Denver Mayoral Candidate Interview: Michael Hancock

Voters in the state’s biggest city pick their next mayor June 7th. The finalists in the Denver mayor’s race are City Councilman Michael Hancock and former state senator Chris Romer. They’re both Democrats-- in a contest that’s officially non-partisan. We’ll sit down with Romer tomorrow. Today, Michael Hancock on the city’s budget deficit, its libraries, and some of the controversies he’s faced. First, let’s hit the campaign trail with him. Here’s CPR’s Ben Markus.


On a recent Friday afternoon City Councilman Michael Hancock huddles with campaign volunteers around a picnic table in Crescent Park.  A staffer puts a map of the area in front of them, each red dot on the map is a registered voter.

Staffer: Right here, here’s Crescent Park.  How about that?
Hancock: So this is up Syracuse...man, there’s a lot of red dots on this puppy. 

Reporter: Hancock says he’s lost 15 pounds since he started walking Denver neighborhoods, knocking on doors asking for people’s vote. 
Hancock eventually runs into Jamie Diamant whose 2-year-old son Alex has a question for the mayoral candidate.

Alex: What’s your name?
Hancock: Michael.  Can you say Michael?
Alex: Michael. 
Hancock: Oh, you’re good.
Jamie Diamant: Can you say Hancock?
Alex: Hancock.
Hancock: Thank you, Alex. 
Jamie Diamant:Thank you.
Hancock: No, thank you.I would appreciate your consideration for mayor, OK.

Reporter: Unlike his opponent Chris Romer, who comes from a well-known political family, Hancock has spent a lot of his campaign introducing himself to Denver voters.  Born and raised in Denver he grew up in poverty.  His alcoholic father abandoned his family.  One of his brothers died of AIDS, and a sister was murdered.  Hancock nevertheless persevered, went to college and eventually to graduate school.  He says he’s blessed to have a “challenged” background.

Hancock:And I mean that because I think it helped build me into the man that I am today.  One that tends to understand a little better where people are coming from. Their challenges, their opportunities.

Reporter: In his eight years on the city council he’s fought passionately for his northeast district -- among other things helping pass police reforms and major bond initiatives. 
One of Hancock’s biggest supporters is former Denver Mayor Wellington Webb.  Webb remembers a young Hancock, still in high school, asserting that he’d be the first black mayor of Denver.

Webb: He can be second.  He can’t be first because I’ve already done that.

Reporter: And Webb is supporting that effort because of what he says are Hancock’s unique leadership skills.

Webb: Michael has the ability, which is an innate ability, is to feel comfortable wherever he is.  That there’s not a constituency that he doesn’t feel comfortable with or that he knows.

Reporter: Fellow councilman and Hancock supporter Charlie Brown agrees.  He says Hancock was elected council president partly because of his ability to broker compromise--something that doesn’t grab headlines, but...

Brown: It’s important, and you get rigidity on both sides and Michael can pull people together and say this is going to be it.  And he, at the same time, when it is necessary, he can be cowboy tough.  And I’ve seen that.

Reporter: But Hancock’s opponents are skeptical that a city councilman can make a good mayor.  No city councilperson has ever won the mayor’s office.   That’s why James Mejia, who finished third in the mayoral election earlier this month, has endorsed Chris Romer.

Mejia: I’m not convinced that the city council experience is one that prepares you well to lead in the executive branch of government.

Reporter: Mejia worked under both Webb and John Hickenlooper.  He says city council passes laws, it doesn’t have to implement them -- that takes strong executive experience. 
Hancock says he got that experience as the youngest chapter president of the Urban League, an innercity non-profit.  And Hancock says as councilman he’s learned how to work within the city’s political system and won’t shake things up as much as Romer will. 

Hancock: So if you come in with the attitude that ‘I’ve got to throw some elbows,’ and with the attitude that, ‘I’ve got to break some china,’  I think you already start at a deficit and you have to have some plan and some integrity to convince these city employees to work with you.

Reporter: In recent weeks Romer has stepped up negative ads, targeting Hancock’s vote to increase the future salaries of the mayor and city council during a budget crisis.  Hancock says the city rules required the council to consider raises and he said he’d give his to charity if he wins.  Hancock has stayed positive with his campaign, something he admits is a risk.    

Hancock: Maybe, but I also know I’ll walk away from this election no matter what the outcome feeling good about the way I did it.

Reporter: Hancock says he’s busy calling donors, raising money to keep his ads on the air.  And he’ll probably lose more weight canvasing Denver neighborhoods leading up to the June 7th election.

