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The 5280 Fifty

We rank the Mile High City's most influential powerbrokers in our primer on who's running Denver. Plus: A look at whose stars are rising—and whose stock is plummeting.

By , , |

It’s been five years since we last ranked Denver’s most powerful people, and, oh, how the town has changed. Back then, the governor and both U.S. senators were Republicans; an upstart Andrew Romanoff was a sure thing of a rising political star; Michael Bennet was merely the mayor’s chief of staff; Denver was a two-newspaper town; Mike Shanahan coached the Broncos, and Jake Plummer, now a handball player(!), was the QB; the idea of a Denver DNC was little more than a pipe dream; and people had jobs. Five years—what’s new? How’s that for starters?

As we reported on power in Denver today—which included speaking to dozens of sources, high and low, elected and otherwise—inevitably we were asked variations of this reasonable question: How do you define power? After all, we’re comparing politicians to scientists, doctors to attorneys, business leaders to museum curators. Indeed, this endeavor is an imperfect science. As we considered the reporting, the various agendas encountered, and the like, for our answer to the power question we relied on the sentiment expressed by President Woodrow Wilson, who knew a thing or two about influence: “Power consists in one’s capacity to link his will with the purpose of others, to lead by reason and a gift of cooperation.”

1. John Hickenlooper

Mayor of Denver

In a trailer for the recently released documentary Hick Town, which chronicles the mayor’s life in the run- up to the Democratic National Convention, His Honor jokes, “I tell you how you deal with the press. You fuck the press!” Never mind that he’s married to a journalist, Helen Thorpe—the mayor needn’t be overly concerned with confronting unflattering media. In Denver, polls show that about 80 percent of the town loves the guy, and it’s not like he’s doling out kisses and cup-cakes. During the DNC, Hickenlooper got a bounce from showing the country his beloved city, touting Denver’s downtown, the blossoming green initiatives, and FasTracks, all of which he has been instrumental in developing. After his party’s party was over, Mayor Hickenlooper then tended to unsavory municipal business like a decimated budget, wringing concessions from city employees with diplomatic aplomb. He’s shrewdly relied on a succession of quietly masterful chiefs of staff, but as one political operative puts it, “The mayor’s hands are in every- thing that’s going on in Denver.” Though his “frenemy” Governor Bill Ritter passed over Hickenlooper for Ken Salazar’s vacated U.S. Senate seat—in favor of one of the mayor’s former chiefs of staff, Michael Bennet—this remains Hick’s town.

2. Dean Singleton

Publisher, Denver Post; Vice Chairman/CEO, MediaNews Group

He won the newspaper war. It may prove to be a colossally Pyrrhic victory, what with Singleton’s company so heavily leveraged, but the last Denver newspaper tycoon standing commands the respect of every power broker above and below him on this list. His influence, for the moment at least, remains strong as his company’s credit rating weakens: In November 2007, the Post took the unusually bold step of running a front-page editorial blasting Governor Bill Ritter for what it called “backroom promises” to union bosses. Since then, and particularly since the Rocky Mountain News closure, Singleton’s paper has tweaked the governor’s office over a variety of missteps and shortcomings—like on health care and transportation—leaving Ritter politically vulnerable in 2010.

3. Cole Finegan

Managing Partner, Hogan & Hartson

If Denver’s elected officials are oranges on a tree, Finegan’s the one who can squeeze them for juice. A former partner of the law firm and political machine that is Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, Finegan left to serve as Hickenlooper’s city attorney in 2003, and subsequently took on the additional duties of chief of staff. Returning to the private sector in 2006, he told BHFS he wasn’t interested in his old job. Instead, he accepted the offer to head Hogan & Hartson’s Denver office. While H&H has become one of— if not the—world’s largest law firms, locally Finegan has surpassed his old law partners as the parochial shadow lord. The mayor, his friend, still considers Finegan a must-call for advice; so does Bill Ritter, who was an H&H partner until he took leave to run for governor. Finegan is a critical fund-raiser and adviser for both U.S. Senators Michael Bennet and Mark Udall. It’s worth noting that Tom Strickland, the chief of staff for Ken Salazar at the U.S. Department of the Interior, is an alumnus of H&H. And should the Democratic tree stop producing fruit in the next gubernatorial election, it may not hurt Finegan because Republican hopeful Scott McInnis is an H&H partner who’s been granted leave to enter the race.

