John Frew has never held public office. But he knows how to give a politician a bloody nose--and he's gotten a few in return.
When the 38-year-old Park Hill attorney, lobbyist and political consultant was still in his twenties, he was enough of a campaign veteran to conduct a workshop on the art of dishing it out. And Denver's three other official mayoral candidates--incumbent Wellington Webb, city auditor Bob Crider and city councilwoman Mary DeGroot--might wish they'd attended.
During that 1983 workshop before the Iowa Freedom Foundation, according to a contemporary press account, the precocious Frew listed five possible ways a candidate can respond to being attacked. If he's smart, said Frew, the candidate will either attack the source, ignore the attack entirely or simply say, "Yes, I did it." What the attackers hope for, however, is that the candidate will play right into their hands by saying either, "Yes, I did it, but it's not what you think" or, in effect, plead no contest by saying, "I didn't do it, but I won't do it again."
Frew has gotten the chance to practice that preaching in numerous down-and-dirty political races, and he has a winning record. He was campaign manager in nasty battles for victorious senators Tom Harkin in Iowa and Tim Wirth in Colorado. More to the point in this year's mayoral race, Frew was campaign manager for the coalition of businesspeople, labor leaders and politicians who convinced voters in 1988 and again in 1989 to build Denver International Airport.
Frew takes great pains to point out that he has not been responsible for what's happened since then at DIA. Expect him to point that out frequently.
Businesspeople and reporters describe the fresh-faced, personable Frew as a skilled strategist, an "insider" adept at "governmental affairs." He's such a skillful lobbyist, in fact, that he usually avoids being called a lobbyist in print. But to the still-bitter foes of DIA, John Frew is "a stooge" of the Metro Denver Chamber of Commerce. A few of them even call him a "sleazy bastard." To which Frew chuckles, proving he takes his own advice on how to handle attacks.
The guy, however, is hardly all smiles. As he said after his first pro-airport election triumph back in 1988, "If you show me a good loser, I'll show you a loser."
He's likely to be such a blunt instrument as long as he's in the race. "I've seen government from the inside; I've seen politicians," Frew says. "You understand how it works, and after a while you just decide that you want to say, `Move over, let me try this.'"
Even before his official announcement last Wednesday, Frew was on the attack, chiding Crider for hiring a political supporter for a job in the auditor's office. (Crider's campaign manager, Chris Lines, derides Frew's 3 percent showing in an early poll and says, "We expect him to be vocal.") But Frew's three opponents also have been smacking one another around. Webb has attacked DeGroot as "racist" (and then apologized). DeGroot has badgered Webb about the airport and curfews. Crider and Webb have exchanged heavy blasts and played financial games with each other's budgets.
While Frew talks about a "positive, proactive approach," he also vows that the voters "will know all four of us, warts and all" by the end of the campaign.
"I'm not going to let anybody get away with what I call `political nonsense,'" he says. "And when someone takes a shot at me, I'm not going to take it lying down. I believe in responding to unfair criticism quickly. You don't wait for a poll to tell you what to do."
For now, though, Frew's waiting for a few other things to shake out. He's waiting to see whether the connections he's worked hard at over the past several years, especially among businesspeople, will pay off with enough money and support to make him a major contender.
The staying power of old grudges from the 1991 race, in which Webb upset then-district attorney Norm Early in a runoff, may have a lot to do with it. For Frew, the die was cast last June during a meeting with Webb at which Frew says he urged Webb to fire public works director Mike Musgrave, the person in charge of getting the airport built.
"Lots of people in the business community were talking to me," Frew says. "And I told him, `You need to clean house.' I said that if he did, that I would get behind him and so would a lot of other people. And second, I told him, `You've got to change your attitude. Quit treating those of us who supported Norm Early as enemies.' He said no."
Webb's campaign manager, Dave Kenney, remarks dryly, "Here's somebody who wanted the mayor to fire some people, and when the mayor said no, he decided to run for office. That's an interesting reason to run."
Get ready to rumble.
John Frew, hired gun of the business community, is the son of hardscrabble, blue-collar Democrats. His great-great-grandfather had come West on a Mormon wagon train in the mid-nineteenth century, he says, and the Frews were the first Anglos to settle in Idaho. That's where John was born.
