There’s never a good way to lose, but the mayoral race in Denver is going to leave Jamie Giellis second-guessing four weeks in spring for a very long time.
The newcomer to the political game had a great chance to win, despite being outspent by a mile.
Two-term Mayor Michael Hancock stumbled out of the May 7 general election with just 39% of the vote. Despite five challengers, that still meant 61% of the voters supported replacing him.
This was a change election, to boot. Three incumbents — Albus Brooks, Wayne New and Mary Beth Susman — lost. Two newcomers, Amanda Sandoval and Jamie Torres, easily won open seats.
And here was Giellis, fresh to the political game, a talented woman at a time when women in politics are in their ascension in a city that’s never had a woman in the mayor’s office.
Her time was now.
Making the general election, however, turned out to be her peak, and no signs warned that the valley was around the bend.
“For a first-time candidate, I left it all on the table,” she told my colleague Ernest Luning after her runoff loss. Giellis promised to return to the public arena, but she wasn’t yet sure exactly how. There are lessons here from which she should learn. Experience is a path, not just an asset.
Every campaign has peaks and valleys. The grade on her decline, however, was frighteningly steep. After the general election, Giellis went on a prominent Denver Facebook webcast for the black community and couldn’t answer the question of what the acronym NAACP stands for.
She followed that by announcing a campaign event called Tacos and Lowriders. She followed that by turning down debates put on by groups in minority communities.
Giellis pulled down her personal Twitter feed after a tweet from years past emerged in which questioned why so many cities have Chinatown neighborhoods.
She struggled to explain why she scrubbed her Twitter feed if she had done nothing wrong. She didn’t want her past comments to be a distraction, she said. Her actions spoke louder than her tweets.
Giellis could have survived all that. Really. After all, before the general election, Colorado Politics’ John Ensslin reported she had not voted in 10 of the 22 municipal elections since she moved to the city in 2006. She released a statement saying she was traveling and working outside the country during the time she missed most of those elections.
As with the NAACP, most people are familiar with absentee ballots and early voting. Her excuse rang political.
In an interview with 9News’ Kyle Clark on May 15, at the height of the questions about race, Giellis seemed overwhelmed by the controversy. Volunteers — men — gathered near her and glared at Clark.
The visuals for Giellis were horrible. Then her audio wasn’t great in a 9News/CoPo debate when she said she had a lot to learn about other cultures and she came from “a place of white privilege.” Saying you have white privilege doesn’t relieve you of the privilege of having it.
Hancock, the political veteran, capitalized on each of her unforced errors to keep his opponents off-balance. Her inexperience left her unable to regain her footing and punch back effectively.
She tried pointing out sexual harassment cases at City Hall, and the sexually suggestive text messages Hancock sent to a subordinate years ago. The political power of the #MeToo movement seemed to have been drained in 2018, or at least it didn’t move the needle much for Giellis.
Hancock by no means ran a perfect race, overreaching on claims in ads and failing to ever recognize and counter why so many people did not want to see him get a third term, despite the city’s gangbuster economy.
He carried a 14-point lead over Giellis out of the general election, and with all the people who had voted for other candidates up for grabs, he still won the runoff by 12.6 points.
I had expected this election to be about growth and gentrification. It turned out to be about race and gender, and that proved to be a zero-sum matchup neither side won.
The changes on the City Council indicated voters were pushing back on development. With the two mayoral candidates in the runoff, it was a draw on the issue, at best.
The problem for Giellis is she couldn’t show any substantive contrast with Hancock on growth and development. Both of their campaigns were supported by different developers. Hancock couldn’t point to a time he stood up to developers, but Giellis was no better.
Giellis highlighted problems in the Hancock administration, but she never quite articulated what she would do, specifically, to fix them.
Voters respond to solutions more than complaints, and you have to present voters with changes they can visualize. Giellis came the closest when she talked about trolley cars.
In a key juncture of the race, she opposed Hancock’s urban camping ban on the homeless, but that was before she was for it; I couldn’t discern her position from her gumbo of wiggle words.
In the end, Giellis simply failed to connect with the people who didn’t like Hancock. His win was simply her loss.