Imagine a Great Mayor

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

He may have waited too long before committing himself to his mayoral campaign, but Tate is trying to distinguish himself by focusing on education, calling for the city to fund reading and writing specialists in the schools. He's also proposed that the city place new recreation centers and libraries in the same buildings as schools, saving money and creating neighborhood activity centers that would serve children year-round. Tate also suggests the city pick up some of the cost for trash removal and grounds maintenance, allowing the school system to put more money into the classroom.

A huge direct-mail campaign trumpets these positions and also contends that "Denver Public Schools just aren't getting the job done for our children." Not surprisingly, that has angered some on the school board, who point out that the district is already committed to dramatic reforms. Tate's support in the black community is also not as solid as it could be, even though he has won the endorsement of most of Denver's black ministers, an important political force in northeast Denver. Even so, campaigning today differs hugely from what his father experienced.

But Tate III remembers when his father first ran for office and met with supporters to talk about whether he should put his picture on campaign literature, since that would make it clear he was an African-American. He wound up getting more votes than any other candidate.

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.

Walking down East Colfax, Aristedes "Ari" Zavaras can point out the landmarks that have shaped all the stages of his life. On one side of the street is Pete's Greek Town Cafe, one of the string of restaurants owned by his brother-in-law, Pete Contos. Across the street is Zavaras's alma mater, East High School, the place where the future cop started building a network of friendships that would carry him into the corridors of power in Colorado.

"This is home town for me," Zavaras says of the stretch of Colfax that was designated as Denver's official Greek Town in 1997 and hosts a dozen businesses with a Greek connection.

As he greets the shopkeepers and clerks on Colfax, which he is walking the length of for his campaign, he appears to know every third person. Chatting with the owner of an architectural salvage store, Zavaras recalls working with her years ago on a street safety project. Walking into an art gallery, he is surprised to discover a former colleague from his years of working for the governor. And everywhere, there are people with a connection to the Greek Orthodox Church.

In the 1950s, the area around the Assumption Cathedral at Sixth and Pennsylvania was the center of Greek life in Denver (the church is now an Ethiopian Orthodox congregation), and Zavaras lived a few blocks away. His parents were both immigrants -- his father from Greece and his mother from Germany -- and he has vivid memories of growing up in one of Denver's lively ethnic enclaves, which he describes as being much like the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding.

"It's a very close-knit community," he says. "The church is a big part of it."

During a stop at the African Community Center, the center's director tells him that the Greek Orthodox Church is sponsoring several African refugees. Then she brings up the state's recent decision to end Medicaid funding for legal immigrants, and Zavaras suddenly seems angry.

"Can you believe that?" he asks. "My father never became naturalized. If my father were still alive, he would have been denied benefits even though he was here for years and worked and paid taxes. That really does resonate with me."

Zavaras worked his way up to chief of police during a 25-year career that began in 1966. He went on to work for former governor Roy Romer and current governor Bill Owens running the corrections and public-safety departments. Wellington Webb brought him back into city government as manager of public safety in 2000. He's been credited with improving the police department's relations with minority communities, but Zavaras also has been criticized for his apparent ignorance of the department's practice of spying on political demonstrators.

This is Zavaras's first run for public office, and a core of Greek supporters have helped him raise an enormous campaign war chest that has kept him on TV for weeks. Disclosure documents show $3,000 contributions -- the legal maximum -- from Contos and several businesses he controls, including Pete's Kitchen, Pete's Ice Cream and Coffee Shop, Pete's Satire Lounge, Pete's University Park Cafe, and Pete's Gyros. Other Greek businessmen, like Takis Dadiotis, have also played a big role in boosting Zavaras's campaign coffers to over $1 million.

The support he's receiving from Greek restaurateurs may explain why Zavaras frequently promises on the campaign trail that he will bring everyone "to the same table" to solve problems, making Denver sound like one big Greek restaurant. To Zavaras, all of this is just longtime friends helping a buddy. His critics paint a darker picture, suggesting a good-old-boy network that may expect favors if he takes office.

But in Zavaras's world, friends look out for one another. At the corner of Colfax and Gaylord, he recalls how a friend on the force was killed there when somebody wrested his gun away and shot him. He left a young son, whom Zavaras often visited while he was growing up. The son now owns a popular Denver restaurant and is a supporter.

"We all take care of each other," Zavaras says.

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