4. Norman Brownstein/Steven Farber

Cofounders, Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck

While the sun is rising in Finegan’s sphere, that doesn’t mean the looming moon of Brownstein and Farber has fallen. Pals since childhood, Brownstein and Farber have been kingmakers in Denver for years, using their considerable charisma and contacts to elevate Denver’s profile, while advocating for their clients’ agendas and making their firm profitable. Brownstein handles the D.C. business, while Farber is the big man on Denver’s campus. Brownstein’s ability to galvanize funding for virtually anything, from DIA to Stapleton, is so legendary on Capitol Hill that Ted Kennedy once called him “the 101st senator.” Championing pro-Israel causes while making fund-raising magic, Brownstein has ingratiated the firm with, it seems, every power broker on the Hill. He needs an annex just to accommodate his freeze-and-squeeze pictures with the senior-most D.C. political establishment. As the cochair for the Host Committee of the DNC, Farber found the funding for the Obama-Fest. He’s a former chairman and ranking member of Colorado Concern, which is a collective of private-sector business leaders that arguably has more to say about business in Denver than does the city’s own chamber of commerce (think the Carlyle Group of Denver). Farber has become more selective about when and how he exercises his muscle since a kidney transplant in 2004 (the donor was his son, Gregg). Healthy (and with a George Hamilton tan), he has emerged as one of the country’s leading organ donor activists and recently cowrote a book about it that has Hollywood interest.

5. Ken Salazar

U.S. Secretary of the Interior

A moderate Hispanic Democrat with cowboy credentials, Salazar likely could have held onto his Senate seat for decades. Instead, he accepted a little job offer from the Obama administration to serve as the U.S. Secretary of the Interior. While in D.C. he’ll have to spend some time mending relationships with the Front Range Democratic machine: When Governor Ritter appointed Michael Bennet to fill Salazar’s Senate seat, Salazar felt his opinions about who ought to be his successor didn’t receive the appropriate consideration, and he gave the boys back home a cold shoulder for a while. Then again, Ritter and Co. know they need to play nice with Salazar, who, in his new role, manages one-fifth of the United States’ landmass, including huge chunks of the West, and whatever mineral wealth (like oil shale) can be found therein. (His position on the Roan Plateau will reveal much about the self-described “new sheriff” of the Interior.) Salazar remains a looming influence in Colorado, as two of the folks closest to him—his brother John and his protégé Betsy Markey—control the two congressional districts that fully encircle the Front Range.

6. Mark Udall

U.S. Senator

In 2008, Udall overcame opposition efforts to tag him as a “Boulder liberal” and trounced Republican Bob Schaffer by appealing to lefties and independents alike. Just a few weeks into his term, when Ken Salazar vacated his seat for the post at Interior, Udall took on the state’s senior-senator title. At last, it seemed, he achieved a prominence of public service worthy of his family’s legacy. The Udall clan’s decades-long activism has made it one of the West’s rare political dynasties, and gives the senator pedigree and longstanding relationships to leverage for the state’s environmental and alternative energy-related concerns, both of which will be prominent public-policy issues in the coming years. As a member of the Armed Services and Energy and Natural Resources committees, it will be difficult for political challengers to depict him as merely a hippie-dippie liberal, and makes it virtually impossible for anyone to avoid dealing with him on pressing policy matters. Udall’s presence in Colorado is as undeniable as the Flatirons.

7. Michael Bennet

U.S. Senator

Talk about a swift and stealthy rise. Since 2003, Bennet has gone from Anschutz Investment Company exec to Mayor Hickenlooper’s chief of staff to superintendent of the Denver Public Schools to U.S. Senator. He’s notched his belt with achievements, like dramatic changes within DPS, which drew President Obama’s attention to Bennet as a candidate for U.S. Secretary of Education. Ritter ended up appointing him to Salazar’s vacated Senate seat (not a bad consolation prize). Bennet has won over powerful allies—Senate majority leader Harry Reid chose him to replace the deceased Ted Kennedy on the coveted Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions. “The national power he pulls,” says a Democratic politician, “is unlike anything we’ve had in a long time—since the days of Gary Hart.” And he’s bold: On a recent CNN appearance, Bennet was asked if he’d vote for the health-care bill even if it might cost him his seat in the next election, and without equivocation he answered, “Yes.” He’s also already proved to be a fund-raising force, banking a cool $3.6 million.

8. Daniel Ritchie

Chairman/CEO, The Denver Center for the Performing Arts

Ritchie has been a pioneer in educational and artistic philanthropy for more than two decades. The former chancellor and chairman of the board at the University of Denver has given more than $50 million to the school over the years, and also led a series of fund-raising efforts that netted close to $275 million. In 2007, legendary DCPA cofounder Donald Seawell stepped aside for Ritchie, who has overseen further expansion of the theater complex, which now enjoys a sterling national reputation for its touring company shows and for its development of original works. Ritchie also leads or sits on the boards of several other organizations, including the Temple Hoyne Buell Foundation, the Daniels Fund, and Colorado Concern, making him one of the unquestionable guiding lights of Front Range generosity and vision.

