On May 7, Denver voters were set to decide who would step into the Mayor’s Office — but instead, the decision was delayed. Between six main candidates, including the incumbent Michael Hancock, there was no majority winner. When this occurs, a runoff election is scheduled, pitting the two candidates with the most votes against each other for a second time. In some ways, a runoff election makes the first round of voting feel like a semi-final, where voters who originally chose candidates not represented in the runoff must decide to vote for the second best. Incumbent Hancock received 39% of the votes (11% shy of winning a majority), while Giellis clocked in just under 25%. The next top finishers were Lisa Calderón and Penfield Tate, who together with Giellis composed 58.1% of the votes — and who have since announced their support for Giellis with a “unity ticket.”
This runoff election is not the first in Denver’s history — in fact, Mayor Hancock won his first term after a runoff in 2011. But it’s been nearly 30 years since a runoff election was peppered with such divisiveness. The 1995 runoff between Mayor Wellington Webb and Councilwoman Mary DeGroot has some incredible parallels to the one we will cast our votes in on June 4.
So whether or not you voted in the first election, this guide will break down what you need to know for the much-contested runoff on June 4, from the candidates to the controversies.
Incumbent Mayor Michael Hancock was first sworn in back in 2011, then reelected in 2015. Before that, he served as City Councilman for District 11 for eight years. One of the major criticisms of Hancock as Mayor started in 2012 when he helped pass the unauthorized camping bill. Tensions from that bill, which many opponents claimed criminalized the homeless, came to a head in 2016 when the homeless “sweeps” were broadcast online. Hancock asserts that during his two terms as Mayor the economic vitality of Denver has prospered more than it would have without him. He sites statistics like the decreased unemployment rate, the number of new businesses in the city and perhaps most importantly, the affordable housing fund (worth $30 million each year). With the new election, Hancock understands the needs and demands of Denver citizens have changed since his first and second time in office. Consequently, he has turned his attention toward equity in the economic sectors rather than the bottom line of economic growth he was trying to achieve for the last seven years when Denver was coming out of a financial hangover. Much of his platform stands on the idea that Denver only succeeds when everyone in it succeeds — a goal he hopes to achieve with the affordable housing projects and fund, improving infrastructure and transportation and “modernizing city services” (a move that could save millions of taxpayer dollars).
Jaime Giellis was born in a rural town in Iowa to parents who were always involved in local politics. For 17 years, Giellis has not only worked with Denver on issues of urban infill and growth as an urban development consultant and the president of the RiNo Art District, she’s also traveled across the US and in the UK and Singapore, experiencing a variety of best practices for city management and development. Her resumé attracted the Colorado Creative Industries in 2011, who hired her to oversee the state-wide Creative Districts program. One of Giellis’s main priorities in this campaign has been calling out the existing administration for the affordable housing crisis in the city. If elected, Giellis would call for $1 billion in city expenditures on affordable housing over the next decade, a cabinet-level post focused solely on affordable housing (rather than its current place under the Office of Economic Development) and neighborhood offices for city development, to keep it hyper-local. In her first 100 days, if she is elected, Giellis has promised to work on the homelessness issue in Denver, with plans to ask communities for help on temporary and permanent solutions to give people shelter rather than spending money on the “sweeps.” She has said that she does not support rent control. Another issue she has zeroed in on is transportation and environmental sustainability, noting that affordable housing is only part of the puzzle and that accessibility needs to be addressed as well. She maintains that the streetcar network which ruled Denver before the 1950s is a viable model to replicate with newer technology and believes that Denver should lead the Midwest in providing revolutionary options for public transportation.
One week after the votes were tallied and the runoff was announced, the race heated up. The escalation has been swift and fierce, with both Giellis and Hancock comparing each other to Donald Trump, criticizing each other’s past and arguing over Denver’s main problems of homelessness and gentrification. The best way to understand the last week’s events is through a timeline, detailed below.*
May 13 – The Unity Ticket, operating under the hashtag #UniteDenver is announced, where the third and fourth place finishers — Calderón and Tate — back Giellis as their candidate for mayor.
