In the Denver mayor’s race, it’s 1995 all over again

The mayor faced a neck-and-neck challenge in the runoff election. The challenger was talking about cronyism and mismanaged public projects. And race and ethnicity were central topics as a white woman tried to unseat a black man.

The year was 1995, when then-mayor Wellington Webb made a comeback victory against challenger Mary DeGroot.

In 2019, Mayor Michael Hancock is hoping that history will keep repeating itself. Tuesday is the conclusion of the runoff election between him and challenger Jamie Giellis.

A comparison of the two elections shows what’s changed — and what hasn’t — in the city of Denver.

“A lot of people are comparing it to ‘95, saying that was the last really ugly negative mayor’s race. There’s some obvious analogies,” said Eric Sondermann, a political consultant who worked with DeGroot in the 1995 election. But there are some crucial differences, he warned.

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DeGroot, a former councilwoman, beat Webb by about 100 votes in the first round, setting off a runoff sprint that shared several narrative beats with the 2019 runoff between Hancock and Giellis.

Like Giellis, DeGroot’s support was strongest in the affluent neighborhoods of south and east Denver. And, like Hancock, Webb’s supporters tried to portray the challenger as out-of-touch with black and Latino neighborhoods. (Much of the criticism focused on DeGroot’s stance against race-based affirmative action, a policy that Giellis does not share.)

Webb won the runoff by 8 percentage points, apparently benefiting from improved turnout in black and Latino neighborhoods. “We had to beat the bushes to make sure that people would then turn back out for the second election,” Webb said. He thinks that his supporters stayed home from the first vote because they expected an easy victory.