Big Boss Lady
Richard "Buzz" Geller was born in a house on the corner of Colfax Avenue and Adams Street in 1945. He remembers East Colfax as a friendly neighborhood retail strip, the kind of place where grandmothers shopped for fresh vegetables and children walked to the pet store to look at goldfish. The current jumble of fast food joints, bars, porn shops and tattoo parlors depresses him.
"It was a wonderful street, but I really don't think I'm going to see it come back in my lifetime," he says. "They say Colfax has got some rehab going, but compared to the rest of the city, what do we have? We have somebody who remodeled the Ramada Inn. What's the big deal?"
That's a surprising statement from a man on the board of Colfax on the Hill, a group that serves as the avenue's chamber of commerce.
As the owner of Paradise Cleaners, Geller has played a prominent role on the avenue for years, and he headed an effort to change its zoning. That plan, which dozens of Colfax property owners worked on for four years, would have prohibited new drive-through liquor stores, tattoo parlors, gun shops and day labor outfits while allowing the existing ones to stay. Many shop owners think those stores scare away potential customers and make it difficult to attract new retailers to the area. The men -- many of them homeless -- who gather at the day labor hiring halls especially bother them, since some of them celebrate the end of the working day by getting drunk and passing out on the street. Colfax on the Hill garnered support for the plan from all of the major neighborhood groups on Capitol Hill, and Geller felt confident that it would win approval from city planning officials and the Denver City Council.
But the owner of Ready Temporary Services, Jim Hannifin, was outraged by the proposal, which he saw as unfairly targeting businesses like his (see "Big Boss Man," in his week's issue.). Hannifin railed against it at public meetings and cobbled together his own coalition to fight the idea. Then he made a bold -- and expensive -- move in his campaign to stop the rezoning.
He hired the lobbying and consulting firm of CRL Associates and its founder, Maria Garcia Berry, to make sure the plan would go nowhere. "If you want the best, it's not cheap," says Hannifin. "It was worth it."
In June, Geller sat stunned at a city council committee meeting as Denver planners announced the department's official opposition to the zoning proposal, which was quickly killed by the committee.
"As a neighborhood association, we don't stand a chance if someone has hired CRL," he says. "The Colfax issue is a prime example. A neighborhood organization doesn't have $25,000 to spend on a lobbyist group. We don't have that kind of money and never will. CRL can pick up the phone and call the mayor anytime. They can have a sit-down meeting with any city council member tonight. You and I can't do that, and that's not fair."
Garcia Berry and her fourteen-member firm have amassed more power at city hall than any other lobbying group in living memory. She has an A-list roster of clients that includes AT&T; the Taubman Company, owner of the Cherry Creek shopping center; the bond house Dain Rauscher; Forest City, the real-estate company that won the coveted right to redevelop Stapleton; construction giant M.A. Mortenson Company, which built the Pepsi Center and Coors Field; Post Properties, which is redeveloping the former St. Luke's hospital site; developer Bruce Berger, who is asking for a multi-million-dollar public subsidy for a huge new Marriott hotel near the convention center; and the metro football stadium district that's building a replacement for Mile High.
CRL has been at the table on almost every big issue in Denver in the past decade: the construction of Denver International Airport, the negotiations that led to creation of the Pepsi Center, the push for a new football stadium and the current campaign to expand the convention center. Garcia Berry's firm is also running the well-funded campaign to renew AT&T's cable franchise in Denver.
This corporate firepower is backed up by extensive campaign contributions to Denver elected officials. CRL and its clients invariably show up on the list of the largest contributors to city council candidates, and every member of the Denver City Council has benefited from such munificence.
The close links between CRL and the city council were highlighted recently when councilmembers Cathy Reynolds, Polly Flobeck and Ted Hackworth agreed to appear in television ads asking voters to approve the AT&T franchise agreement. AT&T even went so far as to use the official city seal on fliers, which brought a rebuke from the city attorney's office. Eyebrows were also raised at city hall this summer when Ken Smith, an aide to councilwoman Joyce Foster, took a leave of absence to go to work for CRL in the AT&T campaign.
