Imagine a Great Mayor

The candidates are spit-shining their images, trying to prove that, really, they're not all the same person.

They say people get the government they deserve.

As state legislators vote to cut off medical care to children, that may not say much for the people of Colorado. But, taken as a group, the people who want to run Denver are a good reflection of the city they call home. By and large, they're unpretentious and smart, well meaning if slightly naïve, provincial and idealistic all at the same time.

The next mayor of Denver won't be an Armani-clad sharpie tooling around in a sports car like San Francisco's Willie Brown, no billionaire exuding noblesse oblige like New York's Michael Bloomberg, no bombastic former attorney for the mob, like Las Vegas's Oscar Goodman.

Matt Collins
Sue Casey, considered to be one of the smartest 
candidates, is surveying the city by bike.
Brett Amole
Sue Casey, considered to be one of the smartest candidates, is surveying the city by bike.

Whatever the virtues of those three men, they couldn't win an election in Denver.

More than anything, Denverites detest arrogance. They want to feel that the mayor is one of them, someone they could invite over for a barbecue or a beer. Denverites don't trust someone whose suit costs more than an economy car. (Wellington Webb won the mayor's office by trumpeting the size-thirteen tennis shoes he wore out while campaigning around the city.)

Of course, you don't get into politics without an oversized ego, and Denver's political world often swirls with gossip about the behind-closed-doors scheming and temper tantrums of its politicos. But Denver's politicians are careful to keep such impolitic behavior private; they know that on-the-air explosions like those common in New York or Chicago would be political suicide here.

In Denver you have to be nice, or at least pretend you are.

In past elections, voters were polarized over issues such as building a new airport and cronyism in city contracts. However, in this campaign, the candidates find themselves agreeing so often that at campaign forums, they preface their comments by endorsing what their opponents have already said. In 2003, Denver seems to know exactly what it wants to be, or at least what it should try to become. A rough consensus has emerged among the city's voters, who now define Denver by what it is not:

Denver is not a suburb, and proud of it.

After years of being humiliated as businesses and residents left the core city, Denver is now relishing its renaissance as gridlock-weary suburbanites move back into central Denver neighborhoods. All of the candidates have endorsed the idea of creating pedestrian-oriented "urban villages" that reject the Highlands Ranch development model.

Denver is not new, and proud of it.

Denverites like living in a city that became the unofficial capital of the Western frontier, and they don't want to lose any more of their history. In Denver, historic preservationists rule. No candidate would dream of advocating the destruction of historic buildings.

Denver is not socially conservative, and proud of it.

Every candidate has reached out to the gay community, attending forums and holding fundraisers designed to showcase the candidates' comfort level with gay and lesbian voters. Even Ari Zavaras, the straitlaced former chief of police, was seen at a Capitol Hill gay bar with a drag queen in his lap.

Denverites do not like cars (even if they drive everywhere), and are proud of it.

All of the candidates say they support increased mass transit, and all of them have already endorsed RTD's FasTrack proposal to boost the sales tax to build a metro-wide light-rail network. Some suburban Republicans may view public transportation as a Bolshevik conspiracy, but Denverites say, "Bring on the revolution."

Denver is not racist, and proud of it.

Denver has come a long way since the 1920s, when voters elected Ben Stapleton as mayor with the backing of the Ku Klux Klan. Today, one of the leading candidates is Hispanic and another is African-American. All have made a point of campaigning in every neighborhood in the city and have pledged to reach out to every ethnic group when they hire a new management team.

Denver is not Republican, and proud of it.

All of the potential mayors are Democrats. (One is an independent who is the former chairman of the state Democratic party, but that's another story.) However, each would love to win the votes of the city's Republican minority and is trying to woo them by playing up their ability to be a watchdog over city funds. John Hickenlooper was the first to announce his plan for the city's budget deficit -- predicting even before Mayor Wellington Webb that it would be worse than expected -- and each of the candidates has since followed suit.

All say they are alarmed by the rising cost of housing in the city and would try to help teachers, police officers and others who are being priced out of Denver. They all vow to improve the relationship between the city and Denver Public Schools, and they want to reach children at risk of dropping out.

The poor state of the city's economy is probably the number-one issue on voters' minds. While that's part of a national problem, all of the mayoral candidates say they will recruit employers to Denver however they can.

With so much similarity in their platforms, voters are left to try to figure out which candidate has the mixture of street smarts and charisma that makes for a successful big-city mayor, who can be visionary enough to lead the city and hire a staff of great managers. Candidates like Hickenlooper and Zavaras are hoping the years they have spent pressing palms all over town will pay off on election day. Don Mares is counting on a carefully crafted political coalition to push him over the finish line, while Penfield Tate is banking on a devoted group of multi-racial supporters. Susan Casey is betting that voters will remember her six years on city council, while Elizabeth Schlosser and Phil Perington hope to be seen as mavericks challenging better-known and better-funded frontrunners.

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