Michael Hancock joins us:

Warner: Tell me one way life would change for people in Denver in the first year of your administration?

Hancock: I believe that the city of people Denver will, first of all, recognize a mayor that is very active. You’ll certainly see the mayor a lot more. Neighborhood meetings and town halls are going to be very crucial for me, particularly as we work to address some of these real challenging issues that we’re facing -- the budget, dealing with restoring the trust between the policy department.

And secondly, I think that they will also see more of their city officials, including the police chief, the deputy mayor and so I will certainly weave through my administration the value of being more present and more visible in the community.

Warner: In terms of you being more visible, more visible than what? Hickenlooper? More visible than--?

Hancock: Well, no, just-- not so much comparing myself to Hickenlooper or any other mayor, for that matter. I just fundamentally believe that, as mayor, I can do a better job in governing, really to the needs and wants of the people of Denver by being in communication with them and having better contact. So we’re going to try to create venues and opportunities where I can have that direct conversation with the people of Denver.

Warner: As we heard in Ben’s piece, you once told Wellington Webb, before he became mayor of Denver, that you were going to be the city’s first black mayor. Do you remember, like, when the thought of being mayor of Denver first entered your head? You had to be pretty young.

Hancock: I was pretty young. And I’ll tell you, it was when I was probably in my early teens and Federico Pena had just been elected mayor in the early ‘80s. And I was only 12, 13 years old, but so many of us young people, particularly young people of color, were so enamored by Federico Pena, by the fact that this person of color could become mayor and we could all dream. And I think that, you know, it gave us a stamp and an opportunity to say, hey, I want to be mayor, too.

Warner: So as a young black person, seeing a mayor who had a Hispanic last name--

Hancock: Right.

Warner: You felt a connection to that?

Hancock: Oh, absolutely. Yeah, it didn’t matter that he was Hispanic. It mattered the fact that we saw Federico as one that we could touch and feel. You know, McNichols was someone that was out there, someone we never saw. We knew he was our mayor, but not someone we would see in our neighborhood.

We saw Federico Pena in our neighborhood. He campaigned in our neighborhood. He was a person of color and the fact that we felt he was more touchable, more approachable, meant the world to us.

Warner: You spent the first part of your career at the Denver Urban League--

Hancock: Yes.

Warner: --an inner-city non-profit. You were the youngest CEO in its history. Then you became a city councilman. What’s the largest number of people you’ve managed?

Hancock: The Urban League, we actually grew the organization to 25 full-time employees and a total of 45, once we included all of our after-hours and summer staff. But I will tell you that the real essence of a leader, it’s not so much how many people you actually manage, but how you put the infrastructure in place so that people can be well managed.

And I had some very strong lieutenants who handled most of those direct reports and as CEO my responsibilities really were to lay the foundation for the vision of the organization and to accomplish that vision, to raise the money for the organization and make sure we remained solvent and continued to operate and to have the lieutenants of mine, the vice presidents and program directors, report directly to me.

Warner: What’s the biggest mistake you made on that job?

Hancock: Wow. There were-- you know, there were numerous mistakes. You know, I look back on it and though I believe we were successful in revitalizing what was a dormant and dying organization -- when I took it over, my first paycheck bounced. The first thing I probably should have investigated was the financial solvency of the organization before I went in.

I think that when I look back on it, if I had any opportunity to do anything again, I would have expedited the framework and the elements, I think, to build a more sustainable financial organization, going forward, regardless of who the CEO was.

Oftentimes, in organizations like that, you tend to think about today. I’ve got to get this organization through today. Where, as a leader, you’ve got to be willing to open up and think about tomorrow, as well, and think about how we can create a more sustainable future for the organization.

Warner: Well, the city faces about a $100 million budget deficit. Which of your proposals makes the biggest dent in that deficit?

Hancock: We have 300 different spending categories in the City of Denver and I don’t think it’s one major home run, to be quite honest with you. I think the area that provides the greatest opportunity is for us to take a look at personnel. It’s 80% of the budget and we have to think very creatively with city employees about how we can go about cutting the cost of personnel. So, creating, maybe, an opportunity for early retirement might provide the greatest opportunity for us to make the biggest impact.

Warner: Let’s be more precise there. So, on early retirements?

Hancock: Yes.

Warner: Across all departments? In particular departments? What?

