Let's say you're the proprietor of a popular LoDo brewpub, or a onetime Cherry Creek gallery owner, or the former chief of police.
You decide the time has come to do something really big and really different with your life.
You dream of making the city you live in a better place. Of course, it would also be fun to be on TV every other night and garner invitations to White House dinners. Not to mention the free rent in a posh Hilltop mansion and your own box at Invesco Field (though you vowed only to call it Mile High Stadium -- but that's another story).
Imagine being mayor of Denver.
You think it over for a few months, pondering the advantages and drawbacks.
On the plus side:
The mayor of Denver has more real power than even the governor of Colorado, thanks to a "strong mayor" form of government that gives hizzoner wide authority over city government and everything from hiring to budgets. While the governor is reduced to begging the state legislature for enough money to have the drapes cleaned at his mansion, the mayor can decide to do something really over the top.
Like build a new airport.
In a celebrity-starved community like Denver, the mayor is a superstar. Everything from where you dined last night to the amusing story of how you almost short-circuited the City and County Building's holiday lights will be fodder for Denver's desperate gossip columnists.
Even in a time of cynicism about government, the mayor can craft policies that improve the lives of thousands of people.
On the minus side:
Since you're the mayor, everything that goes wrong in Denver is your fault.
You will have no privacy and won't see much of family or friends unless they go to work for you, which causes a whole new set of problems.
As noted above, everything that goes wrong in Denver is your fault.
In spite of the misgivings of many of your friends, you just can't give up the idea of being mayor. But since there are several others who also want the job, you must raise a lot of money and spend a lot of time convincing the people of Denver that you deserve to be their leader.
Luckily for you, there are people who make it their business to help you figure out what to do next. They have spent years poring over census reports, noting the demographic and ethnic makeup of every neighborhood in the city. They know how a retired cop who lives south of West Quincy Avenue (an area a true Denverite would assume is in Jefferson County) votes. They know who among the northeast Denver ministers can goad 500 of their flock to the polls. They know which neighborhood activist can introduce you to a dozen potential precinct workers on Capitol Hill, as well as the 17th Street lawyers who can help you tap into money on Park Avenue (the one in New York).
These political insiders -- usually dubbed "campaign consultants" -- will reveal that the harmless-looking suburban-style tract homes in southwest Denver are actually part of the city's redneck belt, where country music drifts out of pickup trucks and an occasional Confederate flag adorns a basement. You learn that whole sections of Five Points -- the historic heart of Denver's African-American community -- now speak Spanish, and that the once almost entirely white neighborhoods of southeast Denver are being changed by an influx of blacks and Asians.
Your handlers drive you to Green Valley Ranch, and you're astonished to see that thousands of homes have been built on the windy prairie south of the airport. It is one of Denver's fastest-growing neighborhoods, but you may have a hard time getting votes here, since many of the newest residents haven't registered and think they live in Aurora.
Your next surprise is finding out that some of the most savvy political people in the country take a keen interest in who is mayor of Denver. Meetings are scheduled with powerhouse political consulting firms on Washington's K Street, and the people who did television for Bill Clinton want to talk to you.
It's enough to make you want to grab a stool at your bar and order a pint of amber ale. But there's no time: You have to fly to California for a fundraiser.
Denver's political insiders know better. The city is a hothouse of jostling interest groups where nothing happens unless liaisons -- temporary and long-term -- are arranged between potential rivals. There are really more than a dozen different Denvers, and a successful contender must stitch together a broad coalition to win.
Consider the geographic dissonance facing a candidate for citywide office.
In 1991, Wellington Webb was determined to carry southwest Denver, the most conservative area of the city and a place some politicos refer to as "Sweet Home Alabama."
"Webb was hell-bent he would win there," recalls one City Hall veteran who campaigned with him. "We went door-to-door and knocked. This guy answers the door and says, 'Hey Judith, that big colored guy you're supporting for mayor is here.'"
Just fifteen minutes away, a candidate might want to stop at the busy intersection of Ninth and Corona, in the heart of Capitol Hill. With an eclectic mix of gays, twenty-something concert-hoppers and graying hippies, one local political wag refers to the area as "the pierced precincts." But don't let the counterculture ambience fool you: Capitol Hill has one of the highest rates of voter turnout in the city and is essential to a winning campaign.
