James Mejia: A Denver mayor's race profile

Now that John Hickenlooper has been elected Colorado's governor, we know Denver will have a new mayor next year -- and the race promises to be wild and wide open. To introduce you to the players, we're going to offer profiles of official candidates, starting with the first to declare, James Mejia.

"I'm a marathoner," says James Mejia. "And I consider this campaign to be much like a marathon."

A married father of three, Mejia is no stranger to public service, having served on the Denver Public Schools board and on behalf of both Wellington Webb (as manager of parks and rec) and John Hickenlooper (for whom he oversaw the development of the Denver Justice Center). When did he decide he wanted to take a shot at becoming mayor himself?

"We first started talking about this when we heard that Governor Ritter wouldn't run for reelection," Mejia says. "We figured Mayor Hickenlooper might have some interest in running for governor, and therefore, we'd be facing an open seat -- and it turns out our assumption was correct."

At that point, Mejia sat down with experts in various policy areas -- "everything from transportation to arts and culture, health, job creation and, of course, the economy," he goes on. "That's one of our big ones. And by mid-summer, when we saw there was pretty good support for some of our ideas, we figured we should enter the race.

"The reason we were the first ones to file is because sitting officials have the opportunity to raise money and really use their positions to their advantage. So we figured we needed to get in early in order to be competitive."

What's his focus?

"As we go around the city and talk to folks, there's no question that the economy and job creation are the most important issues. And we're going to be talking a lot in this campaign about how we want to work in job creation not only in the short term, but also how we position Denver as a city representing certain industries, and how we go after those industries.

"Other issues at the forefront of people's minds are basic city services and balancing the budget, and we're assembling our policy and thoughts on dealing with them now.

"Beyond that, I think there are visions out there everyone would like to see, and I'd put at the top of that list how the Mayor's Office can enhance our educational system. Even though it's a separate system, there's a tremendous amount the mayor should be doing to help the educational system improve and increase graduation rates in Denver. And I also want to increase the health and well-being of people in order to lower medical costs in Denver.

"That's the kind of issue you might not hear other people talk about, but it's one you really can't separate from how our kids are doing and how educated our kids are becoming. If you've ever had a medical condition or been without insurance, you know nothing else happens until that health issue is addressed. In a city where our kids went from being the third healthiest in the country to the 23rd in the last three years, we need to reverse that trend. And I hope to role model the importance of exercise and health eating, and to promote an increase in the number of school-based health centers."

What special expertise will he bring to the mayor's job?

"Of the other names I've heard who are interested in running, I believe I'm the only person who has executive experience in city government," he says. "We have no time to waste, we need to hit the ground running from day one. And having served in Mayor Webb's administration, I know what it is to cut budgets. I've been there. And I also managed the Justice Center project, partnering with the private sector and building a team to bring it in on time and on budget.

"People can talk about the role they played in legislation and policy, and that's great -- it's a valuable contribution. But I can talk about what we did in the executive branch of government to make these projects a reality."

Are some of his goals too ambitious given the economic realities the next Denver mayor will face?

"We need to focus on how to balance our budget and how to make ends meet in the city, without question," he replies. "I think people are right when they say if we don't do that correctly, we can't do these other things. But at the same time, I want to talk about our vision for the city, what we want our city to look like in the future. And if you're not prepared and don't have a master plan, the one thing you can guarantee is that it won't happen.

"Conversely, if you plan for when resources are available and you can do projects, and the plans are there and the vision is laid out, you're shovel-ready to make your project and your vision happen. It's important to always have your eyes on those goals."

Mejia stresses that he's a Denver native, the ninth of thirteen children whose parents were the first in their respective families to attend college. "My dad was a DPS teacher for 37 years and my mom was a daycare provider -- and that background really explains my motivation for wanting to do this. I had the privilege of growing up in Denver in a safe neighborhood, walking to my neighborhood schools, and living in a family where education was the most important investment one can make."

As for the challenge ahead, he points out that "I just completed my fiftieth marathon. And like a marathon, the campaign will have some hills and some obstacles. But with the proper training and perseverance, I'd like to think we'll be successful."

More from our Politics archive: "John Hickenlooper plays politician in Casino Jack, cousin George Hickenlooper's swan song."