The firm's links to the Webb administration are even more extensive. Greg Kolomitz, CRL's vice president and partner, ran the mayor's re-election campaign. Cindy Lou "C.L." Harmer, a longtime political activist and former city public-relations official with close ties to the mayor, joined the firm a year ago. Last fall, CRL was promised $42,000 to run the $98 million neighborhood bond campaign, an effort heavily promoted by the mayor. (The campaign has yet to pay CRL most of this money, however.)
CRL also hired more than a dozen local political activists who are close to Mayor Webb to work on the AT&T campaign, including former city clerk Arie Taylor, Urban Spectrum publisher Bee Harris and Democratic campaign consultant John Soto. Several former aides to Denver City Council members also worked for AT&T, including former Ed Thomas aide Andy Nicholas and former Polly Flobeck aide Jeanne Robb.
CRL frequently hires activists who have done favors for the mayor -- either by working on his campaign or by providing links to important constituencies or neighborhood groups -- to work under contract on elections. For the AT&T campaign, CRL hired controversial Million Man March organizer and former Webb aide Alvertis Simmons, as well as Dick Bjurstrom, the chairman of the Inter-Neighborhood Cooperation group, an alliance of more than seventy Denver neighborhood associations. (CRL has even offered to pay the salary of an executive secretary for the board of the INC, a handout that was criticized by at least one neighborhood activist as a potential conflict of interest.)
This revolving door between city government and CRL troubles many people, and some wonder if the city of Denver is being run by elected officials or by Garcia Berry.
"Everybody hires her because they all believe she has her votes lined up on city council," says one longtime Denver political consultant. "The thing that bothers a lot of people is the enormity of the conflict of interest. If the convention center passes, she'll be looking toward getting that [bond] business for Dain Rauscher and the construction contract for Mortenson. Her client list is unbelievable."
"I think she pushes the envelope," says rival Denver lobbyist David Cole.
Most of Garcia Berry's critics interviewed for this story asked not to be named, expressing a fear of retribution.
"She's a fascinating woman, but I wouldn't cross her," says one. "I'd like to live longer than that."
Sitting across from Maria Garcia Berry at lunch -- a perch usually occupied by powerful clients -- it's almost impossible not to like her.
With a hearty laugh and lovely brown eyes, the 46-year-old Garcia Berry brings a bit of Latin calor to the sometimes dreary world of local politics. She's quick to pick up on what her lunch partner is drinking and order another, and her cell phone rings incessantly. Garcia Berry seems to be available to her clients 24 hours a day.
Chatting on her cell phone with Lakewood's city manager about a hotly contested ballot issue, Garcia Berry's voice rises excitedly as she talks about the coming election, and it's clear that a good fight rouses the political animal that's never far from the surface.
She loves to tell war stories and reminisce about her introduction to politics in the heady days of the 1970s, when "we were all young and skinny." Politically, she has evolved from a grassroots activist in George McGovern's Democratic presidential campaign to become the Republican wife of former speaker of the Colorado House of Representatives Chuck Berry (Berry is now an attorney with the powerhouse firm of Holme Roberts & Owen). Her personal and political story gives her extraordinary access to the top people in both parties, a lobbyist's dream come true.
But the idealistic young reformer of the 1970s is now the consummate insider of the 1990s, manipulating local politics through campaign donations and closed-door networking. Not many people in Denver could afford to hire Garcia Berry at $250 an hour -- only those with lucrative interests to protect.
And yet in her own mind, she's still loyal to her youthful idealism, and she can survey the cityscape from her 24th-floor downtown office, at 1625 Broadway, to prove it. She can see the new Pepsi Center, which wouldn't have been built if she hadn't helped break the stalemate between the city and the arena's developer. The Colorado Convention Center is anchored on 14th Street, in large part because of her efforts. Across the Platte River, the new Broncos stadium rises from the ground, another city-brokered deal in which she had a hand. And as she looks out over the Front Range, she can picture dozens of new schools welcoming students, the result of bond issues her firm helped to pass.
