Michael Hancock (1969– ) is the forty-fifth mayor of Denver, elected in 2011. Currently in his third term, Hancock succeeded fellow Democrat John Hickenlooper and interim mayor Guillermo Vidal. Widely seen as a pro-growth mayor, Hancock is credited with boosting the city’s economy by investing in infrastructure and cultural projects, including the expansion of Denver International Airport and the Regional Transportation District (RTD). He has also been proactive on other community issues, such as reforming the Denver Police Department and taking controversial action against the city’s homeless population.
Hancock’s focus on growth has paid dividends but also invited criticism, especially over his ties to major corporate lobbyists, the city’s treatment of the homeless population, and increased housing costs in the city. Before he was elected mayor, Hancock was a member and president of the Denver City Council.
Michael B. Hancock was born at Fort Hood in Killeen, Texas, in 1969. His parents separated, and his mother moved the family to a public housing unit in Denver when Michael was an infant. He spent his childhood in the city with his nine older siblings. At Cole Middle School he met his future wife, Mary Louise Lee.
Hancock attended Manual High School, where he declared at age fourteen that he would become mayor of Denver. He also founded a tutoring program and interned in the administration of Denver mayor Federico Peña, the city’s first Latino mayor. Hancock cites Peña as one of his most important political mentors.
Hancock vividly recalls being racially profiled by the Denver Police while in high school. One night after a school dance, he was pulled over while driving through the affluent white neighborhood of Cherry Creek. Hancock asked the officer why he had pulled him over, and he said the officer told him, “You’re driving in this neighborhood. In this car. And you’re black?” Hancock has cited the incident as part of his motivation for attaining higher office.
Hancock graduated high school in 1987, and that year he worked for the Denver Broncos as the team’s mascot. The Broncos made it to the Super Bowl, but lost to the New York Giants. In 1991 Hancock graduated from Hastings College in Nebraska with a bachelor’s degree in political science. While in college, Hancock’s biological father passed away from lung cancer. An emotional Hancock recalled being at his estranged father’s death bed even though he barely knew him in life. Michael’s early adulthood was punctuated by other tragedies. In 1996 one of his brothers died of AIDS, and in 2002 one of his sisters was killed by a former boyfriend.
After college, Hancock earned a master’s degree in public administration from the University of Colorado–Denver, and he began working for the Denver Housing Authority. Later, he ran the city’s Urban League. He worked with Wellington Webb, the city’s first black mayor, on a youth jobs training program.
In 2003 Hancock was elected to the Denver City Council, serving as its president from 2006 to 2008. One of the first things Hancock did as a councilmember was to advocate for police reform in the wake of the death of Paul Childs, a mentally ill black teenager who was shot and killed by police outside his Park Hill home in 2003. Together with then-mayor John Hickenlooper, Hancock called for the creation of an independent police watchdog, the Office of the Independent Monitor. He also pushed to reform police training so officers would be better equipped to deal with mentally ill citizens.
Hancock served on city council until he was narrowly elected mayor in 2011. After finishing a close second in a general election that saw three candidates earn more than 20 percent of the vote, Hancock beat former state senator Chris Romer by 3 percentage points in a runoff election that June. Hancock replaced interim mayor Guillermo Vidal, who had taken over from Hickenlooper when the latter was elected governor in 2010.
First Term as Mayor
When Hancock took office in July 2011, he presided over a city of 600,000 that was struggling to find its way out of the Great Recession (2007–09). He saw growing the economy as his major goal, and his plan for doing so centered on developing Denver International Airport (DIA). Citing the Dallas–Fort Worth area as a model, Hancock announced plans for an “aerotropolis” around DIA that would turn the airport area into a national business hub. A map of the proposed airport space released by the city’s development partners in 2012 included an “aerospace manufacturing” facility, a “renewable energy” area, a “free trade zone,” and “retail and hospitality” facilities.
Another of Hancock’s first initiatives was an attempt to reform the Denver Police Department, whose relationship with citizens had soured for decades because of police misconduct. From 2004 to 2015, for example, the city paid out more than $8 million in settlements related to police brutality, wrongful deaths, and other misconduct. When he assumed office, Hancock fired police chief Gerald Whitman, replacing him with Robert White, who was known for pursuing more progressive reforms in other cities. Hancock intentionally brought in an outsider—White was just the second-ever Denver Police chief to come from outside the department—to address a violent culture that was known within the department as the “Denver Way.”
White made a variety of reforms, including the replacement of dozens of veteran officers. Despite this, use-of-force and other complaints against the department continued to mount and were mentioned in the massive police brutality protests of 2020.
Meanwhile, Hancock’s airport plans ran into an obstacle in the form of Adams County officials. They were concerned that the city was ignoring a rule in the 1988 annexation agreement in which the county allowed the city to annex the land for the airport as long as development was limited to “aviation purposes.” Over his first three years in office, Hancock negotiated privately with county officials to reach a new agreement that allowed Denver’s commercial development of the land in exchange for a $10 million upfront payment to Adams County communities and an even split of future tax revenues.
