Fur flies in Denver mayoral race

The Colorado Statesman

If all’s fair in love and war, the Denver mayoral campaign might have turned positively amorous this week.

When there were 10 names on the ballot, candidates threw some elbows but landed few punches as they jostled to emerge from the pack. Now that it’s down to just former state Sen. Chris Romer and City Councilman Michael Hancock in the runoff election, however, the fur is flying.

Former Gov. Bill Ritter endorses Michael Hancock for mayor Tuesday at Hancock’s campaign headquarters as Hancock’s wife, Mary Louise Lee, applauds.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman
Former rivals Chris Romer, left, and James Mejia raise their hands in triumph after Mejia endorsed Romer on Monday. Mejia’s wife, Dr. Heather Riley, and Romer’s wife, Laurie, stand at their sides.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

Because no one cleared 50 percent in the May 3 general election, the top two vote getters — mayoral candidates Romer and Hancock, who finished just over a percentage point apart in the tally — advance on to a June 7 runoff. Ballots for the all-mail election go out on May 20. Voters will also choose between the two top finishers for city clerk and recorder and for three city council races.

Both mayoral campaigns landed major endorsements at the beginning of the first full week of the runoff campaign — third-place finisher James Mejia backed Romer and former Gov. Bill Ritter, along with a bevy of his fellow city hall denizens, backed Hancock — but attention quickly focused on attacks opened up by the Romer camp.

In an email blitz and a biting TV ad, Romer accused Hancock of being out of touch on abortion rights and having a “record of fiscal irresponsibility that can’t be trusted” with city dollars. Hancock — who has vowed to refrain from mudslinging during the five-week campaign — protested that Romer “has his facts wrong” and labeled the salvos a sign of desperation.

The barrage began late Friday when the Romer campaign blasted out an email charging Hancock “doesn’t get it on choice.” It pointed to answers Hancock gave on candidate questionnaires and at forums on his position and to reporters about the mayor’s role regarding abortion. The email, signed by Romer deputy campaign manager Zach Knaus, said Hancock “refuses to say whether he’s pro-choice, also says it’s not an issue for Denver voters, and is unaware of the Mayor’s responsibilities on reproductive health care.”

Virtually the same email — this time signed by former mayoral candidate Theresa Spahn, who endorsed Romer the day before — went out to Romer supporters a few hours later.

“One of the reasons I endorsed Chris Romer is because he walks the walk on choice,” Spahn said in a statement. “I’m really troubled that Michael Hancock doesn’t appreciate the significant role the mayor has when it comes to choice.”

Romer piled on. “As the choice issue has been asked about in multiple forums, I am disappointed that my opponent doesn’t find this issue important,” he said in the first email.

Poppycock, a Hancock spokeswoman shot back.

“We are only 72 hours past the Tuesday election and Chris is already going negative — and he has his facts wrong,” said Hancock spokeswoman Amber Miller. “This is a desperate approach and is clearly how Chris is going to spend the rest of this campaign.” She added: “Michael is pro-choice. He received a 100 percent rating from Planned Parenthood. Period.”

At issue was a form where Hancock checked he was “pro family planning” rather than “pro choice” and an answer to a question from a television reporter when Hancock said, “I think there comes a time as politicians we overreach, and we talk about things we really don’t have an impact on.”

Miller said there’s never been a question where Hancock stands on abortion rights. “He’s pro-choice and he always has been,” she said.

The next morning, an email from more than two dozen self-described “pro-choice women” went out to Hancock supporters demanding the Romer campaign “stop the lies.”

“John Hickenlooper showed all of us that negative campaigning isn’t what Denver wants or needs,” said the email. “We don’t do things like that here.”

Throughout the campaign, Hancock has said he has no “strategy or plans to go negative,” a point he repeated on Friday at a press conference with mayoral also-ran Councilman Doug Linkhart, who announced he was backing Hancock, his fellow city council member.

