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.
5280: What is something that Denver voters don’t know about you?
I’m definitely a mama’s boy. I’m very close to her. I’m her protector. She sent me a text this morning saying, “Hey, I saw you on TV. You look tired. Take care of yourself.” Only a mom can do that.
What’s the biggest difference between you and your opponent?
I think, very clearly, experience is the first thing that jumps out at me. It’s clear Jamie has a very thin understanding of Denver and a thin understanding of how the Denver government operates. As I listen to her ideas, she’s often looking at things that have been looked at in Denver, that have been reviewed in Denver, and were rejected for one reason or the other. Streetcars are one of those….And most recently, her pattern of racial insensitivity and ignorance baffles me. It stuns me. As we’re learning more about who she is, the lack of empathy toward certain groups in the city of Denver is concerning. It’s very concerning. Because, as mayor, this is personal. Different demographic groups need to know that you have empathy, respect, and are open.
To follow up on that, have gender and race played a factor in this election?
I had hoped that it wouldn’t play very much. I had been blessed as an African American candidate—initially in 2011 and today—to not have to talk about the role race plays in me running for office. Wellington Webb, Federico Peña, even Bill Vidal had already paid the price for me to be able to serve in this role and not have to answer that question. And, unfortunately, because of the recent gaffes by Jamie, we’re seeing more and more of this come to play….If it’s going to play a role, I hope it plays a role that makes us all better but doesn’t divide us. Whether you grew up in small-town Iowa or Denver, Colorado, NAACP (the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) is a basic history lesson for all of us….I don’t think not knowing what the acronym stands for is a disqualifier. But it’s a pattern of insensitivity that is more concerning to me. I want to use all of our distinct differences—what makes us unique and special—as a unifying point about Denver. I hope to be one of the people who serve as a catalyst for that.
What is your message to voters who didn’t support you in the May 7 election?
This city is moving in the right direction. Poll after poll tells us that six out of 10 people believe we’re moving in the right direction. I need them now to believe that we brought Denver to the right position together. We’ve got to continue to move Denver together in the future while continuing to address challenges. My message has been clear.
You won reelection in 2015 with more than 80 percent of the vote. This year, you had five vocal challengers who earned more than 60 percent of the vote. What changed?
No city has changed the way Denver has. No city has transformed like Denver. Change makes people uncomfortable, particularly the way we have changed. The growth (110,000 more people), congestion [has] a role [in] it, rising housing costs, the pinch in the market. And just our life feels in the balance. So I certainly understand people’s sense of angst. We have not done a good enough job of connecting the things we have worked on: Building more affordable, attainable housing. Investing in that. Working on the mobility action plan. Investing $2 million in our streets.
When you look at the May 7 election results, do you think the text messages you sent to Detective Leslie Branch-Wise had an impact?
It probably has. I think it’s a compilation of a lot of things. We talked about this the last time we met. There’s no doubt it’s in people’s minds….I’m not afraid to be open and transparent, but I’ve now probably been in 50 to 60 public forums, and I always say, “Let’s open it up for questions; anything you want to ask me?” Maybe twice it’s come up. And so, I don’t know if it’s top of people’s minds. I think people want to know what we’re going to do about congestion. What we’re going to do about rising property values and taxes. That’s the stuff people care about it.
How do you respond to voters’ concerns about how city contracts are handled?
Denver has a very strict and strong firewall between the public elected officials and the decision-making around contracts. I don’t even engage in the bidding. I don’t engage in sitting on panels. I learned as a city councilmember that I should not be in the room when they’re making their bids and presenting to the city. So I don’t engage in that.
The Denver auditor recently released a report that says the city lacks a cohesive strategy to tackle homelessness. What do you make of that?
I honor and respect the auditor. As the former executive of a nonprofit, audits were the best way to prove to your investors that we are doing what you want us to do. And also to find those areas of challenge that you need to bone up on and be better at. So when the auditor issues a report, we take very seriously what he is saying to us. We sometimes don’t agree with some of the points. Most the time we say we agree and we’ll fix it. This audit was very helpful. We had already sensed we needed to do a better job consolidating those services and bringing them up under one roof. [And] let me be clear: We have seen a stabilization and decrease in the number of homeless people in Denver over the last three years. We have housed 7,500 people effectively—formerly homeless—in permanent, supportive housing in the city of Denver.
The Denver auditor also found last year that the Office of Economic Development had mismanaged the affordable housing program. What has the city done to address the issue?
First of all, it’s important to characterize it correctly. The city could have done a better job keeping an eye on those units as they transferred. Where the challenge occurs is that people were getting these units and then selling them a second time, as they often do with their housing. Or they would do things like rent them out. The deed restrictions of affordability were transferred. What we’ve done is we revamped the staff with a greater focus on that….We’ve put greater focus on mapping, new leadership, consolidating the department. And we’ve gone in and we’ve been able to capture most of those properties back.
The new psilocybin mushroom decriminalization rule recently went into effect; how would you address it?
Well, probably the same way we approached marijuana….I know our excise and licenses team is already out there looking at what we need to do. I don’t know if we’re going to see a whole industry sprout up, but we’re taking a look at what that means for Denver. It was a very nominal issue in Denver. I think the broader impact in Denver is the one I’m most concerned about and I’ve said this publicly: We don’t want to be seen as the city, that one place you go when you want to test something in terms of an illicit drug in our society. Amsterdam has already proved to us that once you go there, you never get that image back and I’m very concerned about that for Denver.
The city’s population continues to grow and so has the size of the city government. How can you ensure voters that government is expanding appropriately?
That’s a top priority for us every year in terms of budgeting. We have a position-approval process. And a city of our size still has the ability to harness resources and say, “This is a justified position? Can we eliminate this position?” But that’s part of the strategic management, and the responsible fiscal management of a city….We are seeing a softening in our local economy now. We watch and we monitor our sales and use tax and we have seen now three consecutive quarters of softening from those sales and use tax collections. So we’re tightening the reins now. We’re sending a message to our departments that as you plan for 2020 budgets it’s going to be a much stricter review on your expansion plans, because we’re going to prepare the city for an economic slowdown.
On the campaign trail, you’ve talked about your first term being about economic recovery, the second term being about growth, and the third term being about balance. Can you speak more about what would set a third term apart?
It’s going to be about how do we bring balance to a city that has been the most desirable, most vibrant city over the last six or seven years and really make sure it’s a place no matter who you are, no matter where you are on the economic scale, you can live here. And that’s very, very important. To be honest with you, that’s what really excites me about the third term. That’s at the core of who I am and the things I love to work on. I think it gets to the heart of the human condition.
What’s your final pitch to voters?
We can and we will. I’d much rather manage from a position of growth and progress than from a position where we are a dying city. It’s a much different ballgame. We have been blessed. We’re moving in the right direction. Let’s get to work addressing the challenges that come with being the most desirable city in the country.