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Jamie Giellis photographed on South Pearl Street. Photo by Sarah Boyum

Denver’s 2019 Mayoral Runoff: A Q&A with Challenger Jamie Giellis

A new name in politics, Giellis wants to use her urban planning experience (she was president of the RiNo Art District) to “reimagine” the city, but is facing criticism from her opponent about the way her campaign has navigated racial issues.

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The municipal election may be over, but Denver has yet to decide on a mayor because no single candidate won the majority of the vote on May 7. That means the top two vote-getters—incumbent Michael Hancock and first-time challenger Jamie Giellis—are headed for a runoff election on June 4. 5280 interviewed both candidates twice during the campaign (the first interviews can be found here and include specific stances on Denver’s hottest issues). With Denver’s top power position yet to be decided, we sat down with both candidates again to learn more about their vision for the future.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

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5280: What is something that Denver voters don’t know about you?
I wanted to be an astronaut when I was a kid and I went to space camp two times. I was set on this career to be a scientist and an astronaut and it has nothing to do with what I’m doing today.

What’s the biggest difference between you and your opponent?
Well, I think it’s very much about fresh vision, fresh approach to leading a growing city. He’s a mayor that has been in city government for a long time. He’s a politician. He’s a politico. And he didn’t necessarily even come into the job with a real expertise and knowledge about urban planning or cities. And I’m coming at this after a long career of having worked closely with—but never for—Denver government on behalf of neighborhoods and communities….I think people are sick of how we’ve grown, and they’re also sick of entrenched politicos running the city. And I bring a fresh opportunity to reimagine our future, and to do it not beholden to anybody but the people of Denver.

What would that reimagining look like?
I think it’s the reimagination of a great city but with people and quality of life at the core. As we have grown, we harnessed our growth and our economic boom to focus on things like the Convention Center expansion, or National Western, or the Great Hall at DIA, or aerotropolis. We haven’t invested in our people. We haven’t invested in transit or really moved forward on affordable housing, or how we’re going to truly take care of the homeless challenges, of our park system, of cleaning our river, of empowering and strengthening our neighborhoods….People feel cut out from the process. They feel that they have lost a voice. They feel like they’re losing their Denver, and so I think it’s to grab hold of Denver’s future and reimagine and reinvest in what makes Denver great and what a modern urban Denver looks like.

“Bringing back the streetcar” has been a big part of your campaign, how would you implement it?
The Denver Moves transit plan lays out at least the beginning of what an intracity network could look like, and it begins to prioritize streets and types of uses on those streets, frequency of uses. I think the starting point is just clarifying: Is that network the appropriate network? Is it actually getting people where they go? How they use the city already? In terms of the actual tool that we use for the network, I love the idea of streetcar. I’ve been very clear about that. I think that there’s a huge opportunity to do something really great. But it’s also not something that I’ll fall on my sword [for] if the community thinks it’s not worthy of an investment.

Why streetcars instead of buses?
Streetcars have been shown to have an opportunity to create a higher economic impact and return because you tend to be able to incentivize development to occur around fixed transit lines….In [a] mayoral forum, the mayor brought up, “You know we looked at streetcar back in 2006 and it was too expensive.” Well, that was 13 years ago….Why you’re seeing streetcar come back is the cars are lighter [and] the system that goes into the street, you don’t have to dig up the street as deeply to get the system in. It’s a whole new level of technology and I think it is worthy of a relook. I don’t think we should just dismiss it straight off because we tried it 13 years ago in a study and it didn’t make sense then. Denver was a whole different city then.

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(Read more about Giellis’ approach to infrastructure in Denver)

You were clear during the campaign that you did not support Initiative 300, but have also talked about concerns with the camping ban. Would you work to lift the camping ban?
I said throughout the campaign I’m totally against 300 but the urban camping ban is flawed policy as well….It was never implemented to actually address homelessness. It was implemented to address the Occupy Denver movement. We have 16 other ordinances on the books that address homelessness in some fashion, from park curfews to sit-and-lie to a number of different things….I think it is flawed policy that needs to be replaced with other tools, and the primary thing being if we want people to not be sleeping on our streets, and in our alleys, and on our riverfronts, then we need to be able to get to them and help connect them and [provide] them an alternative for places to go. That’s where the mayor has completely failed in the last eight years is providing adequate options and opportunities for people to go temporarily, to go permanently, and to go and get mental health treatment or services that they need.