And far below is the City and County Building, the stage where she manipulates the players in these dramas.
She's extremely proud of these projects, and while all of this new construction has helped make her clients rich, Garcia Berry sees them as amenities that make life better for the public. In many ways, she has fashioned a career that mirrors her life: a spicy concoction that mixes the public and private realm, greed and idealism, power and compassion, Cuba and Colorado.
While many Americans have become blasé about politics, Garcia Berry is emphatic about why politics matter.
"My parents had to leave Cuba because of politics," she says.
Garcia Berry was eight years old when her parents put her on a plane to Miami with friends of the family. Her parents made the difficult decision to flee the Castro dictatorship in 1962 and send their only child to the United States even before they themselves had permission to emigrate. For four months, young Maria, who didn't speak a word of English, waited for her parents to join her.
A Methodist church in Westminster offered to sponsor the immigrant family, and that brought Garcia Berry to Colorado. Her father owned an accounting firm in Cuba and her mother was a schoolteacher, but in Colorado her father worked as a janitor and her mother took in ironing to make ends meet. Both eventually re-established their careers. Garcia Berry grew up in Adams County and soon found herself drawn into the passionate political culture that marked Colorado in those years. "It was the '70s, and we were all activists," remembers Garcia Berry. "I met Dick Lamm when I was sixteen."
At the time, Lamm was in the legislature and sponsoring an "environmental bill of rights." He asked high school kids like Garcia Berry to canvass neighborhoods on behalf of the bill.
Her parents refused to allow her to attend the University of Colorado in Boulder because "it was too liberal." Instead, she enrolled at CU's Denver campus and became involved in George McGovern's campaign for president. She began making the political connections that would later become so important to her success as a lobbyist. Working on that campaign, she met Jean Galloway, now a society fundraiser; Lee Hart, the wife of former senator Gary Hart; and Pearl Alperstein, a Democratic party activist from Lakewood, all of whom went on to play important roles in Colorado's civic life. "They were hard-charging and dynamic; that's how I got hooked on electoral politics," she says.
At age eighteen, Garcia Berry was chosen to be a delegate to the 1972 Democratic convention. There she became friends with fellow delegates Norm Early and Paul Sandoval, both of whom were later elected to public office. That year she also learned just how cruel a mistress politics can be. "I was totally convinced McGovern would win," she says with a smile. "When they declared Nixon the winner, I sat there and cried."
Her involvement in politics continued, however. She became an organizer for Lamm's 1974 campaign for governor, a pivotal year in Colorado politics. Running on an environmentalist platform, Lamm stunned the state's old guard by winning the governorship and bringing dozens of young, idealistic people into state government. Among them was Garcia Berry, who went to work for Lamm as an analyst and legislative lobbyist in 1977.
Soon thereafter, she found herself in the middle of a series of public scandals that marked her for some time. In 1980 she was serving on the Regional Transportation District board when Howard Beck, RTD's executive director, was forced from his job. Garcia Berry was romantically linked to Beck, who was married, and tongues wagged all over town over her role on the board.
In 1982 Garcia Berry decided to leave the Lamm administration and strike out on her own as a consultant. She quickly received a no-bid contract from the state to work on a proposal to move some state offices to Grand Junction. That contract became front page news after allegations were made that former state senator Jim Kadlecek of Greeley -- with whom Garcia Berry had had an on-and-off romantic relationship -- had used his influence to get her the contract.
It was an inauspicious launch for CRL, which stands for "Consulting, Research and Lobbying." But over the next few years, Garcia Berry built her firm, using her extensive contacts at both the legislature and city hall. In 1988 she married state representative Chuck Berry (which also raised a stir, since Berry had previously been married to the daughter of a powerful state senator) and registered as a Republican. Because of the obvious conflict of interest, she decided to give up lobbying the legislature and instead focus her business on the city of Denver.
