Imagine a Great Campaign

It takes more than money to make a mayor. You have to know your way around Colfax, when to cry Republican and how to handle a drag queen.

Older neighborhoods near downtown have also been transformed. Northwest Denver has seen an influx of young, first-time homebuyers who have renovated houses and driven up prices, and as a result of new Hispanic and white residents moving into Five Points, that area is now only about one-third black.

The African-American population is also moving out of northeast Denver, attracted to southeast Denver and to suburbs such as Aurora that offer larger homes at lower prices. At the same time, Hispanics have poured into Montbello and north Park Hill, bringing a new cultural influence.

"The neighborhoods are much more diverse and much less monolithic," says Dick Bjurstrom, a longtime neighborhood activist. "The blacks don't all live in northeast Denver anymore, just like the Vietnamese don't all live off Federal. In northwest Denver, people are moving in who don't know about the old guard. There's a cultural clash taking place."

Matt Collins
The insider: When politicians need to know Denver -- 
from the "pierced precincts" to "Sweet Home 
Alabama" -- they call consultant Greg Kolomitz.
Mark Manger
The insider: When politicians need to know Denver -- from the "pierced precincts" to "Sweet Home Alabama" -- they call consultant Greg Kolomitz.

The biggest question mark in Denver politics is the role Hispanic voters will play in future elections. The Latino community now makes up almost one-third of Denver's 554,636 residents.

Indeed, the city is on the verge of becoming a "majority minority" city. The white population makes up just 51 percent, and the Latino community's rapid growth -- fueled by an influx of Latin American immigrants -- shows no signs of slowing. The Asian and Native American populations have also increased. In the face of these changing demographics, Denver is seeing a political transformation similar to that of California.

The experience in that state is illuminating. For years, California's Latinos had far less political influence than their numbers warranted. Many white politicians felt they could ignore Hispanics, who had a low rate of voter registration and little political organization. California Republicans even indulged in a vicious round of immigrant-bashing in 1994, when they helped put Proposition 187 on the ballot. That measure, which passed by a large majority, banned the use of public funds to serve illegal immigrants. Republican Pete Wilson, the state's governor at the time, endorsed the measure, confident it would help bring conservatives to the polls.

Hispanics were outraged, wondering if friends and relatives would be denied emergency medical care or if their children would be turned away from public schools. The courts eventually declared the measure unconstitutional, but it had the unintended effect of unifying Latinos.

California hasn't been the same since. Latinos have gone from making up 9 percent of the California electorate in 1992 to 17 percent in the last election. Los Angeles suburbs that once propelled Ronald Reagan into the White House are now solidly Democratic, as are the legislature and statewide offices. Antonio Villaraigosa, a popular and controversial Latino politician, even came close to being elected mayor of the City of Angels in 2001.

In Denver, politicians thought the Hispanic community had finally come of age in 1983 when Federico Peña was elected mayor in what was the most electrifying political event of the last twenty years. But it didn't quite work out that way.

Peña was a little-known state representative who decided to mount an insurgent campaign against fifteen-year incumbent mayor Bill McNichols. With his fondness for leisure suits and cigars, McNichols was largely out of touch with the thousands of young people moving to Denver in the 1970s and early 1980s. He ran a good-old-boy administration closely tied to the Denver Chamber of Commerce, but the city's new residents supported the environmental and civil rights movements. Peña sensed there was an opening for a maverick.

A Christmas Eve snowstorm in 1982 helped ease his way. Denver was smothered in more than two feet of snow, and city crews were unable to dig out many neighborhoods. Residents who couldn't get to work for days fumed at the city's incompetence, fueling the feeling that "Mayor Bill" had been in office too long.

In an already crowded campaign field, which included popular district attorney Dale Tooley (who had run before), Wellington Webb (then a state bureaucrat) and Monte Pascoe (who was on the Denver Board of Water Commissioners), Peña was able to put together a remarkable coalition of Hispanics, young people, veteran liberal activists and residents who simply thought it was time for a change.

"The 1983 election was about something big," Sondermann says. "It was a generational election, a coming-of-age election. There was a whole generation of people coming into power."

It thrilled Denver's Latino community, and thousands of new voters signed up in heavily Hispanic precincts on the city's west side. They flocked to the polls, resulting in a phenomenal 71.7 percent of registered voters turning out for the runoff -- 21,700 more than had voted in the first round.

"Peña's election was about inclusiveness," Barnes-Gelt says. "What Peña figured out was that the population of Denver had changed. His campaign also had a field operation that knew how to get their voters registered and to the polls."

But the excitement waned during his first term, as he struggled with several controversies and an economy that went sour after the mid-'80s oil bust.

In 1987, Republican attorney Don Bain challenged Peña, who was shocked when Bain beat him by 4,000 votes in May. Bain was an improbable mayoral candidate for Denver, a conservative blueblood and 17th Street lawyer from an old Denver family. But he positioned himself as an outsider and tapped into voters' frustration with the implosion of the local economy.

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