Denver mayoral candidates Jamie Giellis and Michael Hancock.
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Denver mayoral candidates Jamie Giellis and Michael Hancock.

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The signs on the lawn leading up to Denver’s South High School on Tuesday night suggested the mayoral debate inside would be dominated by issues of growth and development.

They read like a series of the old roadside Burma Shave signs.

“What is Denver?”

“Not Sprawling Houston.”

“Not over-built New York.”

“Not smoggy Los Angeles.”

“Protect our green space.”

But inside, the first runoff debate in front of a live audience between Mayor Michael Hancock and urban planner Jamie Giellis struck some different notes than the growth-dominated forums held during the general election.

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Jamie Giellis and Michael Hancock
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Denver mayoral candidates Jamie Giellis and Michael Hancock moments before taking the stage during a debate hosted by the Denver Republican Party at South High School on May 14, 2019.

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Giellis did bring up the issue of “runaway development.” She also criticized Hancock for the growth of the city budget, increased property tax bills and for not hiring enough police officers.

But the most heated exchange during the 80-minute debate, hosted by the Denver Republican Party, came during a discussion of the city’s urban camping ban.

Hancock hammered Giellis for her pledge to repeal the urban camping ban, as he has done repeatedly since the May 7 general election, in which he finished first, with 38.7% of the vote. (She finished second, with 24.9%.)

Both candidates opposed Initiative 300, the so-called “Right to Survive” referendum which would have repealed the camping ban and asserted the right of the homeless to live in public places. The measure was rejected by 81.2% of the voters.

Hancock contends his opponent’s position on repealing the ban is inconsistent.

“Absolutely, you may as well support I-300,” he said.

“What the 82% of the people said is very clear,” he added. “Use that tool to move people to services in the city of Denver.”

Giellis countered that the mayor was trying to distract voters.

“Well, the mayor has made clear he’s going to try to make this the No. 1 campaign issue,” she said. “Because it’s really easy to focus on this and not focus on all the other things that we need to be talking about going forward.”

Giellis said she opposed 300 because it also would have eliminated park curfews, allowed homeless people to camp anywhere and prevented police and service providers from contacting them.

Meanwhile, she said the homeless problem has gotten worse and the city has been sued over the ban.

“So, my answer is this,” Gillis said. “I can’t repeal the urban camping ban. Council passed it. Council has to do something with it.”

“But it is not a solution either. And it has caused us more grief than good,” she added. “We need housing first and we need services. We need a mayor who actually wants to invest in solutions and not in a Band-Aid.”

That prompted this rebuttal from Hancock: “I’m amazed she actually figured out that the City Council has to repeal the urban camping ban, because she stood on this stage in the first forum and said,  ‘I will repeal the urban camping ban,’” he said.

“Let me tell you what the Band-Aid approach — as she called it — has resulted in,” Hancock added. “We have been able to successfully house 7,500 homeless in the city of Denver.”

Unlike previous mayoral debates, many people in the crowd of about 100 cheered wildly whenever their candidate made a point.

Tuesday night was part of series of debates scheduled in the run-up to the June 4 election. Hancock has called for doing 12 debates. The exact number has not yet been determined.

(9News and Colorado Politics will present a mayoral debate on May 21 at 7 p.m.)

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