DENVER — Michael Hancock, a Democratic former city councilman, was sworn in as Denver mayor last week, calling the city’s budget problems a chance to make government more efficient.
Hancock, who grew up poor in a northeast Denver neighborhood, takes over at a tumultuous time: The city is dealing with a budget shortfall of $100 million, an underfunded mass transit project and a police department facing repeated allegations of excessive force.
But Hancock, 41, struck a positive note in his inauguration speech, referring to Denver’s humble origins.
“Since our city was a simple mining town, Denver has always overcome adversity and persevered,” he said.
Hancock is the second black mayor in the city’s history. He was raised by a single mother in public housing, the youngest of 10 children, and his story resonated with voters, who elected him with nearly 60 percent of the vote
“No one ever thought that this skinny kid from northeast Denver would rise to achieve his dreams,” he said.
Hancock must present a proposed balanced budget to the City Council by Sept. 15. The cuts would amount to a 10 percent reduction to Denver’s finances.
Interim Mayor Guillermo “Bill” Vidal, who had served since former Mayor John Hickenlooper became governor in January, has already identified $75 million the city can cut. The many reductions include eliminating 95 city jobs through attrition and consolidating departments, such as merging theaters and arenas and the department of cultural affairs into Denver Arts and Venues.
Hancock also said during his speech that he wants to “restore the public’s trust in our Police Department,” which has been rocked by claims of brutality. Hancock is looking nationwide for a replacement for Police Chief Gerald Whitman.
Under Vidal, the Department of Safety resolved several cases in which police were accused of using excessive force. Some officers were fired.
Hancock promised to make Denver International Airport a “bustling ‘aerotropolis,’ ” and said he will try to entice businesses to open shop in the vacant land that surrounds the airport — everything from corporate campuses and restaurants. He said the idea is to transform the area into “a regional economic powerhouse.”
On transportation, Hancock said the currently underfunded FasTracks project will eventually give “us a transportation network that will become the economic envy of every city in America.”
The rail expansion initiative includes lines to the west suburbs of Lakewood and Golden, and from downtown Denver to Denver International Airport. The project has a 2019 completion date, and Hancock has said he’s open to raising taxes for it.
Hancock thanked Vidal for being “a tremendous catalyst for a seamless transition.”
Vidal considered seeking a full term as mayor but dropped the idea after Hickenlooper told reporters that Vidal had promised not to seek a full term. Vidal insisted he never made a “sacred oath” to the governor not to run.
“I congratulate Michael with every ounce of my being,” Vidal said, delivering his final speech as mayor before Hancock took the oath of office. Vidal told about 2,000 people in attendance: “I hope that you believe that I made every one of the 189 days count.”
Hancock’s journey to mayor was a bumpy one. The two-term councilman defeated former state Sen. Chris Romer, who had a large fundraising advantage when the campaign started.
In the waning days of the campaign and after he was elected, Hancock faced allegations that he had patronized prostitutes. The accusations threatened to derail his job before it even started.
After his victory, Hancock spent weeks denying the accusations made by a convicted felon and owner of a brothel who claimed Hancock had been a client. Those claims have not been substantiated.
Like Hancock, Vidal had a difficult upbringing. He was one of thousands of Cuban children flown to the U.S. in Operation Pedro Pan following Fidel Castro’s revolution and was placed in a Pueblo orphanage.
Vidal was Denver’s first foreign-born mayor.