“Chris is a very able guy. He just didn’t have a persona to fit this election at this time.” Roy Romer, 2011Former Governor Roy Romer, the father of Chris and an indefatigable campaigner, may have summed up his son’s mayoral campaign defeat best - his persona did not fit this electorate in this election. The candidates were similar on the issues but wildly different in life stories, and this election was about the candidates’ personalities and their backgrounds.
Hancock’s personality was his greatest asset. Although his life story is less exotic than Barack Obama’s, his upbringing was much more challenging. It showed that Hancock’s good temperament is extraordinary in the face of chaos and tragedy. The ins and outs of this election highlight the narrative that dominated it – a narrative that will guide the new administration.
Community Organizer vs. Investment Banker
Hancock’s career as a community activist and city official was comfortable for Denver, a liberal city and seat of much of the state’s government. Romer, an investment banker, was immediately handicapped with voters by having one of the least favored professions, as well as being the son of privilege. He tried to use his private sector credentials as an asset for creating jobs but many did not view mortgage banking in public finance as an attractive resume or even particularly private sector.
Continuity vs. Change
Romer started with the premise that Denver was stalled and change was needed to “go to the next level.” Michael Hancock’s campaign recognized that voters expected some change, but didn’t really want that much. John Hickenlooper was judged a successful mayor, and Denver, albeit with some problems, a great city. They wanted someone to manage it, not change it, and Hancock said he had the city management experience to start on day one.
Good Guy vs. Tough Guy
Hancock has a friendly and easy-going personality, and it showed in his measured approach as a councilman and council/president. He emphasized collaboration and consensus. Romer chose an aggressive style and a tough guy image. He said it was needed to balance the budget and say “no” to city employees. Hancock made clear he was as concerned with social justice as a balanced budget. And in his view the budget would be balanced in the normal process without hardship. It may be that in the post Wisconsin environment, a Democratic city like Denver is less interested in tough budget cutting than fair budget balancing.
Insider vs. Outsider
Although Denver has never before elected a city councilperson to the mayor’s office, this turned out to be the year that continuity and experience on the job were valued. Hancock’s greatest challenge may have been getting past his fellow councilpersons in the general election. Romer hoped that another Hickenlooper-type was desired to bring a business approach and outsider’s perspective. Unfortunately the year was wrong, and Romer was no Hickenlooper.
Positive Campaign vs. Negative Campaign
Not only did a positive campaign fit Hancock’s temperament, it also gave him a platform from which to criticize his opponent without looking negative.
Arguably, the Romer campaign felt they had no choice but to go negative. It was clear his campaign had stalled before the general election and fell behind shortly after. However, the move to immediately attack caused a significant counter reaction.
After the vicious Romanoff-Bennet primary last summer and the hard-fought fall Senate race, Denver voters simply had no stomach for another negative campaign. Also, Hickenlooper made not using negative advertising a signature attribute and a successful strategy.
Romer’s negative ads, reinforced by the aggressive direct mail and robo calls from nominally independent big labor, reinforced his outsider, tough-guy image – a misguided approach for this electorate.
Liberal vs. Center
Hancock had the benefit of being the favored candidate of most of Denver’s liberals and their powerful network. They, along with the African-American community, gave him his surge in the general election and protected him during the negative onslaught. They made it clear he was their candidate on school reform. Even though both Hancock and Romer had similar platforms and credentials, the endorsement of Romer by the usually powerful teachers’ union may have backfired, sending any reform-minded fence sitters into Hancock’s camp.
Romer’s effort to unite Republicans with centrist Democrats and Latinos was a difficult strategy, especially when running against a popular African-American candidate.
The narrative of this election will define the new administration. Expect the familiar, with more continuity than change. An indicator is that the transition committee is made up of well-known faces. Necessary budget cutting will be done, but likely without draconian cuts. Whether it is the right civic narrative for the challenges Denver faces remains to be seen, but it will have a Hancock personality, friendly and consensus-building.