When the 38-year-old Park Hill attorney, lobbyist and political consultant was still in his twenties, he was enough of a campaign veteran to conduct a workshop on the art of dishing it out. And Denver's three other official mayoral candidates--incumbent Wellington Webb, city auditor Bob Crider and city councilwoman Mary DeGroot--might wish they'd attended.
During that 1983 workshop before the Iowa Freedom Foundation, according to a contemporary press account, the precocious Frew listed five possible ways a candidate can respond to being attacked. If he's smart, said Frew, the candidate will either attack the source, ignore the attack entirely or simply say, "Yes, I did it." What the attackers hope for, however, is that the candidate will play right into their hands by saying either, "Yes, I did it, but it's not what you think" or, in effect, plead no contest by saying, "I didn't do it, but I won't do it again."
Frew has gotten the chance to practice that preaching in numerous down-and-dirty political races, and he has a winning record. He was campaign manager in nasty battles for victorious senators Tom Harkin in Iowa and Tim Wirth in Colorado. More to the point in this year's mayoral race, Frew was campaign manager for the coalition of businesspeople, labor leaders and politicians who convinced voters in 1988 and again in 1989 to build Denver International Airport.
Frew takes great pains to point out that he has not been responsible for what's happened since then at DIA. Expect him to point that out frequently.
Businesspeople and reporters describe the fresh-faced, personable Frew as a skilled strategist, an "insider" adept at "governmental affairs." He's such a skillful lobbyist, in fact, that he usually avoids being called a lobbyist in print. But to the still-bitter foes of DIA, John Frew is "a stooge" of the Metro Denver Chamber of Commerce. A few of them even call him a "sleazy bastard." To which Frew chuckles, proving he takes his own advice on how to handle attacks.
The guy, however, is hardly all smiles. As he said after his first pro-airport election triumph back in 1988, "If you show me a good loser, I'll show you a loser."
He's likely to be such a blunt instrument as long as he's in the race. "I've seen government from the inside; I've seen politicians," Frew says. "You understand how it works, and after a while you just decide that you want to say, `Move over, let me try this.'"
Even before his official announcement last Wednesday, Frew was on the attack, chiding Crider for hiring a political supporter for a job in the auditor's office. (Crider's campaign manager, Chris Lines, derides Frew's 3 percent showing in an early poll and says, "We expect him to be vocal.") But Frew's three opponents also have been smacking one another around. Webb has attacked DeGroot as "racist" (and then apologized). DeGroot has badgered Webb about the airport and curfews. Crider and Webb have exchanged heavy blasts and played financial games with each other's budgets.
While Frew talks about a "positive, proactive approach," he also vows that the voters "will know all four of us, warts and all" by the end of the campaign.
"I'm not going to let anybody get away with what I call `political nonsense,'" he says. "And when someone takes a shot at me, I'm not going to take it lying down. I believe in responding to unfair criticism quickly. You don't wait for a poll to tell you what to do."
For now, though, Frew's waiting for a few other things to shake out. He's waiting to see whether the connections he's worked hard at over the past several years, especially among businesspeople, will pay off with enough money and support to make him a major contender.
The staying power of old grudges from the 1991 race, in which Webb upset then-district attorney Norm Early in a runoff, may have a lot to do with it. For Frew, the die was cast last June during a meeting with Webb at which Frew says he urged Webb to fire public works director Mike Musgrave, the person in charge of getting the airport built.
"Lots of people in the business community were talking to me," Frew says. "And I told him, `You need to clean house.' I said that if he did, that I would get behind him and so would a lot of other people. And second, I told him, `You've got to change your attitude. Quit treating those of us who supported Norm Early as enemies.' He said no."