Imagine a Great Mayor

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

Unless one candidate wins 50 percent of the vote on May 6 -- something no one anticipates -- the two top vote-getters will face each other in June. So now they're all polishing their images and trying to show off what's behind the campaign mask. What makes them different. What makes them the next mayor of Denver.

Former city councilwoman Susan Casey is riding her bicycle through the Platt Park neighborhood with a small group of supporters, including Councilwoman Kathleen MacKenzie. Cycling through the Shattuck property, an industrial site contaminated with radioactive soil, Casey stops to look around. She knows that the neighborhood waged a fierce battle to get the federal government to ship the waste out of town rather than "entombing" it on the property.

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.
John Hickenlooper is counting on making people laugh 
all the way to the polls.
Brett Amole
John Hickenlooper is counting on making people laugh all the way to the polls.

The residents have been working on a highly lauded plan -- part of Blueprint Denver, the city's master plan -- to redevelop Shattuck with a New Urbanism look, where housing, shops and offices mix together and pedestrians are key. Casey begins quizzing MacKenzie about how the process will work, asking detailed questions about how urban renewal bonds will be used to help fund the project. What's the timeline, she wants to know. How long will it take?

This is typical of her. Casey is a fact-gatherer, a data-cruncher. The class nerd of city government. But she is also widely regarded as one of the smartest people to serve on the Denver City Council, which she left in 2001 after six years. At candidate forums, Casey is the one who often asks the toughest questions.

When the question of building a new jail comes up at a recent forum, she asks why so many young black and brown men are being housed in the prison system. "When I think about the jail, I think about [former city councilman] Hiawatha Davis," Casey says. "He told me the real goal of families in his neighborhood is to keep the young kids out of the system. Think about the system and who it affects. They're Denver boys, mostly, young men who have lost their way. We know it's because of alcohol and drug abuse, child abuse and leaving school. We know the list of what causes this to happen.

"Building prisons is the easy thing to do," she says. "It's much harder to do five community corrections facilities that are halfway houses with drug-abuse treatment. That takes more work and commitment over a long time."

The 53-year-old has spent most of her life in public service, including working for former U.S. senator Gary Hart during his presidential bid in the 1980s. But she started as a social worker for severely disabled children in the Westport, Connecticut, schools. It was an experience that taught her that government could have a profound impact on people's lives. She was struck by how the families struggling to care for their disabled kids could be helped with fairly simple programs. "I thought if we could just have a respite program or something to give these parents a break, it would make a huge difference," she says.

Casey has never let go of that passionate belief that government can help solve social problems. That often leaves her frustrated with the cynicism about government so common in our era. Her campaign features a long list of proposals to restructure city government and make it more responsive to people. But it's this attention to detail that leads some to dismiss her as a behind-the-scenes woman, not a visionary leader, the one you hire to manage everything.

It just exasperates her. "People say I'm a policy wonk, like that's a bad thing," she says, sighing.

During a meeting with a dozen seniors in the Sunset Park high-rise near LoDo, John Hickenlooper entertains his mostly female audience with a story about the origins of his name.

"My name means 'hedge hopper' in Dutch," he claims. "They were the game poachers. They'd jump over the fence and steal the king's game. That's why there's so few Hickenloopers."

His story is popular with the ladies, and as he presides over a raffle at the end of the meeting, it's clear he has won several votes from the group. (His wife isn't surprised; old ladies love him, she says.) Hickenlooper is betting that there are more voters like these who are ready for a mayor who can make them laugh. His television ads show him trying on outlandish outfits at American Aces and walking around downtown making change for hapless motorists at city parking meters.

He has been a popular Denver character ever since he founded Denver's first brewpub, the Wynkoop Brewing Company, in 1988, and helped trigger the LoDo renaissance. He exudes a goofy charm that makes him seem younger than 51, but he's also developed a sense of gravitas about political issues that has surprised those who've known him for years. But Hickenlooper insists he won't give up his penchant for play if he becomes mayor.

Some believe his ad campaign is too comic and doesn't fit the public mood, but Hickenlooper scoffs at this assessment. "The political insiders say you should be more serious in tone when a war's going on," he says. "I talk to 1,000 people a week, and they like it. People are tired of the negative ads. The point of these ads is, government can be fun and exciting and entertaining."

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