Hancock’s ‘yes’ answer to teaching creationism in school forces mayoral campaign into damage control

The Colorado Statesman

It took just one word from Councilman Michael Hancock to spark a controversy that threatened to engulf his mayoral campaign a week before mail ballots go out to Denver voters.

During a debate late last week with his runoff opponent, former state Sen. Chris Romer, Hancock answered “yes” when both candidates were asked, “Should creationism or Intelligent Design be taught in Denver Public Schools?” After audible gasps and what sounded like uncomfortable laughter from the audience, Romer took the microphone and answered “no.”

Almost immediately, both campaigns were scrambling — Hancock’s to retract his answer and clarify his position and Romer’s to exploit his opponent’s flub.

Denver mayoral candidate Michael Hancock talks with voters immediately following a debate with his opponent, Chris Romer, on May 12 at East High School. Audience members swarmed the stage after the debate concluded to take issue with Hancock's answer that he supported teaching creationism in public schools, a position his campaign later retracted.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

Hancock’s team issued a late-night statement saying he had misunderstood the question and should have answered the other way. Then Romer’s camp hit back with a release repeating Hancock’s original answer and an admonition about teaching science in science classes. The next morning the Romer campaign distributed a brief video snippet of the exchange. A few days later two prominent Denver legislators were trading vitriolic emails over the question. In response, a former state lawmaker took to Twitter to defend Hancock and warned against turning the mayor’s race into a “barely veiled referendum on a candidate's faith.”

The fuss over creationism came as the mayoral candidates prepared to turn out voters in an all-mail runoff election for the open seat. Romer led Hancock by a slim margin in the first round of voting, completed on May 3, narrowing the field from 10 candidates on the initial ballot. Ballots go out May 20 and are due back June 7.

Just hours after a poll was released on May 12 showing Hancock ahead of Romer, the two candidates appeared at a debate sponsored by the Denver Democrats and the Denver Young Democrats at East High School. That afternoon, Denver-based political consulting firm RBI Strategies & Research released a poll on the website ColoradoPols.com that showed Hancock leading Romer 41-37 in the runoff. Hancock’s lead is within the survey’s 4.9-percent margin of error. An internal poll released the same day by the Hancock campaign showed its candidate leading by a wider margin.

During the debate, Denver Democratic Party chair Cindy Lowery-Graber, the forum’s moderator, posed a series of rapid-fire questions to the candidates, including the one about creationism — the belief that a supreme being created the world and its inhabitants — and its fancy cousin Intelligent Design, both of which stand opposed to the theory of evolution. The question on creationism came after one about gay marriage (both said they support it) and before one about their favorite restaurant meal in town (Romer picked the gyros omelet at Pete’s Kitchen, Hancock said he liked Peoria Bar and Grill “because they serve grits”).

About an hour after the debate concluded, Hancock’s campaign sent out an email saying the candidate had misunderstood the question and including a statement intended to clarify his position: “While I am a man of great faith, I believe Creationism and Intelligent Design are religious beliefs that have no place in a public school curriculum. The best place for religion to be taught is at home or place of worship.”

Denver Auditor Dennis Gallagher, right, endorses Chris Romer for mayor on May 13 at Romer’s northwest Denver headquarters. Gallagher pointed out that the office, which Romer took over from candidate James Mejia for the runoff, sits only a few blocks from the house where his mother grew up and across the street from a theater where his parents “held hands, or so I’m told.”
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

Near midnight, the Romer campaign responded with its own statement: “We believe science should be taught in science classes, especially as we strive to improve math and science proficiency among Denver students. Both candidates were asked this question clearly by the moderator. Chris Romer said no. Michael Hancock said yes.”

It’s the second time the Hancock campaign has walked back a brief answer to a debate question by the candidate, and both times the questions have revolved around evolution. At a debate in early April at Denver’s Museum of Nature and Science, when asked whether the mayoral candidates “believe in evolution” — a question all the other candidates answered with a “yes” or a “no” — Hancock responded, “I believe in God.” Later, his campaign said he was cut off by the moderator and would have said he also believes in evolution.

The day after the debate, Romer said raising questions about Hancock’s answer on creationism was fair game because of both campaigns’ focus on improving Denver’s public schools.

“I want Denver to be the best place in the nation to teach low-income children math and science. We need that to recruit biotech companies today,” he told The Colorado Statesman. “I think the conversation about teaching creationism in public schools is a huge mistake, and I’m concerned. I respect Michael Hancock’s traditional, personal family values. We need to be very thoughtful about where the line is.”

