Theresa Spahn: A Denver mayor's race profile

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With John Hickenlooper having taken office as Colorado's governor, we know Denver will have a new mayor this year, and the race is wide open. To introduce you to the players, we're offering profiles of official candidates. Next up: Theresa Spahn.

"I'm not an elected official," says Theresa Spahn, "but I understand systems and good government. I'm bringing a fresh perspective."

Spahn has deep roots in Denver and what used to be called the Old World.

"My mother's side of the family are Mancinellis," she says. "My great grandparents came from Potenza, Italy to North Denver and started Mancinelli's Grocery, a small business that was around for 73 years. That's one reason I'm a champion of small business -- and my whole family is still very active in the North Denver Potenza Lodge. It turns out that most of the people in that North Denver neighborhood came from Potenza. There was a huge migration, and everyone settled in the same area."

As for her father's side of the family, "they came from Russia to 31st and Marion. That's where my father grew up; he was a Golden Gloves champion in 1960, an all-city athlete. And I grew up at 52nd and Federal, in a very blue-collar, very humble neighborhood. Those are my roots."

Spahn attended neighborhood schools before enrolling at Metropolitan State College. She worked her way through Metro with the help of waitressing jobs, becoming the first in her family to earn a degree -- and she later supplemented it with a sheepskin from the University of Denver's law school that she put to good use.

"I've been a deputy district attorney, been in private practice, been on the bench for seven years as a district court magistrate, presiding over child abuse and domestic-relations and criminal cases, as well as juvenile cases," she recalls. "Then I left the bench because, in the year 2000, our state legislature created a new agency to represent children in the court system, and I created that office," known as the Office of the Child's Representative, or OCR.

"The system was very broken and very problematic," she concedes. "Westword spent years writing about some of its problems. When I took it over in 2001, it was underfunded -- so I pretty much met with every county official and all the lawyers in the state that I could to figure out strengths, weaknesses and where we needed to make changes. At the time I took the job, the legislature was all Republican and Governor [Bill] Owens was in office, but I worked my tail off to let them know how important this was. Then we made everyone reapply for their jobs and cleaned house where we needed to. We really changed the culture of that agency, and I'm very proud of what we accomplished."

She's equally pleased by her work on behalf of former Colorado Supreme Court Justice Rebecca Love Kourlis, who chose Spahn to collaborate and coordinate with onetime U.S. Supreme Court member Sandra Day O'Connor on the O'Connor Judicial Selection Initiative, a project intended to make the court system more impartial.

Despite such efforts, however, Spahn says "people ask me, 'How is that relevant to serving as mayor?' But with all the things the mayor has to focus on now, she's going to have to bring some bold ideas to the economy, to the budget, to many other issues. She'll have to bring a diversity of viewpoints together, be a strong negotiator, and be able to make tough decisions. And I think my background will serve me well."

Like most of her fellow candidates, Spahn puts the economy at the top of her agenda.

"The last three or four years, this economic downturn has put us in a position where we have to look at ourselves differently when it comes to the budget," she feels. "It's a time when we have to be absolutely the best we can be. City government has never been more important."

To tackle this issue, Spahn hired Dr. Phyllis Resnick, managing director of R2 Analysis, LLC, an economic consulting firm that concentrates on Colorado. "She's done a lot of studies when it comes to fiscal sustainability, and I believe we need to put everything on the table and reinvent ourselves. When you look at the budget, about 50 percent of it is the DA's office, the court system, safety and fire, and we haven't really changed how those agencies do business since 1959. So I'm asking, can we streamline things? We're going to have to cut by 12 percent, so how can we be the best city government we can be and still provide all the services people need? We'll be working very hard with Dr. Resnick to look at all the different departments. And we'll go in completely open-minded. There cannot be any sacred cows."

In addition, Spahn is very interested in promoting education -- and not just because she and her husband, attorney Adam Gollin, have a fourteen-year-old son currently attending East High School.

"The mayor is not the school board, not the superintendent," she acknowledges. "But I think it's a time where the mayor's office can serve as a partner and provide positives. Only 52 percent of the children in our school system graduate, which is shocking to me, and it's up to 70 percent in the Hispanic or Latino community. So this is a very serious issue, and I think we can provide leadership by working in communities to bring new ideas: better truancy programs, better after-school programs, programs to find mentors for kids who need them most. I see this as a place where we can really make a difference.

"When I was in high school, I had my own challenges and serious issues going on," she continues. "I didn't graduate from high school; I had to go back to night school to get my diploma. But many people in the community believed in me and pulled me forward. And I think we need to do the same thing in order to do right by our children."

Another hot-button topic that the next mayor will face is criticism of the Denver Police Department in relation to excessive-force complaints. Some observers believe these allegations have been over-hyped, but in her view, "this isn't a media creation. I feel strongly there's a problem. I have people I know who work at the Denver Police Department, and they're great detectives. The department has some of the greatest crime units, too -- so I don't want to cast the problem as being throughout the department, because it's not. But there definitely is an issue going on with excessive force, and I think it's been there for a long time. I'm very concerned about it as a citizen and very concerned about it as a candidate for mayor. We need to look at what other cities have done to change these types of issues, and we should have an open mind when we do a national search for the next Chief of Police."

Does that mean she's already reached a conclusion about Gerald Whitman, DPD's top cop?

"I think our current chief has made a lot of contributions," she allows. "But he has been unable to take care of that problem, and it's a serious problem. Citizens want change, and it starts at the top."

Reaching a similar pinnacle by winning the mayor's election won't be easy. After all, the list of declared candidates is huge, and Spahn acknowledges that several of her competitors are much better funded than is she. Still, "I take fundraising very seriously, and I know that in order to be competitive, you have to be on TV," she says. "So my goal isn't to match Chris Romer or some other candidates in the race, but to be competitive."

She thinks the path that led her to this moment will help her accomplish this goal.

"I am the outsider," she says, "and I have a track record of new ideas. I've always thought outside the box, and that's even more important now. Because we have to learn how to do business differently."

Look below to see Theresa Spahn's introductory campaign video:

More from our Politics archive: "James Mejia: A Denver mayor's race profile," "Doug Linkhart: A Denver mayor's race profile," "Michael Forrester: A Denver mayor's race profile," "Michael Hancock: A Denver mayor's race profile," "Danny Lopez: A Denver mayor's race profile," "Chris Romer: A Denver mayor's race profile," "Carol Boigon: A Denver mayor's race profile," "Thomas Andrew Wolf: A Denver mayor's race profile," "Eric Zinn, mayoral hopeful, wants Denver to lose a million pounds," "Gerald Styron, Denver mayor candidate, once threatened to bring a gun to Westword," "Paul Noel Fiorino: A Denver mayor's race profile," and "Dwight Henson: A Denver mayor's race profile."

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