Calhoun: Wake-Up Call

Denver Mayor's Race: Return of the Twenty-Year Bitch

Every twenty years, voters like to surprise this city with a call for real change. It sounded in 1963, five years after the city celebrated its hundredth anniversary, with a barrage of boosterism, when incumbent Mayor Richard Batterson lost to City Auditor Tom Currigan, a solid numbers guy who'd promised to clean up the Denver Police Department scandal that ultimately sent thirty cops to prison for crimes ranging from gambling to prostitution to burglary.

Things were no longer business as usual in the Mile High City, though Currigan certainly encouraged business: He oversaw the construction of Denver General Hospital and a new convention center that was named for him, as well as the expansion of Stapleton International Airport and the creation of neighborhood health centers. But he also pushed for the Skyline Urban Renewal Project that wiped away most of downtown's history and character. And less than two years after winning a second term, Currigan stepped down, saying that he couldn't afford to send his kids to college on $14,000 a year. “Thomas Currigan was a dedicated public servant who improved safety, worked to launch Denver onto the global stage and helped shape the city into the great one it is today,” Mayor Michael Hancock said after Currigan passed away in 2014.

About that great city: Currigan was replaced as mayor by Public Works chief Bill McNichols, who was subsequently elected to three full terms. He was going for a fourth in 1983 when Federico Peña joined a field of challengers that included Denver District Attorney Dale Tooley, who'd run against the old gray mayor twice before; attorney and civic leader Monte Pascoe; and Colorado Department of Regulatory Agencies director Wellington Webb (yes, that Wellington Webb). Peña, a 36-year-old attorney and state lawmaker who'd moved to Denver from Texas and proceeded to shake up the Colorado Legislature, seemed the least likely candidate — to anyone who hadn't been paying attention to how Denver was changing, with a young and diverse collection of residents ready to challenge the good-old-boy network. Peña had a vision for a more inclusive future; the slogan "Imagine a Great City" (created, in full disclosure, by the other two co-founders of Westword, who five years later had moved on to imagining greater projects); and a smart way to get the word out in the pre-social media era: yard signs.
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History Colorado
A walloping Christmas storm that made the weather of this past December look like a Honolulu vacation buried McNichol's final campaign, and Peña went on to face Tooley in the runoff. It turned out that voters could indeed imagine a great city, and Peña filled the mayor's office with a crew of visionaries who could foresee everything but the Denver bust that was coming.

Despite that downturn, he was able to save what was left of lower downtown by creating the LoDo Historic District, get Denver International Airport approved, bring major league baseball to town and, thanks to planning head Jennifer Moulton, actually start considering how to structure new developments in a way that made sense.

Twenty years after Peña's surprise election in 1983, Webb — who'd been elected after Peña finished two terms — was finishing his third and final term as mayor, and a half-dozen wannabes were lining up. Police Chief Ari Zavaras was an early favorite, but there were other familiar names in the field. And then came one far less familiar, but hard to forget: John Hickenlooper, who'd co-founded the Wynkoop Brewing Co. when he was an unemployed geologist and launched a campaign to save the Mile High Stadium name, got into the race in January 2003, just four months before the first vote. He started out polling at 3 percent, but with savvy behind-the-scenes work and a series of commercials that showed government could be not only accessible but humorous, he won big endorsements and became the frontrunner in the final match-up against City Auditor Don Mares. (Another history lesson: No auditor has become mayor since Currigan.)

And then a city ready for change voted Hickenlooper right into the mayor's office from behind the bar, in another classic generational shift.

Fast-forward another twenty years. Hickenlooper is now a U.S. Senator, and while the half-dozen candidates he'd faced in 2003 looked like a formidable crowd, today there are two dozen people running for mayor, with the potential of more to come. But even with all those candidates, that array of choices, it feels like Denver residents are looking for something more. For something else.

Once again, it could be time to scratch that twenty-year bitch.