But scandals of the past are old news to Garcia Berry, who defines herself as a social liberal and a fiscal conservative and often sounds like a Democrat when she talks about issues. She is pro-choice and campaigned against the anti-gay Amendment 2 in 1992, a stance she says earned her husband a great deal of grief from some of his Colorado Springs constituents. "Will Perkins [sponsor of the amendment] and I have had untold arguments over this," she says. "I thought it was ill-conceived and mean. I had a cousin who was gay who committed suicide because of [being gay]."
When Garcia Berry gave up her involvement in the state legislature to devote herself to municipal politics, it might have seemed like a step down. But she soon discovered one of Colorado's little known political realities: The mayor of Denver in many ways wields more clout than the governor of Colorado. "The mayor of Denver is the most powerful elected official in the state," she says. "The mayor has phenomenal power."
While the governor can do little without approval from the legislature, Denver's charter gives the mayor wide-ranging authority over the city budget and all of the operations of city government. When Colorado's economy tanked in the late 1980s, the state took modest steps to try to turn things around. Denver, however, embarked on a multi-billion-dollar spending spree to spur the economy, an effort that gave us Denver International Airport, the convention center, the new central library and countless other projects in neighborhoods all over the city.
Whether through luck or political savvy, Garcia Berry was directing her attention to city hall just as huge amounts of money began to be spent on bond projects. Her client Dain Rauscher was one of the chief beneficiaries of that spending, selling bonds on behalf of the Denver Urban Renewal Authority and getting a big piece of the action for DIA.
Garcia Berry knew both Mayor Wellington Webb and former mayor Federico Peña from her time working in the state legislature, and she used those relationships to build up her client list. Her close ties to Webb have been especially beneficial, and Garcia Berry makes it clear that she enjoys her role of behind-the-scenes power broker.
"This work suits me," she says. "I like the complexity of what I do, the interface with government. I never get bored with my job."
Four years ago, CRL's influence on Denver City Council prompted an outburst from councilman Ed Thomas. In a letter to then council president Debbie Ortega, Thomas said the firm's sway was "painfully obvious," and he went on to complain that CRL lobbyists routinely collected "speaker cards" -- which members of the public have to fill out before speaking at council meetings -- from the audience, summoned councilmembers from the floor for lobbying, asked council staffers for favors and moved at will through off-limits city offices and meeting rooms.
"This conduct is not acceptable and not lost on casual observers and members of the media who cover these proceedings," Thomas wrote. "Observing how that influence is publicly displayed is just painful."
Thomas doesn't regret writing the letter; he feels it pressured CRL's lobbyists to alter their behavior. "I think it had a pretty positive outcome," he says. "It changed some of the dynamics in the city council room."
At the time, Thomas was miffed at the Taubman Company, one of Garcia Berry's clients. Taubman, which owns the Cherry Creek shopping center, had angered many people in Thomas's district when it went back on a planning agreement and opted to put more retail stores on the west side of the mall.
Today Thomas says he has a much more positive relationship with CRL. He acknowledges that the firm has easy access to city council members, including himself, but he says most people who want to talk to their district council representative have no problem reaching them, either. "To me, it doesn't matter if it's Maria Garcia Berry or John Smith. If they call, I call them back," he says.
Like most of his colleagues on city council, Thomas took in large contributions for his re-election effort from firms connected to CRL. He collected $1,000 from Bruce Berger Realty Inc.; $1,000 from Forest City; $1,000 from Jim Hannifin and an additional $1,000 from his company, Ready Temporary Services; $1,000 from Mortenson; $1,000 from Post Properties; and $1,000 from CRL itself.
These same contributors ponied up equal amounts to the mayor and the other city council members. All of these companies stand out as some of the largest campaign contributors in every race.
Thomas insists that fundraising is simply a necessary evil under the present system. "As an elected official, you don't have a choice when you're trying to run a campaign. You have to raise money. One of my contributors was Maria Garcia Berry, but so were 700 other people." Thomas collected a total of $110,000 in the last election.
However, others say CRL's influence is so overwhelming that the firm is operating as a virtual shadow government at city hall.
