Michael Hancock brought a grin to a knife fight and walked away as Denver’s next mayor.
The two-term city councilman, a Denver native who rose from hardship with dreams of becoming the city’s first black mayor, vowed to run a positive campaign in the face of increasingly harsh attacks from his runoff opponent and outside groups.
Whether or not the relentlessly upbeat approach is what tipped the scales, Hancock came from behind to defeat former state Sen. Chris Romer, son of former three-term Colorado Gov. Roy Romer, by a 16-point margin in the June 7 election.
“I’m so thankful to be from a place that embraces a positive outlook, a shared vision of a positive and optimistic future for all of us,” Hancock said in his victory speech.
The final, unofficial vote totals reported by the Denver Elections Division are 70,780 votes for Hancock and 51,082 for Romer, or 58-42 percent. Hancock will be sworn in as Denver’s 45th mayor on July 18, replacing Mayor Bill Vidal, who stepped in earlier this year after former Mayor John Hickenlooper was elected governor.
Although the distinction of first African American mayor was claimed by former Mayor Wellington Webb — a key Hancock supporter, who won office in 1991 by almost precisely the same margin as Hancock — Hancock nonetheless realized the rest of his childhood aspiration.
“Michael said he was going to be the first black mayor,” his mother, Scharlyne, told a crowd of supporters soon after the results were clear, “but second black mayor ain’t bad.”
“He won’t be the first black mayor of Denver,” said former House Speaker Terrance Carroll, “but he’ll be the first former Denver Broncos mascot to be mayor.”
Hancock’s high school job as the football team’s mascot, Huddles, was part of the story his campaign told of hard times he had growing up from a challenging, impoverished childhood raised by a single mother.
“My father left when I was 6,” Hancock said in his first TV ad. “We were 10 kids in public housing, then homeless in a motel room. I’ve had a brother die of AIDS, and a sister murdered, but I never gave up.”
Surrounded by his mother and his seven surviving brothers and sisters in front of a roaring crowd, Hancock celebrated his win on election night.
“Denver, we will move forward tomorrow but we will not forget how we got here today,” said a jubilant Hancock, savoring his come-from-behind win. “We worked tirelessly every day, and we kept a positive vision for a great city.”
The contrast was with Romer’s campaign, which took a sharp tone within days of the two candidates making the runoff and kept up the attacks — the Romer campaign called them contrast ads, emails and phone calls — while Hancock pledged to take the high road. Though he took a few jabs at Romer, Hancock managed to turn the runoff into a sort of referendum on negative campaigning, parrying every salvo with a plea to Denver voters to reject the broadsides.
The six-month campaign concluded in minutes once officials posted the first set of results right after polls closed Tuesday night. “It’s over,” said one supporter after another at an election-night watch party thrown by the Hancock campaign. At 7 p.m., as iPhones, BlackBerries and overhead giant screens lit up with vote totals showing Hancock with a 13-point lead over Romer, the Exdo Event Center in Five Points filled with smiles and congratulatory hugs before the party had barely started.
As subsequent returns posted through the night, Hancock’s lead widened and the hall filled with hundreds of cheering, dancing well-wishers, eventually more than twice the number the campaign had expected.
The first returns — roughly three fourths of the total vote, including most of the ballots cast in the all-mail election through Monday — were enough for the Denver Post to declare Hancock the winner just moments after polls closed, and 9News followed suit a few minutes later.
About a mile away, at the Blake Street Tavern in Lower Downtown, a more sedate group of Romer supporters greeted the early returns with resignation soon after finishing a furious chase for ballots right up until the deadline.
A little over an hour after polls closed, Romer told the crowd he called Hancock to concede — after first texting him because the line was busy — and urged his supporters to unite behind the winner.
“I’m going to tell you, I am a lucky man, just not tonight,” he said with a smile. He added, “I am truly proud of the campaign that we ran and the issues we raised in this election.”
Then Romer set aside the divisions of the hard-fought campaign and urged his backers to embrace his former opponent.
“Tonight, the voters have spoken and it’s time to put our community first and begin the process of moving Denver forward,” he said. “I know this isn’t the outcome we hoped for, but let’s remember what this election is really about — it’s the future of this city that we truly love, it’s about the opportunity for every Denver family.”
