In the first week of Denver’s runoff election, mayoral challenger Jamie Giellis’ missteps brought race to the forefront of the contest — but they also illuminated a surprising new twist on the city’s demographic politics.

On one side, there is Michael Hancock, the city’s second black mayor and heir to a development boom that was set in motion decades ago by its first Latino mayor and its first black mayor.

On the other, there is Giellis, the lesser-known white challenger who grew up on an Iowa farm.

As the runoff began, she found herself playing defense after failing a black history quiz — she did not recall what “NAACP” stands for — and she nuked her personal social media accounts after an old tweet surfaced in which she questioned the value of Chinatowns in cities.

“I don’t recall what I was thinking when I stood there and texted that,” Giellis told The Denver Post on Thursday night in some of her first comments about the 2009 tweet. “As I’ve done this work, it’s always been a question about integration and inclusivity. And I think the question is always how do we do that — honoring our history but also ensuring that we’re working together to bring people together.”

It was a damaging two-day news cycle in a campaign that may well be decided by a late wave of minority voters. Giellis faces questions about how she can represent the city in its fullness — including from Hancock himself.

“Some of the Jamie Giellis gaffes are a clear indication that the black and brown communities (shouldn’t) be apathetic when it comes to this election,” the mayor suggested in an interview with The Post.

“People make mistakes,” Giellis told the crowd at a Thursday night fundraiser at La Cocinita but said she will learn.

“We want to go out and continue to have some of these hard conversations about what’s happening to our community, and our communities of color, and how we can really work together to really hear what they’re feeling, what they’re seeing,” she said in an interview beforehand.

Giellis has found support from a new source: her left.

Just before her NAACP gaffe, she became the masthead of a multiethnic change coalition, drawing in a “team of rivals” — former candidates Lisa Calderón and Penfield Tate, not to mention many of their supporters. Together, the three candidates attracted nearly 60 percent of May’s first-round vote, and the coalition so far has held tight through the tumult.

Calderón, Tate and others came to Giellis’ defense Thursday.

“I think that we have to really think about where people come from and the lens with which they’ve seen and experienced life, because everyone has implicit bias and cultural incompetencies,” said Tony Pigford, who drew about 36,000 votes in an unsuccessful at-large council campaign.

Mayoral candidate Jamie Giellis talks with ...
Daniel Brenner, Special to the Denver Post
Denver mayoral candidate Jamie Giellis talks with a supporter during a fundraiser at La Cocinita Thursday, May 16, 2019.

A second wave?

Denver has a decades-long history of minority mobilization and leadership. Federico Peña became the city’s first Latino mayor in 1983 and was followed by Wellington Webb, the first black mayor, in 1991.

That’s notable in a city that has had a white majority for most of its recent history. In fact, the Latino proportion of the population has been shrinking since about 2006.

Today, Denver is about 30 percent Latino, 10 percent black and 54 percent white.

Now, a new wave of black and Latino leaders are vying for power, propelled by concerns that Hancock has embraced development while moving too slowly to protect communities of color from gentrification.

“We’ve had black leadership or minority leadership in our city since the ‘80s, but has that leadership always translated to the best outcomes for minority people? No,” said Candi CdeBaca, who is challenging Councilman Albus Brooks in the District 9 runoff.

Giellis, CdeBaca acknowledged, “represents in a lot of ways what people are fighting against,” referring to their clashes over the years that Giellis led the River North Art District, an organization that helped coordinate the area’s development.

“I’ve been holding her accountable for five years,” CdeBaca said. “ … What we’ve seen is that we can’t hold Hancock accountable.”

What happened

The trouble began Tuesday, when Giellis responded to a question about the NAACP by host Shay Johnson on Brother Jeff Fard’s video webcast, which is livecast on Facebook. Giellis couldn’t remember that it stands for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

On Wednesday, though, a 10-year-old tweet surfaced from her personal Twitter account, under Giellis’ previous name, Jamie Licko: “Here’s a question: Why do so many cities feel it necessary to have a ‘Chinatown’?” she had written.

After the old tweet attracted new attention, that account and an Instagram account were taken down. Giellis said that decision was about “coming into the realization that we’re a public figure, and it was a private account.”

Amid the uproar, Hancock compared Giellis to President Donald Trump, saying that both made broad calls for change while dismissing criticisms of their words.

“I don’t think not knowing what the acronym for NAACP is necessarily a disqualifier,” Hancock said. “What’s disturbing to me is the pattern of racial and cultural insensitivity and ignorance that seems to be present here.”

RJ Sangosti, The Denver Post
Denver Mayor Michael B. Hancock speaks during the opening for the Denver Zoo’s new grizzly bear exhibit in Denver on May 15, 2019.

An unusual split

Nita Mosby Tyler, a diversity and equity consultant, said the election is splitting black and Latino voters in unusual ways.

“People are saying out loud who they’re supporting. I think brown people have supported white candidates in the past, but they were closeted,” she said. “I think it’s a healthy evolution.”

She voted for Giellis in the first round but said she was mostly seeking a runoff and remains undecided. Her husband, the Rev. Timothy Tyler, is now a firm Giellis supporter. Together, they live in a neighborhood that has quickly gentrified.

“I would say to you, five years ago, everybody would have been Hancock, and everyone was black,” she said. In fact, Hancock, Calderón and Giellis split votes most evenly in some of the city’s fastest-gentrifying areas.

Hancock’s strongest areas include Montbello and Green Valley Ranch, where he lives. But turnout in northeast Denver was relatively low — largely below 30 percent in an election that saw overall turnout of 39.6 percent among registered voters. Hancock had secondary strength along Federal Boulevard, where most precincts ranged from 20 percent to 40 percent turnout.

“We have a lot of work to do,” said state Rep. Leslie Herod, a Denver Democrat who endorsed Hancock this week. “He’s got to get out there and rally the supporters, rally the vote. That’s what we’re committed to doing. We will make sure Denver understands the stakes of this election.”

Herod criticized Giellis’ NAACP moment, the Chinatown tweet and other comments as disheartening.

Andrew Kenney, The Denver Post
Denver mayoral candidate Jamie Giellis speaks at an election rally on the steps of the City and County Building in Denver on Tuesday, May 14, 2019. Giellis is facing incumbent Denver Mayor Michael Hancock in a runoff election on June 4, 2019. Two former rivals of Giellis, Penfield Tate, center left, and Lisa Calderón endorsed her. (Andrew Kenney/The Denver Post)

A make-or-break moment?

Political analyst Eric Sondermann said the first-week gaffes could be a make-or-break moment for the contest, which ends June 4.

“There are two styles of handling something like this,” he said. “One is running towards the flame, and one is running away from the flame. I tend to think that running away from the flame usually doesn’t work — because the flame is going to burn whether you’re a part of the story or not.”

Sondermann said it’s common for racial dynamics to become an issue in some way when a minority incumbent mayor is facing a white challenger.

This time, after a 39 percent showing on May 7, Hancock “desperately needed to increase African-American turnout, as well as other minority turnout. … Jamie Giellis just handed them the issue on a silver platter,” he said.

“There’s a tendency in our business to overanalyze or ascribe more importance to events than maybe there should be,” Sondermann said. “But this one is important, and the reason really has to do less with the specifics and more with just the factor of how unknown Jamie Giellis is to the city of Denver.”