A year ago, Denver Mayor Michael Hancock’s sexual harassment scandal — involving the revelation of suggestive text messages he sent to a female security detail officer years earlier — was dominating headlines.
It energized his critics and spurred calls by activists for his resignation, even as Hancock apologized. In the fallout, both the City Council and Hancock’s own office adopted new harassment policies for public officials.
As Hancock seeks his third term in a June 4 runoff with challenger Jamie Giellis, the issue has faded from the forefront. But plenty of voters haven’t forgotten.
“How is he supposed to lead when he’s not even taking responsibility for what he did?” said Hillary Potter, 49, an ethnic studies professor who lives in Clayton, citing Hancock’s unwillingness to label the texts sexual harassment. “I never really made a decision where he should step down because of it … but I knew we had this election coming up.”
Some political observers, and even Hancock’s own supporters, speculate that the scandal may be among the reasons he fell well short of 50 percent in the first-round election May 7. There hasn’t been any public polling on the issue.
“Anecdotally, it’s still out there and he’s still paying a price,” political analyst Eric Sondermann said. “He might have been headed to a runoff in any event, but that might have been the difference between a runoff … with very little ground to make up, versus a very underperforming 39 percent.”
Several voters interviewed by The Denver Post in recent weeks expressed discomfort with Hancock based on the scandal. But that doesn’t mean all have come to the same conclusions — especially as they weigh the two runoff candidates and their views on other issues.
Giellis stepped up her attempts to seize on the issue Tuesday, citing several sexual harassment-related city payouts during a news conference. She said a “culture of sexual harassment in city hall” starts with Hancock.
Texts released amid #MeToo movement
The series of text messages from 2012 came to light in February 2018 when Denver7 broadcast an interview with Leslie Branch-Wise. Now a Denver police detective, she said the recent national spotlight on treatment of women by men in power had given her the confidence to come forward.
In the texts from his first year in office, Hancock complimented Branch-Wise’s dress and appearance. In one, he asked her why women take pole-dancing classes. In another, he said she “(makes) it hard on a brotha to keep it correct.”
Branch-Wise didn’t file a harassment claim against Hancock back then, but she did pursue a claim alleging harassing conduct by an aide to the mayor around the same time. She has connected the texts to her receipt of a $75,000 settlement for the harassment claim involving the aide, but city attorneys have disputed that contention.
For his part, Hancock said in his frequent apologies that he had acted “too casual and too familiar” with Branch-Wise.
Photo by Denver7
Photo by Denver7
Photo by Denver7
Photo by Denver7
Few politicians abandoned Hancock, helping him to recover. In the last week, both former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Denver, tweeted their endorsements of Hancock — though Clinton’s tweet prompted a barrage of responses bringing up Hancock’s scandal.
Hancock’s campaign organized a “Women for Hancock” event for Wednesday afternoon that was set to feature community leaders and supporters including his wife, Mary Louise Lee; Wilma Webb, a former state legislator and Denver first lady; state Rep. Leslie Herod; and Denver Public Schools board members Angela Cobian and Barbara O’Brien.
Campaign volunteers have faced questions about the scandal from voters on doorsteps, but Hancock downplays the frequency the issue comes up.
He said he once broached the subject himself while speaking at a women’s event — addressing a likely elephant in the room — but rarely has been asked about it, suggesting to him that voters are more focused on quality-of-life issues.
“I’m happy to continue answering questions about it,” Hancock said in an interview, citing his philosophy: “You are judged as much by your responses to circumstances as the mistakes you have made.”
But Potter isn’t the only voter who has found Hancock’s responses lacking.
Chase Middaugh, 37, compared Hancock’s decision not to admit to harassment with his disappointment over what he saw as the mayor’s tepid responses to the way gentrification has forced longtime residents out of some neighborhoods.
“If you’re going to be a leader of a city like Denver that’s growing and changing, especially at a time when so much is changing economically and culturally, you should not … just play things safe,” said Middaugh, a graphic designer who lives in City Park West.
After supporting Hancock’s reelection in 2015, Middaugh backed Lisa Calderón, a vocal critic of Hancock’s conduct, in this month’s election; she came in third. Now Middaugh likely will support Giellis in the runoff — despite having misgivings, he said, over Giellis’ recent handling of a flap over racial and cultural issues.
Differing responses by voters
Potter, who at one time was a Hancock appointee on the Denver Civil Service Commission, said she couldn’t vote for Hancock because of the texting issue as well as dissatisfaction with his “irresponsible” approach to growth-related issues.
She supported Calderón but now is torn on Giellis, saying her only alternative is not voting in the mayor’s runoff. Her conundrum illustrates how for some voters, the calculus about their values gets more complex when faced with actual candidates.
Some sorted out their reactions to Hancock’s scandal early.
Amanda Caldwell, 36, said after casting her vote for Hancock on May 7 that the harassment issue was among those she weighed: “I just think it’s a very sticky situation, no matter what,” the Capitol Hill resident said. “You kind of have to set some of those things aside. I don’t know if it was anything so drastic to where it would kind of derail my vote.”
Laura “Pinky” Reinsch, a longtime Denver political activist, holds a stronger judgment about Hancock’s texts.
“I think any elected official should conduct themselves with integrity. Sexual harassment — that is not having integrity,” said Reinsch, 36.
Yet she now finds herself strongly considering something that was unthinkable a year ago: voting for Hancock.
After supporting musician and disability-rights activist Kalyn Heffernan, in the first round, she recoils at two runoff candidates who both have ties to developers.
Her reasoning for leaning toward Hancock: It would guarantee an open race in 2023, when term limits would prevent him from running again. By deferring, Reinsch hopes for the chance in four years to elect a progressive candidate she likes.
“I’ve been thinking about this a lot. I’m decided on every other runoff I get to vote in,” she said. “I guess I’m hugely concerned about the conduct of Hancock in regards to the sexual harassment. I’m also concerned about what I see as a lack of awareness of issues of race by Jamie.”
Staff writer Andrew Kenney contributed to this story.