From hecklers to dinosaurs to Tom Tancredo, Denver’s mayoral runoff election has seen it all this week.
As voters began returning mail ballots with two weeks to go before the June 7 deadline, the campaigns of former state Sen. Chris Romer and Councilman Michael Hancock focused increasingly on the tones, tactics and missteps of their opponents’ campaigns.
Amid the commotion — an escalating affair, as first elbows, then fur, and finally thick, heavy mud has gone flying — the campaigns did the usual campaigning, from unrolling endorsements and nagging voters to return their ballots to motoring around town in distinctive vehicles.
But with Election Day in sight, the candidates were spending more and more time accusing each other of all manner of electoral chicanery. Every time Hancock clarified a statement or seemed to hedge on an earlier position, the Romer team pounced. And every time Romer launched a salvo, the Hancock team tossed it back in hopes it would blow up in their opponent’s lap.
As regular as each day’s sunrise, there’s a new attack from Romer, his surrogates, or the shadowy independent group that goes by the name Citizens for Accountability. And the Hancock campaign’s response each time is nearly the same: chastise Romer or his supporters for launching the latest broadside, dispute its accuracy, maintain it’s a sign of desperation, and then declare that Denver voters don’t like negative campaigns. The sun sets, and then it begins all over again.
“The 24-hour a day Romer attack machine never rests, and he and his shadow 527 committees will only increase their negative campaigning right up to Election Day,” began one response this week from Hancock’s spokeswoman Amber Miller. She was talking about charges Romer leveled the day before that Hancock had left the door open to a voucher system that could divert funds from public schools, but it could as easily have been the opening to several other Hancock responses.
Since it was a comment on vouchers, though, here’s the rest: “But, we’ll fight back with the truth and a positive vision for Denver’s future. Michael does not support taking money from Denver’s schools for a voucher program, and rather has been the strongest, most steadfast advocate of Denver Public Schools in this race.”
A May 12 poll conducted by political consulting firm RBI Strategies & Research showed Hancock leading Romer 41-37 in the runoff, within the survey’s margin of error.
Voters could use a scorecard to keep track of the steady barrage of charges, counter-charges and an even harsher round of attacks following the emergence of at least one independent group.
Did Romer pull a harsh attack ad — after saturating the airwaves with it — because Gov. John Hickenlooper, who was Denver’s exceedingly popular mayor until January, asked him to take it down, as Hancock charged? Or had the ad merely run its course, as Romer contended, and his phone conversation with Hickenlooper was nothing more than a friendly chat?
The governor’s office had this to say: “The governor’s view about negative campaigning is well known. He doesn’t like it. He will not talk about the private conversations he has had with Chris Romer or Michael Hancock,” said Eric Brown, Hickenlooper’s director of communications.
Did three members of Romer’s “kitchen cabinet” of political advisors quit their informal posts over discomfort with the negative tone of the campaign, as Fox31’s Eli Stokels reported? Or did former Colorado Democratic Party Chairman Chris Gates, veteran operative Paul Lhevine and PR guru Mark Eddy — all with ties to Hickenlooper’s mayoral campaign — simply step back because of work and family commitments, as the Romer campaign contended? The three aren’t saying.
For a few days, Romer attempted to turn the tables on Hancock with repeated accusations the so-called positive campaigner has instructed staffers to “heckle” Romer and his supporters at various events. “Every third or fourth day, Michael has had to call and apologize for the behavior of his negative activities of his campaign,” Romer said at a Denver Post/9News debate on May 23.
He was referring to apologies Hancock has acknowledged making to Romer backers and former mayoral candidates James Mejia and Theresa Spahn after Hancock supporter former House Speaker Terrance Carroll pointed out they hadn’t won on May 3, a characterization Romer said branded them as “losers.” And Hancock apologized to former Mayor Federico Peña after a staffer — a daughter of former state Sen. Paul Sandoval, a Peña mentor who is backing Hancock — asked questions at the press conference where Peña endorsed Romer. Romer labeled it “heckling.”
At a CBS4 debate on May 21, Romer complained repeatedly that a Hancock staffer had “heckled” him on the way into the television studio. After the third mention of the verbal abuse he had suffered, Hancock turned to Romer and asked, “Do you need a hug? I can give you a hug.”
There’s a big difference, Hancock said at the Post/9News debate, between an errant staffer disrupting an opponent’s press conference and “when you spend over $300,000 to tell false information on the airwaves,” a reference to the attack ad Romer ran in heavy rotation during the first two weeks of the campaign.
The rough-and-tumble got a little rougher late last week when fliers blistering Hancock from a group called Citizens for Accountability began showing up on doorsteps and in the mail. Little is known about the entity except that it prints its missives on recycled paper, and its organizers registered the political organization with the city’s Elections Division on May 12. The document disclosed that foreclosure attorney Peter C. DeCamillis of the law firm Castle Stawiarski is its treasurer.
DeCamillis was a staffer on Penfield Tate’s mayoral bid eight years ago and worked for Joan Fitz-Gerald’s congressional campaign, but the new committee has covered its tracks. Questions about its organizers, backers, budget, ties or the extent of its activities went unanswered this week. DeCamillis didn’t return phone calls. Campaign finance filings are due on June 2.