Romer concluded by quoting his former opponent and reiterating his call for Denver residents to come together.
“I love this city deeply and I will be forever thankful, with no regrets, that you’ve given me this opportunity,” he told his supporters. “Let me close very clearly: In the words of Michael Hancock, ‘We are all Denver,’ and it’s time to unite for this city to make it stronger.” A couple hours later, Romer and his wife, Laurie, joined Hancock on stage to congratulate him in a rare display of graciousness in defeat.
Back at the Hancock celebration, a restless crowd finally got to see their candidate about an hour after Romer conceded.
Hancock’s wife, Mary Louise Lee, an accomplished R&B singer with her own band, serenaded Hancock to the stage with soaring passages from “If You Believe,” a song from the musical The Wiz.
Bounding onto the stage — at least to the extent the surging crowd would allow him — Hancock invoked Denver’s previous three elected mayors.
“When I was a boy, Mayor (Federico) Peña asked us to imagine a great city. Mayor Webb worked tirelessly to build a great city. Mayor Hickenlooper put a great city on the world’s stage. Now, together, it’s time to deliver a great city to all of Denver.”
True to form, this year Denver voters backed the scrappy underdog and sent the early front-runner packing.
On paper, Romer had everything he needed to cruise to an easy win: He raised nearly twice as much money as Hancock in the first round, eventually setting a record for fundraising by a Denver mayoral candidate. Until a couple weeks before the May 3 general election, Romer
was polling well ahead of the rest of the field and had twice the name identification enjoyed by Hancock.
The Denver Post twice endorsed Romer, both before and after the first round. And he counted the support of politicians from across the political spectrum and throughout the state, including former mayoral candidate James Mejia, who finished third in the initial round, along with Peña, who had originally backed Mejia.
But by nearly every measure, the wind was at Hancock’s back in the weeks approaching election day. A poll released in the middle of May showed Hancock with a 4-point lead over Romer and another one released right after voters had received mail ballots showed Hancock ahead by 10 points. A couple days later, according to major-contributor reports filed with the city listing donations over $500, Hancock took in $95,000 in a single day, at the same time Romer reported $12,000 in contributions for the day. Reports filed later that week showed that Romer had written his own campaign checks totaling more than a half million dollars during the month of May, while Hancock had otherwise out-raised him.
Romer campaign insiders said the strategy all along had been to run a version of the campaign that propelled U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet to an against-the-odds win last fall over Republican Ken Buck. The design was to make it to the runoff — a goal made more difficult when both Hancock and Mejia surged, requiring Romer to spend nearly all the record amounts of cash he’d raised, in order to finish roughly 1,500 votes ahead of Hancock, who finished about the same number of votes ahead of Mejia — and then drive up his opponent’s negatives while relentlessly pursuing voters who don’t usually vote in off-year elections.
It’s similar to the approach Bennet took first against primary challenger Andrew Romanoff and then Buck, who weathered endless rounds of attacks over every blemish, gaffe and policy proposal, no matter how obscure, the Bennet forces could depict as outside the mainstream. The tactic worked in the Senate race, in part, because Bennet’s team scoured the state for voters and nearly dragged them to the polls.
To accomplish all that in the Denver race, Romer invested heavily in automated calling services and poured money into TV advertising. He hired a number of Bennet’s field team, led by his campaign manager Adam Dunstone, who was deputy campaign manager on the Bennet operation. Romer also turned to the Chicago-based firm founded by top Obama advisor David Axelrod, AKPD Message and Media — fresh off its triumph managing a resounding win for former White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel in the Chicago mayoral race — and turned the consultants loose on Denver.
But treating a municipal election in Denver like a statewide, fiercely partisan campaign ignored key differences between the situations, campaign insiders insist. First, the two mayoral candidates are both Democrats and weren’t facing off across an already bitter divide. Instead, they have rubbed shoulders for years with voters and with each other and will likely continue to show up at the same house district spaghetti dinners.