May 14 – Giellis participates in a live interview on Facebook with Brother Jeff and misremembers what NAACP stands for. She then continued the “cringe-worthy” (as Kyle Clark put it) mistake by remarking she had a lapse in memory after the interview was over.
May 15 – A midnight social media purge by Giellis leads to questions the following day. One of the deleted tweets said, “Here’s a question: Why do so many cities feel it necessary to have a ‘Chinatown’?” — though she insisted the statement was taken out of context and the removal of content from her profiles was an attempt to redirect the conversation to the issues that Denver cares about, rather than her past.
May 16 – Together, Tate and Calderón released a statement about Giellis’ NAACP flub. Although they admonished her at the beginning, they set the stage for supporters to forgive her shortcomings, saying in part,”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. We further hope that we hold all public officials to a higher standard of accountability for their cultural and gender competence, including the current mayor.”
May 17 – UniteDenver — Tate, Calderón and Giellis — host a conversation forum on Facebook Live called “The State of the Black Community,” encouraging the community to interact.
May 18 – Giellis pulls out of a round table discussion on Saturday morning with the Colorado Black Round Table, explaining that one of the organizer’s of the event was connected with Hancock.
May 19 – On Sunday morning, 30-second attack ads started airing on broadcast and digital channels, accusing Giellis about several different issues. “Like Trump, she called undocumented immigrants ‘criminals,’” the ad said. This quote was pulled out of context from a debate in March and was labeled untruthful. That afternoon, Giellis released a statement firing back at the Hancock campaign. “Michael Hancock got one thing right: Denver doesn’t need a leader who resembles Donald Trump, including one who sexually harasses women. As the first woman mayor of Denver, I will make sure women have stronger workplace protections against gender discrimination. I will also eliminate secret settlements, such as the $1.5 million paid by Denver taxpayers to cover up Michael Hancock’s sexual indiscretions.”
May 21 – In the morning, Giellis holds a press conference where she accuses Mayor Hancock and his administration of paying $1.5 million worth of “secret payments” for sexual harassment suits. In the evening, the two candidates face off in a heated live debate on 9News, hosted by Kyle Clark and Marshall Zellinger. Throughout the debate, tensions flared between the two candidates — each accused the other of being in the pockets of developers, for instance.
May 23 – Giellis sends out a press release with the subject “$439 Million and Counting: Hancock Administration’s Incompetence and Fiscal Mismanagement Costing Denver.” In the release, Giellis’ campaign digs into Mayor Hancock and his administration for going over budget on two major public projects — the Convention Center and Denver Airport. “A 47% budget increase on a multimillion-dollar project is not revealed overnight. Between the estimated $129 million overrun at the Convention Center and the $310 million overrun at DIA, two projects are costing the City of Denver at least an additional $439 million dollars.”
May 26 & 27 – Footage from Giellis on YouTube flares tensions because she appeared to change stances on homelessness in Denver, saying “I cannot and will not repeal the urban camping ban.” Her campaign then sent out a press release insisting that her statement addressed the problem that City Council must repeal it (not the mayor) and that we need “a better plan, not just a camping ban.”
* Events are added to this list as they happen, so some have been added after initial publishing.
The Rest of the Ballot
The ballots — which were mailed out on Monday, May 20 — include some other runoff elections aside from the mayoral one. Five districts must redo votes to secure a City Council representative, and everyone has to vote again for the Clerk and Recorder — between Paul Lopez and Peg Perl — because no one in those races earned 50% of the vote.
Additionally, everyone will vote on another ballot initiative — Ordinance 302. This asks voters to decide if we should be able to vote in the future to allow or disallow public money and resources to be used on the Olympic Games. It’s an oddly worded initiative — voting no on this one does not mean you are barring taxpayer money from funding the Olympics, it means you are leaving those decisions in the hands of future city governments. Voting yes on 302 means the city is prohibited from using taxpayer money on the Olympics without first obtaining majority voter approval.
The five districts in the runoff are District 1 (Highlands / Northside), District 3 (Sun Valley), District 5 (East Colfax and Lowry), District 9 (RiNo and Downtown) and District 10 (Capitol Hill, Civic Center, Cherry Creek). In a previous article we wrote before the first election, we broke down each candidate and what they stand for and against. Read on to find out which two candidates are running for the second time in your district. You can find your district here on this map.
