The 2008 DNC placed Denver center stage in national politics
There were many great moments for Denver during the 2008 Democratic National Convention, which four years ago filled this city with hope and lots of spare change. But for many of us, none was as deeply satisfying as finally plopping our collective asses into the plastic seats of what was then Invesco Field at Mile High, where Barack Obama would soon accept the Democratic presidential nomination. And it wasn't just because the first African-American candidate to be nominated by a major party for the office of president would give his acceptance speech on August 28, 2008 — exactly 45 years to the day after Martin Luther King Jr. made his "I Have a Dream" speech. Or because those who were waiting to hear that speech had somehow managed to snag tickets, then survived an insane two-mile, hours-long line in the August heat that wound past a former meth lab before it reached the stadium. No, what made that moment truly great was the realization that, after almost two years of planning, Denver had made it through the gauntlet of security checkpoints, the clogged roadways and the throngs of protesters, and emerged as something new.
As Obama stepped onto the stage, the world finally saw the Mile High City we all hoped we'd see one day.
"It was the most intense experience of my life," John Hickenlooper says of the DNC. Hickenlooper, who was mayor of Denver when the convention came to town and is now the governor of Colorado, has weathered a lot of intense experiences. But in the summer of 2008, almost every day was another challenge — and another opportunity. One of the biggest of both was the eleventh-hour decision by the Obama campaign to move that acceptance speech on the final night of the convention from the Pepsi Center, where it had long been planned, to the football stadium, which would let at least five times as many people catch the historic event. The new setting came with its own irony, as well as more than a few obstacles: When the metropolitan district that built the stadium decided to sell the naming rights, Hickenlooper, then best known as a founding partner/owner of the Wynkoop Brewing Co., Colorado's first brewpub that happened to be conveniently across the street from Westword's last office, campaigned from behind his bar to keep the Mile High Stadium name — or at least part of it. That push led many people to suggest he consider a career in politics — and he did more than consider it. Three years later, he ran a savvy, come-from-behind campaign to become mayor of Denver; in 2010, he moved across the street to an office in the Capitol.
But when Obama decided he wanted to deliver a Mile High speech in August 2008, Hickenlooper's team had just a few weeks to come up with new plans for crowd control, security and weatherproofing (or not) at the new stadium. Then there was the matter of tickets: People who'd given up on catching the speech were suddenly clamoring for seats. At one point, former secretary of state Madeleine Albright contacted the mayor's office, looking for tickets. The convention planners had already worked on putting VIPs in appropriate skyboxes, but Hickenlooper now realized that he not only didn't have tickets for Albright and the rest of the diplomatic corps, he didn't have tickets for state lawmakers or the metro mayors he'd been working with on regional cooperation issues — including cooperating on getting the convention to Denver. And there were simply no more tickets available. Reading the stadium contract, he saw that the Broncos organization was guaranteed a certain number of seats for an event at the football field — so he called Joe Ellis, president of the team, and asked if he had any tickets to spare. Sure, the exec told the mayor, what did he need? Twenty-five? Fifty?
Several thousand, Hickenlooper replied. And Ellis came to the rescue. Soon a mayoral aide was stuffing a valise full of tickets to Obama's nomination speech, and distributing them became almost a full-time job.
That Hickenlooper had become mayor of Denver was almost as unlikely a success story as Denver itself winning the convention. Almost.
"As a city, we'd been looking at it for a while," says Elbra Wedgeworth, the self-proclaimed "east-side girl" who was president of Denver City Council when she decided the time was right for Denver to make a bid, since the city finally had the hotels and facilities the convention would require. "By 2006, I thought maybe we could do it," she remembers. "Everyone thought I was crazy, but I just knew it was the right thing to do. It would put Denver on the world stage politically." And she started finding believers. She went to see Steve Farber, the very connected lawyer who'd been appointed to an earlier convention site-selection committee by Bill Clinton; and then to Richard Scharf, head of the convention and visitors' bureau now known as Visit Denver; and on to Hickenlooper. And in January 2007, they started putting together a team of volunteers and pulling together a bid, which ultimately ran to 1,600 pages and fifteen pounds. More than thirty cities initially expressed an interest in the 2008 Democratic convention; Denver had made it to the final three when the Republicans picked Minneapolis, taking that out of the running. New York was still in the mix, but "Bloomberg basically let Denver push it," Wedgeworth remembers. "We wanted it more than anybody else."