Next, our would-be mayor might visit one of the large African-American churches in northeast Denver, finding a well-organized and politically savvy group of parishioners led by a dynamic minister. While blacks make up just 11 percent of Denver's population, they've managed to create one of the most powerful voting blocs in the city, helping to propel Webb into office for three terms.
It might seem impossible for you to carry these three politically divergent areas, but Webb did it in 1991. He won support from many conservative voters by touting his experience as auditor and vowing to keep a close eye on the city's enormous financial commitment to the construction of Denver International Airport, while liberals liked the idea of electing Denver's first black mayor.
That rainbow alliance is exactly what a Denver politician needs to win.
"I think to win citywide, you need a coalition of white liberals and blacks or Hispanics," says Denver City Councilwoman Susan Barnes-Gelt, who has twice won a citywide election as an at-large candidate.
But the multiracial goodwill that made Webb mayor fell apart during his first term, and his political career nearly ended in a re-election contest that exposed the fault lines of race and class underlying Denver's easygoing facade.
In 1995, Denverites were frustrated and angry over DIA's repeated opening delays, which had added hundreds of millions of dollars to the project's cost. After taking office, Webb had steered several airport contracts to longtime political supporters in the black community. Charges of cronyism filled the newspapers, putting the mayor on the defensive. Since many of the contracts were tied to the city's affirmative action program, the controversy soon had a racial edge. Although Webb killed several of the most controversial contracts in early 1993, the allegations emboldened his opponents.
Then-city councilwoman Mary DeGroot mounted an angry campaign against Webb, accusing him of bringing a touch of "old Chicago" to city government. Her political base was in Washington Park and the largely white neighborhoods south of Colfax, and she bested the mayor by 61 votes in the May election, forcing a June runoff. (A candidate has to win at least 50 percent of the vote to be elected mayor without a runoff.)
Race suddenly became an issue for a city that prides itself on racial tolerance.
"People were really divided," Barnes-Gelt says. "It wasn't about Mary and Wellington; it was about good and evil, black and white, right and wrong. It was very polarized."
To win the runoff, Webb needed a big turnout in minority-dominated neighborhoods north of Colfax. To galvanize this base, he began to imply that DeGroot was a racist.
"Webb played the race card hard to save his skin," says Eric Sondermann, a Denver political consultant who ran the DeGroot campaign. "Webb did overwhelming numbers in the black community, and he got comparable numbers in the Latino community."
DeGroot's and Webb's tactics exemplify how Denver politicians have been plotting strategy for years, viewing the city as a collection of ethnic and economic enclaves with Colfax Avenue as a rough dividing line. Neighborhoods south of Colfax were overwhelmingly white and middle-class, while the black population was in the northeast quadrant of the city, and Hispanics lived on the north and west sides.
Politicos knew that Jews tended to live on the east side near Temple Emanuel and that northwest Denver was anchored by Italian and Hispanic families who had lived there for generations. Park Hill was seen as one of Denver's core progressive neighborhoods, a place where liberal white lawyers and professionals had banded together to maintain racial harmony with black neighbors, helping launch the careers of such politicians as former U.S. representative Pat Schroeder.
Country Club was Denver's silk-stocking district, where politicians went not necessarily for votes, but for money. Washington Park and the neighborhoods around the University of Denver tended to be young, white and liberal. The neighborhoods west of DU were blue-collar and had a high concentration of union members. The west side was heavily Hispanic, with an emerging Asian population clustered around the intersection of Federal and Alameda.
Most neighborhoods still maintain their defining characteristics, but dramatic shifts during the past decade have started to affect city politics. Denver's population grew by 87,026 during the '90s, reversing a three-decade trend of people migrating to the suburbs, and the huge infill projects at Lowry, Stapleton and in the Central Platte Valley are expected to draw tens of thousands of new residents. Montbello and Green Valley Ranch are also attracting thousands of newcomers by touting their room to grow.
Older neighborhoods near downtown have also been transformed. Northwest Denver has seen an influx of young, first-time homebuyers who have renovated houses and driven up prices, and as a result of new Hispanic and white residents moving into Five Points, that area is now only about one-third black.
The African-American population is also moving out of northeast Denver, attracted to southeast Denver and to suburbs such as Aurora that offer larger homes at lower prices. At the same time, Hispanics have poured into Montbello and north Park Hill, bringing a new cultural influence.