Romer went on to say he was having a hard time buying Hancock’s contention he had misunderstood the question.

“It was a very straightforward question, and there was lots of conversation immediately after the debate which would lead one to believe that most people in that room understood that question,” Romer said. “Everybody in that room, that I saw, understood that question, and immediately understood it as they talked about it immediately after the debate. Everyone.”

A number of Democrats from the audience approached Hancock while he was still on stage after the debate and engaged him in a heated discussion.

They weren’t the only ones shaking their heads over Hancock’s answer.

“It’s frustrating listening to others,” said Hancock supporter Councilman Doug Linkhart after the debate. Linkhart, who was among the initial group of mayoral candidates, endorsed Hancock after finishing fourth in the May 3 vote. “I know how my folks feel now, listening to me,” he said with a smile. “They’re probably thinking, ‘Oh! Why did he say that?’”

One of the Democrats who talked with Hancock right after the debate said she was alarmed by his answer but wasn’t sure whether it would sway her vote.

“There are bigger issues. My initial reaction to (Hancock’s answer) is, I can’t vote for that guy. But whether or not Chris Romer is the right mayor is the bigger issue,” said Diana Smith, who works as a researcher at Anschutz Medical Center in Aurora.

She said a belief in creationism — which she termed “very much anathema to anyone who understands biology” and “a complete cover for religion” — might not be a determining factor in her vote for mayor.

“Michael Hancock is not going to succeed in putting creationism in the schools — he’s not even going to try,” she said. “I haven’t made up my mind, but I had a really negative reaction to that statement. It probably will not influence me in the end.”

Another Democrat, Kathy Steinberg, exchanged words with Hancock while he was still on stage and said Hancock’s answer might have tilted her to Romer.

“I think he made a big mistake on that one,” she told The Statesman after speaking with Hancock. “I was thinking, I like this guy, and there’s not a lot of difference between the two of them on what they’ve stated as their positions, but when that one came, I thought, here it is, here’s the difference — maybe.”

During his discussion with Steinberg, Hancock asked a number of questions about her position on creationism.

“The reality is that we don’t know. I mean, I don’t know,” Hancock told her.

“You don’t know what?” she interjected.

“I don’t know enough about the subject matter as to whether it should be taught,” he replied.

“Well, I know,” she shot back.

“Good,” he said. “Why not? Why? Tell me why.”

“Because it’s totally fake, false science,” she answered.

After a brief discussion about whether, in Hancock’s words, students shouldn’t “learn more about different religions, about different backgrounds,” he concluded by thanking Steinberg and others gathered at the stage for their words.

“Well, that’s good,” he said. “You guys have shared some things with me, and that’s good. You taught me something, and that’s good. Well, you got me when I don’t know, and I’m always able and willing to admit when I don’t know.”

But that admission — and subsequent clarification — wasn’t enough for some Romer supporters.

State Rep. Daniel Kagan, a Democrat whose district includes parts of Denver, blasted an email on Tuesday charging Hancock “dithered when asked if he believes in evolution,” and, “to cap it all, he’s said that creationism or intelligent design should be taught in Denver Public Schools.” Following a link to the Romer campaign’s video of Hancock’s answer, Kagan added, “Creationism? Really?” He concluded by saying Romer “took the progressive position on all these questions” and could be trusted “to advance progressive values.”

One of Kagan’s colleagues in the General Assembly, Hancock supporter state Sen. Joyce Foster, a Denver Democrat, swung back hard in an email of her own hours later.

“Today the Romer campaign reached a new low with another desperate and deceptive campaign attack,” Foster wrote in a message headlined “The lies keep coming.” Saying Hancock “has spent his career fighting for true progressive values,” Foster took the fight to Kagan: “True progressives don’t stoop to such demeaning and untrue attacks.”

In a theme the Hancock campaign has been hammering all week, Foster charged that “Romer’s campaign has lost sight of its decency” and urged supporters to call Kagan’s cell phone and attend Kagan’s next house district meeting to voice their opinions.

Former House Speaker Terrance Carroll, a Denver Democrat and one of Hancock’s strongest supporters — and an ordained Baptist minister — tweeted his response to the imbroglio on Tuesday night.

“Greatly disappointed that the Denver mayor's race has devolved into a referendum on one candidates religious beliefs,” Carroll wrote in the first of several messages posted to his Twitter account. “My fellow progressives should be careful about turning this race into a barely veiled referendum on a candidate's faith,” he continued. Noting that he is “proud to be a person of faith and a progressive,” he concluded: “As progressives we are better than that!”

Ernest@coloradostatesman.com