And Denver got it. Wedgeworth was sitting at her desk at her new job at Denver Health in October 2007 when she got the call that this city had won the bid. "Next to the night Obama walked across the stage, it was the proudest moment of my life," she recalls. It might also have been the most terrifying, because now all the real work had to begin — and tens of millions of dollars had to be raised in just ten months. But they managed to enlist a team of 15,000 volunteers and somehow came up with enough money. "It was our time and our turn," she says. "It was one of my greatest accomplishments as a public official. And it was win-win for everybody.
And on that, Dick Wadhams, the Colorado Republican chair at the time, concurs. "Right after I decided to run for state chairman was when the DNC announced that it was coming to Denver," he says. "And I remember thinking, 'I can't believe how lucky I am.'" He was at the Pepsi Center almost every day during the DNC, doing opposition interviews — and inspiring double-takes from loyal Democrats in the crowd. "I had more fun than I did at the Republican convention.... It was such a unique experience."
But Wadhams didn't just appreciate the personal opportunities; he also appreciated what the convention did for Denver's public image. "Democrats, to their credit, were very excited; they were about to nominate this new candidate — and it was not an excitement I shared," he admits. "But I was in downtown a lot, and I thought it was just electric that week. People were just having a great time." Making sure they could have a great time took a great deal of planning, though. At one point, Hickenlooper and several aides sat down with FBI and Secret Service officials to discuss what had to be done to keep downtown secure. The feds wanted to close Speer Boulevard — which would have severely inconvenienced the people who worked downtown, not to mention discouraged residents from joining national and international visitors after hours. Hickenlooper remembers looking around the table and asking, "Who has final responsibility for this decision?" And, he recalls, "they all looked down and said, 'Mr. Mayor, it's you.' Who knew?" Ultimately, Hickenlooper decided that the infinitesimal risk of a van blowing up outside the Pepsi Center early in the morning was more than balanced by what the city would gain from keeping Speer open from 7:30 a.m. to 9 a.m. every day so that people could get to work.
That tactic paid off: Downtown streets and shops and restaurants were packed, morning, noon and night.
It was the perfect backdrop for telling Denver's story: how downtown had added 15,000 housing units, how the city had banded together to fight chronic homelessness, how the entire metro area had joined to approve FasTracks, an integrated transit system. "The convention allowed us to put a face to our name," Hickenlooper says now.
That vision wasn't lost on Farber, who'd traveled around the country with Hickenlooper to raise money and support for the convention. "I think about it when I walk down the 16th Street Mall from time to time, when it's not real busy, and I remember the contrast," Farber says. "Because during the DNC it was like Fifth Avenue, Rodeo Drive. And people kept commenting about what a great city it is, how nice the people are."
After Obama's speech, he recalls, "a bunch of us went to dinner downtown, and we were saying, if you could pick a magical evening out of your life — something not directly affecting your family — what night would you pick?" They all picked that night. "That evening was magical," he remembers. "It meant something different to each person, but it gave everyone such a great sense of satisfaction.
"I think for people nationally and internationally who never really had a sense of what Denver was — and even those who lived here all our lives and didn't have a sense of what Denver was becoming — it put Denver in that class of major cities," Farber says.
Kelly Brough was Hickenlooper's chief of staff during the convention and put in long hours — but at least she would soon be in an ideal position to benefit from all that hard work, since a year later she became the head of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce.
"We sought advice from every city that had gone before us, and suffered through the criticism," she remembers. "After the fact, no question, people are intrigued by how we did it and think we're one of the best convention cities for how we pulled it off — both locally and internationally. We shouldn't underestimate the long-term value of that.... From a tourism standpoint, we showed the world this is probably a place you want to visit; we really did show well. From an economic standpoint, people saw our attributes, saw that we're a much more cosmopolitan, happening city.
"We changed this notion of who we are to the rest of the world," she continues. "But the big thing we did is change our sense of who we are. There are no limits to what we can do. We proved we were capable of doing it and surprised even ourselves. We see ourselves differently."