For: Smart development which includes limits on security deposits for renters, apprenticeship positions at construction sites and speed limit reductions in residential neighborhoods. Sandoval also has more specific ideas around environmental sustainability, including more trash and recycle receptacles at public parks and a few capital improvement projects.
Against: Disappearance of green space to developers, unbridled zoning laws and the increased crime rate in District 1.
For: A better sense of community and safety in North Denver, affordable housing and better public transportation — the last one pivots on the idea that we should adopt electric streetcars in order to have fast results while we wait for major transportation infrastructure improvements.
Against: The status quo approach to homelessness, transit plans that “sound good on paper” but don’t have tangible results and the lack of community that has come with expansion.
For: Educating local community members about the resources that already exist to help with development concerns, fostering a strong immigrant population, ensuring safety for pedestrians and supporting local artists.
Against: Intolerant safety officials (like police officers), lack of budget for multi-modal transportation, exclusive laws or regulations that isolate immigrants and certain predatory practices of developers.
For: Reviving the Revolving Loan Fund for small businesses, standing for civil rights, equalizing the ratio of wages to rent and taking a proactive approach to climate change (saying that “everyone deserves a healthy neighborhood to grow up in.”)
Against: Displacement of existing community members because of rising home prices (both renting and owning), declining air and water quality due to avoidable pollution and civil rights abuses (she opposes the urban camping ban).
For: Restructuring public transit (micro transit, separate mobility department), the upkeep and safety of East Colfax, economic development, urbanism, affordable housing, Urban Camping Ban
Against: Rezoning (unless for developmental purposes), Involuntary displacement
For: Restructuring development to be more community focused, increased funding and allocation to police precincts in order to diminish crime, reallocate public transit funding to deal with the traffic congestion issue, environmental incentives, housing the homeless population appropriately, higher minimum wage
Against: Fracking, zoning that doesn’t account for parking or traffic, city contracts that don’t benefit Denver workers
For: Improved youth initiatives specifically by creating full-time cabinet-level position for My Brother’s Keeperprogram and youth workforce training programs, more affordable housing by creating a “Land Bank” through city-owned land where affordable housing can be built, improved transportation by completing funding for the Denver Moves plan, combating homelessness through employment via Denver Day Works and long-term housing solutions. Additionally, he supports Supervised Injection Sites to combat the opioid epidemic
Against: Ending the current camping ban, decentralizing the power of the Mayor’s Office and restricting development
For: Responsible growth by implementing tools that empower the community — i.e. Renter’s Bill of Rights and Community Bill of Rights for new developments, creating community-led land trusts, making co-ops and other community-based living options legal by revising zoning and occupancy codes (etc). Using innovation and private partnerships to modernize and connect the city’s transportation gaps without heavily relying on RTD. Making local government more efficient and transparent by streamlining agencies, using updated technology to increase local participation and creating accountability systems like a city council vote tracker and scorecards.
Against: Current camping ban, maintaining the status quo of centralized power in the Mayor’s Office, more luxury developments, allowing elected officials to accept gifts, trips and benefits and sale of city-owned land for market-rate development
Incumbent: Wayne New (read our full profile here)
For: Re-zoning based on transparency with the intent to represent the residents of each neighborhood and the overall character of the location, remaining with the budget and financial plan he first drafted in office because of its balance between being cost-effective and still improving important services around the district, a more aggressive approach for affordable housing and homelessness citing that the funds allocated are not sufficient for the problem, and the Urban Camping Ban
Against: Raising the minimum wage any more than the state-wide initiative of $15 an hour by 2021 because of the effect it might have on businesses.
For: The “20-Minute Neighborhood” plan, where food and everything we need to thrive as parts of the district is a 20-minute walk or bike ride away (no cars) in order to protect the environment and also decrease transit congestion. Representation by advocating for all voices within a community, especially minorities. Functional sidewalks and infrastructure to incentivize pedestrian traffic instead of car traffic, a housing-first policy for the homeless and an increase in the minimum wage.
Against: Urban Camping Ban, Current permit and development processes because he believes they do not incentivize the development of affordable housing.