wednesday when questions arose about a Giellis fundraiser at a Mexican restaurant featuring low riders and a 2009 tweet from her personal account, which read: "Here's a question: Why do so many cities feel it necessary to have a ‘Chinatown’?”
"My concerns are growing," tweeted state Rep. Leslie Herod, a Denver Democrat and Hancock supporter. "First the @NAACP gaffe and now this?? Does she have any idea the history behind Chinatowns across this country?"
Soon after, as criticism on social media mounted, Giellis' personal Twitter and Instagram accounts disappeared, along with the Instagram account operated by her campaign.
In a statement sent to Colorado Politics at around 2 a.m. Thursday, Giellis said she had "turned off my personal accounts when I felt like personal statements were being taken out of context for the purpose of diverting the conversation from the issues that Denver is facing and voters care about."
She added that she was "working on restoring the campaign Instagram page," which appeared online again Thursday afternoon.
As for the old tweet about Chinatown, Giellis, an urban planner, wrote: "Throughout my work and travels I have shared personal observations about what I was seeing in neighborhoods around the world. The comment about Chinatowns is one example. I was noticing that those neighborhoods were changing, that 'Chinatowns' became less of the cultural centers that they once were."
Later Thursday, Giellis' campaign spokeswoman said the candidate wouldn't be conducting interviews.
“At this time we feel that directing time and energy toward listening to community members and organizing a discussion about the state of the Black community in Denver is a more productive use of time,” an emailed statement said.
Her campaign also distributed a "response to recent news" from Tate and Calderón.
The lengthy statement said Giellis plans to hold "a frank conversation with the community about race, culture and history" and concluded nearly every paragraph with a jab at Hancock.
“Every public official should know the history and contributions of such an esteemed historic civil rights institution as the NAACP. We appreciate Jamie Giellis taking full responsibility for her recent statements and not making excuses, which will be a refreshing change from the current administration,” Tate and Calderón wrote.
They continued: "We hope the same kind of outcry about Jamie not knowing the historic significance of the NAACP extends to an even louder outcry against the high rate of displacement and economic inequity African Americans in Denver have experienced over the past eight years."
Hancock, in an interview, called Calderón's participation in the response "indefensible."
"It's contradictory to what I think for years Lisa has espoused in terms of missteps, misstatements by people," he said, adding: "If I'd made a similar mistake, she'd be all over me."
Hancock continued: "It makes it clear it was never about the community; it was always about Lisa and her interests on these issues. It's hard for them to defend the pattern of cultural and racial insensitivities we have seen over the last 48 hours from Jamie Giellis. I don't know how you defend that."
The mayor also slammed his opponent's responses and dismissed the suggestion she would hold a conversation about race in the 19 days until the election.
"I've always said, we're more judged by how we respond to circumstances than by circumstances themselves," Hancock said.
"It's important to us to see how Jamie Giellis is responding right now beyond just statements. This is serious."
He added: "I don't think it's OK to have a flippant attitude about it and say, 'I'll learn and get over it.' This is the basic life of someone who seems to be very secluded from a diverse group of people. It just shows how secluded her life has been."
In a statement provided by Giellis' campaign, Calderón and Tate rejected Hancock's criticism and reiterated their attacks.
"Rather than focusing on the needs of the Black community and taking accountability for one of the highest displacement rates in the country, and his failure to meet minority and women contracting goals, Michael Hancock wants to distract with a manufactured controversy," they wrote.
"We are taking the case directly to the people by creating a Black agenda for economic development for the first time in the past eight years."