But his father, Donald, couldn't make it as a farmer, and the family moved to Iowa after John's kindergarten year. They lived in a poor neighborhood in Des Moines. Donald Frew worked in a foundry, became a member of the machinists' union and eventually trained to become an electrician. His wife, Louise, worked a hydraulic press for AMF, stamping out lawn-mower blades.
John was the sixth of seven children and was raised Catholic (his mother's religion). But the family was even bigger than that.
"I cannot remember a time when there wasn't someone living with us," says Frew. "My younger sister had a friend who came home for the weekend one time in fourth grade. Her parents had abandoned her, and she stayed with us until she graduated from high school. There was always somebody who lived with us. If you needed a place, you needed a couch, you needed something to eat, the Frews' is where you went. It was hard for us to understand while we were growing up, because we didn't have anything, but my parents always made it stretch, always made it fit."
He was the first in his family to go to college. At the University of Iowa, Frew was vice president of the student body, working on a master's degree in political science and intending to become a city manager. But then a friend suggested he get involved with a political campaign and introduced him to Senator John Culver, a liberal Democrat running for re-election in 1980. Frew signed on.
"It was the Reagan landslide, and I saw how disciplined the Republican Party was," recalls Frew. "It was a repudiation of not just Jimmy Carter but the beginning of the end of liberalism as it was defined, the politics that had really governed the country since the New Deal. And Culver helped us to understand that. He was just a masterful teacher. He decided not to turn tail. He said, `If I'm going to run, I'm going to do it with all guns blazing.'"
Targeted by conservatives, Culver lost a close race to Charles Grassley in an expensive campaign that featured last-minute, anti-Culver fliers depicting an aborted fetus above the caption "Vote for John Culver. This child never had the chance."
It may have been a death knell of liberalism, but the Culver campaign launched Frew as a political strategist.
Armed with a B.A. in political science and a master's in public affairs, Frew earned a law degree from Creighton University. And over the next few years, he worked on the campaigns of several Democrats. Landslides were rare; mudslides weren't.
Frew was working for Iowa liberal Tom Harkin in 1983 when he conducted the workshop on campaign strategy. Frew showed his audience a notorious TV ad used against Tennessee Democrat Jim Sasser in 1980: Trying to make points out of Sasser's support of foreign aid for communist countries, his opponent churned out a video of a Fidel Castro lookalike lighting a cigar, leering into the camera and saying, `Gracias, Senor Sasser.'" Frew, recalling the session today, says, "It wasn't a workshop on how to do negative campaigning. It was really a challenge to figure out why people respond and to understand what it all means."
He learned more about mud the next year when, still only 28, he became campaign manager when Harkin challenged Republican incumbent Roger Jepsen for the other Iowa U.S. Senate seat. The combative Harkin won in a bruising, multimillion-dollar battle. "That one was a classic," Frew says.
At one point in the contest, reporters asked Frew if anything could halt the negative campaign. "Sure there is," Frew replied. "If Jepsen cuts out the malarkey. He's the one who pulled out his bucket of mud. If he puts it away, there's no reason for us to keep throwing it back. But I don't see that happening."
The Harkin campaign derisively described Jepsen, who wore his Christianity on his sleeve, as "porn again" after it was revealed that he had visited a brothel a few years earlier. Frew himself got into hot water after the campaign issued a press release accusing Jepsen aide James Secrist, a Marine officer, of soliciting political funds from defense contractors.
After Harkin won the election, Secrist sued Frew and others for libel, claiming that the press release was untrue and malicious. Frew remembers it as a "preposterous lawsuit--it's what's wrong with our court system, that anybody can sue you and cause you to go through that." The case was thrown out, but not before an appeals court confirmed what everybody in politics already knew: A campaign press release is opinion, not fact, and therefore is protected speech under the First Amendment.
By that time, Frew had joined the staff of Colorado Representative Tim Wirth. In 1986 he managed Wirth's narrow victory over Republican Ken Kramer for a seat in the U.S. Senate.
The race was so dirty and the stakes so high--control of the Senate seemed to hinge on it--that the national press sent reporters to Colorado.
