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The split between the fun-loving goof and the serious man of ideas was evident at a recent fundraiser held at the Wynkoop for a children's reading program. Hickenlooper entertained the kids, wearing glasses with eyeballs attached by slinkies and playing the clown. All fun and games. But minutes later, he turned serious to announce his education program, saying he'd raise $5 million in private funds annually to improve the public schools and add after-school programs. To attract new teachers, he proposes that the city help them make down payments on homes. In a businesslike voice, Hickenlooper notes that the success of the schools will determine whether companies choose to come to Denver.
This is his element, talking about how his business-world experience would help him run the city. But voters are still deciding whether brewing beer gives him the chops to run the city. Hickenlooper argues that his lack of experience is a virtue, not a drawback. Without any political baggage, he'd be able to reinvent city government. "My wife thinks I should have bumper stickers that say 'He's not like them,'" Hickenlooper says.
In fact, he's spent a lot of time trying to figure out what makes a great mayor. He's studied the records of successful mayors around the country and was especially impressed by Baltimore's Martin O'Malley, a forty-year-old wunderkind who was dubbed the "best young mayor in America" by Esquire. O'Malley has brought down the crime rate, boosted productivity among city employees, and jump-started development in inner-city neighborhoods.
"In Baltimore, they have a contest for the crews that fill potholes. The winning team every month gets a lavish dinner," says Hickenlooper, who traveled to Baltimore and met with O'Malley. "They're focused on their job and enjoy it more."
As the owner of a business in LoDo, Hickenlooper was angry that Webb decided to boost parking-meter rates to bolster city revenues. He says the effect has been to discourage people from coming downtown, and he calls it an example of shortsighted leadership at City Hall.
"We have to change the culture of city government," he says. "Most city workers view small business as the enemy. They should help small business expand instead of stifling them."
Don Mares's campaign headquarters is a lot like the candidate himself: focused, on target, politely efficient. Walking into the office on Broadway, you're struck by the almost military-like get-out-the-vote operation. A marker board lists dozens of precincts being targeted by the campaign that day, and a staffer is sorting literature that will be dropped on hundreds of doorsteps. More than 500 volunteers are canvassing neighborhoods throughout the city, and Mares is working them one by one.
In north Denver, his political base, he is greeted warmly by supporters when he walks down the street. They wave, recognizing him from growing up -- and still living -- in the neighborhood. They know or have heard stories of his parents. How the two from rural New Mexico opened a taquería on 38th and King streets in 1960 in what was then a predominantly Italian area. How his parents were the first couple to be married at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church -- now the center for Latino life in north Denver. And they have watched as Mares, now 46, graduated from Regis High School, then Stanford and then the University of Pennsylvania Law School. He is their local boy made good.
Much of his strength came from his mother, Priscilla, who died in 1995. She was a feisty political activist, and, like her, Mares is extremely proud of his heritage and a big supporter of the underdog. He recalls how the diminutive woman -- she was only about five feet tall -- campaigned on behalf of a postmaster in the small Colorado town of Milliken after residents objected to having a Latina serve. Later, he saw the inner workings of the Denver Democratic campaign machine as Priscilla volunteered for numerous candidates. He watched her fight for the poor as a member, appointed by the archbishop, of a Catholic commission on poverty.
"It was pretty amazing to me how active she was," Mares says.
As a result of that upbringing, he is probably the most committed of all the candidates to representing those outside the Denver power structure. When Mares returned to Denver after law school, he turned down job offers at high-profile 17th Street firms to work for one that specialized in labor law as part of his commitment to "people law." That choice began a close association with organized labor that has continued to this day, through his election as a state representative in 1988, a state senator in 1991 and two terms as city auditor.
The Denver Area Labor Federation has endorsed his campaign, as has ACORN, an activist group that is pushing the city to enact a "living wage" ordinance requiring city contractors to pay above the minimum wage and offer benefits. And though the idea is strongly opposed by the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce and business groups, he has an army of volunteers, many of whom are union members, supporting him.
"I understand what workers' rights are about," he says.