9. Bill Ritter

Governor

Job title alone gets him in the top ten. Being the governor during such a recession is a most thankless job: This year, Ritter’s had to cut hundreds of millions of dollars from the state budget—over the past two years, there’s been a $2 billion shortfall—and, in the process, he upset just about every single interest group out there. Depending on which other local muckety-muck is doing the talking (and this is within his own party), Ritter is either a man of his own mind or a milquetoast. He appointed the dark-horse candidate Michael Bennet to Colorado’s open Senate seat and has sided with labor unions one day and the business community the next. A 2010 reelection is no guarantee for the governor: Ritter’s approval ratings are all over the place and tepid at best, and word is that a Phil Anschutz-inspired GOP is committed to rallying the vote for Republican challenger Scott McInnis.

10. Patricia Gabow

CEO, Denver Health

Forget about Denver: Dr. Gabow has been named one of the top 25 women—and one of the 100 most powerful (No. 54)—in the health-care industry nationwide, by the trade magazine Modern Healthcare. During the Democratic overhaul of the health-care system, Gabow has emerged as one of the preeminent national speakers on the topic because of her 17 years of experience helming Denver Health. This summer, as the health-care bill was taking shape, it was Gabow who represented the National Association of Public Hospitals and Health Systems, testifying before a Senate committee hearing and thereby shaping the debate. And consider how she began it all: Back in 1997, Gabow convinced Mayor Wellington Webb to let the deficit-laden hospital out from under the city’s control. Since then, she has done what once seemed impossible: made a public hospital that serves thousands of uninsured people profitable, year after year.

11. David Kenney

President/Founder, The Kenney Group

A pugnacious lobbyist, Kenney is the man who solves problems for Democrats in Denver— nicely, if that’ll work; not so nicely, if required. “Sometimes,” says a highly placed elected official, “David has to be reined in. But that’s part of what makes him so effective.” He has the ears of every powerful liberal, including Governor Ritter, Senators Udall and Bennet, and Mayor Hickenlooper. Kenney was influential in getting Bennet appointed, and helped nudge along the process at the end of 2008 that placed Kelly Brough (former Hickenlooper chief of staff) at the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce and made the former chamber boss, Joe Blake (a Republican), chancellor of Colorado State University.

12. Phillip Anschutz

Media Mogul

Billionaire and arch conservative Anschutz has one of the most recognized names in Denver and yet is so publicity-shy that his legal name might be “The Reclusive Phil Anschutz.” His calculated avoidance of the spotlight, however, belies his backroom activism. When Josh Penry dropped out of the GOP primary race for governor, it seemed half the people in Denver politics believed it was because Anschutz was playing puppet master, while the other half denied he would involve himself in such matters. Regardless, the specter of Anschutz loomed large. His entertainment and media properties, and his philanthropic efforts, have long promoted his favorite conservative-themed causes (and his recent purchases of the right-leaning Weekly Standard and Washington Examiner give a more prominent voice to his crusades). Even though he never airs his views publicly, he has an extremely persuasive prominence among Colorado’s political strategists. Every September 1, Anschutz hosts a dove hunt and dinner with a guest list that includes virtually anyone who matters in business as well as politicians from both sides of the aisle. (Democrat Hickenlooper spoke at this year’s dinner.)

13. Bruce Benson

President, University of Colorado

State Democrats were upset when Bruce Benson, a former GOP state chairman and perpetual power broker, was chosen to head up Colorado’s public higher-education system in 2008. CU-Boulder’s notoriously liberal Faculty Assembly voted against his appointment 40-4. Puhleeeze. Evidently the academics didn’t fully grasp the extracurricular realities of who Benson is: He made millions in oil and has won over many of his critics for going to bat for education amid budget cuts. Days after state legislators decided to cut funding for Metropolitan State College’s new multimillion-dollar science building—with a hole for the building already dug—Benson had the construction back on track after meeting with state reps and the governor.

14. Don Elliman

Chief Operating Officer, State of Colorado

Seven billion dollars: That’s Colorado’s stimulus allotment from the Obama administration, and Elliman is the man who tracks it. After three decades as a publishing honcho at Time Inc., Elliman relocated to Denver in 2000, where he took an executive role at Kroenke Sports Enterprises. Governor Ritter hired Elliman out of semi-retirement in 2007 to head the state’s economic development office, and last summer Ritter created the position of state COO with Elliman in mind. Elliman’s hiring, in large part, was inspired by voices from the biz community who felt that the governor didn’t understand private-sector concerns.

15. Larry Mizel

Chairman/CEO, MDC Holdings Inc.

Whenever there’s been a hush-hush meeting about the future of the GOP or the business interests of the Front Range, chances are Mizel’s agenda was in the room, even if he wasn’t. He’s run the multibillion-dollar MDC for almost 30 years, developing homes all over the Front Range. He also cofounded the Simon Wiesenthal Center, one of the world’s foremost human-rights organizations. Like Benson and Anschutz, Mizel has major sway over statewide strategy as Republicans try to get their mojo back in 2010. Yet, make no mistake, he’s a businessman and his power transcends party: At the 2009 Allied Jewish Federation Men’s Event in November, Mizel gave a warm introduction to Senator Bennet that could have been read as something of an endorsement. What’s telling about that, says a muckety-muck who was in the audience, is that while Bennet has Jewish ancestry, he was not raised in the faith; what’s more, Bennet, of course, is a Dem.

