Next month, Boulder will try to break the Guinness World Record for the largest group hug -- as if that town wasn't locked in an eternal clinch. But this week, Denver has Boulder beat.
The changing of the city's political guard was such a touchy-feely event that Happy Haynes, the former councilwoman turned mayoral staffer who emceed at John Hickenlooper's inauguration Monday, at one point noted that "all that hugging wasn't in the script."
But the script had everything else. A new auditor, Dennis Gallagher, who barely made it back from Ireland (hug). Two Webbs: Wellington and Wilma (hugs). A trio of non-Denver-specific elected officials: Governor Bill Owens (handshake), Attorney General Ken Salazar (hug), Congresswoman Diana DeGette (big hug). Three musical acts: one a rainbow coalition of children pulled together for the event, one a University of Denver group specializing in spirituals, and the city's own municipal band. Seven religious leaders, representing everything from the Osage nation (no hugging, but tickling with eagle feathers) to the Colorado Muslim Society. Ten incoming councilmembers (and three repeaters) with a range of hugging styles. And 1,500 audience members waiting to see what this new administration will bring, most of them welcoming it with open arms.
Six hours later, signs of a major change. In years past, lobbyists would meet members of city council at the Cherokee Grill before, after and sometimes during their weekly Denver City Council meetings, peddling drinks and their agendas. But at 6 p.m. this Monday, there wasn't a lobbyist or councilmember in sight -- except on the walls of the restaurant, where a drawing of a permed Cathy Reynolds, the first woman on the council and its president when her final term expired last week, oversees the proceedings.
Even Chris Vogt, the hostess with the mostest, has retired from the Cherokee; her much larger color photograph guards the door.
A few tables were occupied by people whose only business was dining. But off in the corner were two remnants of the Webb years, both Career Service employees who will stay on at the city. Both among the 13,000 Denver employees Hickenlooper was very careful to embrace during that morning's speech. "They are people," he pronounced, "who have dedicated their time, their talent, and in some cases, sacrificed their lives for our city." And since they'll be sacrificing at least two days' pay, and perhaps their jobs, to help fix this city's economic crunch, Hickenlooper needs to bring as many of them as he can into the group grope.
Two of those city employees and I were wondering what this new era would bring, even as the reconstituted council was convening in the bar -- on TV, at least.
No business for the Cherokee, it turned out. After electing Elbra Wedgeworth president, councilmembers adjourned before I could even pay my tab, then headed not to this saloon, but to Hickenlooper's inaugural party.
A dry inaugural party, the ultimate of ironies for a new mayor who brought Denver its first, and still biggest, brewpub.
On August 10, the Boulder Outdoor Market will host the Colorado Hug for Peace and attempt to break the Guinness record for group hugs -- a mark that now stands at 2,903 people.
Unofficially, Hickenlooper's inaugural party at the Denver Botanic Gardens probably passed that number. And why not? After all, the concept of such records was dreamed up by Sir Hugh Beaver, after he got caught up in an argument over the fastest game bird during a 1951 shooting party. When he wasn't winging pigeons, Sir Hugh was managing director of the Guinness Brewery.
The jokes were flowing again Tuesday morning, when city council reconvened in Hickenlooper's office -- which was bare except for a photograph of his father, who died when Hickenlooper was seven, on his desk and that hideous seal of Denver on the wall (that's a key to the city in the corner, not a Broncos helmet), along with a thermometer that no one seemed to know how to operate. "So many new faces," noted the mayor. "Including my own."
The new councilmembers might have jockeyed for position, but there wasn't room, not with a crowd that included other city officials, members of the media who'd never before been on the third floor of City Hall and all thirteen councilmembers. "We've never had all the seats filled before," marveled continuing councilwoman Kathleen MacKenzie, who didn't get one at the table.
They all sat, or stood, through an update on the city's deal with the Cherry Creek Business Improvement District involving a parking garage and parking kiosks -- the very machines Hickenlooper's own LoDo begged for two years ago, which are still nowhere in evidence. Hickenlooper's political ad featuring a "High Noon-style confrontation with a parking-meter man" was the most powerful image of his campaign, if one he jettisoned during Monday's speech when he noted that "I'm not a lone sheriff, facing outlaws by myself."
And together, Hickenlooper and his new posse listened to more updates: on Skyline Park (demolished, sadly, with construction on its replacement to begin August 11) and federal grants and city job reclassifications and appointments to the Metro Wastewater Task Force. After the hectic pace of a mayoral race, the speed at which a city runs slows to a crawl; soon there will be plenty of empty seats. But for now, it's more hugs and goodwill.
Which extended all the way to my car, where the meter had expired five minutes before I returned from the hour-long meeting. And there he was, the dreaded meter reader, right in front, drawing his ticket machine like a deadly weapon even as he gave directions to a group of schoolkids. And then he let me off with a smile.
I could have hugged him.
During his campaign for mayor, John Hickenlooper would have gone to the opening of an envelope.
It wasn't all political posturing, though. He truly loves the press of humanity. The press, even.
I met him almost fifteen years ago, the day the Wynkoop Brewing Co. opened across the street from what would become Westword's office for the next decade. A former Westworder was one of the brewpub's original partners; no slouch with the press herself, she was quickly outquipped by Hickenlooper, a laid-off geologist who got a far more gratifying response from people than he ever had from rocks. Like Hickenlooper's inaugural party, the Wynkoop's debut was open, too, and the place was packed (never offer a free lunch to reporters). But while the food ran out, the beer flowed freely -- unlike at the inaugural party.
Over the years, the Wynkoop cooked up many promotions -- and Hickenlooper was usually front and center. To mark its anniversary, there was the Running of the Pigs, a race with, yes, real swine that would drag their human handlers around the block, both squealing every step of the way. But that event was finally taken off the calendar after sensitive types complained that it was cruel to animals -- no matter that you could consume those very animals' cousins in a delicious sandwich just a few feet away. And so the next year, the Wynkoop hosted "Prairie Preservation Day," complete with a life-sized prairie dog hopping around the restaurant.
No good deed goes unpunished.
On Saturday, Hickenlooper will offer the keynote speech -- "Protecting Prairie Dogs and Safeguarding Grasslands" -- at the 2003 Prairie Dog Summit. If the Colorado Home Builders hated Hickenlooper opening his loft for an environmental fundraiser last week -- and the CHB did -- they will really hate this. After all, in 2000, there were 2,200 acres in Denver proper that prairie dogs called home. "They've lost some since then," says David Crawford, acting director of the Prairie Dog Coalition. "We want to get some back."
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But first his group will celebrate prairie wildlife with tours and talks, including a presentation by Dr. Con Slobodchikoff, the leading expert on prairie-dog communication, who believes the critters "have one of the most advanced forms of natural language known to science." (That's including Denver City Council.) And, of course, the Hickenlooper keynote.
"It's a bold move on his part," says Crawford. "It's the kind of precedent we want to see from elected officials."
Always pushing the envelope.