Veggo Larsen eases his six-foot-three-inch frame into a chair at a corner table in Tuscany at the Loews Denver Hotel, his restaurant of choice when seeking discreet surroundings in Glendale.
"I don't have to worry about running into someone here I don't want to see," he says.
Without naming names, he's clearly referring to allies of Glendale's dominant Tea Party faction -- a group formed in 1998 to battle Mayor Joe Rice's attempts to control strip clubs in the tiny enclave tucked into east Denver. Larsen's relationship with the Tea Party, whose members wooed him from the private sector more than three years ago and hired him without ever discussing the duties of his city manager job, has soured ("The Glendale T&A Party," January 20, 2000). After the Tea Party regained control of the Glendale City Council early last month, three councilmembers voted on April 24 to dump Larsen, citing threats he allegedly made to employees about losing their jobs. While the council fell short of voting him out, a settlement deal accomplished their aim on May 7.
Less than 24 hours after the beleagured Larsen's resignation, he's sitting in Tuscany's soothing dining room, calmed by soft hues and a gas-burning fireplace. "I'm still processing it all," he says, sighing. "Turning fifty and being unemployed is not an ideal place to be."
With his white hair, blue Ryder Cup golf shirt and neat slacks -- a marked contrast to the suits conducting a business meeting at a nearby table -- Larsen looks more like a gentleman of leisure, an Ivy League stockbroker in early retirement, than a man fresh from a brawl with local politicos. In fact, the 12-handicap golfer is looking forward to hitting the links on a weekday for a change.
"I don't play on school days, and haven't for the past three and a half years," he says. "It's a seventy- to eighty-hour workweek to keep things on an even keel."
A waitress approaches. Coffee, not tea, is his choice. Definitely not tea, nor Tea Parties.
"I showed them how to do what they wanted to do," Larsen says of the agreement that allowed him to part with Glendale. "I guarantee, the next one they hire, they're going to ask the questions this time they didn't ask the first time. Now they can get on with their original plan, whatever the heck it was."
He's uncertain whether the high-profile separation has damaged any possibilities for future government employment. "I don't have any illusions that this gives me the stripes to say I can be a city manager," he says. "But some people have said I can."
Indeed, one of his chief antagonists -- Councilman Mike Barrett, who accused Larsen of threatening him and voted for his ousting -- has praised Larsen's work publicly. Privately, Larsen says, the two have shaken hands and gotten past what Larsen admits were needlessly harsh words -- "a metaphor I thought he'd understand" -- when he left a message on the councilman's voice mail saying, "If you guys think you're going to fire me and not pay me, I will gouge your eyes out." Adds Larsen, "And I forgot to say '...with a rusty screwdriver.'"
"Good afternoon, Mr. Larsen. Good to see you again, sir," coos Stephen Pendleton, a server who veers by the table to refill drinks and take orders. Larsen chooses a new favorite: shrimp Sambuca.
Comfort food aside, his unemployed status has been softened by a settlement that includes a $100,000 lump-sum buyout on a $107,000-a-year contract that was to run through 2003, as well as keys to a 2000 Ford Explorer that he'd been using and other benefits. In return, Larsen agreed not to seek employment in Glendale for four years and to refrain from suing the city. Technically, he has a week to "ponder" the agreement, but given the venom that's been spilled in recent months, he sees no reason to look back.
Instead, he'll wait for the timely ringing of his phone, a sound that's led him to crisscross the country in a series of jobs that all tie in to his early love of numbers.
"I thought I would become a mathematician," Larsen explains. His dream of attending Yale in his home state of Connecticut was dashed by some unfortunate family shenanigans, and he ended up at another Ivy League college, the University of Pennsylvania, where he took some undergraduate courses in business.
"We were trained to become capitalists and to amass wealth, then embrace conservative principals so we could preserve it," he says. "Now that I'm turning fifty and am independently poverty-struck, I say, 'Screw 'em. Tax the rich. Gimme these social programs.'"
At the time, however, his breeding, talents and connections tied him to the wealthy in various capacities. A rich Texas family entrusted him with the management of what he describes as "$100 million worth of toys" such as real estate holdings, companies and other assets. The job also involved weekend getaways to Mexican resorts. He enjoyed the ride.
Larsen smiles when his meal arrives, shrimp in a cream sauce on a bed of noodles, bolstered by nicely steamed asparagus. "Whaddya think of the sauce?" he asks.
The flavor of the smooth sauce is much tamer than Larsen's past. After the Texas gig, he worked in Mexico on a U.S. Embassy project to build secure residences and on a low-cost government housing deal that crumbled due to local corruption: "Four of the top twelve guys are still in prison, as far as I know," Larsen says. An attempt to develop an apartment complex in the Yucatan foundered when a crooked pol asked for a special cash deal; after that, Larsen came to Colorado for a job as a grocery-store real estate manager (and made contact with future Tea baggers), then moved to Manhattan, where he happily managed real estate for the father of a college friend.
Then came the call from attorney Chuck Bonniwell, a founder of the Tea Party and an old golf buddy: "You want to come out and run Glendale?" Bonniwell was friends with Debbie Matthews, owner of Shotgun Willie's and a primary target of Mayor Rice's reform movement. While Larsen says he had no intention of taking a job running the 4,000-person hamlet -- "I had no qualifications," he explains -- he agreed to visit for a golf weekend.
And eventually, he agreed to take the city manager job. He wanted to do what was best for Glendale; he says Bonniwell and Tea Party co-founder Mike Dunafon wanted him to use the city's backing to support a plan to redevelop their holdings in Glendale. But parts of that grandiose plan -- including turning an area along Cherry Creek into a riverwalk similar to one in San Antonio -- never made sense. "Let's face it: Cherry Creek isn't San Antonio," Larsen says. "I don't know how they were going to make a silk purse out of a sow's ear."
Furthermore, he adds, it's silly to use government subsidies to help private ventures. "Why do these businesses need government help?" he asks. "Let them set up, make a profit and let the owners enjoy spending the profit. They don't need our help."
And they shouldn't expect any from Larsen. He's not planning to linger in the area. He might drive to Mexico in an ambulance that Glendale donated to a town in that country, and he'll entertain other job offers. As for his former employers, he insists he doesn't wish them ill.
"I hope they succeed, I really do," he says with no hint of a smile.
And the meal, like Veggo Larsen's tenure in Glendale, is over.
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