Imagine a Great Mayor
Matt Collins

Imagine a Great Mayor

They say people get the government they deserve.

As state legislators vote to cut off medical care to children, that may not say much for the people of Colorado. But, taken as a group, the people who want to run Denver are a good reflection of the city they call home. By and large, they're unpretentious and smart, well meaning if slightly naïve, provincial and idealistic all at the same time.

The next mayor of Denver won't be an Armani-clad sharpie tooling around in a sports car like San Francisco's Willie Brown, no billionaire exuding noblesse oblige like New York's Michael Bloomberg, no bombastic former attorney for the mob, like Las Vegas's Oscar Goodman.

Whatever the virtues of those three men, they couldn't win an election in Denver.

More than anything, Denverites detest arrogance. They want to feel that the mayor is one of them, someone they could invite over for a barbecue or a beer. Denverites don't trust someone whose suit costs more than an economy car. (Wellington Webb won the mayor's office by trumpeting the size-thirteen tennis shoes he wore out while campaigning around the city.)

Of course, you don't get into politics without an oversized ego, and Denver's political world often swirls with gossip about the behind-closed-doors scheming and temper tantrums of its politicos. But Denver's politicians are careful to keep such impolitic behavior private; they know that on-the-air explosions like those common in New York or Chicago would be political suicide here.

In Denver you have to be nice, or at least pretend you are.

In past elections, voters were polarized over issues such as building a new airport and cronyism in city contracts. However, in this campaign, the candidates find themselves agreeing so often that at campaign forums, they preface their comments by endorsing what their opponents have already said. In 2003, Denver seems to know exactly what it wants to be, or at least what it should try to become. A rough consensus has emerged among the city's voters, who now define Denver by what it is not:

Denver is not a suburb, and proud of it.

After years of being humiliated as businesses and residents left the core city, Denver is now relishing its renaissance as gridlock-weary suburbanites move back into central Denver neighborhoods. All of the candidates have endorsed the idea of creating pedestrian-oriented "urban villages" that reject the Highlands Ranch development model.

Denver is not new, and proud of it.

Denverites like living in a city that became the unofficial capital of the Western frontier, and they don't want to lose any more of their history. In Denver, historic preservationists rule. No candidate would dream of advocating the destruction of historic buildings.

Denver is not socially conservative, and proud of it.

Every candidate has reached out to the gay community, attending forums and holding fundraisers designed to showcase the candidates' comfort level with gay and lesbian voters. Even Ari Zavaras, the straitlaced former chief of police, was seen at a Capitol Hill gay bar with a drag queen in his lap.

Denverites do not like cars (even if they drive everywhere), and are proud of it.

All of the candidates say they support increased mass transit, and all of them have already endorsed RTD's FasTrack proposal to boost the sales tax to build a metro-wide light-rail network. Some suburban Republicans may view public transportation as a Bolshevik conspiracy, but Denverites say, "Bring on the revolution."

Denver is not racist, and proud of it.

Denver has come a long way since the 1920s, when voters elected Ben Stapleton as mayor with the backing of the Ku Klux Klan. Today, one of the leading candidates is Hispanic and another is African-American. All have made a point of campaigning in every neighborhood in the city and have pledged to reach out to every ethnic group when they hire a new management team.

Denver is not Republican, and proud of it.

All of the potential mayors are Democrats. (One is an independent who is the former chairman of the state Democratic party, but that's another story.) However, each would love to win the votes of the city's Republican minority and is trying to woo them by playing up their ability to be a watchdog over city funds. John Hickenlooper was the first to announce his plan for the city's budget deficit -- predicting even before Mayor Wellington Webb that it would be worse than expected -- and each of the candidates has since followed suit.

All say they are alarmed by the rising cost of housing in the city and would try to help teachers, police officers and others who are being priced out of Denver. They all vow to improve the relationship between the city and Denver Public Schools, and they want to reach children at risk of dropping out.

The poor state of the city's economy is probably the number-one issue on voters' minds. While that's part of a national problem, all of the mayoral candidates say they will recruit employers to Denver however they can.