"The neighborhoods are much more diverse and much less monolithic," says Dick Bjurstrom, a longtime neighborhood activist. "The blacks don't all live in northeast Denver anymore, just like the Vietnamese don't all live off Federal. In northwest Denver, people are moving in who don't know about the old guard. There's a cultural clash taking place."
The biggest question mark in Denver politics is the role Hispanic voters will play in future elections. The Latino community now makes up almost one-third of Denver's 554,636 residents.
Indeed, the city is on the verge of becoming a "majority minority" city. The white population makes up just 51 percent, and the Latino community's rapid growth -- fueled by an influx of Latin American immigrants -- shows no signs of slowing. The Asian and Native American populations have also increased. In the face of these changing demographics, Denver is seeing a political transformation similar to that of California.
The experience in that state is illuminating. For years, California's Latinos had far less political influence than their numbers warranted. Many white politicians felt they could ignore Hispanics, who had a low rate of voter registration and little political organization. California Republicans even indulged in a vicious round of immigrant-bashing in 1994, when they helped put Proposition 187 on the ballot. That measure, which passed by a large majority, banned the use of public funds to serve illegal immigrants. Republican Pete Wilson, the state's governor at the time, endorsed the measure, confident it would help bring conservatives to the polls.
Hispanics were outraged, wondering if friends and relatives would be denied emergency medical care or if their children would be turned away from public schools. The courts eventually declared the measure unconstitutional, but it had the unintended effect of unifying Latinos.
California hasn't been the same since. Latinos have gone from making up 9 percent of the California electorate in 1992 to 17 percent in the last election. Los Angeles suburbs that once propelled Ronald Reagan into the White House are now solidly Democratic, as are the legislature and statewide offices. Antonio Villaraigosa, a popular and controversial Latino politician, even came close to being elected mayor of the City of Angels in 2001.
In Denver, politicians thought the Hispanic community had finally come of age in 1983 when Federico Peña was elected mayor in what was the most electrifying political event of the last twenty years. But it didn't quite work out that way.
Peña was a little-known state representative who decided to mount an insurgent campaign against fifteen-year incumbent mayor Bill McNichols. With his fondness for leisure suits and cigars, McNichols was largely out of touch with the thousands of young people moving to Denver in the 1970s and early 1980s. He ran a good-old-boy administration closely tied to the Denver Chamber of Commerce, but the city's new residents supported the environmental and civil rights movements. Peña sensed there was an opening for a maverick.
A Christmas Eve snowstorm in 1982 helped ease his way. Denver was smothered in more than two feet of snow, and city crews were unable to dig out many neighborhoods. Residents who couldn't get to work for days fumed at the city's incompetence, fueling the feeling that "Mayor Bill" had been in office too long.
In an already crowded campaign field, which included popular district attorney Dale Tooley (who had run before), Wellington Webb (then a state bureaucrat) and Monte Pascoe (who was on the Denver Board of Water Commissioners), Peña was able to put together a remarkable coalition of Hispanics, young people, veteran liberal activists and residents who simply thought it was time for a change.
"The 1983 election was about something big," Sondermann says. "It was a generational election, a coming-of-age election. There was a whole generation of people coming into power."
It thrilled Denver's Latino community, and thousands of new voters signed up in heavily Hispanic precincts on the city's west side. They flocked to the polls, resulting in a phenomenal 71.7 percent of registered voters turning out for the runoff -- 21,700 more than had voted in the first round.
"Peña's election was about inclusiveness," Barnes-Gelt says. "What Peña figured out was that the population of Denver had changed. His campaign also had a field operation that knew how to get their voters registered and to the polls."
But the excitement waned during his first term, as he struggled with several controversies and an economy that went sour after the mid-'80s oil bust.
In 1987, Republican attorney Don Bain challenged Peña, who was shocked when Bain beat him by 4,000 votes in May. Bain was an improbable mayoral candidate for Denver, a conservative blueblood and 17th Street lawyer from an old Denver family. But he positioned himself as an outsider and tapped into voters' frustration with the implosion of the local economy.
