Big Boss Lady

CRL knows how to buy friends and influence people.

CRL also hired more than a dozen local political activists who are close to Mayor Webb to work on the AT&T campaign, including former city clerk Arie Taylor, Urban Spectrum publisher Bee Harris and Democratic campaign consultant John Soto. Several former aides to Denver City Council members also worked for AT&T, including former Ed Thomas aide Andy Nicholas and former Polly Flobeck aide Jeanne Robb.

CRL frequently hires activists who have done favors for the mayor -- either by working on his campaign or by providing links to important constituencies or neighborhood groups -- to work under contract on elections. For the AT&T campaign, CRL hired controversial Million Man March organizer and former Webb aide Alvertis Simmons, as well as Dick Bjurstrom, the chairman of the Inter-Neighborhood Cooperation group, an alliance of more than seventy Denver neighborhood associations. (CRL has even offered to pay the salary of an executive secretary for the board of the INC, a handout that was criticized by at least one neighborhood activist as a potential conflict of interest.)

This revolving door between city government and CRL troubles many people, and some wonder if the city of Denver is being run by elected officials or by Garcia Berry.

Ears wide shut: Councilman Ed Thomas is wary of the power of lobbying.
David Rehor
Ears wide shut: Councilman Ed Thomas is wary of the power of lobbying.
A queen's castle: Maria Garcia Berry knows how to get around city hall.
David Rehor
A queen's castle: Maria Garcia Berry knows how to get around city hall.

Details


Previous Westword articles

This State for Sale
May 13, 1999
A Westword special report on money and influence in Colorado government.

"Everybody hires her because they all believe she has her votes lined up on city council," says one longtime Denver political consultant. "The thing that bothers a lot of people is the enormity of the conflict of interest. If the convention center passes, she'll be looking toward getting that [bond] business for Dain Rauscher and the construction contract for Mortenson. Her client list is unbelievable."

"I think she pushes the envelope," says rival Denver lobbyist David Cole.

Most of Garcia Berry's critics interviewed for this story asked not to be named, expressing a fear of retribution.

"She's a fascinating woman, but I wouldn't cross her," says one. "I'd like to live longer than that."


Sitting across from Maria Garcia Berry at lunch -- a perch usually occupied by powerful clients -- it's almost impossible not to like her.

With a hearty laugh and lovely brown eyes, the 46-year-old Garcia Berry brings a bit of Latin calor to the sometimes dreary world of local politics. She's quick to pick up on what her lunch partner is drinking and order another, and her cell phone rings incessantly. Garcia Berry seems to be available to her clients 24 hours a day.

Chatting on her cell phone with Lakewood's city manager about a hotly contested ballot issue, Garcia Berry's voice rises excitedly as she talks about the coming election, and it's clear that a good fight rouses the political animal that's never far from the surface.

She loves to tell war stories and reminisce about her introduction to politics in the heady days of the 1970s, when "we were all young and skinny." Politically, she has evolved from a grassroots activist in George McGovern's Democratic presidential campaign to become the Republican wife of former speaker of the Colorado House of Representatives Chuck Berry (Berry is now an attorney with the powerhouse firm of Holme Roberts & Owen). Her personal and political story gives her extraordinary access to the top people in both parties, a lobbyist's dream come true.

But the idealistic young reformer of the 1970s is now the consummate insider of the 1990s, manipulating local politics through campaign donations and closed-door networking. Not many people in Denver could afford to hire Garcia Berry at $250 an hour -- only those with lucrative interests to protect.

And yet in her own mind, she's still loyal to her youthful idealism, and she can survey the cityscape from her 24th-floor downtown office, at 1625 Broadway, to prove it. She can see the new Pepsi Center, which wouldn't have been built if she hadn't helped break the stalemate between the city and the arena's developer. The Colorado Convention Center is anchored on 14th Street, in large part because of her efforts. Across the Platte River, the new Broncos stadium rises from the ground, another city-brokered deal in which she had a hand. And as she looks out over the Front Range, she can picture dozens of new schools welcoming students, the result of bond issues her firm helped to pass.

And far below is the City and County Building, the stage where she manipulates the players in these dramas.

She's extremely proud of these projects, and while all of this new construction has helped make her clients rich, Garcia Berry sees them as amenities that make life better for the public. In many ways, she has fashioned a career that mirrors her life: a spicy concoction that mixes the public and private realm, greed and idealism, power and compassion, Cuba and Colorado.

While many Americans have become blasé about politics, Garcia Berry is emphatic about why politics matter.

"My parents had to leave Cuba because of politics," she says.

Garcia Berry was eight years old when her parents put her on a plane to Miami with friends of the family. Her parents made the difficult decision to flee the Castro dictatorship in 1962 and send their only child to the United States even before they themselves had permission to emigrate. For four months, young Maria, who didn't speak a word of English, waited for her parents to join her.

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