"City council is in many respects bought and paid for by Maria," says one longtime Denver political activist who asked not to be named. "You've let a fox into the chicken coop. Before Maria, this didn't happen. All of a sudden, you had a lobbyist leave the capitol and go and create this lobbying machine in the City and County Building."
Garcia Berry's influence is directly tied to the campaign contributions she controls, says a veteran Denver lobbyist who sometimes competes with her. "Green is her favorite color, because she knows that money is the mother's milk of politics," he says. "She does a good job of spreading the money around."
City officials may be losing their ethical bearings by having such a close relationship with CRL, says another longtime city hall denizen. "You see things that are suspect, but then you get used to it and think that's the way things get done. Maria has been loyal to Wellington Webb all these years, and Webb believes in punishing his enemies and taking care of his friends."
Webb declined to comment for this story.
Garcia Berry scoffs at the idea that her influence with the mayor and city council stems from her stable of clients and their apparent penchant for making large campaign contributions. "I think it's really overblown," she says. "Just because you write somebody a $1,000 check doesn't mean you have a commitment for anything."
If the public wants money out of politics, she adds, it will have to be willing to support radical change. "Until you have public financing of all campaigns, money will be an issue. I'm not necessarily advocating public funding of campaigns, but I don't know how you get around it. You don't want the only elected officials to be people who can afford to write their own checks."
And winning influence as a lobbyist is far more complex than simply making campaign donations, she adds. You have to understand the goals and philosophy of the mayor and each councilmember and convince them that the position you're advocating is good for the city. Otherwise, you'll lose out.
As an example, she cites her successful 1985 campaign to locate the Colorado Convention Center on 14th Street. At the time, the Peña administration wanted the convention center to be located behind Union Station, and Peña was angry with her for foiling his plans. "I was not a welcome person in the administration," she says.
Today Garcia Berry's clients seem to have a good understanding of the Webb administration's goals as well. Denver wants to redevelop vacant parcels in the central city, and CRL represents Post Properties, which is turning the old St. Luke's hospital site into 1,000 new condos and apartments.
Similarly, Garcia Berry is working for Forest City, the company that was awarded a city contract to redevelop the former Stapleton airport. Forest City has proposed building a huge new neighborhood at Stapleton that will include more than 12,000 homes and bring 30,000 new residents into Denver -- reportedly the largest urban infill project in the country. At a recent city council meeting, the developer assured everyone that the project would mesh with Denver's older neighborhoods and would look nothing like Highlands Ranch, a symbol to many people in Denver of everything that's wrong with the suburbs.
Forest City officials credit Garcia Berry with helping them to understand the history of the area and the concerns of the residents who already live near Stapleton. They also say she has a remarkable understanding of how decisions are made at city hall. "We hired her because Maria is better than anyone in town at understanding the process of moving things through city government," says John Lehigh, Forest City executive vice president. "She's in touch with the life and pulse of the Denver community. Her understanding of the community is a very valuable asset to anyone who uses her."
Garcia Berry points to Forest City as an example of how she has brought her 1970s idealism into the '90s. "The redevelopment of Stapleton will impact the whole Front Range," she says. "Getting involved with a client that's going to take a boarded-up airport and turn it into a new city neighborhood -- that's pretty significant."
While political deal-makers like Garcia Berry are held in disrepute by much of the public, she insists the idea that the Denver City Council is in her pocket is a myth. "Getting your phone call returned is not the same thing as getting a vote," says Garcia Berry. "Money doesn't get you a vote. People vote for all sorts of reasons, especially in local government. They vote for what their constituents want."
Denver City Councilman Ted Hackworth says he has often disagreed with Garcia Berry over issues. Hackworth opposes expanding the convention center, for example, but he has endorsed the AT&T franchise agreement and even agreed to appear in controversial television commercials promoting it.
Hackworth says he can disagree with Garcia Berry and still have a good relationship with her. "She doesn't like my opposition to the convention center, but we're still friends," he says. "She always says, 'Here's the reason why we see this as positive for Denver.' You can take it or leave it."