"Here comes this lawyer Don Bain, a well-known figure in the Country Club community but not anywhere else, with a personality as bland as Melba toast," says one Denver campaign veteran. "With a humorous tongue-in-cheek campaign, he delivers a message that the mayor is out of touch. It damn near took Peña out of office."
Peña was saved in the June runoff by a huge turnout among Hispanic voters. Many of them hadn't voted in the first election, but the campaign went into high gear to get them to the polling booths, and Peña eked out a 3,000-vote margin to win re-election. Turnout for the runoff jumped by 16,500 over the first round.
"Four hundred people left Peña's headquarters at four o'clock with voter lists in their hands and fanned out all over the west side," recalls Barnes-Gelt, who worked for the campaign. "Over the next few hours, we turned out thousands of voters."
That may have been the last time the Latino community really flexed its muscles in Denver. Despite huge population gains, the predominantly Hispanic council districts, 3 and 9, have the lowest voter turnout in general elections. While an estimated 52,352 Hispanics are registered to vote in Denver, only 35 percent of them participated in the November election.
"If the Hispanics in Denver and statewide ever got organized and registered, they'd be a huge power," says Greg Kolomitz, president of CRL Associates Inc., a Denver political consulting firm.
It might be expected that another Latino running for mayor would rally the Hispanic community, but so far, City Auditor Don Mares hasn't made it happen. Instead, former Department of Safety manager Ari Zavaras -- widely assumed to be the front-runner in the election -- has won the support of several Hispanic activists, including former state representative Frana Mace and former fire chief Rich Gonzales. Wynkoop Brewing Company owner John Hickenlooper has also picked up some Latino endorsements.
"I know Hispanics who are supporting almost all of the candidates," says Angela Padilla, director of the Latina Initiative, which registers Hispanic women to vote. "I think people are looking at candidates' records and comparing them. It's not about race."
Former mayor Peña also believes the Hispanic community has become more politically sophisticated and won't vote for just a surname. They are looking at the same issues as other groups: good schools, economic security and safe neighborhoods. "Candidates have to be very targeted and focused in appealing to Hispanics," says Peña, who now works for a Denver investment firm.
But he also understands that many Hispanics still have concerns about discrimination and look for leaders sensitive to that. "I do think that Hispanics have an emotional connection to certain candidates," he says. "You must give people a reason to vote. If a candidate excites the Hispanic community, that can make a difference in a close election. I think there's an opportunity for Hispanics to elect the next mayor."
Denver political consultant Steve Welchert, who was Peña's issues director for his re-election bid, says it will take time for Latinos to win political power commensurate with their numbers. "It's a maturation process; it won't happen overnight," he says. "The Hispanic community has had a number of different waves of immigration. That assimilation in a new culture is difficult."
That the Hispanic community is not monolithic isn't surprising, what with a mix of immigrants from Mexico and a dozen other countries, divisions between recent arrivals and families that have been here for generations, language barriers and class differences.
What is surprising is the comparative power of the much smaller black community. With just about a third of the population numbers of Hispanics, Denver's African-Americans wield a remarkable degree of influence.
"The African-American community is small and stable, but it has deep roots," says C.L. Harmer, a veteran of several Denver political campaigns who is now public-affairs director for the safety department. "It's more homogenous than the Latino community."
The level of political organizing in the black community, specifically in northeast Denver, inspires awe in many Denver politicos. The churches are vital community centers, so candidates must reach out to the congregations and their influential ministers if they hope to win a voting bloc. If the churches unite behind one candidate -- as they did with Webb -- it can help to swing an election.
"Politics in northeast Denver is an art," Kolomitz says. "They've been doing it for years and know how to do it. Wellington Webb understood the power of black churches and knew how to work them."
But this isn't unique to Denver; it's a fact of political organizing in any black community from New York City to Jackson, Mississippi. The church's community significance stems from the South, where it was often a safe haven from terrorism by the Ku Klux Klan. Much of the civil rights movement began in the churches, and that activism still exists four decades later.
"The church has been where you go to find out what's important in the community," says Landri Taylor, a longtime African-American political activist who is now running for city auditor.
Padilla sometimes wishes the Catholic Church were more political. "The Catholic Church doesn't have forums and invite candidates," she says. "In black churches, I've seen candidates on the pulpit. That's a real plus for the community."
