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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.