16. Terrance Carroll

Speaker of the House

Since taking the reins of the Statehouse from Romanoff at the beginning of 2009—and becoming Colorado’s first African-American speaker of the House—Carroll has presided over difficult times. Yet unlike Ritter, and despite (or perhaps because of) the tight purse strings, Mr. Speaker has rendered himself a critical and respected negotiator. He’s deftly managed committee chairmen and legislators to keep the House moving, and, when needed, delivered a smackdown—like when he filleted state Senate minority leader Josh Penry for criticizing the governor’s energy office: “The new energy economy is the single brightest light in our economy,” Carroll wrote. “Killing jobs in our fastest-growing economic sector is Penry’s answer to the serious crisis facing Colorado?”

17. Ed Perlmutter

U.S. Congressman

A finalist for Salazar’s open Senate seat, the congressman was passed over in large part because the state Democratic establishment respects and needs him as a congressman. Perlmutter represents the cities and counties that circle Denver, a hotly contested congressional district that has one of the most even Democratic/Republican splits in the country, and Perlmutter’s hold on his seat is perceived as formidable, and thus invaluable to the larger machine. Power players cite Perlmutter as efficient and effective—one told us, “He’s the guy you call when you need to get something done.” But he still may have a bit to learn about statesmanship: After receiving $9,500 in campaign funds from telecommunication companies, Perlmutter started opposing the FCC’s proposed net neutrality rules, which would prevent Internet service providers from giving preferential treatment to some content.

18. Gregory Moore

Editor, Denver Post

Under Moore’s editorial guidance (and his boss Dean Singleton’s iron-fisted leadership), the Post emerged last year as Denver’s last daily newspaper, or, at the very least, the leading daily newspaper (considering the Denver Daily News). Moore’s tenure at the Post began in 2002, and in his first week on the job the Hayman fire, the largest in Colorado history, began to burn almost 140,000 acres, becoming one of the biggest local stories of the decade. It was a fitting introduction: The subsequent seven years have proved equally feverish for the Post—and the newspaper industry in general. By hiring some of the Rocky’s most accomplished journalists after it closed, Moore is as close as he’ll ever be to having the kind of talented staff that can help redefine newsgathering at a time when the craft desperately needs a makeover.

19. Pat Bowlen

President/CEO, Denver Broncos

This city lives and dies with the Broncos, a reality that puts Bowlen in charge of no small amount of civic happiness (and dollars). Not long ago, he seemed too wedded to a bygone era, yet in the past 12 months he has proved surprisingly open-minded and nimble. He recognized the Broncos’ recent doldrums and fired his presumptive coach-for-life Mike Shanahan (though one should only be so lucky as to get fired with Shanahan’s buyout), replacing him with the ludicrously young Josh McDaniels. Bowlen then showed everyone who was boss by jettisoning the petulant Jay Cutler. The Broncos’ tumultuous, unexpected revival has been one of the NFL’s feel-good stories of 2009, reminding everyone which team sits atop the local sports throne.

20. Gary Magness and Sarah Siegel-Magness

Producers, Philanthropists

He’s an heir to the TCI cable company fortune. She’s an heir to the Celestial Seasonings tea riches. Together they invested $12 million in personal funds in a film project that had no business succeeding: Precious, the adaptation of a novel about an overweight, impoverished, African-American teenage mother who had been sexually abused by her own parents. The movie had all the hallmarks of a noble, naïve failure by a Denver rich couple who should have known better. Except that this Denver rich couple knew better than anyone else, or didn’t care. And the executive-producing instincts of the Magnesses have paid off with stellar reviews and big-time Oscar buzz (and potential multiple nominations) for the film. With the endorsement of entertainment titan Oprah, the Magnesses have inked a distribution deal with Lionsgate and are already lining up their next project, based on the Judy Moody children’s books. More than Don Cheadle and Jessica Biel combined, the Magnesses have put Denver, along with the Denver Film Festival, on Hollywood’s map.

21. Kelly Brough

CEO, Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce

Last year, as Mayor Hickenlooper’s chief of staff, Brough went into budget negotiations with union officials representing the city’s firefighters, set down a jar of Vaseline, and said, “We can do this the easy way or the hard way.” The prop was a joke meant to break the ice, but Brough (whose name rhymes with “rough”) wasn’t entirely kidding. This no-nonsense powerhouse had wowed Mayor Hickenlooper so much that he hired her to be his deputy chief of staff after she ran his opponent’s campaign. During her four-year tenure, she rose to chief of staff and orchestrated Hick’s agenda, helping him win a second term with an astounding 87 percent of the vote. Her ascension to the head of the chamber of commerce was something of an upset: Despite her wealth of political chops, she did not have the private sector business pedigrees of her predecessors. A new perspective may help see the chamber through the recession.

