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.

These and other large firms' interest in who becomes mayor of Denver -- other than the billable hours -- is often attributed to the national profiles of the city's past two mayors. Peña went on to serve in Clinton's cabinet, while Webb has headed up the U.S. Conference of Mayors and is well known around the country. "You'd be hard-pressed to find a city with two mayors in a row that have had a national profile," says Kolomitz.

Unlike in other large Democratic towns, the role of labor unions is a wild card in Denver elections. Labor has never been as powerful here as in Detroit or New York, but the unions can be influential. "Candidates never have enough time, money or people power," Kolomitz points out. "The unions contribute money and people. Groups that can supply that go a long way to advancing their candidates and causes."

Mares, a former labor lawyer, has rounded up solid backing from an alphabet soup of local unions, including the Denver Area Labor Federation, in return for a promise to support collective bargaining for city employees. But so far, the police and firefighters' unions -- which traditionally play a big role in city politics -- have not unified behind one candidate. (Unions do not represent most city employees, but law enforcement is an exception.)

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.

Another peculiarity of Denver politics is the relative weakness of the business community compared to many other interest groups. While the chambers of commerce in cities such as Atlanta or Chicago play a huge role in local politics, the Metro Denver Chamber of Commerce wields little real clout at City Hall and doesn't endorse candidates. It played a vital role in helping Peña win approval to build DIA, but since then has stayed on the sidelines.

"What I perceive businesses doing is betting on a presumptive favorite, but they'll change horses in a New York second," Sondermann says. "A lot of them are still sitting on their hands to see which way the wind blows."

The business community, many of whose members belong to the chamber, rallied behind former district attorney Norm Early in 1991 and then found itself frozen out of City Hall by Webb. The two eventually made peace, but Denver's business elite don't want to make the same mistake again. "The first couple of years, most of 17th Street was in the doghouse," says one source. "Because of that, they've been cautious in moving to support somebody. Most of them are comfortable with Zavaras, and a lot of them like Tate."

One of the reasons business may hesitate to get heavily involved in the mayor's race is that much of the local electorate is automatically suspicious of the front-runner; Denver voters tend to distrust the establishment candidate while showing a preference for mayoral underdogs. It was probably to the advantage of both Peña and Webb that they trailed behind their opponents in fundraising when running for mayor.

"There's an innate distrust of who the establishment is behind," says one City Hall campaign veteran. "When you get that front-runner label, the connotation is, 'This is the guy being served up on a platter for us, and we'd better take a good, hard look.'"

The city also has a lively mix of affinity groups that can play important roles in the elections. The gay and lesbian community, for example, is well organized and known for its high rate of voter turnout; all of the major candidates are courting gay support.

"In past elections, there's been a lot of time and energy spent mobilizing the gay population," Kolomitz notes. "They vote." Indeed, at a recent fundraiser at a Capitol Hill gay bar, the straitlaced Zavaras was seen with a drag queen in his lap.

Environmentalists also have influence. The Sierra Club has several thousand members in Denver and often endorses candidates. And advocates for the arts have recently stepped up their involvement, sponsoring a forum for the mayoral candidates that drew several hundred people to the Denver Performing Arts Complex in January.

Even restaurant and bar owners pick favorites. The Colorado Restaurant Association has contributed to the campaigns of both brewer Hickenlooper and Zavaras, whose brother-in-law, Pete Contos, owns a number of restaurants, including Pete's Kitchen. "They could be from the Communist Party, and if they owned a restaurant, we'd support them," says association president Pete Meersman.

Kolomitz predicts that about 175,000 Denverites will vote in the May 6 election, meaning a candidate would need at least 87,501 votes to win outright. Since that's unlikely, each of the mayoral hopefuls is trying to piece together a coalition broad enough to propel them into the runoff.

Denver's previous two mayors changed the face of the city, building a new airport, transforming LoDo, opening up Lowry and Stapleton to development, and erecting a slew of new public buildings including a baseball stadium, a library and a city office building.

The construction cranes looming over the Colorado Convention Center and the Denver Art Museum verify that this metamorphosis is still under way, but what comes next is still unclear, since Denver will have both a new mayor and a largely new city council as a result of term limits.

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