There was a noticeable nyah-nyah factor at work in the campaign. A Kramer ad on Wirth's vote to increase his salary asked, "If Tim Wirth will fool you today, what about tomorrow?" A Wirth spot on Kramer's Social Security vote replied, "Let's see who's fooling who."
At one point Kramer's troops pointed out that a Wirth ad featured a professional actress--hardly the first time that's happened in a campaign. "It doesn't matter diddly-squat that people are paid," Frew told reporters. "Ken Kramer's press secretary is paid. What the ads say about Kramer is true."
And what the voters said was that they were sick of the whole mess. "For that level of office," one Coloradan told the Washington Post, "I think they ought to pay a little more attention to the issues instead of distorting each other's voting records."
A pained Frew explained to the Post, "If we win this race, people will say, `It wasn't pretty, but we got the job done.'"
They got the job done, and Frew went to D.C. as Senator Wirth's chief of staff. Within the year, though, he returned to Denver to work for Printon, Kane, an investment banking firm. (Frew says he left Wirth's staff under his own power.) In 1988 Printon, Kane loaned him to the pro-airport forces who were seeking to jump-start the local economy--and perhaps their own fortunes--by building a massive replacement for Stapleton Airport.
Frew faced a sticky problem: How to convince Adams County voters to let Denver annex fifty square miles of land for the new airport. But Frew had plenty of power behind him: Governor Roy Romer, Denver Mayor Federico Pena, chamber head Dick Fleming, the business community (including the S&L spendthrifts at Silverado), much of the media and a million dollars for ammunition.
Fleming and Pena were the driving forces of Partners in Progress, as the campaign was called. The chamber set up an economic-development arm, the Greater Denver Corporation, which funneled $404,000 into the fight. One consultant still marvels that the campaign Frew ran was "military in its precision." More than 1,500 volunteers went door-to-door in Adams County; Romer, Frew and other boosters made countless public appearances at civic clubs and other venues to pitch the project. "If you respect professionalism," says the consultant, "it would bring tears to your eyes."
Several of Frew's opponents back then are still seeing red. "You give me $34 a vote, and I'll deliver," says Jim Nelms, a prominent political figure in Adams County at the time of the vote. "It was the most expensive campaign in U.S. history, per vote! Jesus Christ, that's not winning a campaign. That's buying an election."
Nelms and Frew clashed publicly during the campaign. At an airport forum, one of Frew's allies accused Nelms of having a personal profit motive and breaking state law by signing a lease for an acre of land at Front Range Airport. Frew echoed the criticism in a quote to a reporter. At the time, Nelms was chairman of the Front Range Airport Authority, and it turned out he had signed the lease on behalf of the authority.
Two weeks later Frew sent Nelms a letter: "Now that I've had a chance to look into it, it appears no law was broken. I'm sorry for my prior statement, but I wish you had explained the lease instead of denying its existence."
The short-tempered Nelms still refers to Frew as a "sleazy bastard." Of his bid for mayor, Nelms says, "I hope he wins. Denver deserves him."
Ex-lawmaker Bill Chenoweth, who led one of Denver's campaigns against the airport, recalls Frew as "a stooge of the chamber" but adds that he "did a heck of a job."
The pro-airport group's take-no-prisoners approach also steamrolled over a little newspaper called the Commerce City Beacon. When the weekly's first issue carried an anti-airport editorial, "we were accused of being a vehicle for the anti-airport people," says the paper's publisher, Norm Union. "But it was a coincidence." The fledgling paper became grist for Frew's publicity mill, which photocopied the offending page, printed a big, red "Baloney" on it and blanketed Adams County with thousands of copies.
Frew's forces spent nearly $1.2 million and got 56 percent of the vote; their foes had spent $103,000.
Shortly afterward, Frew showed he no longer was that poor boy from Iowa: He garnered a mention in the Denver Post for trolling up and down 17th Street on behalf of Printon, Kane, looking for some municipal-bond action--the new airport was expected to produce $1 billion in revenue bonds.
The next year, Frew was again recruited by business and its allies, this time to sell Denver voters on a new airport.
The Let's Vote Yes Committee wound up spending about $1 million--more than half of it from the chamber's Greater Denver Corporation. The opponents, organized chiefly as Save Our Stapleton, spent one-third that amount. It wasn't close.