22. Pat Stryker and Al Yates

The Liberals’ Dynamic Duo

Stryker’s checkbook and Yates’ political acumen, together, have been instrumental in swinging Colorado from red to blue. A retired president of Colorado State University, Yates has become the point person for wealthy Colorado liberals looking to nudge political races. The reclusive Stryker is his biggest source of cash. While Stryker may have lost a third of her net worth last year—the share price the Stryker Corporation, a medical supply company, is down 30 percent—she’s still worth $1.4 billion. In 2008, she was the 16th-largest political donor in the country, giving nearly $1 million to liberal causes and politically active 527 organizations.

23. Stan Kroenke

Owner, Denver Nuggets, Colorado Avalanche, Rapids, and Mammoth

Melo’s boss is a multibillionaire entrepreneur (married to Wal-Mart heir Ann Walton) whose sports business and entertainment empire has made his interests the community’s interest, and vice versa. (Kroenke also has a stake in American football’s St. Louis Rams and English football powerhouse Arsenal.) As owner of the Colorado Rapids and Dick’s Sporting Goods Park, he’s helped revive and sustain interest in professional soccer in the U.S.—no small task. And to top it off, in 2004 he founded Altitude Sports and Entertainment to broadcast all his teams, so he controls the medium and the message. Melo may be his franchise player, but make no mistake: Kroenke’s the franchise.

24. Carmelo Anthony

(The) Denver Nugget

Denver has had flings with past Nuggets teams, from David Thompson’s ABA refugees in the ’70s to Dikembe Mutombo’s surprise conference finalists in 1994. Thanks to Melo, local hoops fans are finally falling in love. With the help of veteran sidekick Chauncey Billups, Anthony has elevated his team to elite status—making Nuggets games the most coveted ticket this side of Invesco Field—while becoming what some now call the most complete offensive force in the NBA. Still only 25 years old, Anthony is beginning to make Denver sports fans almost as passionate about hoops as they are about football.

25. Walter Isenberg

CEO/President, Sage Hospitality

For the past 25 years, Isenberg and Sage cofounder Zack Neumeyer have presided over Sage’s expanding hotel empire, which now controls almost 50 properties in more than 20 states, including Denver’s Curtis, Oxford, and JW Marriott (which has a Second Home bar/restaurant that has become a late-night hotspot to watch cougars hunt players). Isenberg serves on the board of such prominent Front Range organizations as the Downtown Denver Partnership, the Denver Metro Convention and Visitors Bureau, and the Children’s Hospital Foundation—and is one of the Colorado Concern(ed). As the economy recovers, look for Isenberg to buy and manage distressed properties, particularly in and around downtown Denver, which will broaden his already considerable influence, both in his businesses and in his philanthropy.

26. Rob Corry

Attorney, Medical Marijuana Advocate

No local story has grabbed more recent headlines than medical marijuana, and Corry—a libertarian Republican—is at the center. He’s the go-to lawyer for medical marijuana supporters, representing dozens of dispensaries around the state and regularly squaring off against Colorado Attorney General John Suthers and others. With taxation guidelines now being established, medical marijuana could become one of Colorado’s most prominent—wait for it—growth industries in an otherwise stagnant economy, and the always-quotable Corry will be leading the charge.

27. Tom Boasberg

Superintendent, Denver Public Schools

Boasberg, the man charged with carrying on the reforms of his former boss, Michael Bennet, stumbled out of the gate when his candidates for the DPS Board of Education failed at the polls in November. The winners, supported by the teachers’ union, aren’t fans of the charter schools that Boasberg and Bennet have pushed. And the fact that the new board met at the pricey Broadmoor Hotel for a team-building “therapy session” on the taxpayers’ dime was not an auspicious start. Still, many politicos have faith that he’ll be able to sway the new union-backed board with logic—and numbers—that show the reforms are working. “Boasberg is on the right side of the issues,” says one politician. “He has the power to lead the district that leads the state, and the ability to get reforms done.”

28. Ted Trimpa

Partner, Hogan & Hartson

Trimpa is the firm’s point man in and around the Legislature. Before the election last year, Trimpa negotiated with unions and the business community to make sure that four anti-business ballot measures—ones that unions had put forward after a tiff—would be torpedoed. Trimpa advises multimillionaire Tim Gill, investing Gill’s millions in advancing gay-rights causes and supportive candidates at the ballot box.

29. Joe Blake

Chancellor, Colorado State University

During his decade-long run as the head of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce, Blake was a voice of moderation in the business community, moving the tax-reluctant group to help support both FasTracks and Referendum C. Still, it was a bit of a surprise that Governor Ritter would appoint the Republican Blake to helm CSU, placing two Republicans in charge of Colorado’s higher-education system (along with CU president Bruce Benson). Blake’s selection speaks to his clout on both sides of the aisle.