The sense of pride among all the city and regional workers who made the convention possible remains her best memory of the event. "For me, the favorite moment was when it was all over and we were coming down with our team, closing things out, and every employee understood how critical their role was. It was off the charts," she recalls.
"There are a hundred people I should be thanking," Hickenlooper says.
And Brough has one other, very personal favorite moment: when she learned that Obama was safely on the plane after the speech. "I didn't realize how incredibly stressed we were," she says.
So many things could have gone wrong and did not.
The city never needed the secret holding cells it had created in north Denver, and most demonstrations came off peacefully. There was a massive protest, led by Rage Against the Machine, that started at the Coliseum and headed downtown to the Pepsi Center. Once again, security officials wanted to shut it down, but Hickenlooper and then-police chief Gerry Whitman decided to let them march. "People were remarkably restrained," Hickenlooper remembers. "Rather than fight, we wanted to listen. I don't think anyone expected that."
And right at the head of that march was Jamie Laurie of Flobots, who was fresh from an appearance on the Tonight show — and performing at the opening-night party at Elitch Gardens to welcome delegates and the press, where he met the mayor for the first time. (Convention organizers still cringe over the proposal to have an opening rodeo, which they worried would permanently brand Denver as a cowtown.) "In 2008, there was a great deal of excitement and optimism," remembers Laurie. "I think the buzzwords of 'hope and change' were really in people's souls; people were being awakened by a hope that a presidential candidate could make change from the outside."
It wasn't going to be that easy, of course. "What you have this year," Laurie says, "is you have people approaching this election from a little more pragmatic standpoint. It's literally we the people who have to bring about change. We do that by putting pressure on the people in power."
That's how a state that had only gone Democratic three times in sixty years of previous presidential races, a state that had been completely red eight years ago, "went completely blue four years ago," he remembers.
And will the state stay blue this year? That depends on Romney's own acceptance speech in Tampa, and his performance in the first presidential debate, set for October 3 in Denver, Wadhams says. "Democrats right now are ruing the choice of Charlotte, with that state moving to the right," he adds. "They're going to get no kick out of that at all. I do think that four years ago, coming to Denver helped them carry Colorado. Would they have anyway, without the DNC? Probably, but it helped them win by the margin they did."
And this year? "This state is truly a toss-up," says Wadhams, the former Republican chair, "and it's going to be, right up to the end."
"New West, new ideas...that's how we sold it," Wedgeworth says. "You can't just fly over us anymore. Whoever wins the presidency now has to have Colorado."
"I think you're going to see Obama or Michelle or Biden here almost every week," Farber says. "I'd be surprised if Colorado doesn't pull for Obama."
Farber may be at the 2012 Democratic convention. "People are asking me if I'm going," he says. "My blood starts rushing, and I start thinking, 'I'm going to miss what we had four years ago.... Why did we want to do it? The reasons are still there. Would we want to do it again? I'd love to watch someone else do it."
John Hickenlooper will definitely be in Charlotte. Tapped last week by CNN as one of the rising politicians who could be "the next Obama," he'll have a prominent speaking role at the 2012 DNC. And this time, he'll know how to schedule his time...and save his energy. The Denver convention's big events were incredible, but so were the small moments. "It started Saturday night and went through Friday morning," Hickenlooper remembers. "You needed to pace yourself. You needed to remember, 'Do not stay up until 12:30 talking to Ariana Huffington.'"
But the "astonishing juxtaposition of people" who came to Denver — one night he found himself talking to Al Gore, Wynona Ryder and Jacques Cousteau's son — were too tempting to ignore. Until Hickenlooper would have to get up for TV interviews with the networks that started at 5 a.m. "As a former tavern owner," he says, "it's way too early."
After Obama's speech on that last night, Hickenlooper returned to the Wynkoop, where it all began, and where he'd arranged to meet Montana governor Brian Schweitzer, who'd given one of the big convention speeches. "I walked in and the place was jammed," he remembers. "Someone screamed, 'There's Hickenlooper!,' and they applauded for several minutes. I got up and stood on a chair, thanking people, and introduced Schweitzer, and they kept cheering. The place felt like it would levitate."
And in so many ways, Denver has not yet come down to earth.
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