Union, whose little paper survived Frew's early attack, recalls the pro-airport campaigns as sophisticated operations. "They did their homework," Union says. "They determined what the hot buttons would be: jobs, and that it wouldn't cost taxpayers anything."
Political consultant Steve Welchert, a friend of Frew's since Iowa, says that's Frew's strong point: "understanding the message and how to deliver it."
But what did he deliver?
While many people wonder whether the foul taste of DIA will ever fade, Frew, the master chef who served up that dish to voters, describes it as a "defining" event in Denver's history.
"It was the right thing to do," says Frew. "But I think they turned a dream into a nightmare. And I say, not even facetiously, that I based my support of the airport in part on the jobs it would create. I never dreamed that it would include so many jobs for federal investigators and securities investigators and criminal investigators."
Some of the airport's early backers--and beneficiaries--have already jumped on Frew's wagon. His campaign treasurer is Linda Alvarado, whose Alvarado Construction Company is general contractor for DIA's main terminal. Alvarado and her husband, Bob, have screamed themselves hoarse at Webb during public meetings over just how much money the city owes her company.
Another leader in the Frew camp is Bob Albin, a management consultant who chaired the chamber's airport task force back in 1987 and, later, the chamber itself. Albin, who supported Early in his bid for mayor, also headed Pena's DIA oversight panel.
"When Wellington came in," Albin recalls, "one of the first things he did was disband the panel. He thought it was redundant."
Albin, who attended Frew's campaign kickoff last week, describes the candidate as "an extraordinarily talented political strategist--people see him as being talented."
But, Albin adds, "never underestimate the power of incumbency."
Incumbent mayors are usually tough to beat, and that's particularly true in Denver, one of the few remaining large cities that has a strong-mayor form of government. The mayor is the undisputed leader, with his own cabinet and direct authority over many city services. Of course, that means Denver's mayor had a choice of how to build the airport.
And while DIA critics blame Frew for helping foist the airport on Denver, Frew will try to make a case that Webb screwed up the project.
"Frew's objective was the process of building an airport," says aviation consultant Mike Boyd. "It's a strong mayor/puppet system. Pena was their vehicle. If you had a city manager and an airport authority, when you do it that way, you can't get your snout in the trough."
Frew would agree with part of that analysis. "I believe that the city had no business building this airport through the Department of Public Works," he says. "And that was the fundamental mistake. That wasn't my decision. That was the city's decision. Fundamental mistake...the city should not have put itself in there. It was as though some of these people thought it was a big cookie jar and they were entitled to help themselves anytime they wanted to. The city should not have done that. Well, they did it. And here we are a few years and a few billion dollars later."
But Frew still thinks the airport was a great idea. "I think in the future, we'll look back and say there were defining moments in Denver's history," he says. "When the business community built the spur lines to Cheyenne, when the business community invested in the farm-to-market system in the San Luis Valley and built railways to invigorate the rural economy, that benefited Denver. The Denver business and political community built Stapleton Airport. They built Moffat Tunnel."
And they will make or break Frew's campaign. Unlike his three announced opponents, Frew has no obvious constituency. As Welchert dryly notes, "There's no power base of 38-year-old white guys."
But Frew has some powerful business friends. His client list at Fairfield & Woods, the law firm he's been with for the past few years, includes several entities trying to squeeze good deals from Denver and its taxpayers. He represented the baseball stadium district when it was seeking zoning and infrastructure decisions from the city. He represented Central Parking Systems Inc. when it was angling for airport parking contracts. He represented the Greater Denver Corporation and United Power Inc. when they were pushing for economic development at DIA. He represented Jetway Systems, which makes the passenger-boarding walkways for airports. He represented the Paradies Shops, the DIA concessionaire booted out of the new airport last year after its top official was convicted in an Atlanta airport bribery scandal. Last year Frew excused himself from lobbying the city on behalf of the Denver Nuggets when it became apparent that his name was circulating as a potential candidate for mayor. Frew's name is also listed as having represented MarkAir, the formerly bankrupt Alaska airline that almost got a multimillion-dollar handout from the city.
Although Frew says he didn't wind up doing any lobbying for MarkAir, he adds that the city should have gone ahead with a subsidy for the airline.