30. Timothy Marquez

CEO/Chairman, Venoco Inc.

The Denver native and Colorado School of Mines graduate moved his California-based oil and gas company—from which he was once ousted, only to return, Steve Jobs-like—back to his hometown in 2005. Since then, he’s become a major player in philanthropy. After Venoco had a $212 million IPO in 2006, Marquez donated $50 million to set up the Denver Scholarship Fund, which matches college scholarships for graduating Denver high school students.

31. Bruce Jakosky

Principal Investigator, MAVEN Project, CU-Boulder

The lead investigator of the $485 million MAVEN project (Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN), Jakosky oversees the largest research contract in CU’s history. He and his team will spend several years building a spacecraft that may finally answer the question of whether there ever was life on Mars. Scheduled to launch in late 2013, MAVEN will explore the red planet’s atmosphere. Jakosky operates in a whole other universe.

32. Federico Peña

Senior Adviser, Vestar Capital Partners

Before the 2008 Democratic presidential primaries, Peña endorsed Barack Obama, over Hillary Clinton. For the Clintons, the defection was traitorous: Peña had served in the Clinton Cabinet for five years, as secretary of both transportation and energy. Peña, a former Denver mayor, served as Obama’s national campaign cochair and on the transition team. During a trip that Mayor Hickenlooper made to D.C. last February, Peña brokered a 45-minute private sit-down with then-newly installed secretary of transportation Ray LaHood.

33. Michael Johnston

State Senator

One of the newest state senators, Johnston has two rare assets for a freshman: real-world experience and connections. While he was the cofounder and principal of the Mapleton Expeditionary School of the Arts in Thornton, he started advising then-presidential candidate Obama on education issues. In May, after state Senate president (and African-American) Peter Groff ascended to the Obama administration, Johnston—a young white man without political experience—replaced Groff as the representative of the ethnically diverse district.

34. Amory Lovins

Chief Scientist/Chairman, Rocky Mountain Institute

If the U.S. ever overcomes its addiction to foreign oil, Lovins will be one of the first people to thank for it. For the past quarter century, he’s helmed RMI with the unofficial philosophy that “elegant frugality speaks for itself.” Does it ever. Lovins’ genius has helped save countless millions of dollars through improved energy efficiency for companies and organizations worldwide, from Wal-Mart to the Pentagon. His own prolific output—he’s authored 29 books on environmental topics—has made him must-have counsel to CEOs and world leaders alike. As the energy industry evolves through the 21st century, Lovins’ fingerprints figure to be all over the blueprint.

35. Jesse Morreale

Restaurateur

In a city aggressively trying to up its rep as a foodie paradise, Morreale has turned several seemingly modest venues into the type of places where Denver’s hipsters and elite alike mingle to see and be seen. His Mezcal, Tambien, and La Rumba hosted some of the Democratic National Convention’s hottest parties—including those fronted by the Creative Coalition, one of the entertainment industry’s most influential nonprofit advocacy groups—and his revamping of a once-seedy Colfax property into the hipster-friendly Rockbar showed that Morreale is a hit with the youngsters too. All this successful hustling has raised his national profile, and the town’s too.

36. Blake Jones

President/Cofounder, Namasté Solar

This solar-powered entrepreneur became the poster boy for the new (alternative) power generation last February, when he spoke along with President Obama and VP Joe Biden at the signing of the stimulus package at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science. Since founding his solar-panel installation company in 2005, he’s planted panels at the homes of Senator Udall, Congressman Ed Perlmutter, and the governor’s mansion. Jones has been a vocal advocate for increased funding to Colorado renewable energy businesses, and recently opened a new Denver office. Imagine that—an expanding business.

37. Dick Kelly

Chairman/President/CEO, Xcel Energy

Although Xcel Energy is based in Minneapolis, Denver native Kelly will factor into just about every change (desired or actual) to Colorado’s energy economy in the coming months and years—like, say, adding much-needed solar, wind, or biomass power to the grid. Kelly spends the workweek in Minneapolis and weekends with his family at home in the Denver area. Warming to renewable energy and environmentally friendly technologies, in October he announced that Xcel planned to add about 1,300 megawatts of solar and wind energy to its system, including more than 250 megawatts from solar panels on customer’s homes—more than three times the amount of solar power the company is required by law to add by 2020.

38. Adam Lerner

Director, Museum of Contemporary Art Denver

Art, public and private, is the soul of any community, and Lerner is one of the foremost visionaries charged with keeping Denver’s creative class vibrant. The founder of the Laboratory of Art and Ideas at Belmar ascended to his current position when the Lab merged with MCA in February 2009. Under Lerner, MCA has continued to distinguish itself as a renowned repository for and promoter of modern art, with daring exhibits (Damien Hirst, anyone?) and creative educational programs that attract notable artists from around the world.