Alone among the top-ranked campaigns, Hancock’s operation hasn’t reported any money spent on opposition research, the raw material for aggressive — some would say negative — campaigns aimed at opponents. Romer, Mejia and Councilwoman Carol Boigon, who withdrew from the race last month and threw her support to Hancock, each reported spending tens of thousands of dollars researching their rivals.

Hancock’s promise to avoid hitting Romer with negative attacks, though, doesn’t mean he plans to roll over when Romer goes after him, he said.

“The people of Denver have been clear: talk about the issues and you’ll become our next mayor,” he said late last week. “They don’t want me to sling dirt at Chris Romer, and I’m not going to sling dirt at Chris Romer. I’m going to answer the questions — I will not allow myself to go defenseless on baseless claims — I will answer them. But I have no intention, no desire to initiate mudslinging in this campaign.”

He had the chance to push back against more charges a few days later, after both candidates unveiled prominent endorsements.

On Monday morning, following days of meetings, phone calls and deliberation, Mejia rallied supporters at his northwest Denver headquarters to throw his “unequivocal endorsement” to Romer.

Saying that even though he’s known both candidates for decades — and even attended Bible school in the Romer family’s backyard when he was a youngster — Mejia said, “This is not about who you know the best, this is about who’s best suited to lead Denver for the next several years. And when our team looked at that decision, it was an easy decision to make.”

Because he finished only 1,500 votes behind Hancock — and just 3,000 votes behind Romer — Mejia’s endorsement was considered a coup for the runoff, when none of the candidates secured a commanding lead in the initial round of voting. In addition to backing Romer, Mejia announced a “complete merger” of their campaign teams and said the Romer campaign planned to take over his headquarters and to hire on most of his staff.

“Candidly, it’s huge,” Romer said of Mejia’s endorsement. He went on to predict that Mejia’s move would rank as “one of the most, if not the most important moment in the campaign.”

“I think you’re really going to see a partnership coming forward, which is first and foremost very issue oriented,” Romer told several dozen Mejia and Romer supporters at a press conference where many wore both campaign buttons. “This is not about personality, this is going to be about issues in this campaign.”

That’s what swung it for Mejia during several days of communication with Hancock and Romer, he said. “It was very telling to me when I asked both candidates which of the policies do you feel which we put out here could you support, and the response I got back was very different.”

Romer, he said, rattled off four policies championed by Mejia, including a comprehensive proposal to redevelop the South Platte riverfront, which had been a centerpiece of Mejia’s campaign. “I was very pleased to hear how closely you paid attention to what we have tried to achieve in this campaign,” he told Romer before the two embraced in front of a cheering crowd.

The next day, Romer credited Mejia and Spahn with leading him to reverse his position on whether Denver should do away with its public safety manager. Throughout the spring campaign, Romer was alone among major candidates calling for the position — which oversees the city’s police, sheriff’s and fire departments — to be eliminated, including the move in his public safety plan “to keep cops on our streets, rather than bureaucrats in city hall.”

Other candidates rejected Romer’s proposal, arguing that the position needed to remain in place because it provided civilian oversight and was a key component in disciplining law enforcement officers. After conversations with Spahn and Mejia — branded members of his “team of rivals” — Romer agreed with them.

Romer’s position on the public safety manager amounts to an evolution, not a flip-flop, his campaign spokeswoman Laura Chapin said.

“Now that both Theresa Spahn and James Mejia have become a part of the campaign, we are integrating their policy recommendations on how best to protect public safety,” she said. “They talked about it and came to the conclusion that, at least for now, eliminating the manager of public safety position is not something they should do. It doesn’t change his core principal in protecting public safety.”

Then she turned the question on Hancock.

“A flip-flop is voting for the pay raise and then changing your mind,” she said, referring to a pay raise for city hall officials passed by city council with Hancock’s support. “We’re going to need a flow chart to figure out his positions on the pay raise.”

