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People Power

Chris Nevitt is used to balancing dichotomies.
Anthony Camera

Just like the district he represents, Chris Nevitt contains two seemingly contradictory sides.

First there's the hardcore union activist: "Unions built the middle class. Historically, when unions were strong, America was strong. And, frankly, over the years many union-supported politicians have sold working people down the river over and over."

Then there's the numbers-driven economist: "Core behavior is driven by incentives. For the most part, people are trying to get ahead. They're smart enough to understand what the incentives are and they behave accordingly. It sounds bloodless and mechanistic, but it's true."

Who better than a union-supported economics professor to helm District 7, the area of Denver that is nearly perfectly split demographically, with blue-collar communities like Athmar Park staring across the Platte River at West Washington Park, huddled in Denver's priciest (and whitest) zip code? The scrape-offs and spiking real-estate values in the latter area might be welcomed west of the river, where property investment is much more subdued.

Nonetheless, it should be noted that while Nevitt is an expert in communist economies, he is not a communist. But he is late. His aide Valerie apologizes and offers a cup of coffee, explaining that things have been really busy since Nevitt took office on July 16. So busy, in fact, that the door of Nevitt's office in the Denver City and County Building still bears the name of his predecessor, Kathleen MacKenzie, who was term-limited and recently moved to Brussels, where her husband has taken a job. So it's up to Valerie to clear space for the future by dumping old files into a large purple recycling bin and finding Nevitt a new desk that won't potentially "collapse and crush his legs."

When the councilman arrives, he looks tired. It's been a hectic few weeks. The French horn had barely finished tooting at the inauguration ceremony when he was plopped into the middle of the conflict between Xcel Energy and neighborhood groups over new transmission towers proposed for Ruby Hill Park. His arrival on the scene marked a shift in the tone of the proceedings, one much less shrill but much more tedious ("Pole Position," July 26). After several closed-door meetings, the various interests worked out a deal to bury the high-voltage lines if the neighborhood groups can convince area residents to foot the $4.4 million bill through a General Improvement District tax increase. The question will be squeezed onto a November ballot already weighed down by eight bond packages totaling $550 million and a separate $27 million tax hike. The majority of this would go toward infrastructure updates and crucial deferred maintenance; an added tariff for what amounts to an aesthetic advancement in an out-of-the way part of the city may be what pushes voters over the edge.

"Obviously, the timing is not ideal," Nevitt admits, but he argues that burying both electric lines would have a dramatic effect not just on the beauty of the elevated Ruby Hill Park but on all the surrounding neighborhoods. The proposal "is another investment to make this city a better place," he says. "That's what I think people will understand."

Nevitt's campaign was largely based on his short reputation for negotiating concessions from developers on behalf of labor and public-interest groups. But his success wasn't accomplished through "eleventh-hour pickets or having people chain themselves to bulldozers," he explains; he is more fond of intellectual arm-twisting: "Sometimes the best solution to a problem is one we haven't thought of yet."

Or sometimes the best answer is right in front of you — on the other side of the world. Nevitt had some early experience in this with a father in the Foreign Service. His childhood was spent in Thailand, Nigeria and Australia, with brief layovers in Virginia. "I've lived in Christian countries and Muslim countries and Buddhist countries, every race, color and creed," he says. "And so I think that experience has helped me, because I'm always looking for a different way we can tackle a problem. Despite superficial differences — and sometimes not superficial differences — there's a lot more that unites than divides us."

Coming from a family of Quakers, Nevitt went to a private Quaker college in Pennsylvania only to drop out after five semesters. For the next three years he migrated up and down the East Coast as the head of a crew that replanted trees on land owned by paper companies. Normally, he worked construction in the warm months, but one summer he took part in a Chinese-language immersion course at Cornell University. This led to a year of study in Beijing. He finished his degree and then headed to the University of California at San Diego for graduate school, where he studied communist systems. He even learned Russian so he could do research in the Soviet Union in 1988. The next year the Berlin Wall fell, which made for some interesting observation as the markets opened.

After getting married, Nevitt and his wife — Lisa Reynolds, a political scientist — headed to Arizona State University for teaching positions, with Nevitt lecturing on "intersections of economics and politics" in Russia and China. After three years, they decided to leave academia and began thinking about where they might go. Reynolds's family were Denver natives, so they thought, "Why not?"

"It felt like that hunger to sink roots and make a contribution to a place really captured me," he says.

They bought a house in West Washington Park, and Reynolds enrolled in law school while Nevitt was hired by the Denver Area Labor Federation to form a think tank focusing on worker issues. As executive director of the Front Range Economic Strategy Center, Nevitt helped produce two in-depth studies in 2003 that effectively derailed an urban-renewal project that would have erected a Wal-Mart at the long-languishing Alameda Square.

Meanwhile, the city and local developer conglomerate Cherokee Denver were drooling over the opportunity to redevelop the former Gates Rubber Company site, at Broadway and I-25, into a massive fifty-acre transit-oriented urban hub. Talk of a possible $126 million public-financing scheme to pay for site cleanup and infrastructure gave Nevitt and FRESC the leverage to enter into negotiations with Cherokee for a slate of concessions for the community.

"We're the public. We're investing our money in this project. And so as an investor, we expect to get top value for our dollar," he says. "We can't just count on the market to produce the outcomes that we want. We have to make clear what we desire and hold developers accountable."

FRESC involved more than fifty groups in the process, from environmental organizations to housing advocates, and came out with an agreement that included a ban on big-box stores, a significant increase in low-income units and a pledge to hire workers from surrounding neighborhoods.

Nevitt used the notoriety from this success to launch a campaign both heavily staffed and heavily funded by labor groups. And it's no secret that Nevitt sees advancing the union cause as a main thrust of his agenda. At his first meeting on Denver City Council, Nevitt took a brief mention of the new justice center as an opportunity to suggest that major city projects should be built with unionized construction companies.

"Because when a project is being built union, you look up at the guy on the iron and you know, for a certainty, that he has health care and his family has health care," he says. As Nevitt continues on about union pipe-fitters and sheet-metal workers, you almost expect "Streets of Philadelphia" to softly play over the PA. But being on council for these few weeks has made Nevitt appreciate the other side of the process. "There's a whole different set of pressures and responsibilities that you have," he says. "The buck stops with you, and things are definitely moving fast and furious.

"I am not a wild-eyed radical," he insists. "I am not a romantic unionist. I'm a political economist by trade, so I look at all of this pretty coldly."