Hancock: Yeah, absolutely. We need to look at it across every agency. Secondly, we need to always do, I think, an evaluation of our benefit structure within the city. Not to take anything more away from the city employees, I’m thinking differently. I think we can find greater value by partnering with some of the other outside agencies that are quasi-governmental -- Denver Housing, Denver Water, Denver Health and Authority, to create benefit opportunities for our medical coverage for our employees and get greater value and, hopefully, less cost because of the number of employees that we bring together.

Warner: So buying health insurance as a larger group. On the early retirements, is the idea, then, that the positions they vacate would remain vacated or that you just hire cheaper, younger people?

Hancock: Yeah, not all of them. You can’t remain vacant. Obviously, you cannot manage with just overwhelming your staff to where they’re no longer productive, but absolutely overwhelmed. I think what you’re looking at is a retirement structure where people roll off who are close to retirement, you can hire them back, up to 1,000 hours a year, to serve as outside expertise at a lot lesser rate than if you fully employed them, with full benefits.

If you were in areas where we actually have to have full-time person, obviously, having newer people coming to a structure where they’ve not been there for 30, 40 years, is a lot less expensive than continuing on with the more veterans of the city.

Warner: Any way to prevent layoffs, given this deficit?

Hancock: Certainly you always try to avoid layoffs within the city structure, but, you know, we’ve got to keep all the tools available to us and certainly I’m not going in with a strategy to lay off city employees. I think I’d rather work with them to identify opportunities to create a more balanced approach with regards to personnel.

Warner: You’ve hinted at this, that is, getting ideas from personnel about how to save money.

Hancock: Sure.

Warner: That’s something John Hickenlooper polled his employees about when he was mayor.

Hancock: Absolutely.

Warner: Do you think there’s really, like, more to find?

Hancock: Yeah. Well, I’m telling you. They are on the ground. They tell us, very clearly, Councilman, we can do better. I’m telling you, there are opportunities to save money. And they’ve shared some of those ideas. One of the things--

Warner: I want to hear one. I do.

Hancock: (laughs) Well, I think, you know, one of them is where we today don’t pick up overflow every week as we used to do in our trash, our waste management system. That was a city employee idea that says, you know what, if we incentivize folks to recycle and to compost, they’re more likely to do that when they know that their overflow is not going to be picked up every week. That has helped save the city money.

Warner: Should Denver charge for trash?

Hancock: I think Denver ought to incentivize composting and recycling and weigh trash and then charge accordingly to the weight of the trash. The idea-- and that is called, “Pay for what you throw.” And what it does, you find people throwing away a lot less and they get more into recycling, composting, which is more environmentally sound and certainly more financially feasible for the city.

Warner: You’re listening to Colorado Matters. I’m Ryan Warner and Denver mayoral candidate Michael Hancock is with us. Our conversation continues after a short break. This is Colorado Public Radio.

(approximately 30 second break)

Warner: It’s Colorado Matters. I’m Ryan Warner. We’re speaking with the candidates for mayor in Denver. And joining us now is Michael Hancock. We’ll hear from Chris Romer, his opponent in this race, tomorrow.

The Denver Library Commission has proposed that the library system become a special district so that it could levy its own property taxes. Do you support that idea?

Hancock: I support the libraries becoming an independent district and I’ll tell you why. Ryan, the library system enjoys tremendous public support. The reality is this -- the libraries have been at the whim of the general fund and, of course, the economy for quite some time. I mean, we spend over $28 million to $30 million a year out of the general fund. Because they play such a critical role and because the public is so supportive of the libraries, I believe the public will stand up and say they’re that important to us, that we ought to support them.

Warner: It’s okay to tax us.

Hancock: Yes, it’s okay to tax us. And I hear it from citizens all over. We want our libraries back. We want them to be open and so I absolutely agree that the library ought to become a special district and I look forward to working with the Commission to figure out how we might move that forward.

Warner: Now, let’s balance that with another potential taxing reality and that is, to complete FasTracks, the rollout of light rail--

Hancock: Right.

Warner: --and commuter rail in Denver, RTD may need to tax folks additionally. One or the other, in terms of library or RTD? Or do you think that both are possible?

Hancock: Yeah. I think that FasTracks is extremely important. Where you and I have been throughout this country where they have a metropolitan transit system, we know the value they bring. They’re tremendous economic generators. The reality is, is we need to have a more comprehensive conversation about taxation. If we pull the libraries out, for instance, and create a special district, that creates a $28 million to $30 million opportunity within the general fund.

Warner: It frees that money up for something else. What would you spend that money on?