You have quite a bit of your funding coming in from three developers. What influence might those relationships have on you if you were elected?
When I decided to run, obviously, the first thing I was worried about is who runs a campaign and how do you fund it. So I put together my campaign team, first of all. And then the second thing I did was go to three people I knew that could write big checks and said, “We have to hit the ground running otherwise we’re not going to be able to keep up with an incumbent.” And they all committed….So, for me, it wasn’t so much about them pushing me or who am I going to be beholden to. It was about: I need resources, and if I’m going to get in this I need to know that I at least have the money to do it right. And they haven’t been involved in the campaign much beyond that. Certainly, we’re talking all the time. They’re providing their ideas, but so are the 500 other people that have given money.

A news report highlighted that you haven’t voted in some municipal elections. Why would you ask voters to act differently?
First of all, I’m very upfront in saying, “Wrong move, obviously; stupid thing for me to have done.” That said, I think it’s important that anybody that cares about the city get involved and have their voice heard….This is a job interview for who’s going to run your city and I’ve been a very, very engaged person working on the community side of things the entire time I’ve been in Denver, working in a lot of places. And so, I think this is a moment. A learning moment for people. Step in. Get involved. It’s how you make a difference.

You could become Denver’s first female mayor. Have gender and race played a factor in this election?
I think they are critically important. I’ve made a commitment and I look forward to working also with Lisa and Pen on this—this has been a core piece of their platforms as well—to ensure that our administration and our city workers represent the diverse fabric of the city itself and that’s a commitment I have to make and be held accountable to. So men. Women. Communities of color. LGBTQ. Young. Old. We need to make sure that the people who are making decisions for the city are representative of people of the city.

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Twitter was buzzing this morning (May 16) with reactions to your Brother Jeff Fard’s Facebook Live interview yesterday. Do you have a comment on that?
It was 3:15 in the afternoon and I had just come from a one-on-one debate [with] Mayor Hancock, from a press conference, from six other media interviews, and they said to me, somebody says, “You don’t know what the NAACP is.” And I said, “Well yes, I know what the NAACP is. It’s an organization that works on advocacy for communities of color, for education, politics. I just had a debate that was hosted by them.” And they said, “Well, yes but what does it stand for?” And I, just in that moment, had a momentary lapse. I got off the camera, I turned to Shay [the host] and I said, “OK, I got it. National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.” Total brain lapse moment and its being turned into an unfortunate thing, which, you know what, at the end of the day now everybody’s talking about the NAACP.

Before the general election, your campaign sent 25,000 mailers to potential voters that didn’t identify the funding source as your campaign. How did that happen?
We had some Republicans approach us and say, “You know what? We’re going to support Jamie. We’d like to do a letter to other registered Republicans voters that says here’s why we are supporting her.” And so it came out from our office and the only issue was that the “Paid for by Jamie for Denver” disclaimer fell off the bottom of the letter. And, again, campaign error. So we sent it out, but it was from our office; it had our office address on it….It got called to our attention and we got a $500 fine and that happens. All the campaigns I think have had things filed against them now.

The new psilocybin mushroom decriminalization rule recently went into effect; how would you address it?
Well, it’s my job to follow the will of the voters, so I’ll figure out what we need to do to make it work…It’s been decided and we’ll make sure that it’s done and [just] make sure we recognize as we [proceed] if there are unintended consequences that come from that, that we’re prepared to have the conversations.

What’s your final pitch to voters?
It’s a moment for change. I think the election spoke loud and clear between the mayoral runoff and other City Council runoffs that people are very much wanting to see a fresh start for the city and to grab hold of this development and growth that’s happened….I think if—when—I get elected, this will be a pivotal moment. It will be a disruption to the system here and I think sometimes disruption has done great things for Denver, so I hope the voters will give me a chance.

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