On the AT&T franchise issue, Hackworth says he became convinced that AT&T would offer the first real competition to US West for residential telephone service in Denver when it finishes rebuilding the local cable system. He says Garcia Berry's staff is especially adept at providing councilmembers with background information on the issues for which they are lobbying. "They can sometimes provide you with better information than you'd get from any other source," says Hackworth.
To help maintain her good relationship with the council, Garcia Berry picks up the tab for food and drinks every Monday after council meetings at the Cherokee Grill. "She has a large expense account," says a competitor. "Her clients know the wining and dining bill will be large. She greases the wheel and makes sure everybody is feeling good. Lots of breakfasts and lunches and dinners and cocktails."
Garcia Berry is especially proud of her role in negotiating compromises in sometimes bitter neighborhood disputes, including a battle between the Denver Botanic Gardens and its neighbors and one between Kaiser Permanente, which she represented, and nearby residents over a plan to expand its hospital on 20th Avenue. It was her work on the Kaiser Permanente effort that caught Ready Temporary Services owner Hannifin's eye; at the time, he lived near Kaiser and was involved in the campaign against the hospital expansion. "I met Maria ten years ago," says Hannifin. "I was the president of a neighborhood group in northeast Denver. The hospitals were expanding, and I was one of the leaders fighting that."
The group eventually entered into negotiations with the hospitals. "It could have been ugly; there could have been blood on the floor," says Hannifin. "Maria went to the hospitals and convinced them they had to deal with us. It worked out to a real good compromise. Somebody once said politics is the art of the possible, and she personifies that."
For his most recent fight, Hannifin says CRL mainly provided him with advice on how to frame his arguments during public forums and helped him set up meetings where he could make his pitch to planning officials and councilmembers. "I didn't even know who was on the zoning committee," says Hannifin. "It's a whole realm that a lot of people are unaware of."
City planning officials deny that their opposition to rezoning Colfax had anything to do with CRL. "I never had any contact with Maria Garcia Berry about this issue," says planning-program manager Ellen Ittelson. Ittelson thinks Colfax on the Hill misinterpreted her staff's effort to be helpful as an endorsement of the proposal and adds that the city won't support a rezoning unless there's overwhelming support for such a change.
Instead, Geller believes that CRL created an illusion of widespread opposition to the rezoning by having employees of Ready Temporary Services gather hundreds of signatures against it. "They convinced the council there was a lot of controversy over this, when in reality, there are only two or three property owners resisting this," he insists. "It was spin-doctored to death."
But CRL hasn't won all of its battles. Garcia Berry represented Diamond Cabaret owner Bobby Rifkin in an effort to lower the minimum age for strippers in Denver from 21 to 18. That bill was passed by city council but vetoed by the mayor. The firm also failed to stop the council from approving new restrictions on the sale of spray paint in Denver, an anti-graffiti ordinance that was opposed by local paint stores.
The firm has declined to represent several companies that asked it to lobby on their behalf, says Garcia Berry, including a for-profit chain of juvenile detention facilities. One source claims that Garcia Berry frequently tells potential clients she won't be able to take them on unless Mayor Webb gives his okay, but Garcia Berry says that's nonsense.
"We've never done that," she insists.
Still, her power is unprecedented, and it's spreading. Garcia Berry is now taking on issues in Aurora, Lakewood and Colorado Springs, where she is working on behalf of the school district.
While some might view her as a poster girl for the American dream -- a Cuban-born woman from a modest background who has established a formidable presence in city government -- others believe she is corrupting civic life in Denver, bringing wealthy clients to closed-door meetings in city hall and blurring the divide between public and private interests.
"What I find so terrible is that a firm like CRL can flip on both sides, working for the city and for private industry as well," says Geller. "These people are way too close to city council and way too close to the administration. It's very dangerous. We can't afford to have a lobbying group running the city."
But Garcia Berry claims that much of the carping about her influence is simply coming from envious competitors. She says few people are willing to work as hard as CRL does to win, and that's the real source of her success.
"Most of the people who criticize me are people I've beaten," she says with a smile.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Westword's biggest stories.