Hancock: Right. Well, obviously, some of those resources have to go to help correct the structural imbalance in the budget. Part of it could be used to help restore our policy academy so we can go about training new officers to hit our streets. We have not been able to do an academy for the last three years and-- which means we’ve got more officers who are holding on, because they can’t retire.

But let me also say, very clearly, we don’t have to reallocate all of it. I think we shore up the budget, we take it to some of the core services that the public, we agree on and then we make a deal to continue to operate efficiently within those boundaries.

With regards to FasTracks, the 0.4% that we’re going to be asked to pay in sales taxes will pale in comparison to the economic benefit that will come as a result of our investment.

Warner: So, Michael, I’m always curious. When you’re a candidate who feels he has a chance of being elected, I wonder how much advance work you do. And so have you had conversations with businesses about relocating to Denver, expanding in Denver?

Hancock: Oh, absolutely.

Warner: Is that the kind of work you would do, as a candidate?

Hancock: Absolutely. Not even as a candidate, as a city council member I’ve been all over this world promoting Denver and working to bring jobs to Denver. First of all, I’ve been in Tokyo, Japan, working to establish the non-stop flight to Denver, which would bring a $100 million impact to Denver, just by establishing that non-stop flight from Denver to Tokyo. And they would bring several hundred employees here, as well as open up several hundred opportunities for employees that live in Colorado.

Warner: Is Denver a city that should offer tax incentives to businesses that may be looking at five, six, 10, 12 other communities to relocate?

Hancock: Sure. In partnership with the state Department of Economic Development and International Trade, I think Denver can play a critical role in developing strong tax incentive packages, cash incentive packages for companies to move here.

Now I don’t believe in us giving away the farm, but I think we should at least be competitive and I think once we’re competitive, I think our environment, our amenities, our way of life out here, tend to sell us.

Warner: What have we lost because of uneven offers?

Hancock: Well, people often look at Boeing, as an example of a great opportunity. We lost the headquarters of Frontier Airlines as a result of our inability to be competitive. We have companies today, like GE Solar, who are looking at Denver, Colorado. You know, a couple of hundred jobs there, very well-paying jobs. But we’ve got to continue to work to be competitive in that market.

Warner: Michael Hancock is our guest. He’s a candidate for mayor in Denver. A couple of issues that have come up on the campaign trail. First, you voted earlier this year in favor a pay raise for the city council and the mayor. You’ve pointed out that it won’t take effect until 2013 and that at that point, it could be canceled if the economy hasn’t improved sufficiently. Also, you’ve said if you’re elected mayor you would give your portion of the raise to charity.

Hancock: Right.

Warner: Sen. Romer, your opponent in this race, argues that that vote sent a bad message, that if you’re going to ask city employees for furloughs, for early retirements, as we’ve discussed, you’re going to have a hard time explaining why you voted for a pay raise.

Hancock: You know, Ryan, we have been in the midst of this recessionary downturn since 2003. It actually started coming on in 2002. Before I came on city council, that city council had to make the decision to set the pay raises for incoming elected officials. In 2007, again, city council had to set the pay for the incoming elected officials. I was there at that point.

Because this is now a political season in which people are getting elected, obviously we’re talking about this. But we froze it for two years. I refused to-- I decided I would not accept the raise if and when elected mayor of Denver. We, as a city council, had to make the decision on how do we keep those salaries competitive for people who may want to serve but also have obligations at home.

I still believe it was the right decision. Once we set those salaries, there’s no talking about increase, whether it’s cost of living or merit. There are no raises. And so these salaries have not been adjusted for over-- will not have been adjusted for six years by 2013.

Warner: Another thing that’s come up is a Planned Parenthood questionnaire that you completed and it asked you to choose from a range of options to describe your position. One was pro choice, another was pro family planning.

Hancock: Right.

Warner: And you chose pro family planning.

Hancock: Right. The key word you just used was range and I felt -- and, by the way, Ryan, also on that question, you’re allowed to give a narrative and in the narrative, I was very clear. I support the woman’s right to choose. I also wanted to make a statement that I believe that our children are having struggles understanding, one, how to protect their bodies. We have a growing number of children who are becoming infected with STDs and so I just believe that pro family planning give us the best opportunity to get our kids education to protect their bodies and to make sound decisions.

Warner: You mentioned STDs. You had a brother who died of AIDS, is that right?

Hancock: Yes, I did. Yes, in 1996.

Warner: And I shouldn’t assume it was sexually transmitted, I don’t mean to bring the two together.

Hancock: It was.

Warner: That influences your thinking on this?

