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Denver’s Hickenlooper primed for prime time

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DENVER | Four years ago, a tall, lanky political newcomer with a funny name became the breakout star of the Democratic National Convention.

It could happen again, only this time, Denver Mayor John W. Hickenlooper is the one poised to emerge as the sleeper sensation of this year's Dem-fest, much as Illinois senatorial candidate Barack Obama did at the 2004 Boston convention.

Mr. Hickenlooper, 56, isn't likely to wow the delegates with his soaring oratory or Kennedyesque bearing, but as Denver voters will attest, something about the mayor's gangly charm and earnest optimism is hard to resist. He cruised to re-election last year with 86 percent of the vote, prompting one newspaper to declare the city "Hick Town." Even critics acknowledge that his popularity seems to transcend politics.

"Hickenlooper is the Teflon mayor. He can do no wrong," said Brad Jones, a Republican consultant who runs the influential Denver-based blog Face the State.

His most recent show of political sleight of hand came in November, when Denver voters approved nine Hickenlooper-backed ballot measures aimed at expanding city services.

Republicans were dumbfounded. "He passes the biggest tax increase in Denver's history, and there's no opposition," Mr. Jones said.

Viewers will get their first look at Hizzoner when he opens the convention with a prime-time speech Monday at the Pepsi Center. Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter Jr., a Democrat, is scheduled to conclude the ceremonies four nights later at Invesco Field at Mile High, where Mr. Obama will give his acceptance speech.

Mr. Hickenlooper said he wants to show off Denver's accomplishments, including an ambitious regional transit project known as FasTracks, initiatives to combat homelessness, and the city's cooperative relationship with local municipalities.

"This is a region that's done a lot that the country should be aware of," Mr. Hickenlooper said in an interview. "Clearly, suburbs benefit from having a strong downtown, and clearly, downtown benefits from having attractive suburbs.

"And yet in most cities, the downtown is pitted against the suburbs," he said. "That's not the case here."

The owner of several restaurants, including the Wynkoop Brewing Company in Lower Downtown (LoDo), Mr. Hickenlooper entered politics in 2003 with his first run for the mayor's office. He won with a pro-business message that took particular offense at downtown parking, with ads showing him feeding meters.

Though the mayor's office is nonpartisan, Mr. Hickenlooper is a Democrat who's on the party's shortlist for a Senate seat or the governor's mansion. It's unlikely that the convention would have come to Denver without Mr. Hickenlooper's enthusiastic backing.

Since Denver won the convention, he has been the busiest guy in town, serving as its public face with Leah Daughtry, chief executive officer of the Democratic National Convention Committee while raising funds to make up the $11 million shortfall in the convention's budget.

Mr. Hickenlooper announced Tuesday that the host committee had met its $40.6 million goal with less than a week to go, in part by selling luxury-box seats to Mr. Obama´s Invesco Field speech.

"He's been incredibly important to CEO Leah Daughtry from the very beginning, even when the site-selection committee was visiting Denver two years ago," said Natalie Wyeth, the Democratic National Convention Committee's press secretary.

Though there have been some stumbles - battles with civil libertarians over protests and misuse of the city's tax-free fuel pumps - even critics predict that the mayor will emerge from the convention more popular still.

"He's the pied piper of tax increases, and yet he's so quirky and geeky that he doesn't come across as a Nancy Pelosi or a Ted Kennedy," said Jon Caldara, president of the free-market Independence Institute, based in Golden, Colo. "He comes across as a reasonable guy. ... He's got pixie dust, and it works."

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