With so much similarity in their platforms, voters are left to try to figure out which candidate has the mixture of street smarts and charisma that makes for a successful big-city mayor, who can be visionary enough to lead the city and hire a staff of great managers. Candidates like Hickenlooper and Zavaras are hoping the years they have spent pressing palms all over town will pay off on election day. Don Mares is counting on a carefully crafted political coalition to push him over the finish line, while Penfield Tate is banking on a devoted group of multi-racial supporters. Susan Casey is betting that voters will remember her six years on city council, while Elizabeth Schlosser and Phil Perington hope to be seen as mavericks challenging better-known and better-funded frontrunners.

Unless one candidate wins 50 percent of the vote on May 6 -- something no one anticipates -- the two top vote-getters will face each other in June. So now they're all polishing their images and trying to show off what's behind the campaign mask. What makes them different. What makes them the next mayor of Denver.

Former city councilwoman Susan Casey is riding her bicycle through the Platt Park neighborhood with a small group of supporters, including Councilwoman Kathleen MacKenzie. Cycling through the Shattuck property, an industrial site contaminated with radioactive soil, Casey stops to look around. She knows that the neighborhood waged a fierce battle to get the federal government to ship the waste out of town rather than "entombing" it on the property.

The residents have been working on a highly lauded plan -- part of Blueprint Denver, the city's master plan -- to redevelop Shattuck with a New Urbanism look, where housing, shops and offices mix together and pedestrians are key. Casey begins quizzing MacKenzie about how the process will work, asking detailed questions about how urban renewal bonds will be used to help fund the project. What's the timeline, she wants to know. How long will it take?

This is typical of her. Casey is a fact-gatherer, a data-cruncher. The class nerd of city government. But she is also widely regarded as one of the smartest people to serve on the Denver City Council, which she left in 2001 after six years. At candidate forums, Casey is the one who often asks the toughest questions.

When the question of building a new jail comes up at a recent forum, she asks why so many young black and brown men are being housed in the prison system. "When I think about the jail, I think about [former city councilman] Hiawatha Davis," Casey says. "He told me the real goal of families in his neighborhood is to keep the young kids out of the system. Think about the system and who it affects. They're Denver boys, mostly, young men who have lost their way. We know it's because of alcohol and drug abuse, child abuse and leaving school. We know the list of what causes this to happen.

"Building prisons is the easy thing to do," she says. "It's much harder to do five community corrections facilities that are halfway houses with drug-abuse treatment. That takes more work and commitment over a long time."

The 53-year-old has spent most of her life in public service, including working for former U.S. senator Gary Hart during his presidential bid in the 1980s. But she started as a social worker for severely disabled children in the Westport, Connecticut, schools. It was an experience that taught her that government could have a profound impact on people's lives. She was struck by how the families struggling to care for their disabled kids could be helped with fairly simple programs. "I thought if we could just have a respite program or something to give these parents a break, it would make a huge difference," she says.

Casey has never let go of that passionate belief that government can help solve social problems. That often leaves her frustrated with the cynicism about government so common in our era. Her campaign features a long list of proposals to restructure city government and make it more responsive to people. But it's this attention to detail that leads some to dismiss her as a behind-the-scenes woman, not a visionary leader, the one you hire to manage everything.

It just exasperates her. "People say I'm a policy wonk, like that's a bad thing," she says, sighing.

During a meeting with a dozen seniors in the Sunset Park high-rise near LoDo, John Hickenlooper entertains his mostly female audience with a story about the origins of his name.

"My name means 'hedge hopper' in Dutch," he claims. "They were the game poachers. They'd jump over the fence and steal the king's game. That's why there's so few Hickenloopers."

His story is popular with the ladies, and as he presides over a raffle at the end of the meeting, it's clear he has won several votes from the group. (His wife isn't surprised; old ladies love him, she says.) Hickenlooper is betting that there are more voters like these who are ready for a mayor who can make them laugh. His television ads show him trying on outlandish outfits at American Aces and walking around downtown making change for hapless motorists at city parking meters.

He has been a popular Denver character ever since he founded Denver's first brewpub, the Wynkoop Brewing Company, in 1988, and helped trigger the LoDo renaissance. He exudes a goofy charm that makes him seem younger than 51, but he's also developed a sense of gravitas about political issues that has surprised those who've known him for years. But Hickenlooper insists he won't give up his penchant for play if he becomes mayor.

