Blurring the Lines: Can Denver Mayor Hancock weather this sexual harassment scandal?

Author: Ernest Luning - March 21, 2018 - Updated: March 22, 2018

Denver Mayor Michael Hancock speaks at CES International in 2016 in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)

DENVER — A week after Denver Mayor Michael Hancock apologized for sending suggestive text messages to a member of his security detail in 2012 — she considers them harassing, and he has called them inappropriate — dozens of protesters led by persistent Hancock critics gathered on the steps of city hall to call for the mayor to resign.

Since then, a member of the Denver City Council called for an independent investigation into the recently surfaced texts and years-old payouts the city made to Denver police detective Leslie Branch-Wise and a member of Hancock’s staff, who was fired by the mayor in 2012 after allegedly making “inappropriate comments” to the officer.

The councilman, Rafael Espinoza, withdrew his request days later — saying it wouldn’t be right unless Branch-Wise wants to reopen the matter — but emphasizes that it’ll be up to voters to decide next year whether to give Hancock a third term in what’s recognized as the most powerful elected office in the state.

In the wake of complaints that led to former State Rep. Steve Lebsock’s historic expulsion from the Colorado House of Representatives at the beginning of March, as well as sexual harassment allegations leveled against several Republican state senators, the uproar surrounding Hancock’s texts has lit up local airwaves and energized his opponents, but leading politicians and experts tell Colorado Politics there’s a good chance the mayor can ride out the furor.

While they caution that any additional, credible allegations against Hancock could drastically alter the equation, they point to crucial differences between the scandals as the viral #MeToo movement to combat sexual harassment passes the six-month mark and communities grapple with how to handle allegations against officials.

Is there a distinction between what’s inappropriate and what’s intolerable? Does it matter if someone subject to unwanted sexual advances accepts an apology? Is a single complaint sufficient to end a political career, or does there have to be a pattern of behavior? The rules are still in flux, but they’re coming into focus.

“We need to figure out a process to handle these things,” said Brie Franklin, executive director of Colorado Coalition Against Sexual Assault. “How are we going to determine what rises to a level of expulsion or not? There are processes within the private business world. The legislature is trying to figure out their process; for elected officials it’s a little different.”

“The mayor is not escaping consequence here,” Hancock spokeswoman Amber Miller told Colorado Politics. “This is an individual whose personnel file is completely public. How he is held accountable is by the people who elected him. He is certainly holding himself — and his family is holding him — accountable to this as well.”

In one text, first reported by KMGH-TV, Hancock complimented Branch-Wise’s haircut, adding, “You made it hard on a brotha to keep it correct every day.” In another, he asked if she’d ever considered taking up pole-dancing. “I just want people to know that I’m a woman, I have children and I’m a victim of sexual harassment,” Branch-Wise said in an interview with KMGH. “It made me physically sick. It was extremely scary.”

A progressive political operative suggested to Colorado Politics that groups that led the charge to oust Lebsock are still weighing their responses to the news about Hancock’s 2012 texts, which the mayor acknowledged in a videotaped statement were “too familiar and unprofessional” and “blurred the lines between being a friend and being a boss.”

“We’re building this plane as we’re flying it,” the operative said. “There are going to be mistakes made, there are going to be people who get caught up in it. There are going to be incomplete applications of justice. Sometimes there’s an over-correction. People have been enduring this for a long, long time. It’s going to be messy.”

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Top Democrats who almost immediately called on Lebsock to step down when allegations against him emerged in November — including the leading candidates for governor and the state party chair — have reacted differently to the news about Hancock.

“The allegations against Mayor Hancock are concerning,” Colorado Democratic Party Chair Morgan Carroll said in a statement. “His texts were inappropriate. He acknowledged his conduct was wrong, accepted responsibility, apologized, and the apology was accepted by the victim.” She added that she believes anyone who experiences workplace harassment should have a process in place to air their concerns without fear of retaliation.

Democratic gubernatorial candidates made similar points and vowed to combat sexual harassment in their administration and Colorado workplaces — though one went further, putting Hancock on notice that more revelations would lead to a demand that he resign.

