The well-to-do son of a three-term governor will face an Army brat abandoned at a young age by his alcoholic father in the June runoff election for Denver’s next mayor.
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Former state Sen. Chris Romer — whose father, Roy Romer, served as governor from 1987-1999 — and Denver City Councilman Michael Hancock — who highlighted his challenging upbringing in cinematic campaign ads — emerged with the most votes in the May 3 contest, just far enough ahead of third-place finisher James Mejia, a former school board member and cabinet official for previous Denver mayors. All three are Democrats, though Denver elections are nonpartisan.
Seven other candidates trailed, including one who withdrew from the race right after voting started in the all-mail election. Because no one cleared 50 percent of the vote, the two top vote-getters advance to a five-week sprint until the June 7 runoff for what many have described as the most powerful elected office in the state.
Surrounded by his family, Romer thanked supporters gathered on election night at the Wynkoop Brewing Company in LoDo. He promised to draw a clear contrast with Hancock, who narrowly led Mejia when Romer declared victory at about 9 p.m.
“This thing was tied two weeks ago, and we’ve worked very hard,” said Romer, the early front-runner, referring to polls showing a statistical dead heat in mid April. Reiterating a theme he’s sounded throughout the campaign, Romer said, “I’m not just going to tell you what you want to hear, I’m going to have the conversations that we need to have and I’m going to tell you what we all need to talk about.”
A little over an hour later — as Kool and the Gang’s “Celebration” revved up an already boisterous crowd at the Exdo Event Center near Five Points — Hancock took the stage and proclaimed, “In the words of the Duke, John Elway: We got ’em right where we want ’em.”
Hancock told supporters that he had just called Romer and said he looks forward to “having a positive and yet rigorous debate about the future of Denver.”
Hours after his rivals had declared victory, as the vote moved increasingly against him in the wee hours, Mejia held out hope.
“There are still some votes coming in from some areas of town that we feel good about, so let’s see where we go from here,” he told a subdued crowd of hard-core supporters who had hung on until near midnight at La Rumba, a nightclub in Denver’s Golden Triangle neighborhood.
At that point, several thousand votes remained to be counted. Mejia’s campaign said that those, coupled with a couple thousand ballots rejected by election officials for signature problems, could be enough to bridge a gap with Hancock that had hovered around 1,500 votes for hours.
“If this spread cuts in half and then we have a couple thousand rejected ballots that can be cured, then we have to take a look at it,” said Mejia campaign manager Berrick Abramson as the nightclub’s staff started moving outdoor tables inside. “It’s not a matter of alleging any wrongdoing. My job for James is to make sure everybody who intended to vote for James is able to.” (Voters have until eight days after the election to fix missing signatures on ballots.)
But the gap didn’t close and Mejia eventually conceded defeat in an early morning email to supporters on Thursday and in phone calls to the other candidates later that day. At press time, Mejia planned to meet with Romer and Hancock over the weekend to determine whether he would make an endorsement.
After two intensive weeks of chasing mail ballots, and following a five-month campaign season that saw the number of candidates drop from 18 to 10 — and in the home stretch to nine — the results took shape within a minute of polls closing.
Romer jumped out to an early lead, which he held all night, when officials posted initial returns right after the 7 p.m. cut-off for returning ballots. The race for second place and the runoff started out close — with fewer than 200 votes separating Hancock from Mejia out of nearly 70,000 tabulated — confirming predictions and recent polling that said it would be a tight, three-way race for the two top spots.
But by the next scheduled update 90 minutes later, Hancock started to widen his lead and would continue to pull ahead every time more votes posted. At the same time, Romer’s early 6-point, 4,000-vote advantage began to dwindle as more ballots were counted, eventually settling to a much closer margin, though the initial order remained unchanged.
Final, unofficial results posted the next morning showed Romer winning with over 28 percent of the vote, followed by Hancock at 27 percent and Mejia at just under 26 percent. Councilman Doug Linkhart came in at 9 percent and former Judge Magistrate Theresa Spahn had 3 percent.
Councilwoman Carol Boigon, who withdrew from the race two weeks earlier and threw her support to Hancock, even though her name remained on the ballot, scored 2 percent. She wound up a couple hundred votes ahead of businessman Thomas Wolf. The other three candidates — Danny Lopez, Jeff Peckman and Ken Simpson — finished with less than 1 percent, in that order.
After a moribund couple weeks that had pundits and politicians alike bemoaning the slow turnout in the all-mail race, voting picked up significantly on election day. The city reported 33,853 ballots came in before the deadline, more than three times the number received on any other day.
The last-minute flood brought total turnout to 113,845 ballots, plus 2,175 rejected by election officials, mostly because they lacked proper signatures. That’s about the same number that voted in the 2003 mayoral election, the last time there was an open seat. The turnout rate among active voters in this year’s election just topped 50 percent, a few points higher than the rate recorded eight years ago.