And, unlike Buck, whatever was thrown against Hancock — among the attacks, charges he voted himself a pay raise, waffled on abortion rights and wanted to teach creationism in public schools — didn’t seem to stick. In the end, it was difficult for Romer and the independent groups supporting him to paint Hancock as an extremist or a dangerous interloper who threatened the things voters hold dear, perhaps because he’d been to too many spaghetti dinners with the voters.
“We won it in a mudslide,” cracked Councilman Doug Linkhart, a former mayoral candidate who placed fourth in the first round of voting and endorsed Hancock in the runoff. “It really is a landslide,” he said, turning serious, “and it’s nice to win by that much to have the kind of solidarity in the community we need to move forward. I think Chris kind of dug himself into a hole and couldn’t get out. In some ways, he’s kind of a victim of circumstance, but I think he made that circumstance. I think he’s a good man and I hope he doesn’t disappear.”
A leading political consultant — whose firm wasn’t involved in the mayor’s race except to conduct independent, public polls — challenged the notion that Romer’s attacks on Hancock produced a backlash among voters, however. Tyler Chafee, a senior associate at RBI Strategies and Research, said the day after the election that Hancock had succeeded in telling voters a compelling story, and Romer hadn’t, simple as that. Despite widespread assumptions that the tone of Romer’s campaign soured voters on the candidate, Chafee said, he hadn’t seen any data to back up that interpretation of the election.
If anything in particular turned voters against Romer’s attacks, pundits said it was a series of brochures and mailers issued by the secretive political organization Citizens for Accountability, a group that blanketed the city with sharper versions of criticisms leveled by Romer.
The group emerged a bit from the shadows four days before the election when it filed required disclosures with the city that showed it raised and spent $225,000 over a couple weeks attacking Hancock. The money came from three other political organizations, including two that probably don’t agree on much.
The biggest share, a $150,000 chunk, came from something called Denver Accountability Committee, an American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union PAC based in Washington, D.C. Another union PAC, the Colorado Fund for Children & Public Education, a creation of the Colorado Education Association, chipped in $50,000. Rounding out the group’s donors was an organization called the Denver Jobs Alliance, itself funded by pro-voucher activist Alex Cranberg and real estate developer Greg Stevenson.
The organizer behind Citizens for Accountability, identified by two people with ties to the group, is political operative Sean Hinga, who ran similar campaigns in Democratic legislative primaries last year. Hinga didn’t respond to multiple phone calls and emails seeking comment. The group’s treasurer, however, issued a statement late on the Friday before the election. “Citizens For Accountability is registered with the City and County of Denver, and its contributions and expenditures are properly reported and fully transparent according to the law,” read the entirety of an email from Denver attorney Peter DeCamillis, whose name is the only one that appears on the organization’s filings with the city. He didn’t return repeated requests for further comment.
After his candidate declared victory, Hancock campaign manager Evan Dreyer sounded a conciliatory note.
“Michael Hancock is a great candidate, we put together a great team, we executed a really smart strategy and we came away with a resounding victory,” he said. “We have to put the division of the campaign behind us and move forward.”
State Rep. Beth McCann, a Denver Democrat and a Romer supporter, trekked to the Hancock party to help bring former rivals together. “It’s very exciting, I think it’s a new era for Denver,” she said. “I really think he’ll be a unifying voice and he’ll bring us together.”
In perhaps the evening’s most emotional moment, Hancock presented his mother with a custom-made campaign pin.
“To my mother,” he said, his voice on the verge of breaking, “tonight is your night. For all the deferred dreams that you’ve had, all of the great wishes that you heaped upon us, for the love that was unconditional — tonight, Mama, I present to you a pin that says ‘Michael Hancock, Your Baby Boy, Mayor of Denver.’”
Scharlyne Hancock’s omnipresent smile grew even larger as he handed her the memento and they embraced.
The next morning, she told The Colorado Statesman that the enormity of her son’s victory was still sinking in. “It’ll probably hit me when he’s sworn in,” she laughed. “But I’m very proud of him, very proud.” As for the one-of-a-kind campaign button? “My pin — I left it at home in my scrapbook, because I’m starting a scrapbook for him, and that’s where I put it,” she said with a smile.
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