39. Tom Cech/Leslie Leinwand

Directors, Colorado Initiative in Molecular Biology

Behind Leinwand and Cech, the latter of whom won the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1989, this interdisciplinary research center at CU-Boulder is developing a more collaborative environment for scientific and medical discovery. First opened in 2003, CIMB eventually will house more than 20 laboratories for departments including mathematics, physics, biology, chemistry, and others. By promoting “productive collisions” between disciplines, CIMB has already enabled breakthroughs in cancer screening and tissue engineering to reduce the need for hip and knee replacements, and in 2010 the center will work with CU’s Leeds School of Business to develop biotechnology-focused entrepreneurial programs.

40. Alex Bogusky

Partner, Crispin Porter + Bogusky

If you put Mad Men’s Don Draper through the modern-day Boulder ringer, you’d get Alex Bogusky—a savvy ad man who knows how to create buzz for products like Burger King (he brought the creepy, plastic-masked king to life), Mini Cooper (he placed the wee cars in the stands of sports stadiums), and Guitar Hero (the spoofs of Risky Business). Bogusky’s so hip, in fact, that Microsoft hired his firm to fight back against the damaging “Mac vs. PC” campaign from Apple, which proves that Front Rangers— or, at the very least, Bogusky and his team—are every bit as creative and effective at selling things as those modern-day Manhattan Mad Men.

41. Paul Sandoval

Owner, Tamales by La Casita

Don’t underestimate the self-deprecating hombre in the white apron. Sandoval, a North Denver restaurant owner, was a state senator back in the late ’70s and early ’80s, and remains a political puppet master: After City Councilman Rick Garcia emerged as the likely front runner for director of the regional Housing and Urban Development office, Sandoval set the political stage for his wife, Paula (a state senator), to take Garcia’s seat. Sandoval is a member of Ken Salazar’s kitchen cabinet and doles out advice to the likes of DPS’ Tom Boasberg. On top of all that, he finds time to sell 12,000 tamales daily.

42. Scott McInnis

Republican Gubernatorial Candidate

The three-term congressman looked like he was in trouble early in the Republican gubernatorial primary; state Senate minority leader Josh Penry was widely viewed as the GOP’s rising—and possibly present—gubernatorial star. The old-hand politico didn’t fret, though, raising loads of cash and lining up support from his GOP friends—who helped push Penry out of the race in November. McInnis was even able to quell rabble-rouser Tom Tancredo, assuring all concerned that he’ll be able to coast to an easy Republican primary victory and focus his attention—and money—on the weakened Governor Ritter.

43. Diana DeGette

U.S. Congresswoman

As the Democrats’ chief deputy whip and the senior member of Colorado’s congressional delegation, DeGette wields a big stick in Washington. Example: She was instrumental in pushing through the stem-cell reform bill. Back home in Denver, though, DeGette stays out of local politics and isn’t the type to focus on bringing home the bacon for her district, which is liberal enough that she doesn’t have to worry about losing her seat to a Republican. Yet a Democratic opponent could be a problem for DeGette; one Denver politico told us, “If Andrew Romanoff had the balls, he could have given DeGette a good challenge.”

44. Michele Ostrander

Executive Director, Susan G. Komen for the Cure—Denver Metropolitan Affiliate

If you’ve ever stood on Speer Boulevard among the tens of thousands of pink ribbons and inspired—and inspiring—women, men, and children as they embark on the annual 5K Komen Race for the Cure, you could feel the power of Michele Ostrander. Last year, Ostrander’s second as the executive director of Komen’s Denver chapter, 53,849 people participated in the Mile High City’s Race for the Cure, netting about $2 million for the organization. Last year, funds raised by the Denver chapter made possible more than 5,000 mammograms and almost 26,000 meals for patients in need, among many other services. Lance Armstrong may have coined the word “Livestrong,” but in Denver it’s Ostrander—and the thousands of volunteers she and her team turn out each year to raise funds for the fight against breast cancer—who truly embodies that ethos.

45. John Elway

Former Bronco, Entrepreneur

Life after football has proved to be considerably more challenging than opposing defenses were to Elway, the Bronco legend and one of Denver’s chief brands. Though Elway’s eponymous restaurants and car dealerships have made him millions in the decade since his retirement, the sometimes GOP celebrity has also endured a messy divorce; he was chairman of the Arena Football League’s executive committee when the league folded last August; and recently news reports identified Elway as a pitchman for an alleged $30 million Ponzi scheme. To date, there’s no evidence he’s done anything wrong, and the issue seems to have had little effect on how warmly locals still view number 7, flaws and all.

46. Josh Penry

Minority Leader, State Senate

Sure, Penry took a hit by leaving the Republican gubernatorial primary, but in the face of troublesome polls, a fund-raising effort that was falling short of McInnis’, and the big GOP money that was lining up against him, avoiding a damaging primary was the smartest thing he could have done. If anything, that he’s taken as a threat within his own party speaks volumes. The 33-year-old Penry has kept his powder dry for future races and increased his statewide profile, both of which will help him as the state Senate minority leader, where he’ll be able to actively undermine Ritter and the Democrats. And unlike Andrew Romanoff—who jumped into a race where he wasn’t wanted—Penry can remain the GOP’s next great contender.