Some believe his ad campaign is too comic and doesn't fit the public mood, but Hickenlooper scoffs at this assessment. "The political insiders say you should be more serious in tone when a war's going on," he says. "I talk to 1,000 people a week, and they like it. People are tired of the negative ads. The point of these ads is, government can be fun and exciting and entertaining."

The split between the fun-loving goof and the serious man of ideas was evident at a recent fundraiser held at the Wynkoop for a children's reading program. Hickenlooper entertained the kids, wearing glasses with eyeballs attached by slinkies and playing the clown. All fun and games. But minutes later, he turned serious to announce his education program, saying he'd raise $5 million in private funds annually to improve the public schools and add after-school programs. To attract new teachers, he proposes that the city help them make down payments on homes. In a businesslike voice, Hickenlooper notes that the success of the schools will determine whether companies choose to come to Denver.

This is his element, talking about how his business-world experience would help him run the city. But voters are still deciding whether brewing beer gives him the chops to run the city. Hickenlooper argues that his lack of experience is a virtue, not a drawback. Without any political baggage, he'd be able to reinvent city government. "My wife thinks I should have bumper stickers that say 'He's not like them,'" Hickenlooper says.

In fact, he's spent a lot of time trying to figure out what makes a great mayor. He's studied the records of successful mayors around the country and was especially impressed by Baltimore's Martin O'Malley, a forty-year-old wunderkind who was dubbed the "best young mayor in America" by Esquire. O'Malley has brought down the crime rate, boosted productivity among city employees, and jump-started development in inner-city neighborhoods.

"In Baltimore, they have a contest for the crews that fill potholes. The winning team every month gets a lavish dinner," says Hickenlooper, who traveled to Baltimore and met with O'Malley. "They're focused on their job and enjoy it more."

As the owner of a business in LoDo, Hickenlooper was angry that Webb decided to boost parking-meter rates to bolster city revenues. He says the effect has been to discourage people from coming downtown, and he calls it an example of shortsighted leadership at City Hall.

"We have to change the culture of city government," he says. "Most city workers view small business as the enemy. They should help small business expand instead of stifling them."

Don Mares's campaign headquarters is a lot like the candidate himself: focused, on target, politely efficient. Walking into the office on Broadway, you're struck by the almost military-like get-out-the-vote operation. A marker board lists dozens of precincts being targeted by the campaign that day, and a staffer is sorting literature that will be dropped on hundreds of doorsteps. More than 500 volunteers are canvassing neighborhoods throughout the city, and Mares is working them one by one.

In north Denver, his political base, he is greeted warmly by supporters when he walks down the street. They wave, recognizing him from growing up -- and still living -- in the neighborhood. They know or have heard stories of his parents. How the two from rural New Mexico opened a taquería on 38th and King streets in 1960 in what was then a predominantly Italian area. How his parents were the first couple to be married at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church -- now the center for Latino life in north Denver. And they have watched as Mares, now 46, graduated from Regis High School, then Stanford and then the University of Pennsylvania Law School. He is their local boy made good.

Much of his strength came from his mother, Priscilla, who died in 1995. She was a feisty political activist, and, like her, Mares is extremely proud of his heritage and a big supporter of the underdog. He recalls how the diminutive woman -- she was only about five feet tall -- campaigned on behalf of a postmaster in the small Colorado town of Milliken after residents objected to having a Latina serve. Later, he saw the inner workings of the Denver Democratic campaign machine as Priscilla volunteered for numerous candidates. He watched her fight for the poor as a member, appointed by the archbishop, of a Catholic commission on poverty.

"It was pretty amazing to me how active she was," Mares says.

As a result of that upbringing, he is probably the most committed of all the candidates to representing those outside the Denver power structure. When Mares returned to Denver after law school, he turned down job offers at high-profile 17th Street firms to work for one that specialized in labor law as part of his commitment to "people law." That choice began a close association with organized labor that has continued to this day, through his election as a state representative in 1988, a state senator in 1991 and two terms as city auditor.

The Denver Area Labor Federation has endorsed his campaign, as has ACORN, an activist group that is pushing the city to enact a "living wage" ordinance requiring city contractors to pay above the minimum wage and offer benefits. And though the idea is strongly opposed by the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce and business groups, he has an army of volunteers, many of whom are union members, supporting him.

