But scandals of the past are old news to Garcia Berry, who defines herself as a social liberal and a fiscal conservative and often sounds like a Democrat when she talks about issues. She is pro-choice and campaigned against the anti-gay Amendment 2 in 1992, a stance she says earned her husband a great deal of grief from some of his Colorado Springs constituents. "Will Perkins [sponsor of the amendment] and I have had untold arguments over this," she says. "I thought it was ill-conceived and mean. I had a cousin who was gay who committed suicide because of [being gay]."
When Garcia Berry gave up her involvement in the state legislature to devote herself to municipal politics, it might have seemed like a step down. But she soon discovered one of Colorado's little known political realities: The mayor of Denver in many ways wields more clout than the governor of Colorado. "The mayor of Denver is the most powerful elected official in the state," she says. "The mayor has phenomenal power."
While the governor can do little without approval from the legislature, Denver's charter gives the mayor wide-ranging authority over the city budget and all of the operations of city government. When Colorado's economy tanked in the late 1980s, the state took modest steps to try to turn things around. Denver, however, embarked on a multi-billion-dollar spending spree to spur the economy, an effort that gave us Denver International Airport, the convention center, the new central library and countless other projects in neighborhoods all over the city.
Whether through luck or political savvy, Garcia Berry was directing her attention to city hall just as huge amounts of money began to be spent on bond projects. Her client Dain Rauscher was one of the chief beneficiaries of that spending, selling bonds on behalf of the Denver Urban Renewal Authority and getting a big piece of the action for DIA.
Garcia Berry knew both Mayor Wellington Webb and former mayor Federico Peña from her time working in the state legislature, and she used those relationships to build up her client list. Her close ties to Webb have been especially beneficial, and Garcia Berry makes it clear that she enjoys her role of behind-the-scenes power broker.
"This work suits me," she says. "I like the complexity of what I do, the interface with government. I never get bored with my job."
Four years ago, CRL's influence on Denver City Council prompted an outburst from councilman Ed Thomas. In a letter to then council president Debbie Ortega, Thomas said the firm's sway was "painfully obvious," and he went on to complain that CRL lobbyists routinely collected "speaker cards" -- which members of the public have to fill out before speaking at council meetings -- from the audience, summoned councilmembers from the floor for lobbying, asked council staffers for favors and moved at will through off-limits city offices and meeting rooms.
"This conduct is not acceptable and not lost on casual observers and members of the media who cover these proceedings," Thomas wrote. "Observing how that influence is publicly displayed is just painful."
Thomas doesn't regret writing the letter; he feels it pressured CRL's lobbyists to alter their behavior. "I think it had a pretty positive outcome," he says. "It changed some of the dynamics in the city council room."
At the time, Thomas was miffed at the Taubman Company, one of Garcia Berry's clients. Taubman, which owns the Cherry Creek shopping center, had angered many people in Thomas's district when it went back on a planning agreement and opted to put more retail stores on the west side of the mall.
Today Thomas says he has a much more positive relationship with CRL. He acknowledges that the firm has easy access to city council members, including himself, but he says most people who want to talk to their district council representative have no problem reaching them, either. "To me, it doesn't matter if it's Maria Garcia Berry or John Smith. If they call, I call them back," he says.
Like most of his colleagues on city council, Thomas took in large contributions for his re-election effort from firms connected to CRL. He collected $1,000 from Bruce Berger Realty Inc.; $1,000 from Forest City; $1,000 from Jim Hannifin and an additional $1,000 from his company, Ready Temporary Services; $1,000 from Mortenson; $1,000 from Post Properties; and $1,000 from CRL itself.