At key moments, both black and Latino voters have rallied behind minority candidates in Denver. Together they've been influential enough to keep either a black or Hispanic in the mayor's office for the past twenty years, despite Denver's still mostly white electorate.
"It was black voters that got Peña across the finish line," Sondermann says. "The margins in northeast Denver were the critical piece of that runoff. It was ditto in 1995. Webb did overwhelming numbers in the black community, and he got comparable numbers in the Latino community.
"It's now been two decades since Denver had a non-minority mayor. Even though Denver is not a majority-minority city, when minorities vote for their candidate in the 80- or 90-percent range, it makes it tough for a non-minority to win. That's a subtext to this election."
Denver has another active minority: Republicans. While they don't exactly have a history of oppression, sometimes it can feel that way in the Mile High City, where only 23 percent of the city's voters are counted among their ranks (versus 46 percent Democratic and 32 percent unaffiliated).
Don Bain was the last Republican to come close to being elected -- sixteen years ago. "The only Republican mayors of large Democratic cities were elected because the voters were so angry with the Democrats and blew up," Bain says. "That's how I almost got elected."
Despite their minority status, if Republicans vote as a bloc, they play a crucial role in propelling a candidate into the runoff. But since mayoral elections are non-partisan, there is no party-line vote, and the Republican vote often ends up split. Both Peña and Webb were able to win at least some Republican support, and Bain says most of the candidates will aim some of their messages at conservative voters.
That's part of the Zavaras campaign's strategy. Like the other leading candidates, Zavaras is a Democrat, but he is using his tacit endorsement by Governor Bill Owens to appeal to Republicans, since several of the Greek-American businessmen bankrolling his campaign also contributed to Owens. Letters and e-mails to Republicans highlight Zavaras's service in Owens's cabinet, where he managed the Colorado Department of Public Safety.
"The one most likely to appeal to Republicans might be Hickenlooper, because he has a business background," Bain says.
A lot of money flows from this community, and wealthy Republicans who donate to statewide candidates might contribute to a mayoral candidate if they think it would be to their advantage. "They'd be people whose businesses have a relationship with the city. They'd have more access, and their proposals for contracts would receive the benefit of the doubt," Bain says.
In a field with as many as fourteen candidates -- about six of them serious -- there's a scramble to raise money and make it into the runoff. The current prediction is that it will take more than $1 million to win, and there's a $3,000 limit on contributions in Denver campaigns.
"The question is, how much money is out there to be raised, and how much can they raise?" Kolomitz asks. "If you have two or three candidates who raise $1.5 million, that's precedent-setting."
To do that, candidates need to seek money outside of Denver, which Zavaras has; he now leads the fundraising pack with nearly $800,000. Several others also have connections to national fundraising sources: Former city councilwoman Sue Casey is tied to Emily's List, which funds female candidates; Penfield Tate has many links to Washington law firms; and Hickenlooper has friends around the country.
"When you're raising serious money, you go to California, Chicago or New York," Kolomitz says. "You go to other cities you have experience with."
Locally, candidates go to the Country Club area, which was once the most dependable source of cash. But LoDo, with just a couple thousand residents, recently has become a superstar in the world of political fundraising. The zip code that includes LoDo is near the top of the Colorado list for political donations to national campaigns (along with Greenwood Village, Aspen and Vail). And most of that money is going to Democrats, since the area is emerging as a kind of upscale, liberal neighborhood more typically found in cities such as San Francisco or Boston.
That may help Hickenlooper, who is one of LoDo's best-known figures. "I think a neighborhood's reputation can be made by an election," Sondermann says. "If the mayor of LoDo becomes the mayor of Denver, there's a story in terms of the influence and clout of a neighborhood."
With big money being pulled in, several of the candidates have hired ad firms with national reputations. Hickenlooper signed on with Minneapolis-based North Woods Advertising, which developed the humorous ad campaign that helped make Jesse Ventura governor of Minnesota. Mares hired Strother Duffy & Strother, which worked for Bill Clinton and most recently helped Shirley Franklin become mayor of Atlanta.
These and other large firms' interest in who becomes mayor of Denver -- other than the billable hours -- is often attributed to the national profiles of the city's past two mayors. Peña went on to serve in Clinton's cabinet, while Webb has headed up the U.S. Conference of Mayors and is well known around the country. "You'd be hard-pressed to find a city with two mayors in a row that have had a national profile," says Kolomitz.