"I understand what workers' rights are about," he says.

Mares is proud of his commitment to those who are struggling to make ends meet. On a recent campaign swing, he stopped by a modest home in Montbello to drop off yard signs and meet his supporters, a family of African immigrants. He knows that finding a job that offers health insurance is often difficult for people like these.

But to those outside of his political coalition -- labor, Latinos, immigrants and liberal activists -- he often comes across sounding too scripted, too polished, too much of a politician. It sometimes seems that every hair on his head is in the proper place and that his wardrobe never varies from the crisply corporate. That there is little of his mother's feistiness. But at a recent forum in Green Valley Ranch, a question from the audience brought out a rare flash of anger.

Mares had just described himself as the chief financial officer for the city. Why, someone asked, should illegal aliens be allowed access to education and health care, costing the taxpayers money?

Suddenly, the smooth Ivy League demeanor was gone, leaving an angry man fighting against the people who would exclude Latinos from the American mainstream.

"I have a hard time using the term 'illegal alien,'" Mares snapped. "These are people who work hard and pay taxes. I think the mayor of Denver needs to help get our country to rethink this issue."

Phil Perington's office is only a block away from the headquarters of the Colorado Democratic Party, but the chill between the two is numbing.

Perington was chairman of the state Democratic Party from 1997 to 1999, during which time he managed to alienate officeholders and rank-and-file Democrats alike with his public criticism of former governor Roy Romer and his call for former president Bill Clinton to resign. To hear the Democrats tell it, Perington is a nasty piece of work with no loyalty to anyone. His successor as state party chair, Tim Knaus, publicly described him as the most hostile and divisive person he had ever met.

For Perington's part, he makes it clear the divorce was not friendly. "The Democratic Party has lost its way and lost its message," he says. "It's been taken over by organized labor and the trial lawyers. The powers that be decided they didn't want me. They're driving moderates out of the party."

Now that's he's out of party politics, city government is one of the few non-partisan political venues where he can still find an audience. He has some experience, having run Jerry Brown's successful presidential primary campaign in Colorado in 1992 and his own unsuccessful bid for the U.S. Senate in 1996. A native who grew up in south Denver, he now works as a real estate broker and volunteers for several local nonprofits.

Perington says he's running for mayor because Denver's city government has run off the track. What Denver needs is a straight shooter like him, someone who isn't afraid to pull the trigger. A registered independent. Someone way outside of party politics.

"I got tired of seeing how political the office has become. The decisions are based on what's good for the mayor and not what's good for the city," he says, speaking specifically about the Webb administration's contracts for lobbying in Washington. He thinks money could be saved there and better spent on Denver's kids.

"Last week, Denver Public Schools cut a summer program for preschoolers that concentrated on the poorest of the poor," he says. "The city should have had a reserve to help them out. I'm a champion for early childhood education. It's easier to build a child than repair an adult."

But Perington doesn't just spout off about an outgoing mayor. He's happy to criticize his rivals, as well, saying that some of the leading candidates haven't been scrutinized the way they should be. Particularly John Hickenlooper, who he claims adopted a lot of his ideas, including a call for zero-based budgeting. "I'm getting tired of his walk-on-water stories," Perington says. "He's had some incredible business failures. He's used low-interest loans from the city. Denver has been really good to John Hickenlooper."

As for Ari Zavaras, Perington wants to know what the former chief of police was doing when the department was assembling its now infamous spy files, since Zavaras has maintained he was unaware it was happening while he was chief. "I think you had a rogue element in the police department," Perington says. "I think Zavaras dropped the ball and didn't take care of business."

He thinks the position of manager of public safety -- which Zavaras also held -- should be eliminated. "The manager of safety has become a firewall to deflect criticism from the mayor."

When Perington looks in the mirror, he sees one of few honest men left in politics. He quotes one of his favorite presidents, Harry Truman:

"It's a cliche, but the buck stops here," he says. "There's no more Harry Trumans in the Democratic Party. That's why I left."

The diversity of Denver is on display at 44th and Tennyson. More than two dozen businesses include a store that makes and sells enormous piñatas, a gallery that specializes in Vietnamese art, the Yankee Trader antique store, a hot dog stand, and an Italian restaurant under construction. Elizabeth Schlosser is campaigning here because it's exactly the kind of neighborhood she loves: a historic commercial district that is being revitalized.