A couple hours later, Ritter appeared at Hancock headquarters to announce his endorsement. Recalling that he first met Hancock when they were in a leadership class nearly 20 years ago, Ritter said his years as Denver district attorney working with Hancock — when he was first on city council and earlier when Hancock headed the local Urban League — convinced him who to back for mayor.

“This is a guy, Michael Hancock, who has so much to offer the entire city,” Ritter said. Pointing out that Hancock was twice elected city council president, Ritter continued: “There’s just no mystery why Michael Hancock was the president. Among other people on city council, they looked and they saw what I saw, which is this the ability to make decisions, make them in a thoughtful way, to do whatever you can to glean the facts and be informed along the way, and then have the courage of your convictions.”

Hancock noted he was sitting next to Ritter when his pager — “that tells you how long ago this was,” he cracked — went off and it was Romer’s father, former three-term Gov. Roy Romer, calling to appoint him district attorney.

“I am honored to have garnered the support of a leader who has dedicated his life to serving our great city and all Coloradans,” Hancock said. “Gov. Ritter’s work has positioned Denver and Colorado as a national leader in the New Energy Economy and other knowledge-based economic sectors such as aerospace, bioscience and technology. These industries are ripe with potential in Denver and I have a bold plan to ensure these sectors expand and grow jobs.”

On Wednesday, Denver woke up to unseasonable snow flurries and a harsh attack ad from the Romer campaign in heavy rotation on local stations.

In ominous tones, the announcer calls Hancock “irresponsible” and accuses him of “breaking the budget to give millions in bonuses to city workers as our deficit grew.” In the face of a $100 million budget shortfall, the ad says, Hancock “votes himself a $5,000 raise” while “dozens of cops and firefighters could be laid off, and libraries closed.”

The Hancock campaign came back swinging, with a spokeswoman charging that the Romer campaign “needs to get their facts straight.” The raise for elected officials doesn’t go into effect until 2014, and Hancock has pledged to stay at the current salary if he wins the office of mayor, Miller said in response to the ad. During the spring campaign, when Romer hit Hancock over his pay-raise vote at several forums, Hancock said that after years of keeping salaries level, it was time to raise salaries for elected officials so that regular folks could serve.

“The false attack Romer released today, while shameful, is not surprising,” Miller said. “It is becoming more evident by the day that Romer is going to spend the rest of his campaign on negative political tactics and false accusations. Chris continues to go negative and get his facts wrong while claiming to be talking about the issues. Just because you repeat a statement does not make it true.”

Romer was having none of it. At a press conference announcing support from leaders in the Latino community, he swung back. “That ad is very clearly about the issue of leadership. You cannot lead by saying it’s OK to raise my own pay and I’m then going to ask the rest of the city to have shared sacrifice.”

At a press conference an hour later announcing the support of City Council members Paul Lopez, Charlie Brown, Marcia Johnson, Peggy Lehmann and Judy Montero — a gathering blasted by the Romer camp as “politics as usual and this is not a surprise,” since Hancock supported raising their pay — Hancock responded to the ad by defending his vote.

“Does anyone think that doing a raise for elected officials created the $100 million deficit? Just think about that for a moment. What created that deficit were investment bankers who played games with the mortgage industry,” he said to whoops and laughter from his supporters.

It was a sideswipe at Romer, who touts his experience as an investment banker putting together deals, including the one that financed Denver’s renovations to Union Station.

The same day, both campaigns released positive ads about their candidates.

In Romer’s ad, former state Sen. Polly Baca lauds his work helping found the New Americas School and “getting in there to fight for ordinary, working folks” with legislation to curb charges by payday lending outfits.

Hancock’s ad highlights three youths from troubled backgrounds who emerged — with Hancock’s help — to successful careers. “I’ll never forget,” he says to the camera, “it’s not about my life, it’s about yours.”

Ernest@coloradostatesman.com