Unlike in other large Democratic towns, the role of labor unions is a wild card in Denver elections. Labor has never been as powerful here as in Detroit or New York, but the unions can be influential. "Candidates never have enough time, money or people power," Kolomitz points out. "The unions contribute money and people. Groups that can supply that go a long way to advancing their candidates and causes."
Mares, a former labor lawyer, has rounded up solid backing from an alphabet soup of local unions, including the Denver Area Labor Federation, in return for a promise to support collective bargaining for city employees. But so far, the police and firefighters' unions -- which traditionally play a big role in city politics -- have not unified behind one candidate. (Unions do not represent most city employees, but law enforcement is an exception.)
Another peculiarity of Denver politics is the relative weakness of the business community compared to many other interest groups. While the chambers of commerce in cities such as Atlanta or Chicago play a huge role in local politics, the Metro Denver Chamber of Commerce wields little real clout at City Hall and doesn't endorse candidates. It played a vital role in helping Peña win approval to build DIA, but since then has stayed on the sidelines.
"What I perceive businesses doing is betting on a presumptive favorite, but they'll change horses in a New York second," Sondermann says. "A lot of them are still sitting on their hands to see which way the wind blows."
The business community, many of whose members belong to the chamber, rallied behind former district attorney Norm Early in 1991 and then found itself frozen out of City Hall by Webb. The two eventually made peace, but Denver's business elite don't want to make the same mistake again. "The first couple of years, most of 17th Street was in the doghouse," says one source. "Because of that, they've been cautious in moving to support somebody. Most of them are comfortable with Zavaras, and a lot of them like Tate."
One of the reasons business may hesitate to get heavily involved in the mayor's race is that much of the local electorate is automatically suspicious of the front-runner; Denver voters tend to distrust the establishment candidate while showing a preference for mayoral underdogs. It was probably to the advantage of both Peña and Webb that they trailed behind their opponents in fundraising when running for mayor.
"There's an innate distrust of who the establishment is behind," says one City Hall campaign veteran. "When you get that front-runner label, the connotation is, 'This is the guy being served up on a platter for us, and we'd better take a good, hard look.'"
The city also has a lively mix of affinity groups that can play important roles in the elections. The gay and lesbian community, for example, is well organized and known for its high rate of voter turnout; all of the major candidates are courting gay support.
"In past elections, there's been a lot of time and energy spent mobilizing the gay population," Kolomitz notes. "They vote." Indeed, at a recent fundraiser at a Capitol Hill gay bar, the straitlaced Zavaras was seen with a drag queen in his lap.
Environmentalists also have influence. The Sierra Club has several thousand members in Denver and often endorses candidates. And advocates for the arts have recently stepped up their involvement, sponsoring a forum for the mayoral candidates that drew several hundred people to the Denver Performing Arts Complex in January.
Even restaurant and bar owners pick favorites. The Colorado Restaurant Association has contributed to the campaigns of both brewer Hickenlooper and Zavaras, whose brother-in-law, Pete Contos, owns a number of restaurants, including Pete's Kitchen. "They could be from the Communist Party, and if they owned a restaurant, we'd support them," says association president Pete Meersman.
Kolomitz predicts that about 175,000 Denverites will vote in the May 6 election, meaning a candidate would need at least 87,501 votes to win outright. Since that's unlikely, each of the mayoral hopefuls is trying to piece together a coalition broad enough to propel them into the runoff.
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Denver's previous two mayors changed the face of the city, building a new airport, transforming LoDo, opening up Lowry and Stapleton to development, and erecting a slew of new public buildings including a baseball stadium, a library and a city office building.
The construction cranes looming over the Colorado Convention Center and the Denver Art Museum verify that this metamorphosis is still under way, but what comes next is still unclear, since Denver will have both a new mayor and a largely new city council as a result of term limits.
"There's a potential for this election to be about something, but none of the candidates has stepped forward to put their stamp on it," Sondermann says. "All of the candidates are pitching to narrow constituencies. If one candidate broke out of the pack and tried to define what the race is about, it would serve them well. Is it a discussion of haves and have-nots? The economy? Congestion issues and mobility? Clearing out the rotted City Hall and starting anew? Voters are asking what's new, what's the next big thing for Denver? That's what's missing from this race."