She steps into Lisa Marie's coffeehouse and notes approvingly the mix of overstuffed couches, pictures of Marilyn Monroe and antiques on the wall. "This is what builds community," she says, contrasting the lively scene with the dreary sameness of suburban shopping malls. "A friend of mine calls all the new malls we're building the candy-assing of America."

She would know. She's been one of Denver's leading historic preservationists since before it was fashionable. The 53-year-old has been around town long enough to remember when LoDo was viewed as a filthy nest for the drunk and deranged and the business community would have toasted its demolition. But as president of Historic Denver, she persevered, floating the idea of creating a historic district in LoDo.

"Some people said, 'You'll never work in this town again if you go for that,'" she recalls. "They just wanted to tear down LoDo."

What a difference a decade makes.

"Historic preservation was radical and edgy at the time," Schlosser says, recalling her start in the 1970s. "We were suburban kids who wanted to live with more diversity. We were very idealistic. We thought we could cut down on mental illness by giving people more of a sense of community. It was a great time. It took in people who were young and didn't have a lot of money and were willing to live downtown."

Now many of her once-radical ideas have been embraced by all of the candidates. They all support preserving existing neighborhoods as well as steering high-density development toward mass transit lines. They've all endorsed building a metro light-rail network. They all tout the mix of housing, retail and offices found in many of Denver's oldest neighborhoods as a model for the way the city should develop new neighborhoods.

But Schlosser's involvement in the cause has led some to dismiss her as an upper-class do-gooder, hosting fundraisers with socialites.

"It's a little patronizing," she says. "My kids went to public schools. I don't polish my nails. I've worked every day of my life."

As sun glints off fast-melting April snow, Penfield Tate III is welcomed like a hero by the two dozen people gathered in Cheesman Park. He's here to deliver a message to the city's gay community, and there's no better venue, since the neighborhoods around the park have the highest concentrations of gays in Denver. He reminds his audience that he spent years in the legislature fighting unsuccessfully to get Colorado to adopt a "hate crimes" law that would boost penalties for violent crimes directed against gays. That his dad took up their cause in 1972 as the first African-American mayor of Boulder. That he'd listen to their voice now as the mayor of Denver.

He mentions a bill introduced in the legislature this year by Representative Don Lee that would allow paramedics and other medical providers to refuse to provide care to gay patients. The crowd hisses, and it's clear that Lee's Jefferson County district might as well be on the other side of the moon.

Tate was in high school when his father, Penfield II, won the mayor's seat in Boulder, and he vividly remembers the vicious political controversy that engulfed his father. Just after the election, the city council approved an ordinance banning job discrimination based on race, sex, religion and sexual orientation. And while Boulder would become the first town in Colorado to approve a gay-rights ordinance, it was too much in the 1970s for even this liberal hippie town. The ordinance was repealed in a special election, and Tate barely survived a recall attempt. He lost his bid for re-election in 1975, and his once-promising political career came to an end.

"It was kind of spooky," Tate III says. "The calls were always anonymous, and the letters were unsigned. When you answered the phone, they'd launch into vile rhetoric; they didn't care that kids were answering the phone."

Despite his star-crossed political career, the elder Tate encouraged his son to run for political office. Tate won a seat in the Statehouse in 1996 representing northeast Denver and was later elected to the Colorado Senate, where he served on the powerful Joint Budget Committee, winning the respect of Republican colleagues because of his easygoing manner and playful sense of humor. (He gave up the seat to run for mayor.)

One recent afternoon, Tate is on the phone raising money. (Like most of the candidates, when he isn't campaigning, Tate is dialing for dollars.) He works with a crew of staffers, one of whom is dialing up contributors, while another hands the candidate index cards listing how much the person he's talking to has given in the past and the issues he cares about. Another person keeps a ledger noting exactly how much money has been pledged that day and how many checks have arrived in the mail. The campaign's TV advertising is about to begin, so every dollar needs to be collected as soon as possible.

Tate is affable and charming on the telephone, asking one man how his wife is doing and then smoothly steering the conversation toward a request for a donation. He tells supporters that he's confident he can win the race but needs to buy more TV time.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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