Perhaps Hancock’s most controversial policy during his first term as mayor was the enactment of the Unauthorized Camping Ordinance (UCO), commonly referred to as the “camping ban.” The measure, approved by the city council in May 2012 with the mayor’s support, banned people from “sleeping outdoors or resting in a secure place with their belongings nearby” and called for violators to be arrested or fined and face up to a year in prison. Hancock argued that homeless people would be safer in shelters, but he was rebuffed by community activists who asserted that the city’s shelters were actually inadequate and unsafe. Over the next few years, police issued only several dozen citations under the ordinance, but activists and community groups continued to criticize it as a law that unnecessarily criminalized homelessness.
Reelection and Later Terms
Despite the fallout from the camping ban and other controversies, Hancock was reelected mayor in 2015, winning 80.2 percent of the vote. Hancock centered his reelection campaign on his strongest issue—development—pledging to support ongoing and new redevelopment in downtown neighborhoods such as Five Points and River North.
In 2016 the Regional Transportation District (RTD) opened the A-Line, a new light rail route running from Denver’s Union Station to DIA. Hancock called the line “critical” to his vision for an aerotropolis. A $3.5 billion airport improvement plan, set to address a projected 80 million passengers per year in 2025, is the next step in Hancock’s vision. It includes a $1.5 billion gate expansion as well as upgrades to baggage systems, and a complete overhaul of the Jeppesen Terminal.
In 2019 Hancock, again reeling from controversies, was forced into a runoff election after winning just 38.7 percent of the vote in the crowded general election, with three other candidates garnering more than 10 percent each. He was the first incumbent mayor since 1995 to be forced into a runoff. Hancock eventually won his third term, prevailing over Jamie Giellis in the runoff by 14 percentage points.
In December 2019, a Denver County judge ruled the city’s camping ban unconstitutional; enforcement was suspended for two weeks after the ruling. With Hancock’s support, the city appealed the ruling, and enforcement resumed in early 2020 amid the ongoing appeal.
As Denver became the epicenter of the state’s coronavirus outbreak in March 2020, Hancock issued a stay-at-home order for city residents to slow the virus’s spread. The order extended beyond Governor Jared Polis’s stay-at-home order for the state, as the virus persisted longer in the city and suburbs than it did in less populated areas.
In late May 2020, a viral video of Derek Chauvin, a white police officer in Minneapolis, Minnesota, brutally killing George Floyd, an unarmed black man, sparked protests in nearly every major American city, including Denver. For more than two weeks, protesters aligned with the Black Lives Matter movement took to the streets of Denver demanding an end to police brutality and institutional racism. In response, Hancock announced his support for the protesters and promised “action,” though he did not put forward specific policies or reduce the police budget, as Los Angeles and other major cities did in response to local protests. (Denver Police are nonetheless required to comply with significant restrictions on use-of-force as outlined in a reform bill passed by the Colorado legislature in June 2020).
During the mayoral election of 2011, an article in Complete Colorado tried to link Hancock to the Denver Players prostitution ring, citing an entry in a log book for the ring’s patrons. The entry included an altered version of Hancock’s name, his cell phone number, and a payment of $275. Hancock’s campaign manager confirmed that the phone number belonged to the future mayor but maintained that the entry was false and an attempt to sabotage Hancock’s campaign.
In 2016 a CBS4 investigation found that officials in Hancock’s administration, including his chief of staff, had approved the use of nearly $60,000 in public donations for the homeless to cover the costs of storing possessions taken from homeless people during a police drive to oust them from Denver’s Ballpark neighborhood. After withering criticism by citizens and activist groups, including the local ACLU, Hancock explained the expenditures as an “accounting error” and said the money would be replaced.
The mayor’s office has also repeatedly raised eyebrows with expensive travel bills for Hancock and important visitors to the city. In 2018 The Denver Post reported that between 2013 and 2017 the mayor’s office received $77,104 from DIA to cover the costs of eight trips, mostly business-class flights for the mayor and potential development partners. Hancock’s office has argued that the trips helped expand the airport’s activity and reputation and were not meant to sway potential development partners.
In 2018, as Hancock prepared to run for a third term as mayor, he admitted to what he called “inappropriate behavior” in texts to Denver Police Detective Leslie Branch-Wise in 2012. Branch-Wise considered the texts sexual harassment and submitted several exchanges with the mayor to Denver7 News. Hancock apologized for the messages, and the city council decided not to investigate. Branch-Wise later accepted a $75,000 settlement from the city.
Hancock is married to actress and singer Mary Louise Lee; the couple have three children, Alayna, Jordan, and Janae.