47. Phillip Washington

RTD General Manager and CEO

When Cal Marsella, the general manager of the Regional Transportation District for 14 years, stepped down last July, he left a gaping hole: RTD is facing a $2.2 billion shortfall in funding for the FasTracks system. The recently hired Washington, RTD’s former assistant GM for administration, will likely have one of the toughest jobs in Colorado: convincing money-strapped voters to support a tax hike to finish the light-rail system.

48. Greg Maffei

President/CEO, Liberty Media

A former high-level adviser to Bill Gates, Maffei leads Liberty Media under chairman John Malone. Instrumental in Liberty’s takeover of Sirius XM radio, he manages properties like QVC, DirecTV, and Starz Entertainment, as well as Fox Sports networks in several regions, including Denver. On the side, Maffei is active in Republican politics, and his name often surfaces as a potential statewide candidate.

49. Christoph Heinrich

Director, Denver Art Museum

The DAM is one of a handful of local institutions that will help determine how quickly Denver can attain its feverishly desired international reputation, so perhaps it’s fitting that a European is now running it. Heinrich came to the DAM from his native Germany, and his knowledge of and connections to the international art community won him the director position after two years as a curator. For Heinrich, Frederic Hamilton and the museum’s board agreed to retire Lewis Sharp after two decades of service. The museum’s latest splashy installation, Embrace!, which was curated by Heinrich and debuted in November, showcases the grand vision for DAM and stamps it as a destination for artists and art lovers from all over the world.

50. Pete Coors

Chairman, MolsonCoors

Lame “cold activated” cans and bottles notwith-standing, Coors and Co. brew a lot of Silver Bullets and a branding power that transcends the tailgate.


Rising Stars

Christian Anschutz

Developer

With fatherly mentoring from business partner David Steel, the son of Phillip Anschutz is emerging from his father’s considerable shadow by taking increasing leadership roles in local real estate and business development.

Peter Karpinski

Chief Operating Officer, Sage Restaurant Group

Having served as the operations director for Philadelphia’s wildly successful Starr Restaurant Organization, Karpinski knows a thing or two about running restaurants. Since taking over at Sage, he’s opened up the Corner Office downtown and Second Home in Cherry Creek North—only the first two of his many future conquests, we suspect.

Josh McDaniels

Head Coach, Denver Broncos

Had we compiled this list three months ago, McD would’ve been in the top 30. The brash boy wonder figures to be a local fixture for years to come.

Jonathan Vaughters

CEO, Slipstream Sports

In a sport where doping has been unchecked for decades, Denver native Vaughters made worldwide headlines in 2007 when he announced that his Boulder-based pro squad, Team Garmin-Transitions, would have the most rigorously tested cyclists in the world. The tough policy hasn’t hurt the team’s success—Garmin riders placed in the top five in the 2008 and 2009 Tour de France.

Roxane White

Chief of Staff, Mayor’s Office

The former manager of Denver’s Department of Human Services took over as Hickenlooper’s chief of staff last September. Insiders say she’s a quick study and already has the mayor’s office running better than any of her high-powered predecessors.


Plummeting Stocks

James Dobson

Evangelical Leader

At one time, Dobson was one of the most powerful evangelical Christian leaders in the country; today, after stepping down as the chairman of Focus on the Family and leaving his radio show, the 73-year-old has talked himself into irrelevancy.

Dan Hawkins

Football Coach, University of Colorado

At the beginning of last season, Hawkins proclaimed that he’d lead the Buffaloes to “10 wins, no excuses.” After a rash of injuries—and several top players leaving the program—the team barely squeaked out three measly wins, bringing Hawkins’ record on the gridiron to 16-33 over the past four years. One likely factor in why he still holds a clipboard is that CU didn’t want to drop $3.1 million to buy out his contract.

Tom Martino

Troubleshooter

The consumer advocate—whose referral can be bought for a mere $3,000—was shown as the bombastic blowhard he is last year, after local stand-up Adam Cayton-Holland filmed a withering, hilarious YouTube take-down.

Andrew Romanoff

Aspiring Public Official

The former speaker of the House wunderkind has looked lost since being term-limited out of his seat a year ago; Romanoff was passed over for both the secretary of state and Senate positions. Challenging Michael Bennet in a party-damaging primary reads as a petulant ego trip.

John Temple

Former Editor, Publisher, and President, Rocky Mountain News

He used his Rocky to wield his agenda and satiate his ravenous ego. With the paper no more, Temple is revealed to all (but himself) as a mere mortal with an out-of-town consulting gig and semi-consequential media blog.

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