“Mayor Hancock’s actions were clearly inappropriate, whether he was a mayor or private citizen,” Denver businessman Noel Ginsburg said in a statement. “Assuming that this is the only incident that the mayor was involved with, and given his admission that his actions were wrong and has sincerely apologized, I do not believe he should resign. However, if another similar circumstance is exposed reflecting a continued lack of leadership and judgment, I would call for his immediate resignation.”
“Cary recognizes the mayor for his apology but knows that is not enough,” said Serena Woods, deputy campaign manager for former state Treasurer Cary Kennedy, who served as Denver’s chief financial officer and deputy mayor under Hancock for five years.

“She hopes he joins the rest of city employees at upcoming sexual harassment trainings, and she’s reserving her judgement until more facts are known.”

“Every level of government should have a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to sexual harassment, and a fair and expedited process of ensuring a safe and civil workplace,” said U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, who also commended Branch-Wise for coming forward.

Former state Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver, put it this way: “Revelations in recent weeks have made plain that sexual harassment in the workplace is, and has been, an epidemic with countless victims who have long suffered in silence.”

A spokesman for Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne, an early and enthusiastic supporter of Hancock’s mayoral campaigns, called the Lebsock expulsion “entirely appropriate” given the number of allegations and the lawmaker’s retaliation against the women who lodged complaints.

“In the mayor’s case, he acknowledged that what was in the texts was inappropriate, apologized for his actions from six years ago, and the recipient of those texts accepted his apology. Barring additional developments, it would seem the mayor took the issue seriously and understands that, as mayor, he must lead by example,” Lynne campaign manager Ethan Susseles told Colorado Politics.

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There’s another hard political reality distinguishing the Hancock imbroglio and the ones across Civic Center Park at the state Capitol: While it hadn’t been exercised in more than a century, the legislature has a process to expel a member, but Denver’s mayor is only subject to recall and can’t otherwise be disciplined or thrown out of office.

“It’s completely up to Mayor Hancock whether he should resign from office,” said Bob Loevy, a Colorado College political science professor and regular contributor to Colorado Politics. “That’s particularly true because these proceedings have the trappings of a court — but these people are essentially being tried in the court of public opinion. If people can raise enough questions that Mayor Hancock himself feels he may have to step down from office, that’s the only way it’s going to happen.”

Urging the mayor to step down, longstanding Hancock foes — including the Colorado Fraternal Order of Police, which has been at odds with the mayor over the direction of the Denver Sheriff’s Department, mayoral candidate Kayvan Khalatbari and Lisa Calderon, who co-chairs the Colorado Latino Forum and owns a business that recently lost a contract with the city — filled the steps of the City and County Building last week, though Hancock spokeswoman Miller charged the protesters were merely using the news about the text messages to make political hay.

Former Denver City Councilwoman Susan Shepherd, whose call for Hancock to resign was read at the rally — after losing her bid for reelection to Espinoza three years ago, she moved to Buena Vista — rejected that contention.

“With as cavalier as he was in his texts to Detective Branch-Wise were, I’m concerned that he may have behaved that way toward others. Who else is out there who has yet to come forward, maybe emboldened by what has happened?” Shepherd told Colorado Politics. “I can’t believe the mayor’s own behavior didn’t constitute sexual harassment, when there’s clear language about verbal sexual harassment in city policies.”

“The mayor has apologized,” Miller said this week. “He knows that is just the first step to rebuilding trust and addressing the disappointment he has heard from many folks in the community.” She added, “He has learned lessons here. He is human. He makes mistakes, but he also is a man who can grow from them. Where we are today is that he is out there listening to folks and hearing them and trying to figure out if there are additional changes that need to be made. He knows personally he will learn and grow from this.”

Espinoza told Colorado Politics that some of his questions about the mayor’s actions probably won’t have answers.

“But we are all subject to the ballot, and I do think that if those questions are still present, and it affects people’s opinions of the efficacy of the mayor’s performance, I think it could make a difference in the election. It’s up to the voters,” he said.

Ernest Luning

Ernest Luning

Ernest Luning is a political correspondent for Colorado Politics. He has covered politics and government for newspapers and online news sites in Colorado for more than 25 years, including at the Highlands Ranch Herald, the Jefferson Sentinels chain of community newspapers and the Aurora Sentinel, where he was the city hall and cops reporter. After editing the Aurora Daily Sun, he was a political reporter and blogger for The Colorado Independent site. For nearly a decade, he was a senior political reporter and occasional editor at The Colorado Statesman before the 119-year-old publication merged with Colorado Politics in 2017.