Shared from the 6/4/2019 The Denver Post eEdition


Denver mayor’s race is like 1995 all over again

The mayor faced a neck-and-neck challenge in the runoff election. The challenger was talking about cronyism and mismanaged public projects. And race and ethnicity were central topics as a white woman tried to unseat a black man.

The year was 1995, when then-mayor Wellington Webb made a comeback victory against challenger Mary DeGroot.

In 2019, Mayor Michael Hancock is hoping that history will keep repeating itself. Tuesday is the conclusion of the runoff election between him and challenger Jamie Giellis.

A comparison of the two elections shows what’s changed — and what hasn’t — in the city of Denver.

“A lot of people are comparing it to ’95, saying that was the last really ugly negative mayor’s race. There’s some obvious analogies,” said Eric Sondermann, a political consultant who worked with De-Groot in the 1995 election. But there are some crucial differences, he warned.

DeGroot, a former councilwoman, beat Webb by about 100 votes in the first round, setting off a runoff sprint that shared several narrative beats with the 2019 runoff between Hancock and Giellis.

Like Giellis, DeGroot’s support was strongest in the affluent neighborhoods of south and east Denver. And, like Hancock, Webb’s supporters tried to portray the challenger as out-of-touch with black and Latino neighborhoods. (Much of the criticism focused on DeGroot’s stance against race-based affirmative action, a policy that Giellis does not share.)

Webb won the runoff by 8 percentage points, apparently benefiting from improved turnout in black and Latino neighborhoods. “We had to beat the bushes to make sure that people would then turn back out for the second election,” Webb said. He thinks that his supporters stayed home from the first vote because they expected an easy victory.

There’s a difference this year.

Webb believes that Hancock faces a fundamentally more difficult situation propelled by an anti-incumbent mood. Members of the former mayor’s close staff and supporters have worked for Giellis and other challengers this cycle, but Webb himself is a staunch Hancock supporter.

“I think this race is much nastier — much more animosity towards Hancock that is not based on issues,” he said.

Giellis has aligned a “unity ticket,” with the endorsements of two former rivals, Lisa Calderón, who is black and Latina, and Penfield Tate, who is black. Together, they represented about 58 percent of the first-round vote.

“I think they have helped round Jamie out substantially,” said C.L. Harmer, a Hancock supporter who worked on the Webb ’95 campaign. Helped along by the endorsements, Giellis has won support from black and Latino voters who feel excluded or harmed by Hancock’s handling of gentrification and development.

Giellis also has criticized Hancock’s handling of race: At a Denver Post debate, she brought up Hancock’s alleged use of a meme in a 2012 text conversation with Detective Leslie Branch-Wise. The meme featured a picture of a dancing baby and a racial slur.

Giellis said it was “very offensive.” Hancock said he didn’t use the word and didn’t remember sending the meme.

On the other side, a recent pro-Hancock ad features repeated clips of Giellis saying, “I come from a place of white privilege,” complete with sinister music and visual overlays, turning what was supposed to be a field-leveling acknowledgment into evidence of supposed ignorance. (It also rehashed her fumble on the full name of the “NAACP” and her “Chinatown” tweet from 2009.)

If Calderón and Tate’s voters break heavily for Giellis, Hancock will need an influx of new voters to survive. As of Saturday, this year’s runoff election turnout is trending about 4 percent higher than the general election in May, but it’s not clear who will benefit.

DeGroot, who could not be reached for comment for this article, and Giellis have shared a few pages of the playbook, too. Both challengers alleged corruption and cronyism, and they harangued the administration for problematic mega-projects. Both incumbents responded by pointing out that their challengers hadn’t run large organizations.

Within weeks, the ’95 race turned so negative that Webb himself said at the time that he might choose “none of the above” if it were an option.

This year has introduced another major new factor. Hancock admitted last year to sending sexually themed text messages to a police employee in 2012. And he dug himself deeper in the final debate, when he said that the audience hadn’t seen “the back-and-forth conversation that occurred.” He apologized the next day, saying that he misspoke.

While DeGroot downplayed gender, Giellis has alleged that city hall has a culture of sexual harassment, and she promised that her collaborative leadership style could do better.

Meanwhile, Hancock has spent more time on offense than Webb, according to Sondermann.

“Yes, there were attacks against DeGroot, there was racial politics played, but Webb basically defended his record,” he said. “With Hancock, I just don’t see much defense. I just see them going all in on the scorched earth.”

The vitriol of 2019 also is fueled by new factors, he noted: social media, independent expenditure and much more money. Independent groups funded by developers have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars against Giellis in recent weeks, although she’s also had some independent support.

In 1995, the two candidates spent $1.5 million (that would be $2.5 million in today’s dollars); this year, they were nearing $3.5 million in total fundraising as of May 30, and Hancock had a 4-to-1 advantage.

It’s been enough to leave voters disenchanted. Said Sondermann: “In ’95, there was no sense around the city that somehow neither one of them was up to it — that somehow the city’s in trouble no matter which one wins.”

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