The Two Lives of Helen Thorpe
When her first book, Just Like Us: The True Story of Four Mexican Girls Coming of Age in America, was released last month, the mayor's wife realized a lifelong dream. But will Denver's first lady ever be able to step out from her husband's shadow?
Yet the ground will constantly be shifting if her husband's career continues on its current trajectory. Last year's Democratic National Convention catapulted Denver onto the national stage, and since then Hickenlooper's name continues to come up in conversations about the Next Step, which might even include a move to Washington, D.C. When Ken Salazar joined Barack Obama's cabinet and vacated his Senate seat, Hickenlooper's name was tossed around as a leading contender to fill the spot, a promotion he wanted. (Governor Ritter selected Michael Bennet, Hickenlooper's old chief of staff, for the post.) Even if her husband runs and is reelected in 2011, he'll have to step down in 2015 because of term limits, but it appears unlikely that he'll drop out of public life. He'll still be one of the most recognizable faces in Colorado. That's how, at her first public appearance for Just Like Us, Hickenlooper accidentally steals the spotlight.
It's mid-June and Thorpe is an honoree at the American Immigration Lawyers Association's annual Immigrant Liberty Awards. The event has all the trappings of a fund-raiser: balloons stuffed with gift certificates, silent-auction tables, and a booze line. Thorpe slips in quietly with her date, her dad, Larry. Hickenlooper's not there—he's got two other events that night—but he'll arrive soon. Thorpe's dressed in a boxy black suit with blue and green glasses perched on her nose. After filling her plate with taco makings, she chats up fellow nominee and Olympic gymnast Alexander Artemev from Highlands Ranch and his girlfriend, oohs over his bronze medal, and asks questions about his workout routine. When Hickenlooper ambles in a few minutes later, the whole room turns. The Olympian's girlfriend punches him in the arm and, screeching and whispering all at once, asks, "Is that...?"
When Hickenlooper sits down, Thorpe leans over to whisper, smiling, in his ear before heading up to the stage to give her speech. She's standing next to a giant screen that flashes her picture and a list of accomplishments. "I'm not the member of our family who excels at speeches," she blurts into the microphone. "They give me heart palpitations." Thorpe shyly continues and peppers her speech with anecdotes and jokes that elicit laughs. Hickenlooper listens intently for a minute before his e-mail and the silent-auction list grab his attention. He distractedly flips through the list as Thorpe tells the crowd of attorneys and benefactors what growing up with a green card meant to her.
When she's done, Hickenlooper's attention is back, and his clapping is deafening. Thorpe's alone up front, frozen in camera flashes, until event organizers wave Hickenlooper over for a photo op. "Go on, she's all alone up there," Larry says. Hickenlooper pauses, then quips, "She's fine," before joining her for a few photos.
In the minutes after the speech, Thorpe sneaks away from the hoopla and takes refuge in the quiet of a bathroom stall to wind down. When she returns, she joins her husband as person after person vies for his attention. He stands with an arm around her, gently massaging her lower back. Thorpe plays with his tie idly, smiling and leaning into his embrace. It's just a few minutes in a busy day, and just as quickly Hickenlooper is off to play figurehead at another event. Denver's first lady walks out to the parking lot without him.
Natasha Gardner is 5280's assistant editor. E-mail her at email@example.com.