By the end of the week, Romer had won endorsements from Spahn and Wolf, while Hancock added Linkhart to his roster of supporters.
After most of the votes had been counted, Gov. John Hickenlooper led an entourage of administration officials to visit the candidates in the running to take over the job he held until earlier this year.
Hickenlooper, a Democrat, was first elected mayor in 2003 and could have run for a third term this year but instead left the seat open after winning election as governor six months ago. His deputy mayor, Guillermo “Bill” Vidal, took over in January and will serve until the new mayor is sworn in on July 18.
A study in contrasts
The tones of the winning candidates at the election night celebrations couldn’t have been more different.
In a flurry of buzzwords that could have been culled from the covers of bestselling business books, Romer sounded every bit the former investment banker with a Stanford degree and billions of dollars worth of public financing deals under his belt.
“This world-class city is ready to go to the next level,” Romer said in a large room at the Wynkoop Brewery. “What so many of you know is that when we take this world-class city to the next level, we’re not leaving a single neighborhood or community behind. This world-class city deserves a world-class school system, and, as mayor, I intend to make that happen.”
A few minutes later, he concluded: “There’s an important tipping point in this community — to really take this city to the next level, we are going to need the experience and the financial management to do it together.”
Hancock’s victory speech, on the other hand, sounded like it could have been part of a tent revival held in a dance hall, which it basically was.
“Make some noise for the next mayor of Denver, Michael Hancock!” the DJ implored as the music swelled — and the crowd obliged.
Surrounded by dozens of dancing family members and supporters, Hancock soon engaged the crowd in a call-and-response with his campaign slogan, “We are all Denver.”
“Denver should be a city where no student is left behind, no worker is left behind, where no business is left behind and no neighborhood is left behind,” he orated. “We are all Denver, and in these trying times, we will continue on our path to greatness only if we — all of us — work together.” The crowd went wild.
With a hefty dose of the “swagger” Hancock has vowed to bring to city hall, he announced, “The commitment I want to make is to never give up. So tonight, let me proclaim: It’s on.”
But it wasn’t all buttoned-down or bass-thumping theatrics.
Invoking the legacy of Hickenlooper — a former brew-master and restaurant owner who jumped from obscurity to a landslide win in the 2003 mayor’s race — Romer sketched out the contrasts he intends to draw with Hancock. It didn’t hurt that he spoke to supporters at the brewpub founded by Hickenlooper.
“Denver is facing a choice — to have leadership from within city hall or leadership outside city hall,” Romer said. “Just like eight years ago, we need leadership from without city hall to make the necessary changes, to put people back to work and give this extraordinary city a chance at a world-class economy.”
Since he isn’t beholden to city hall interests, Romer contended, he’d be better able to navigate the tough waters ahead.
“You’ll always know where I stand,” he said. “We may not always agree, but I will have the tough decisions and I will know how to say ‘no’ in city hall. Because, you know what, in tight times, sometimes the most important word you have to say is ‘no.’”
Portraying his experience in city government in a decidedly more positive light — he served two terms as City Council president and has served on the body since the same year Hickenlooper became mayor — Hancock laid out a chief theme of his campaign.
Announcing that he is “ready to be your next mayor,” Hancock added, “Denver deserves a mayor that is ready on day one to address the serious issues we need to face.”
Hancock continued: “I cannot do it alone. Each of us must carry this city on our shoulders to strengthen our economy, to grow jobs, to build the trust again between the public and the Public Safety Department, to build good schools to provide good schools and better opportunities to all children. And we will win this race.”
Earlier in the evening, when votes were just starting to come in, candidate and noted UFO activist Peckman joined the Mejia election night party and said with a smile that he hoped to clear 1,000 votes. (He fell about 250 votes short of that goal.)
“Most of my support doesn’t come from this planet,” he said with a shrug and a grin. “I’ve always told people I would support James if he made it into the runoff.”
(The day after the election, Open Minds Magazine, an online digest devoted to “UFO investigations, news and evidence,” put a positive spin on the results. It declared that Peckman, at least, “didn’t come in last,” since he scored a couple hundred more votes than Simpson.)
The candidates’ order of finish exactly mirrored other campaign yardsticks. In addition to winning the vote, Romer raised by far the most money, outspent the others by a wide margin and took in the heftiest last-minute large donations. Hancock was next in each of those categories, followed by Mejia, and then the rest.
In the waning days of the campaign, Romer took in at least $42,500 — reported on overnight “major contributor” filings required within days of the election — to bolster the $1.4 million he raised through April. That’s almost exactly twice the $21,000 Hancock reported in late donations, and Romer’s total roughly doubled the $791,000 Hancock raised through April. The Mejia campaign took in $14,500 in the last week, including a number of checks garnered on a trip to meet with national Hispanic leaders in Los Angeles five days before the election. He raised $570,000 through April.
There’s a brief window before voting begins again for the runoff election. Ballots go into the mail on May 20 and are due back to the city by 7 p.m. June 7.