Its first brochure, delivered door-to-door, paints a glowing portrait of Romer — even mimicking a signature Hancock image depicting the candidate high-fiving an adorable child — but accuses Hancock of “betraying the voters’ trust” by flip-flopping on a pay raise for city hall officials and by clarifying his answer on teaching evolution in schools.
But it was the outfit’s second flier, which landed in voters’ mailboxes as ballots were arriving, that caught more attention. It pictures a dinosaur skeleton and proclaims, “Michael Hancock doesn’t believe in evolution. But he wants to decide what our children learn in science class.”
It’s a more scathing line of attack than a similar one opened up by the Romer campaign after Hancock answered, “yes” at a Democratic debate when asked whether creationism or intelligent design should be taught in public schools. Hancock’s campaign issued a statement hours after the debate saying he had misunderstood the question, adding that only science should be taught in science classes.
But, like the Newlywed Game, Citizens for Accountability is sticking with Hancock’s first answer. “We need to keep anti-science politicians like Michael Hancock away from our children’s classrooms,” the flier reads.
The Romer campaign disavows any connection with the independent organization and a campaign spokeswoman said she hadn’t seen the brochures.
(In a strange coincidence, one of DeCamillis’ coworkers at the small firm is none other than the woman who posed the creationism debate question that has vexed Hancock. Denver Democratic Party Chair Cindy Lowery-Graber, who moderated the May 12 mayoral debate, said she was unaware her fellow associate was associated with the political organization until his name started appearing in news accounts. What’s more, she said, she didn’t know the organization even existed until a flier landed in her mailbox. Lowery-Graber added that she is neutral in the race because of her party position.)
At press time, voters were receiving a second mailer from the group accusing Hancock of giving himself a pay raise after firefighters took a pay cut to help balance the city budget. It also said Hancock took a trip to China “using tax dollars.” The Post’s Political Polygraph judged that last claim a “whopper” and, over all, said the brochure’s veracity fell into a “gray area” that shaded the truth.
DeCamillis didn’t respond to an email asking for comment.
Capitol denizens also joined the fray. Former state Rep. Joel Judd, a Hancock backer, unleashed an email attack that claimed Romer chose “casinos over Colorado kids” during some legislative maneuvering. State Rep. Crisanta Duran, a fellow Democrat who took over Judd’s northwest Denver seat, slammed Hancock in an email aimed at Latino voters questioning the councilman’s position on the federal Secure Communities program.
But one lawmaker involved in the volleys told The Colorado Statesman his email raising questions about Hancock could have been misinterpreted and that he had merely meant to highlight Romer’s progressive instincts, not to denigrate Hancock or his faith. In fact, state Rep. Daniel Kagan, D-Cherry Hills Village, introduced Hancock to Democrats gathered at his house district meeting last weekend and gave the candidate a warm welcome.
“I think we’ve got two excellent candidates, and whichever one of them wins, Denver will be in good hands,” Kagan said this week. “I’ve told many people that, and that’s what I believe.”
He said he was still bristling over an “inflammatory” email sent by state Sen. Joyce Foster, D-Denver, taking Kagan to task for an email he sent highlighting Hancock’s initial answers on creationism and raising doubts about Hancock’s commitment to abortion rights. “I think it was an over reaction on her part,” Kagan said.
Still, he conceded his email hadn’t been met in all quarters with the reaction he expected. “I think it was misunderstood to some extent. Some people thought that I was being disrespectful of somebody else’s religious beliefs, and that was the last thing I wanted to convey,” he said.
Kagan added that his point was simple: “If you want to know which of the candidates gave the most progressive answers, it was Romer. Not that there was anything wrong with the answers Michael Hancock gave, not that they were his final answer, not that he didn’t modify his position. But just that, if you want the indication which candidate was more progressive, if you look at the first answers they gave, the instinctive answers they gave, to those questions, it comes down on the side of Romer.”
And then there’s Tancredo. The former Republican congressman from Denver’s suburbs — and American Constitution Party candidate for governor last year in a race he lost to Hickenlooper — by week’s end had jokingly endorsed Romer after comments he made at a luncheon with media types expressing admiration for Hancock’s life story found their way into attacks aimed at Hancock. “Viva Romer!” said Tancredo in radio spots that aired on KHOW-AM’s Peter Boyles show. Both candidates treated Tancredo like a hot potato — even arguing whether his casual comments constituted an endorsement — though the Lakewood resident and anti-illegal immigration firebrand has pointed out he can’t vote in the election.
At press time, voters were returning ballots at a slower rate than they had for the May 3 general election, which had 10 candidates to chose from, though one dropped out shortly after voting began. Through May 24, just 5,903 valid ballots had arrived at the Denver Elections Division out of more than 300,000 sent out to voters — a turnout rate of 1.99 percent. In the first round, ultimately, 113,845 ballots were counted for a turnout of 38.91 percent. A couple thousand more ballots were issued for the runoff election.
Voters have until 7 p.m. on June 7 to return ballots either by mail or at a dozen election service centers set to open throughout the city on May 30. Because of a recent postal rate increase, runoff ballots will cost 64 cents to mail, up from the 61 cents required for the first round.