These business connections may ultimately pay off, but Frew has yet to reveal his financial backers--and his first campaign report isn't due until the end of the month. "I got into this discussion with Jerd Smith of the Denver Business Journal last year, and it just ended up making people uncomfortable, so I'm not going to give names," says Frew. "I'm on the board of the Greater Denver Corporation, I've done a lot of work with the business community. Some very substantial members of the business community are supportive."
The election isn't until May 2, but according to consultant Welchert, "Money is the first primary. Whoever's second in money can make a case that he or she's a strong candidate. Of course, Webb was third or fourth in money and look what happened."
And Webb no longer is underfinanced. After he was elected, the money started rolling in--from lawyers and bankers, from fundraisers in Chicago, Denver and Washington, D.C. As of last June 30 Webb's campaign coffers held a balance of $180,000, whereas Crider had $45,500 and DeGroot $7,700. Webb also has captured big-time support from the powerful lawyers at Brownstein, Hyatt, Farber & Strickland--which supported Norm Early four years ago--and from such business moguls as cable pioneer and millionaire Bill Daniels.
Albin acknowledges that Webb, although awash in DIA woes, "has been a trooper" and says that many potential contributors are waiting to see whether Webb really can be beaten before they commit to someone else. And that may take a while. If DIA actually opens on February 28, and if there aren't major catastrophes involving the baggage system, and if...
"There's a `wave thing' in this campaign," says Frew. "It's going to be a different world before and after February 28. There might be indictments or lawsuits. A lot of people are hanging back. It's the nature of people to want to back winners."
And Frew thinks DIA isn't his only winning issue. "Some people say if the airport opens and functions flawlessly--and I hope it opens tomorrow--then Webb'll be okay," says Frew. "And my answer to that is, `Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you enjoy the play?' There's been such a focus on the airport that they've taken their eye off the ball on so many other projects."
It's difficult to tell just what vision Frew has for Denver. But he sure gets irked at some things that block his view.
"I think the amount of graffiti that we see is a sign of losing control and that it scares people, whether you live in Denver or not," he says. "A lot of people don't want to come downtown because it intimidates them. It should. It's ugly, it's scary, it begins to look like Los Angeles. I think what the mayor has to do is first of all take a zero-tolerance attitude toward issues like graffiti."
He criticizes Webb for letting development slip away to the suburbs and for failing to step into the Denver Public Schools' teachers' strike last fall.
"Why did it take the governor to call those two sides in to solve the strike? Where was the mayor?" asks Frew. "It's a question of attitude. It is the mayor's business. If it moves, if it breathes, if it in any way affects Denver, it is the mayor's business. I don't care if it's the federal government, the state government, a special district or a school district. And he ought to be in their face if they're doing something that is so egregiously wrong that it's causing people not to want to come to Denver."
Frew says he's also upset about the millions of dollars Denver has spent on outside legal help. "All that monkey business stops," he says. "They'll say, `You're a lawyer. Can we trust you?' I'll say, `Listen, I know how lawyers work. And there'll be none of that.'"
Frew proposes to abolish the job of manager of public safety and promote the chiefs of fire and police to cabinet status. And he vows to emphasize redevelopment of the vacant or eventually-to-be-vacant parcels at Lowry Air Force Base and Stapleton.
"They're building homes by the thousands in Douglas County--on well water. It's absurd," Frew says. "What we have to do is, we have to change our attitude, our way of doing business. And the mayor leads the charge on that...We have so much land available--Lowry, Stapleton--where those people ought to be building their homes. And that brings more of the middle class back. That stabilizes the tax base, that brings jobs and opportunities back into Denver. People ask me, will I widen Colorado Boulevard and Parker Road and Santa Fe?, and I say, `Not on your life, because I don't want to make it any easier for you to get in in the morning and out at night.' That's the challenge."
Frew says he's confident that voters "will see that I'm in this to change the way the city does business."
Mike Boyd, however, says it's just with whom the city does business. Glumly, the airport cynic consigns Webb, Crider and DeGroot to the "within-the-system" category. But he reserves a special place for Frew.
"Frew's bunch laid the groundwork for DIA," Boyd says. "He's probably more to blame than Webb is. If it weren't in place, Webb wouldn't have done it. Now, all the common guy can decide is which sleazeball to vote for.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Denver, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.