Hancock: Not necessarily. I don’t think I thought about my brother during that time. But, you know, the reality is, you know, my brother was gay and he got the disease transmitted through his lifestyle. I lost him. I loved him very much.

And one of the things he shared with me, on his deathbed he looked at me and said, “I shouldn’t be dying. There are medicines out there that should be keeping me alive, but I can’t afford them.” And so his impact on me around healthcare and access to healthcare is extremely important.

Two, he said, make sure that people understand, Michael, they can protect themselves from this disease. That demonstrates exactly what I’m talking about.

Warner: Because of your answers to some questions in recent debates, there’s been a lack of clarity about whether you see a place to teach alternatives to evolution in schools. Will you clarify that?

Hancock: Oh, absolutely. Creationism, intellectual design--

Warner: Intelligent design.

Hancock: I said intellectual design, intelligent design, thank you. There’s a place for that and it is in the home or in the faith-based community and I made a mistake in not clearly listening to the question on stage. I believe in science. I believe in evolution. It should be in the schools.

I apologize for the confusion, but I immediately moved to correct it once I understood the flub that I made.

Warner: On education, there’s been a lot of talk about it on the campaign trail. One ad featured you driving your son 18 miles each way to school, because the school in your neighborhood isn’t good enough. But, you know, Colorado’s constitution says school boards, superintendents control the schools. What can the mayor actually do to improve the performance of kids in school?

Hancock: Let me ask you a question, Ryan. Name one issue that you expect the mayor to impact that is not predicated on a strong educational system. It’s very difficult to name one.

It’s not an issue of control. As mayor, I don’t want to run schools. This is about the mayor understanding that the greatest asset in governing this city is its school system. And the fact that as the-- arguably one of the more influential people in the State of Colorado, to be able to raise the issue of quality schools is extremely important.

Warner: I don’t imagine that there’s ever been a mayor elected in the City of Denver who hasn’t said the same thing.

Hancock: Right.

Warner: Certainly we heard it from John Hickenlooper. Can you point to where that enthusiasm and that influence has actually changed something in the schools?

Hancock: Well, you know what, I think that one-- you’re talking about the City of Denver?

Warner: Yeah, what’s the practical application of the enthusiasm we just heard from you?

Hancock: Sure. I think you look right at the person you just talked about, John Hickenlooper. Mayor Hickenlooper, just his enthusiasm, created the Denver Scholarship Fund Foundation, which is helping young people not only navigate through school in order to graduate, but also getting them the opportunity to get to college.

You know, one of the things I’ve always proposed is what I call the “Everyone give one,” and that’s one hour a week. If you, as a community member, whether you have kids or not in that school, can find one hour a week to dedicate to your school, the difference it will make with the resources allocated to that school to, I think, educate our young people.

But I also want to make it very clear to you, Ryan, this is not my first trip to this rodeo. I’ve been working with schools as a member of the city council to reform and transform schools that were failing. So I didn’t just drive my kid across town because the school didn’t work, I dug in and worked to transform some of the failing schools in the area.

Warner: Michael Hancock, there’s been a lot of controversy around the Denver Police Department, charges of brutality, the firings of several officers. You’ve said that you would fire Police Chief Gerry Whitman. Why?

Hancock: First, let me change the language. I would not reappoint Chief Whitman. Chief Whitman has done tremendous work for the City of Denver. I think in the last few years, what we’ve seen is a tail-off of his effectiveness and I think a lot of it has to do with the fact he’s been there a long time. I think it comes time where new energy and a new voice is needed to bring new ideas and a new sense of direction.

Warner: To wrap up, what annoys you most about living in Denver?

Hancock: (laughs) What annoys me the most? Probably traffic. We are certainly seeing a lot more traffic these days. You know, particularly, I drive I-70 every day. You spend so much time in traffic and it’s such unproductive time and it’s not-- it’s also not environmentally sustainable.

So in partnership with the state, the city, the metro region, we have to get very serious about how we can address that issue as our region grows. It’s projected to continue to grow and I think transit, FasTracks, in particular, is going to provide for us that opportunity to, hopefully, alleviate some of that auto traffic.

Warner: Thank you so much.

Hancock: Thank you, Ryan, for this opportunity. I’ve enjoyed the conversation.

Warner: Michael Hancock is 41 and he’s represented Northeast Denver on the city council for the last eight years. Tomorrow, his opponent in the Denver mayor’s race, former State Sen. Chris Romer. The election is June 7th.

Michelle P. Fulcher and Martin Skavish produced our show today. I’m Ryan Warner and this is Colorado Matters from Colorado Public Radio.